Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Countdown to School: Pedagogical Passion, Part Two

 Part One is here.

It's one week until school starts.

Charlotte Mason said that all children naturally have good appetites for learning, just as they do for eating.

Trouble is, some kids--is it just a contemporary, First-World problem?--have poor appetites for both.  Dollygirl has always been a small eater at meals.  This summer she often hasn't even bothered eating breakfast.  That might be just a tweenage/teenage thing, along the same lines as wanting to sleep late (which she doesn't do); but you see my point.  Was Charlotte Mason right or wrong about that in her own time, and if it was true then, does it hold up now?  Have our children's natural appetites, physical and intellectual, possibly changed in the last hundred years?   If the banquet is spread before them, is it still true that they will eat?  Or does there have to be some kind of extra encouragement?

I've been reading The Passionate Learner: How Teachers and Parents Can Help Children Reclaim the Joy of Discovery, by Robert L. Fried.  It's one of those recent educational books that homeschoolers, especially CM homeschoolers, would probably read with caution, if not with outright suspicion.  This guy is an associate professor of education.  He works in public schools, with teachers.  Still, he might be sort of on our side, since he wrote a book about passionate learners (and also one about passionate teachers).  My vote:  I like the book.  It's not a homeschooling book and it doesn't match what we do exactly, but I think it speaks to a lot of the questions I raised in Part One of this post, such as, how do I encourage a student to take ownership of her own learning without dumping the curriculum?

Towards the end of Dr. Fried's book, he points out that there are good schools that are very "resource-focused," and there are those that are "responsibility-focused" (where the onus is on the kids to knuckle down and do their homework); and that there are great educators who are "progressive/child centered" and those who are "traditionalist/authoritarian."  (Not to the point of being destructive, either one; he means those that take their educational philosophy and use it to teach in a productive way.)  And, although he puts himself at particular points along both of those lines, he points out that you can really have any combination of those and still be successful, still turn out passionate learners.

Recognizing that, I think, could alleviate some of the tension and dissension between different stripes of homeschoolers.  As I've said before, I have a real-life homeschooling friend who taught all her children, very successfully, using textbook methods.  I've known unschoolers who used much more structured curriculum materials than we did--but they used it in different ways (left the phonics books lying around for the kids to pick up at will).  I've seen some great homeschool grads; they weren't all CMers, just young adults who who had learned to love learning.

We might be inspired to plot Charlotte Mason on Dr. Fried's grid--was she more "child centered" or more "authoritarian?" (What she really said, I mean, not how other homeschoolers have labelled her methods.)  Was she more "resource-focused" or more "responsibility-focused?"  Or did she come out right in the middle?  Something to think about.

Anyway, back to Dr. Fried's book.  How can you not like someone who writes, "In the best of circumstances, teacher, parent, and student will share the vision of the child as a self-initiating seeker of truth and power through knowledge and skills development.  The teacher will, in most cases, take the lead in creating such a vision, but the student and parent must understand and interpret 'excellence' in ways that make sense to them."  "Quality learning requires the parent to be both patient and supportive, holding in check the voices that want to push the child toward short-term, less-authentic rewards, and keeping in one's mind a vision of the child as a lifelong learner."  "Quality learning has a lot to do with taking what's given--an assignment from the teacher--and figuring out how to make it correspond to the child's idea of a quality experience, how to find an angle on the assignment that the child can be enthusiastic about (or at least help the child not feel insulted or overwhelmed by the assignment."  (all on page 229)

Some of Dr. Fried's most interesting ideas come from the university classes he teaches in children's literature and in curriculum.  One workshop exercise he does with teachers is have them draw a pie graph of the major concepts or skills they want students to take away from a particular course--particular big ideas, ways that they relate material to their own lives, and so on.  Then he also has them graph their grading scheme for a course--15% for term tests, 10% for homework and so on.  Their conceptual goals for the course often conflict with the way the students are being marked; the ideas they say are important get less weight than things like attendance and homework.  We may or may not be grading our homeschoolers' work,  but it's still something to think about, maybe in terms of time spent instead of grades given.  If we say, just for example, that a goal in history is to see how God deals with nations and individuals, do we actually spend much time discussing that, or is it all about memorizing dates on a timeline?

What happens in the workshop, then, is that they take the two pie charts, and try to rewrite the grading-scheme chart to better reflect the important ideas of the course.  Maybe there will be a larger, self-designed project on a major person or event in a period of history, something that allows the student to ask and answer his own questions.  (Like a science fair project.)  Maybe there will be no quizzes, but there will be one short-answer test just to make sure they haven't missed the basics.  This is something that we can apply in homeschools, no matter what curriculum we're using: we definitely have the freedom to structure or restructure a course to focus on what's most important.  And then--I found this interesting--the teachers are challenged to take the major concepts they used for the first pie graph, and make them super-clear and intelligible, something that they could hand to the students (or the parents) to explain what they're supposed to be learning, and why they're learning it.

Because if you're the teacher and you don't know that yourself, you're going to be stuck with "open your books and read the next chapter," and that's not very passionate.

I'll finish up in Part Three.  

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