The Way Learning is Supposed to Happen (At the Point of Need)

This past week my college-aged son, Jesse, had a doozy of a week. He had two major tests and a large presentation he had to fit in along with a multitude of other on and off-campus responsibilities. In the thick of it all, he called me and asked if I could help him study for one of the tests.

I was a little surprised to get the call, but also pleased that I could help. I immediately cleared my schedule that evening and waited for my son to make the 20-minute trek home to study.

As it turned out, Jesse needed help with his Business Law class. I’m not strong on “business,” but I’m pretty good with “law.” So Jesse pulled out a study guide for his test and we went over it together. There were two things that stood out to me about this study session:

First, it surprised me how little Jesse knew about basic governmental law and function. Given that I was Jesse’s homeschool teacher, I could have felt bad about that, but I refused to. I’m pretty sure I made an effort to teach these basic notions, but Jesse simply didn’t pick them up.

But the second thing that surprised me was far more significant (and positive): At 21 years of age and with a difficult test staring him in the face, Jesse could learn at lightening speed. Within an hour, Jesse had mastered the information on the study guide, understood it, and could apply it. He then promptly fixed himself a snack, thanked me, and hurried out the door.

Lest you think Jesse really didn’t have that much to learn in that hour, let me assure you he did. The first question in his study guide concerned the U.S. Constitution and Jesse knew little about it.  The second question mentioned the “balance of power” among the “three branches of government” and Jesse had never heard of either. When I used words like “judiciary,” “executive,” and “legislative” to describe the three branches, he looked at me with blank stares. Each term had to be broken down and further explained. We pretty much had to start from scratch when it came to understanding basic governmental function. Only after he mastered the basics could he move on to the more complex Business Law principles addressed in the study guide.

But what would have taken a long time to learn in fourth grade (the grade when the these concepts are typically introduced) took just a few minutes for a 21-year-old. Not only that, but Jesse immediately understood the principles involved and was able to apply them. By the end of our one-hour study time together, Jesse could explain the different facets of complicated business law cases. He could predict the outcomes of those cases based on precedent and case law. And he could identify the different schools of jurisprudence utilized by various judges and attorneys.

This brings home a point I have long made: People—both children and adults—learn best (and maybe only) when they need and want to learn.

Forcing children to struggle with complicated subjects like the balance of powers and constitutional law when they are 10 years old makes no sense at all. There is no interest and no ability to understand something so distantly related to the life of a child. Even memorization at this age is more difficult than it is later on.

Education would be far more simple and beneficial if we let children learn at their own pace and as they encounter the need for learning. It’s funny, but my kids don’t have any trouble figuring out how to work any of our home electronics. They surf the Internet and manage social media like pros. Complicated computer gaming is a snap. They learn these things because they either want or need to. They retain the learning because they utilize it every day.

This is exactly how learning works in the real world. I remember my daughter’s first day on the job in a professional position following her college graduation. Kelsey came home in a panic saying her college classes in graphic design had not prepared her for the expectations of her graphic design job. She was being asked to make decisions and do things she didn’t know anything about. So what did she do? That night, her first night on the job, she desperately called a man from our church who worked in the same industry and pelted him with questions. The next day she returned to work armed with a plan.

I have lots of mantras in my homeschool. One of them is this: “Why do something hard today when you can do it easy tomorrow?”

In other words, don’t spend long hours forcing children to learn things they can easily (and better) learn later on. It’s not wise to frustrate children this way and it’s not smart to waste their time either. If the subject matter is difficult and you are having to teach and re-teach, set it aside. The time is not right.

Some teachers get this concept and will delay learning for awhile, but they get nervous as high school graduation nears . So they re-tackle difficult and unnecessary subject matter. They are worried about “holes” and “gaps” in education, fretting about what will happen if they miss teaching something that will come up later.

Well, here’s what will happen: Your children will do what Jesse and Kelsey did. They will figure it out for themselves.

They may have to do a little extra work. They may have to stay up a little later studying for a test or preparing for a work project. They may even have to call you, or another family member or friend, and ask for help. But they WILL figure it out because now, and only now, they HAVE to. That need ensures success like your random school lessons never could.

Until next time…be fearless.

 

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