Over the course of our five years of hybrid education, we have chosen a style of education that is driven by the interests and needs of my children. Sometimes, this looks quite different from a more traditional educational path, and we have had to pause, reflect, and reassess continually, asking the questions: what is education, and why are we doing this? What do we want out of it?
Educational Structure Driven by Larger Goals
Looking first at the bigger picture helps us create the educational structure to support it. Take magnet schools for example: a technology-based magnet school knows it is attracting students who want to be digitally competent upon graduation; therefore its course structure will reflect these goals, offering more computer science and engineering options. Similarly, the structure of an arts-based magnet school will support graduates who have more experience in those disciplines. Neither school leaves out subjects like chemistry or history, but they may not be so heavily emphasized.
In this way, I’ve individualized my own children’s education, emphasizing music opportunities for my son who plans to be a lifelong musician, and writing and literature opportunities for my daughter who wants to be a professional author and filmmaker. They still cover a vast array of topics outside their interest area, but we may not spend as much time on some of the other subjects. And when we can, we merge their interests with the other topics. For example, in history, Eva might follow more closely the stories of authors and read literature from the era; perhaps Ian will look more closely at music and musicians from the day. When Eva studied cell biology last year, she decided that she wanted to write a science fiction/fantasy novel that took place in an animal cell. Voila: the merging of her story-telling love with science. It was an easy thing to agree to. Each child’s larger educational goal informs the structure that supports it.
Identifying Preconceived Assumptions
Asking this fundamental question of “why are we educating” also helps us evaluate the aspects of education that we do out of habit, because that’s just what’s done. In the fall of 2012, I facilitated a series of listening sessions with students, teachers, and elementary school principals in our local public school district. In these sessions, I listened and recorded as participants described their ideal educational environment – one that wasn’t bound by anyone’s expectations but their own.
As an opening exercise, I asked the participants to identify things they associated with school; these could be physical associations such as pencils or desks, schedule associations such as class periods and calendar year, content associations such as English and math, etc. They jotted these thoughts down, and then we all threw them into a “recycling” bin. During the rest of each session, we were allowed to mentally pull concepts back out of the bin, or leave them there if we decided they were no longer relevant. It was a freeing moment, and we were all allowed to create a fresh vision for education.
Moving Outside the Norm
Trying out this exercise is important to any educator or parent who wants to create a relevant education for their child. First we have to identify the things we take for granted. I might normally think of math studies as beginning with arithmetic and progressing all the way to and through Calculus, in a linear fashion. But if I allow myself to pause and reflect, I may decide that my child’s educational goals won’t be best supported by that path. Maybe arithmetic would be helpful; maybe geometry and algebra would help my child build logic and spacial understanding (I’ll pull those back out of the recycling bin). But Calculus? Perhaps I’ll look at my choices and reconsider if my kid isn’t going into a field dependent on that branch of math. What about statistics instead (this could help her analyze political ads and media campaigns throughout her life)? Or computer science (he could develop the ability to create apps for his music career!)? Perhaps I’ll find that alternative courses will be more useful to my child.
And what if instead of moving through math in a leveled curriculum-style format, I branched out like a fractal and introduced…. I don’t know… fractals! And Fibonacci! And origami! And even crochet, and symmetry, and mathematical art. Sometimes we forget that nurturing a love of math is as important as nurturing an understanding. This takes time, of course, and in our panic to get through the leveled books, we feel we can’t pause and smell the Fibonacci-sequenced flowers. But what if we did? Why do we educate? What do we want our children to get out of this? Not to diss Calculus, but honestly, I don’t remember a thing from that class. That’s not because Calculus is a bad subject to study; it’s just because it wasn’t the choice that was relevant to me and my educational needs. For another child, it could be life-changing.
Somebody (or rather, somebodies) along the line determined what counts as “real” education. We are offered a preset buffet that we are frankly terrified to oppose: English, a largely Euro-centric history, biology, physical science, chemistry, etc. But what about film-making? Creative writing? Astronomy, cooking, computer science, engineering, paper folding, and music theory? Are these not also valid subjects? What is your child interested in, and what will be most useful? You don’t always have to sacrifice one for the other: I’m not telling you to forfeit biology to make room for computer science. But I am challenging you to reassess. Why do you study physics? (This will help you determine what you need to focus on within that discipline.) Why do you want to study computer science? (That will help you determine whether you should prioritize it as valid subject matter.)
Our biggest educational challenge today is to create an education that both accommodates the child’s interests and is relevant to today’s world. But it’s not impossible. Just keep asking those questions. And ask your children too; they’ll appreciate the respect and may have deeper insights than you would ever guess.
Next up: How do I fold my child’s interests into our studies? How do I identify what those interests are? And what if my child doesn’t have an over-arching passion already? What then? In the comments, ask me questions about your particular situation, and I’ll either answer them there or in the next post!
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