Sometimes when we are out and about a community member will engage my children in conversation. A typical question is “What grade are you in?” to which my kids respond brightly “I’m homeschooled! But if I went to school, I’d probably be in … grade.” People will then sometimes look to me and ask about homeschooling. Often I am asked “What subjects are you teaching your children?” My answer is always something like “I don’t teach my children. They pretty much teach themselves.” I get looks of surprise, often followed by concerned glances at my kids. To test their concern, these well-intentioned people might even ask my kids some random, specific questions, like “Do you know what year the Civil War ended?“ They’re trying to see if my kids are learning anything in my so-called homeschool.
(Isn’t it interesting – when adults ask kids questions, it’s because the adult knows the answer. When kids ask questions of adults, it’s because they want to learn about something.)
When I encounter exchanges like this, I let it go and don’t try to explain. After all, how do I tell someone, in the thirty seconds the average person will stay interested, how I homeschool and why? I don’t. I’m not good at elevator speeches.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the human brain cannot be taught. It can learn, but it must teach itself. Sure there are lots of ways to help it, we don’t function in a vacuum, but my kids are the ones that are figuring out all the information that is coming in through their various senses. I might be one source of that information, but it is still up to them to sift through it, make sense of it all, and put everything in its proper place in their memory or cognition or whatever it is called. (I’m a physical therapist, not a neuroscientist.) I do not ‘teach’ my children at home, but they are learning at home (and out in the woods, up in trees, in the chicken pen, at their friends’ houses and in the community).
I recently came across an article that mentioned ‘metacognition’. Isn’t that a fun word? Metacognition literally means cognition about cognition, or knowing about knowing, or learning about learning. In this post where I wrote about my daughter and I together coming up with ways other than workbooks to help her learn how to spell, a commenter wrote “What a great example of collaborative learning! To give our children the chance to learn how it is that they learn best and the power to shape their lives around what they discover is one of homeschooling’s great possibilities.”
“ …the chance to learn how it is that they learn best…” I like that statement – it seems like a fitting description of metacognition and how homeschooling can be a springboard for its development.
For the ‘great possibilities’ of homeschooling to blossom, children aren’t the only family members who have some learning to do. As homeschooling parents who went to school (that’s most of us) we have to unschool ourselves and unlearn our notions about education. Next, we need to open our minds to the possibility that there are other and better ways to learn besides the methods typically used in schools. ‘Learning’ should not be defined by what schools do.
In schools, most learning is about content. You know – read the text, listen to the chalk-and-talk, fill in the worksheets, write the summary, play some reinforcing games, take the test. Besides content, there is some skill learning. By that I mean learning something that can be generalized to different situations as needed, like penmanship, or research skills, or learning how to use a microscope. Often a subject that should be primarily about learning skills never rises above mere content. Learning math in school is a good example of this as evidenced by many children’s (and therefore adult’s) inability to apply basic math concepts to real life situations. Today’s schools are primarily designed to churn out skilled test-takers, but now I am getting off the subject….
I like mulling over these different facets of learning. Learning encompasses content, skills, and then this higher level of learning, metacognition — learning about our own learning and how we learn best. In schools, children are required to do what everyone else is doing and in the same manner (and at the same time). Students are not given any control over their own learning, and yet that is the only way they can learn about their own learning. The same could be said for homeschools that pattern themselves after public schools. Are our homeschools living up to their potential for ‘great possibilities’ if we simply bring the approaches, methods and mindsets of institutional schools into our homes?
My kids have very different learning styles. Perhaps that is why I think about all of this so much! For example, my son likes to use flashcards for help with memorization. Right now he is happily making his own flashcards to use to memorize his French vocabulary. My daughter, on the other hand, hates flashcards. Some time ago when she was wanting to work on her math facts I suggested flashcards to her. Her response was (and this is an exact quote), “Flashcards are useless. I don’t like to do them and, when I don’t like to do something, I don’t usually learn from it.” How’s that for Unmistakable Feedback??!! When I hear her say things like that, I like to think that she has a head start on this metacognition idea. I am happy to see my daughter is gaining self-awareness, and I am thankful that she is learning at home where she is free and safe to express herself. And I as her ‘teacher’ am willing and able to respond to her feedback.
I believe that in our home, our unschooled approach to homeschooling is allowing my children opportunities to assess and reflect on their own learning in ways that I never could in school. They are learning from and about their own learning, thus gaining insights that they can then cultivate and apply to learning in any setting. As they get older, their ‘learning about learning’ will become more sophisticated. My kids are not the only ones in my home engaging in this meta-cogitating – part of why I enjoy homeschooling so much is because it is giving me the chance to learn not only content and new skills, but it has helped me think about my own learning in ways I have not in the past. I apply these insights to my own interests (like my writing) and also to my efforts in supporting my children’s learning and development. There are many layers of learning going on in my home, for me and for my kids. While some people think my children are learning despite my unschooling, what I see is that they are learning, and learning well and joyfully, because of our unschooling.