What does “Real Learning” Look Like? – A guest post

(From my good friend, Cindy LaJoy, Homeschool Mom Extraordinaire!)

We have had a real revelation around our home lately, and I am surprised it took me so long to actually “get it”.  We are at the beginning of our third year of homeschooling and have finally settled into a solid feel of what our academics will look like over the coming years.  It took us awhile, but the process of letting go of all you think education is, and embracing what it becomes is not always a clear, easy arc.

How did it become so simple?  When did we turn the corner and realize that learning is really all about experiencing, discussing and interacting…and not at all about textbooks, testing, and proving?

When we began our homeschooling journey, I knew what I didn’t want, but it was harder to determine exactly what I did want.  I wanted to work with curricula that would engage our kids, would allow us to interact with the material together and not feel as if it was being forced down their throats.  I loathed the traditional “cram and test” system, and I had seen how it had failed my husband and I years before.  I was hoping to find something that was not dogmatic in approach, that allowed room for opinions to be formed rather than indoctrination to occur.  It was harder than I thought to find materials that were strong and deep, yet spacious.

Gradually, I also recognized that there were certain core subjects that I felt insecure about, and that a framework of workbooks for those subjects would help me gain more confidence that we were covering key concepts.  While I know it works well for many folks, a worksheet printed out here or there, and a few library books were just too loose for me.  I am not built that way. After a few months of trying to be what I am not, I recognized the simple truth that while I had a lofty goal of being an eclectic homeschooling mom and utilizing only the most exciting and interesting mix of educational tools to engage the kids, it was just as important that our learning materials had to instill a sense of right direction for me.  Finding that balance that would provide me with a sense of security as well as fulfill my fondest wish of creating a very different educational experience took awhile.  It also demanded that I be totally honest with myself about what I could live with, and how much structure I needed to feel good about what we did every day.

Over the past couple of weeks I found myself in the position of helping another family as they entered the homeschooling arena.  Having started with a packaged curricula that was soul deadening for their daughter, I enthusiastically shared much of the non-curricula oriented things I had discovered.  When they were concerned because she hated to read, and used to like it, I urged them to get a laundry basket to haul to the library and allow their daughter to fill it up with ANYTHING she wanted.  The only caveat?  She had to max out her library card every visit for 4 weeks and they had to let her get anything she wanted and not demand she “read a novel”.  I was bold enough to tell them that if they did that, I would guarantee that within one month she’d be curled up on their couch with books for hours at a time.

It only took one library visit.

Dad was concerned about knowing they were not falling behind her peers in public school, I shared with him that I had the same exact fears, so I blended simple yet effective workbooks for core subjects with a free for all with subjects not tested by the State Test Nazi’s.  He grinned as he knew he was being heard in his fear.

After ordering all new curricula for language arts and math, he felt confident, and it was easier to let go on the other subjects to allow creativity to enter in.

Mom wanted learning to be fun, her daughter suffered with the dull, dreary old way of learning.  Mom knew it could be different, but couldn’t see her way to understanding HOW it could be different.

I sent an email with off the cuff ideas for social studies, reading projects, ways to take curricula and use it as a framework, not a jail sentence.  “Have fun together!” , I told her.  “Ask her the top five places in the world she’d like to visit and then find every single thing you can about them…use movies, books, YouTube, real live human beings who have visited there.”  Most importantly, I advised her “And if she gets interested in something that is off topic, LET HER FOLLOW IT!”

Somewhere along the way, I had finally understood that the REAL learning occurs when we are led off course and go exploring.  It’s like slinging a backpack over your shoulder with only a water bottle and a map, and yelling back at your mates, “Yee Haw!  Let’s go see what we can find!”

I am so very grateful for the place we find ourselves in now.  Homeschooling has truly become a way of life, not a chore and not “school at home”.  We have just enough structure to satisfy my public school raised alter ego, and enough freedom that I feel we are really creating independent, intellectually curious young people.

After watching a documentary on North Korea one evening recently, my 8 year old son came to me and asked how long the 38th Parallel was.  Calculator in hand, we Googled it and then he asked how wide it was.  Then he did some calculations to satisfy his curiosity…just because.  My 12 year old Lego King researched cross bows online so that he could create a 4 foot working model that would fling Lego ammo as far and accurately as he could.  Trajectory, physics and tensile strength of rubber bands were involved.  No, it wasn’t a text book, but believe me, it was real learning.  My daughter has become fascinated with food labels and calorie counting, and bought a little notebook to tape in food labels from items we eat so she can compare and contrast various factors as well as add up percentage of daily allowance and find which companies are tricking us with unrealistic serving portions.  For a child who struggles in math, what better way for her to practice basic functions than by using it to explore something she is interested in, even if it isn’t a worksheet.

The real learning is when we take the workbook learning and apply it, finding ways to create, invent and explore.  We make the biggest mistake as home educators in failing to recognize that, encourage that, and applaud that learning.  After all, as adults, we no longer learn by workbook…we learn by testing, tinkering, and talking.  Sadly, we often don’t allow our children the same opportunities we have to access “real learning”.

But we home educators are gradually getting there.  We are works in progress, it takes time and patience with ourselves.  It takes honoring our fears but not catering to them.

Oh yea, and it takes “real learning” too.

12 comments for “What does “Real Learning” Look Like? – A guest post

  1. Mandana
    November 16, 2011 at 8:22 am

    Thanks, just what the doctor ordered! I find that pesky, public school raised alter ego gets her way too often!

    I posted this all over FB, thanks!!

  2. Desiree
    January 24, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    As a home schooling mom, Cindy, I can’t agree more: a child must be at the helm of his own education, or we lose his self-determination.

  3. August 7, 2012 at 3:23 am

    Great article! We are still evaluating homeschooling for our family and this is the type of encouragement and clarity we need. Thanks

  4. April 15, 2013 at 8:18 am

    I love this! We are finishing our third year of homeschooling and have settled on a similar approach. I love your paragraph on the library and the reluctant reader!

  5. Victoria
    April 19, 2013 at 5:41 pm

    You know, this is how classical educators taught children in one room buildings over 100 years ago. I was reading Record of a School by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, when the light bulb went off in my head. It’s free to read on google books if you are curious.

  6. Manish Gupte, PhD (@ManishMGupte)
    May 9, 2013 at 9:05 pm

    Home students can have classmates, friends and teachers in any continent. Internet and video meetings! Robots with video screens can go to classes..too many robo-proxys mean punishment..

    • May 10, 2013 at 6:42 am

      Some creative ideas, though I don’t believe punishments work very well in any form. Yes, there are many ways to beat the “homeschoolers don’t get socialization” garbage argument that is often laid at our feet. It’s a bad joke, of course. What sort of “socialization” do schools provide. In a poll of 2,000 high school students done last year, 46% said they were harassed during that school year while at school. A 2004 Dept. of Ed. report stated that between 6% – 10% of all public school students would be sexually harassed by teachers or school staff- and that’s 4-8 million students or so! Sure makes Skype look good…(kidding, sort of). I always push for the forming of homeschool groups, 2 families or more working together to spread out the manpower needs and even the costs. This also provides “classmates.” I homeschooled for years with my two children, and about eight of their friends in our house ever day. It worked very well.

  7. Joy
    October 22, 2013 at 2:01 pm

    Love it! We have been homeschooling for 7 1/2 years and I wish I would have realized a lot of that earlier on!

  8. October 25, 2013 at 6:41 pm

    So encouraging to read! I’ve been home-schooling for about an year and I feel the same: “I know what I don’t want, but it is harder to determine exactly what I do want! Thank you for this post!

  9. November 24, 2013 at 7:58 am

    Awesome. I wish I’d had someone to turn to when I was homeschooling. In the very beginning I tried staying traditional. Strict schedule, blah blah blah, found it wasn’t working for us and tossed it all. We became pretty nuch off the cuff and as you mentioned, creative. It enforces a lot of self-motivation, which helped my three daughters receive a lot of notice and applause from their professors when they entered college.

  10. Kathleen
    June 12, 2014 at 5:04 pm

    Thank you for this. I am considering homeschooling my 10 year old next year and am terrified. It really made me feel better.

  11. December 12, 2014 at 4:16 pm

    This is great. Sometimes I need to remember to let him out of the curriculum “box” and fly free to really learn.

    Robyn Dolan
    author, The Working Parent’s Guide To Homeschooling

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