Brain-Based Learning vs. Formal Academics

There are two, very different, ideas about the way children learn. One idea, advanced by the field of science, (neurology, biology, and psychology) says that learning is controlled by the healthy growth of the brain, a physiological process that occurs in all children in a progression that can’t be stopped, except by a physical or emotional calamity. In other words, despite outside factors (such as school and work), children naturally get smarter as their brains develop. We call this brain-based learning.

The second idea is forwarded by most professional educators. They say that learning is achieved when students acquire information. In other words, children graduate from one grade level to the next once they have mastery over a specific body of information. First graders graduate to second grade. Second graders graduate to third grade. And so on. We call this “formal academics.”

The two approaches differ greatly in their execution. Formal academics require a structured environment, an outside teacher, and a textbook. Brain-based learning relies on student-directed activity in a less-structured environment, where creation and exploration take precedence over systematic instruction. Formal academics prepare children for tasks ahead by teaching specific skills and relaying detailed bodies of information, while brain-based learning eschews preparation without purpose and suggests that the brain is big and mighty enough to handle daily tasks and problems as they arise.

Like most homeschool teachers, I practice a hybrid of the two approaches. But I tend to embrace brain-based learning far more than formal academics.

Formal academics are actually a fairly new phenomenon in the course of human history. It’s only been in modern times (the last 100 years) we have made the acquisition of knowledge the pinnacle of purpose for young people. Children used to go to school just a few hours a day. Family time took precedence over school. As did church. And neighbors. And chores. School is what you got to do when all the important stuff was done. It was a privilege and a luxury, not a priority.

But, you say, that was an agrarian society. Don’t we need more formal schooling in a technological age? Not really. Bill Gates knew a little something about technology. He dropped out of college. So did Stephen Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. I’m pretty sure these men learned little about creating new technologies and billions of dollars in income from a teacher or a textbook. In fact, there are legendary stories about how these men couldn’t wait to leave the confines of classrooms so they could get home to work on developing new ideas. How did they accomplish so much in  advanced fields of science and technology armed with no more formal education than a high school diploma? They did it the same way farmers, small businessmen, and families solved problems 100 years before. They put their brains to work and then watched the sparks fly.

In reality, this is how ALL people get through life, both today and throughout history: They rely on their brains. Ask any well-functioning adult how much information from their school days they use in their lives and careers and they will tell you “not much.” The small amount that IS utilized could have just as easily been learned later, when the information was needed for application. Need to write a budget? Learn accounting. Need to create a website? Learn computer science. Need to write a legal brief or business proposal? Learn English mechanics. There is a time and place for everything and the best time to acquire knowledge is when you actually need to use it.

Purposeful learning – learning that occurs as a result of a specific need — is both economical and effective. Currently, my youngest daughter, Izzy, is studying measures of weight in her math curriculum, the only “formal” curriculum we use in our homeschool. She is struggling because many of the names for liquid measurement are meaningless to her. She knows the size of a gallon because we always have a gallon of milk in our refrigerator. She knows the size of a 2-liter bottle because we always have a few bottles of pop in our closet. She knows the size of a cup because she likes to bake chocolate chip cookies. But the size of a quart and a pint remain unimportant and unlearned.

Last week I noticed Izzy had taped hand-made tabs to five different pages in her math book to mark the places that talk about pints and quarts. That’s an unusual amount of effort on her part so I figured she was getting really tired of the time it was taking to flip back in her math book for the information every time she encountered a problem concerning pints or quarts.

In an effort to help her out, I went to the grocery store and bought milk in a gallon, a quart, a pint, and a cup. This did the trick. After a couple of days of going over the various sizes, Izzy eventually committed to memory the name for each size of container.

So what’s the problem? I bought the same four containers two years ago. And also the two years before that. Each time, Izzy quickly memorized the size of each container. And then promptly forgot it. Because the learning wasn’t purposeful to her real life, there was no retention. Will she remember this time? Perhaps. But is this extreme expenditure of effort and time really worth it? Just to learn the names of a quart and a pint?

This is the problem with formal academics. They relay information on a timeline completely unrelated to the needs and interests of the child. Because there is no hook to grab and keep the child’s attention or any real need to remember what has been learned, the information much be taught over and over and over again. It takes huge amounts of life’s most important commodity –time. And the constant re-teaching fills the brain with lots of useless activity at the same time the brain is screaming to be left alone so it can engage in its natural growth process, a process that thrives on space and creativity and imagination and exploration.

Someone who brought a good deal of common sense to this discussion was Charlotte Mason, a British educator from the early 1900’s whose philosophies have been kept alive in the American homeschooling community.

Charlotte founded a chain of parent-directed schools across England utilizing teaching strategies based on brain research. The hallmarks of Charlotte’s approach to education were short lessons, no tests, and no homework. She did not like textbooks and said children should read “living books,” which are books that engage the minds and hearts of children, spurring them to think and feel. She wanted the lessons short so students would have plenty of time during the day to play, which Charlotte believed was more important than lessons because it was when students could direct their own exploration of the world around them. Charlotte did not believe children were empty vessels to be filled up with knowledge dispensed by teachers, but possessors of well-functioning brains, perfectly capable of thinking for themselves.

Today, thousands of homeschooling families follow the philosophies of Charlotte Mason. I believe they, and other adherents of brain-based education, have made a good choice.

Until next time…be fearless.

 

Education is Not the Great Equalizer. Love Is.

For the past 25 years, professional educators and politicians have been trying to level the playing field in education. The reason? No matter how wonderful the teacher, or beautiful the school, or dynamic the teaching strategies, we still find that, as a group, rich children do better in school than poor children. Children with well-educated parents do better than children with less-educated ones. Children in rich schools with highly-trained teachers do better than children in poor schools with less-experienced teachers. It’s a problem we have not been able to fix, although many education initiatives have tried to do so. Can anyone say “No Child Left Behind” or “Common Core Standards?”

Educators and politicians may have looked high and low for the answers, but they didn’t look right under their noses. They need to look no further than the homeschooling community for answers.

The research coming out of the modern homeschooling movement proves home education to not only be a superior educational choice, but it holds true, and to the same degree, for all genders, income levels, family educational backgrounds, amount of money spent on education, and the credentials (or lack of) of the teaching parent. Even more astounding is that homeschooling accomplishes this not by holding the “haves” back (as is typical in most educational initiatives), but by propelling the “have nots” forward. Check out the research: ALL children perform well in homeschooling (from 20-30 percent better than their private and public-educated counterparts) despite differences in gender, economic background, money spent on education, parent education level, and the teaching credentials of the parents. Why are there so few failures in homeschooling, even among categories of students who typically struggle in traditional schools? Because…

Love is the great equalizer.

Unlike school systems and classroom teachers, parents love their children. Most parents will sacrifice countless personal gains, spend hundreds of sleepless nights, consider every possibility imaginable, if they think it might help their children. If a child has a need or a deficiency or a weakness, parents will do everything possible to help. To the best extent they can, parents insure their children’s success at learning and life.

If a classroom teacher ever tells you she “loves” your child, or a school official tells you he has the best interest of your child in mind, don’t believe them. They don’t. Only you do. I know because I used to be a classroom teacher. I liked the kids I taught. I cared about the kids I taught. But I didn’t lie awake in bed at night trying to figure out how to make them smarter, nicer, and more productive. That activity was rightfully reserved for my own kids.

When I moved from teaching other peoples’ children to teaching my own, everything about my teaching got better. Despite a lack of salary, I now immersed myself in learning all the different teaching strategies available to me. I read books and Internet articles. I went to homeschool conventions. I listened to speakers, sorted through curriculum, joined homeschool message boards, and picked the brains of homeschooling veterans. I became a good teacher and my children became good students, far more successful than they were in classrooms presided over by the parents of someone else’s children.

As we progressed in homeschooling, I applied my energies to fixing problems as they came up and making our homeschool days more effective and appealing. If my child was unmotivated, I devised methods of motivation. If they were confused, I teached over again. If I simply couldn’t do it anymore, I hired a tutor to help me. I switched math curriculums at least 10 times. I changed the time and place of my homeschool classroom, I sought out a number of different homeschool classes and cooperatives to help teach things I couldn’t teach well at home.

I tried out both traditional and untraditional approaches to education and my teaching strategies covered the gamut from textbook approach to unit studies to unschooling. I tried teaching all day. I tried no teaching at all. And still my kids kept on learning. The consistent factors? A parent, a child, and a home.

Parents with children in traditional schools love their children just as much as homeschooling parents. And they will work just as hard to try to help them. But school systems are set up to deny them any significant input at all. And, even if they did, at the end of the day, no matter how hard people who loved the children tried to change and improve things, schools would still remain institutions, cold places that, by their very nature, can not care for or deal well with the individual needs of children. Parents, on the other hand, were perfectly and uniquely created by God to do just that.

Recently I had a conversation with a friend who is struggling to homeschool her fourth child. She listed off all the things she had tried in order to motivate her daughter, an impressive list that had occupied many of her waking hours. Her current idea was to hire a recent homeschool graduate who also runs a sewing business to be a tutor. Because her daughter loves to sew, she thought the two would relate well to each other. And she planned to use the promise of sewing together as a motivational tool.

I thought this was a creative and splendid idea, a perfect example of how homeschool parents roll. We set education and life goals based on the unique needs of our children and we don’t rest well until those goals are accomplished.

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, once referred to education as “the great equalizer.” I disagree. Love is.

Until next time…Be fearless.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How I Became An Education Outlier

One of the reasons I started writing this blog is I was afraid to openly speak the truth about what I believed about education and homeschooling. I felt I had a unique perspective that could benefit homeschool parents, but I also knew some parents would think my position was foolish. So I was cautious in my conversations. But, with my writing, well…I’ve always been a rebel with a pen.

There was a series of definable moments in my life that shaped my education worldview and established me as an education “outlier.” Best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell wrote an entire book about how one unusual experience, or one group of unusual experiences, can set people on a completely different trajectory for life. They become “outliers,” people who operate outside the norm due to the unique way in which their lives unfold.

There were four “moments” or “circumstances” that formed my view of education and established me as an education outlier. Here they are:

1. At 30 years old, I became a public school teacher.

Teaching was my second career. I was 30 years old and the mother of two children when I first stepped foot in a classroom in the role as teacher. That maturity led me to question the effectiveness of the traditional classroom learning environment from the beginning. I could immediately see that a “one size fits all” approach to education did not fit all and I was troubled that students had to find their place in the system because there was no way the system could find its place in the student.

I also found the parent in me constantly questioning the teacher in me. Much of what I was taught as a teacher, and some of what was required by my school district, did not jive with what I knew to be true and beneficial as a mother. I began to see how schooling was often at odds with parenting and how the school environment inadvertently undermined or ignored the desires of parents. When the choice was between doing what the teacher in me said to do as opposed to what the parent in me said to do, I chose the parent every time. Pretty soon I realized parents made better teachers than trained professionals.

2. School made my oldest son sick.

There’s nothing like a crisis to help a person see circumstances clearly and sort out priorities. Just one month into my oldest son’s kindergarten year, we discovered he had a serious illness that flared with school-related anxiety.

Having a sick kid has a way of completing destroying everything you used to think was important. Who cares if you packed the backpack right or got the homework done, when your child is suffering? Who cares about getting to school on time, or even getting there at all? Even important things, like learning to read and write, seemed unnecessary at the time.

The reality of my son’s illness forced me into homeschooling and it inspired me to set aside what everyone else was telling me about how to do it. Instead, I tried to focus on my children’s needs and giving them the healthiest, happiest, and sweetest childhoods possible.

3. My daughter was not allowed to stand up to eat her lunch in the school cafeteria.

After we pulled our oldest son out of school, our oldest daughter, then in second grade, asked us to homeschool her. We were surprised. We thought she loved school. She had lots of friends, loved her teacher, and did well. But she described for us an atmosphere for learning and living that we didn’t appreciate.

One of the most eye-opening stories involved the cafeteria. Having been a classroom teacher, I had first-hand knowledge of the de-humanizing environment of the school lunchroom. It has always reminded me of a cross between the orphanage dining room depicted in the movie “Oliver” (where the little orphan boy pitifully raises his bowl and asks for just one more spoonful of gruel) and a Nazi-run concentration camp.

In the school cafeteria, children are herded in single file, rushed through a serving line, and given about 15 minutes to eat their food. They sit crowded shoulder-to-shoulder at long tables facing each other while lunchroom monitors patrol,  telling the children things like “don’t talk with your mouth full” and “don’t mix your food together.” (Our son once had to sit at the “naughty table” in the school cafeteria because he stirred two foods together.)

School lunchrooms smell bad and the noise is deafening. At the end of their 15-minute lunch, the children line back up single file to march out of the cafeteria in lock-step. Keep in mind that THIS is the time of day that most school children say is their favorite.

My daughter hated the lunch room food, couldn’t finish eating in the 15 minutes provided to her, and was so short that she couldn’t comfortably sit on the bench at her table and also eat the food in front of her. Inexplicably, the lunchroom monitors would not allow my daughter to sit on her knees or stand at the table to eat her lunch, proving to me once-and-for-all that there is nothing so heartless, useless, and ridiculous than an institution.

4. My kids starting beating the system—at the system’s own game.

One of the reasons homeschool parents are hesitant to get too creative in their instruction is that they know, at some point, their children will have to come back into the system if they want to go to college. They will need to take the college entrance exams and they will need to be prepared for the university learning environment. So, while I was sure my homeschool was growing my children’s brains and preparing them well for life, I remained a little nervous about how they would do when they had to return to traditional classrooms, homework, and tests in college.

You know how some people know where they were the moment the Challenger space shuttle exploded? Or the day the World Trade Center fell? I remember where I was when my oldest children told me the scores they got on the college entrance exams. Those scores validated the choices we had made for our children’s education. They meant we could keep on doing what we were doing with our younger children. And they convinced me that untraditional forms of education work as well, if not better, than traditional forms of schooling, even when measured by academia’s own most beloved measuring stick – the test.

By any measure, all three of my oldest children have done well in the university setting. The fact that they didn’t take tests or complete traditional assignments during their homeschooling years caused no issues at all. Instead, it’s likely their independent and creative minds not only helped them pick up these simple tasks without difficulty, but also embrace the other, more complicated, assignments presented to them in college as well.

These four circumstances of my life established me as an education outlier.

Until next time…be fearless.

 

Building Character in Homeschooling (Part 2)

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a fail-safe, five-step program for building character in children? A handbook we could buy that would lay it all out? Or a class we could enroll our children in that actually made a difference?

Unfortunately, character building is too complex and time demanding to be so easily accomplished. Instead, it’s the result of a series of learnable “moments” spread over a period of years. Each of these moments is unique to the child and his environment. And nobody really knows the results until the child is far into adulthood.

Still, there are some aspects of character building that appear to be universal. And all of them have implications for homeschooling. Here are three of them:

Good character is not innate. It is learned.

Good character is a learned behavior. Children learn it from the people around them. If you surround children with people of poor character the odds are pretty strong that they will embrace at least some of the poor character traits for themselves. The converse holds true if you surround children with people of good character. Parents should be vigilant about making sure their children have good influences in their lives.

As a group, the people with the poorest character are children. And it’s not even close. Children have undeveloped moral codes. They don’t always understand the essence of right and wrong. And they are often too self-absorbed to even care. Sending your children to school so they can spend all day learning character from other children is a mistake. Unless you (the homeschooling parent) exhibit less character than a third grader, then homeschooling is an excellent choice for building character.

Good character is grasped and executed as people become convinced it assists in the accomplishment of personal goals and rewards.

This view of character may seem a little jaded, but it’s the reality of how people, both young and old, function.

Because young children are so pre-occupied with immediate self-gratification, most early character progress comes as a result of understanding that good character leads to immediate, personal gain. A very young child soon understands that he can avoid punishment if he engages in certain behaviors. Or he can impress a person if he uses a certain word. Or he can win a reward if he executes a task in a diligent way. These are the first baby steps of character building.

As people mature, they are able to see the benefits of good character as it relates to long-term goals. The goals may seem more noble, but they still stem from a desire for personal gain. The student who diligently does his homework so he can get a good grade. The athlete who practices hard so he can help his team. The young professional who throws himself into his job so he can support his family. Even religious people oftentimes engage in the best behaviors because of the ultimate, personal rewards involved – a “clean slate,” a place in heaven, community with God.

Since God leads his people with exhortations, promises, and systems of rewards and punishments, I think it’s reasonable for parents to institute similar methods for character building in their children. In young children, the rewards must be concrete and immediate for good behavior – a moment of praise, a hug, a privilege. As children get older, we can start to reason with our children, explaining the benefits and giving them reasons to delay short-term gratification in order to achieve long-term goals. This is also the time when we can start talking more about how the pursuit of God ultimately leads to personal happiness.

Acknowledging man’s selfish motivation in exercising character helps parents to know how to teach it. Saying to a child “do this because I said so,” probably isn’t very helpful because it leaves the wrong impression about character. It suggests that good character is something we do under orders and for no reason. Instead, we should always be making the connection between good behavior and reward for our children. They must learn, through exhortation, demonstration and personal experience, that at all behavior has consequences and that their choices define their future happiness.

Character building can be accelerated by placing children in activities that inspire and require good character.

Parents should always be looking for ways to motivate and engage children in character building activities. In our family, we often turn to sports for this, but there are other types of activities that can do it well.

In looking for character-building activities, there are three characteristics that I feel are essential for effective outcomes.

1. The activity must be fun or engaging. The activity must be able to grab the attention of a child and hold it over a period of time. Things that mom and dad would like to use to build character – like academics and chores– often don’t work because they don’t engage the child.

2. The activity must have positive consequences for success and negative consequences for failure. It can be difficult for parents to see a system of positive and negative consequence being meted out for their children, but it’s critical to the learning process. In sports, children begin to understand that when they don’t practice, they don’t play. When they don’t play well, they sit the bench. When the entire team plays poorly, they loose. Eventually, the child learns that these negative consequences can be replaced by positive consequences if he (and his team mates) begins to apply good character to the process.

3. Participation in the activity must have a big pay-off in the end. This step is the key to the process working from beginning to end. The nature of the activity engages the child in the beginning and the consequences adjust behavior over time. But the child will not stick with something unless there is a substantial pay-off in the end.

Sports have held that appeal for our children. Both the personal and corporate (team) results are easily measurable and children can see how their contribution has affected the results. The fun and satisfaction of going through this character building process with peers increases its appeal and impact.

However, keep in mind, the sports team (or whatever activity you choose) has to have a serious component to it. If the activity is “just for fun,” there is no big pay-off in the end because the child sees no real meaning or significance to what he is doing. The fun component grabs his attention, but it’s the significance of what he’s doing that will motivate him to devote himself to positive outcomes over a period of time.

If your child is not sports minded, there are many other activities that have the potential to be excellent character building opportunities. Theater and dance are two of my favorites because of the challenging performance component. Other possibilities are gymnastics, Bible-quizzing, and academic challenge teams, to name just a few. What all these activities have in common is they immediately engage students because of the team component. And they inspire and require good character because of the competition and/or performance component.

In my homeschool, I give more priority to these kinds of activities than I do to academics. If my children can learn to be self-disciplined and develop a strong work ethic, they can do anything – in school or beyond.

Until next time…Be fearless.