One of the perceived faults of using commercial educational materials designed more for fun, than classroom use is that they are not complete or systematic curriculums. Glossy workbooks and texts that are popular sale items at places like Target, Sam’s Club, and Costco do a great job of turning the heads of children with their beautiful and interesting graphic design. But they tend to lack the kind of systematic instruction and evaluation that most teachers desire for their children.
But wait! Before you toss out the “Big Book of Science” or the “Everything a Fifth Grader Should Know About Maps” workbooks, consider this: Is it possible that slick educational materials that only whet the appetite actually stimulate and inspire more learning than traditional curriculums, which are complete and methodical, but also dull and uninspiring?
This morning my girls were working in their very basic and very incomplete (but beautiful and interesting) science workbooks when they started talking about how much they were learning. Of course, my ears immediately perked up. I always like to hear when my kids think we’re doing something right in our homeschool!
But I was surprised to find out WHY my girls were learning. As it turns out, the workbook is SO incomplete that they are learning very little from inside its pages. In fact, they can’t find or understand the answers to many of the questions being asked in the assignments. And this, it turns out, is what sparks the REAL learning. Because now my girls need to turn to an outside source to get the answers. That outside source is the Internet.
On the Internet, my girls are finding all the answers to the questions and more. But, more importantly, they are building a skill critical to perform well in college and life, which is the ability to collect and sort good information in order to complete tasks and tell stories.
Finding information within the pages of a school curriculum is usually very easy. Information is generally presented is a very organized manner, oftentimes chronologically. There are titles and sub-titles that give clues to where you can find information and key words are often printed in bold. If you can’t find what you are looking for, you can flip to the front of the book and check the Table of Contents or the back of the book and check the index. These are all great skills to learn, but in the 21st Century, children have to learn to search more than just one book for answers. They have the world at their fingertips (Internet) and they need to know how to search and sort through information that’s not served them up on a silver platter.
In schools, we like to deal with finite amounts of information because that is what is easy to measure and evaluate. But the real measure of a smart person is not what he knows, but how he deals with what he doesn’t know. None of us will ever be perfectly prepared for any task or life situation, but our ability to gain and sort information quickly and then make smart decisions accordingly will spell the difference between success and failure.
My training and career as a journalist helped me to see the importance of this skill. When you have to make a living writing factual stories on deadline about people and topics you know nothing about, you simply can’t rely on what you know. Instead, you learn to ask good questions, where (and who) to ask them to, and how to sort, organize, and communicate the answers very quickly. This skill is now a prerequisite for almost any job today. My girls were discussing this very thing when I overheard their conversation about how much they were learning in science. They were also pointing out to each other that this skill would also serve them well in college.
Recently, it’s occurred to me that we’ve gotten this curriculum thing all messed up. Maybe, instead of complete curriculums that systematically teach all the answers to children, maybe we should seek out curriculums with gaping holes instead, ones that inspire questions, rather than answer them. Maybe real learning begins at the the point where the easy answers end.
Until next time…Be fearless.