It’s that time when everyone is returning to school. I’m sure your Facebook feed – like mine – is full of it. Parents are thrilled kids are back in school and to homeschoolers it seems like an odd thing that so many are so happy not to see their children for an entire day, day in and day out for weeks and months.
….until we realize that maybe it has little to do with physical proximity and more to do with worldview.
You see, in the public school worldview, everyone in a family goes off and does their thing individually in their specific “cubicles,” if you will. Everything is segregated. Everything is specialized. There are subjects and disciplines that do not intersect. Margins and borders are drawn in thick, black markers.
But is that truly the world we live in today?
Think about it. In a world where kindergartners are being groomed to go to college as an ultimate goal, are we truly ever done learning even after college? Do we even need a degree to learn something? In this age of information, what does a degree even signal? In a time when more and more employees are in charge of their own schedules and choose to work remotely, what exactly is the value of a cubicle?
It’s a great time to homeschool but we first have to deschool ourselves.
We have to stop thinking of education as something that comes from one benign source. We have to give up the desire to be spoonfed information. Deschooling, unlike what people might have in mind, requires constant, consistent learning. It is a shift in perspective from, “Teach me!” to “I’m going to find out!”
Before we homeschool effectively, we must deschool. We must get rid of the idea that anyone out there cares more about the education, information and knowledge that will come our way besides we ourselves.
If you enter our home now, you will notice boxes piled high in all the rooms. We are moving house. And to make matters worse, we are doing it in two steps. There is no other word for it: it is difficult. It is also uncomfortable. Paring things down for daily use, deciding what is to be kept and what stored is not familiar territory to me. We don’t tend to have a lot of clutter, but I like what I have on hand and I usually know where to find what I need.
No more, though. Change is hard.
Sometimes, we tend to forget that as homeschoolers. When the routine becomes so familiar, we forget what it used to be when we were new. And that new ground is what some of you new homeschoolers are stepping into this August. So my best piece of advice is this: keep something familiar. Do not underestimate the comfort of that one familiar thing.
Change can be incredibly exciting.
I remember raring to go when I first decided to homeschool. It was an exciting time. We were embarking on an adventure, after all. I could smell it. There were decisions to be made, things to buy – everything was so new and fun!
But there was a downside. It was exhausting.
I had never done this before. My kids had never done this before. When we hit a snag, we didn’t know how to move forward. If my children didn’t react or learn the way the workbook said they should, I didn’t know what to do.
In those days, I realized the same thing I am discovering now in the midst of our move: there is comfort in the familiar. Instead of overhauling everything, keeping some things the same can be hugely motivating.
Ever heard the phrase “some things never change?” Notice the relief in that.
One thing I never took into account when we decided to move was how disruptive this would be for my children and how shaken they would feel as a result. Because our family thrives on our daily rhythms, the sudden change and discord became apparent. They became mopey and difficult. I began to wonder what had happened to my usually cheerful and happy kids.
So I had to be intentional about the small things, I realized. Because to the kids those were the big things. In the midst of moving, we brought back family movies, read alouds; we brought back library days.
So when beginning homeschooling – as in when moving – remember to balance the new with the old. Newness can be fun but tiring. And sometimes we need the old to tie us down and make us feel grounded.
For some odd reason my husband and I have decided that the children need the camping experience. They need to sleep uncomfortably on the hard ground under the stars, they need to be hot in the afternoon. Apparently, they need to “toughen up.”
I say this a little tongue in cheek, mind you. Because I’m as soft as they come. I love my little slice of suburbia. Who doesn’t love a soft, cushy couch and the temperature controlled to be no more than three degrees this way or that? I love a soft bed with a pillow contoured to fit my neck. I can count of having food at the grocery store when I need it, a fridge to keep it fresh when I bring it back. And… running hot water? Hello?! Luxury!
I Don’t Know How Good I Have It
And yet, I’m bored. Sometimes, I want to dump it all and move to another state, a different home, another neighborhood. I complain about noise, the boredom of repetitive tasks, day in and day out, the monotony – really, anything, everything, nothing and all of it. All together.
Homeschooling and being around the kids can feel like that on some days. Some days, all it feels like is plod, plod, plod. First we do one thing and then the next and the next. It’s all planned out, there’s no variation. And even when there is, there’s a certain monotony that comes into play – enough to make you want to chuck it all up.
And that is precisely when…
…you should take a break. Just make sure it’s fairly drastic. Like our camping trip (of one night – yes, go ahead and laugh at my weak self!) do something different. And I don’t mean sort of different like a field trip. I mean something that you have to go out of your way to style and create. Something not practical would be ideal.
So when you come back to your normal, boring homeschooling, it will feel just right.
I often face a dilemma when it comes to writing. Whether it is fiction or a memoir or this blog, I find myself feeling the need to explain it.
When I share a blog post on Facebook or elsewhere, I feel an overwhelming urge to discuss my motivation behind writing it. Worse, sometimes, I want to explain what I meant to say when I wrote it.
As if the piece itself wasn’t there. As if the work couldn’t speak for itself.
If you’ve ever been in a homeschooling group – virtual or otherwise – you know this desire to explain is deep-seated.
If you’re an unschooler, you want to explain why you do what you do. Or if you follow the Charlotte Mason style, you feel the need to show that it works. If you tend to lean toward the Classical style, you want to show the benefits of that.
I’m not talking here about answering questions to newbie homeschoolers. That is one of the nicest things the homeschooling community does. I’m referring to the desire to prove that one’s style of teaching one’s own child is valid and that it “works” – whatever that means.
Tied in with that desire to convince someone else that your style works for your family is an inherent lack of self confidence.
By attempting to explain what you do and insisting that your children are “on track,” you are inadvertently giving a nod to the factory model of education. You are essentially saying, Look, I made this at home, but it’s just as good as what comes off the conveyor belt.
But let me show you a better way.
Don’t. Just don’t explain. Let the work you have done in your children speak for itself – even if it is years from now. Let your legacy tell the truth of your family and the work you have done. Let your homeschool be your masterpiece – one of a kind.
An article about teachers not reading came to my attention the other day. You might remember that I have bemoaned the fact that not enough people read enough of the classics. But even with that, I sometimes think I have to make the case to read widely, not deeply.
Academia – in general – does not support a wide reading base, favoring depth over breadth. Wide knowledge comes mostly through interest and self directed learning.
Read Widely not Deeply
I am not a deep reader. I rarely read technical manuals – no surprise there. But I do read widely. I cannot name a favorite book. Most times we go to the library or the book store, I will wander the aisles and bring home to read whatever strikes my fancy.
I am not fussy when it comes to books.
As a result, I don’t know very much of any one thing, but I do have some knowledge of a wide range of things.
Now, lest I sound like I’m tooting my own horn, here’s my disclaimer. I only mention this because I see this in the reading habits of children.
Children Already Do This
My kids, I have noticed, will do exactly this.
They will wander the aisles of the library, find something that captures their attention and then grab the entire bookshelf of books about it. Next week, it’s onto something else. Or they will pick a book here and book there, not settling on any one subject.
As a result, they know a little bit about a lot.
Why Is Reading Widely Important?
Two instances illuminate the need for reading widely. In The Disappearing Spoonby Sam Kean – an excellent book, by the way, and highly recommended – he mentions Gilbert Lewis. Chances are, you’ve never heard of him.
Lewis never secured the Nobel Prize because his work was broad
rather than deep. He never discovered one amazing thing, something you could point to and say, Wow! Instead, he spent his life refining how an atom’s electrons work in many contexts, especially the class of molecules known as acids and bases. In general, whenever atoms swap electrons to break or form new bonds, chemists say they’ve “reacted.” Lewis’s work on acids and bases did as much as anyone’s to show what exchanging electrons means on a submicroscopic level.
So without Lewis, we would know about acids and bases, but not much about how they actually exchanged electrons.
Here’s another example
In Kon-Tiki, another fantastic book, the writer Thor Heyerdahl narrates his 1947 journey by raft across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian islands. Heyerdahl believed that people from South America could have settled Polynesia in pre-Columbian times. His aim in mounting the Kon-Tiki expedition was to show, by using only the materials and technologies available to those people at the time, that there were no technical reasons to prevent them from having done so.
But he ran into problems – partially because his theory covered a few academic areas, because he thought broadly, not deeply. Here’s a quote from the book, where someone who joins him on the expedition explains why he had trouble getting funding:
“Your way of approaching the problem. They’re specialists, the whole lot of them, and they don’t believe in a method of work which cuts into every field of science from botany to archaeology. They limit their own scope in order to be able to dig in the depths with more concentration for details. Modern research demands that every special branch shall dig in its own hole. It’s not usual for anyone to sort out what comes up out of the holes and try to put it all together.”
Yes, we need the technical, deep readers and thinkers, but we also especially need those who will pull up any book that looks interesting, will let the ideas slosh around inside their minds for a while. We need people who will pull threads from various sources, see similarities and create theories where there previously were none.
We need innovators.
Be those people. Let your children be those people. Don’t be afraid to read widely, not deeply.
I’ve been reading a fantastic new book by Charles Duhigg. He is the author of The Power of Habit. The new book is every bit as good as the first one. What particularly struck me was Duhigg’s assertion that motivation can be taught. This would interest us as homeschoolers in particular and parents in general.
Through various examples, in Smarter, Faster, BetterDuhigg says that people who are motivated and self directed usually have an “internal locus of control.”
The Key to Motivation
People with an internal locus of control are more self assured, get better grades, work harder, get paid more. They also tend to be married longer. An internal locus of control is a belief that people can do something to change the outcome of their future. It is knowing that it is not something out there that is in control, but they themselves.
Individuals with a strong internal locus of control believe events in their life derive primarily from their own actions: for example, when receiving exam results, people with an internal locus of control tend to praise or blame themselves and their abilities. People with a strong external locus of control tend to praise or blame external factors. – N.R.Carlson
The Way Forward
So based on this information, how do you motivate our children? Give them some control over their environment! It is another reason to avoid environments like public school that take choices away from children.
You really ought to read Duhigg’s book for the entire thrust of the argument along with the examples, but here’s the gist. If you want someone to be motivated, give him choices. Force them to make choices – often, even if they are small ones.
If you are dealing with unmotivated, lackadaisical children, try it. Give them more choices over their environment and watch them thrive.
The hyper-organized type A woman inside me likes a schedule. She likes checking things off; it makes her feel accomplished. The relaxed homeschooler, also inside me, knows that a schedule doesn’t count for much. What she needs is a template. And she says as long as the general rhythm of our work and play is good, we are on track.
But successful homeschooling is something else altogether: it is a mental map.
I’ve been reading Charles Duhigg’s new book Smarter, Better, Fasterwhere he mentions the concept of a mental map. The people who are good at what they do, he says, are the ones who spend time dreaming, or better said, telling themselves stories. These stories are their mental maps.
One of his more harrowing examples is that of two plane landings – one that ends in disaster and one successful. The other and perhaps more relevant one to my case here is that of a nurse who spotted a baby in the NICU that “didn’t look right.”
The baby had sepsis, they later found, even though all the machines spit out normal data. If it hadn’t been for the nurse with her mental map of what a healthy baby ought to look like, the child could have died.
As homeschoolers, we should have mental maps of what we want our children to be. We should be spending more time day dreaming and less time planning a schedule. And even less time testing.
Too often, we get our mental maps from others – public schools, with their grade levels and subjects, teachers, questioning us about socialization and if we’re doing it right, various curricula and its scope and sequence. Do we ever stop and dream? Do we consult our mental maps? Do we even have any?
Start with dreaming up a mental map. Tell yourself a story. Then work your way backwards to a schedule. Setting aside all goals, tasks and curricula, what is it you want your child to be like? What is your ideal day with him or her? Start there. Check your days against those maps. They’re the most reliable navigators.
I belong to a whole host of Facebook groups. What can I say, it’s nice to be able to socialize without leaving the house. And the fact that there is at least one thing in common with the members is reassuring to this introvert.
If there’s one statement that pops up over and over in these groups, whether it be for low carbohydrate living or working out, it’s this: trust the process. Occasionally, someone struggling will post that they’re not seeing results and the answer they get is the same: trust the process.
Don’t Trust the Process
I don’t like getting or giving out this answer. You might as well tell me to shut up, sit down and stop asking questions. And that makes my blood boil.
Don’t get me wrong. I think the motivation behind this retort is valid. People who “trust the process” are on to something. But here’s the thing: they trust the process because it has worked for them. In other words, they have seen results.
Take homeschooling for instance. If you are working hard at it and not seeing any positive benefits, what should you do? Don’t let people tell you it will work itself out, that you should trust the process.
Do This Instead
Instead of trying to summon up the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius, begin to set some realistic goals. If the word “goals” sounds too intimidating, call them markers. Get an idea of where you are and where you would like to be, or in this case, where you would like your child to be.
These markers may not all be academic. Mood, motivation, desire to learn, independence, willingness to do things – these can all be goals as well.
In an earlier blog post, I mentioned how having daily goals for your homeschool can help you stay on track and create a habit of discipline. But there are two kinds of discipline – one is created organically in the pursuit of a meaningful goal. The other is arbitrary and for its own sake.
Find the organic one that works for you; don’t listen to your friends. Then measure your days against that discipline, measure your results against those markers.
… and, of course, those two books reminded me of homeschooling.
Let me explain. Both the books mentioned dealt with something that has not come into existence yet. Both books argued not just for possibilities but against the loss of that elusive opportunity cost.
How often – the two books argued – do we spend time thinking “what if?” How many times do we consider possibilities?
As regards homeschooling, how often do we plan curricula, play dates, reading material, field trips? So often it boggles the mind! I mean, homeschooling sometimes seems like nothing if not an endless succession of planning.
And yet, how many times do we stop to think about opportunity cost?
How often do we stop and consider the possibilities we might be giving up if we don’t (or do!) follow this specific path, go on this field trip, pick this curriculum, this class, this way of teaching?
In Economics in One Lesson, Hazlitt says that people only see what’s in front of their eyes. Bad monetary policies are implemented because people see the immediate effects of said implementation. What is much harder to gauge are the ripple effects of these laws. What is even harder to perceive is the possibility that same money would have had if it had not been funneled in a certain direction. The effect of an entire community getting poorer is not always obvious.
“The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.” – Hazlitt
Why Haven’t You Read This Bookalso takes the reader on a similar trajectory when it comes to considering possibilities. The book has multiple authors who have argued “Why not?” and written their experiences with conquering that question. Why not travel the world? one asks. Why not audition for American Idol? asks another. And why not drop out of school?
The opportunities we are presented with when homeschooling are our biggest strengths. But we have to be willing to look at them critically in the light of all they represent.
When we shift to auto-pilot, we lose the freedom we so desperately craved before we became homeschoolers.
We have to be willing to trace the consequences of what we undertake, see the opportunity costs and the possibilities as well as what’s staring us in the face.
We have to be willing to ask ourselves, “Why not?”
Last week was the first time my children heard about summer break.
“Really?” my seven year old exclaimed when told that public schools closed for almost three months in the summer.
That was the beginning of their dissatisfaction. But it wasn’t just that. We have various camping trips planned this summer and they weren’t coming soon enough. We’ve done all the book learning and memorization we wanted to for now. We need a break.
My planning has missed the mark a bit – we lost the last sticker chart and I didn’t time our camping / fishing vacations well enough.
Do you Need a Break or a Finish Line?
Classical unschoolers, homeschoolers – call us what you want – learn everywhere all the time. Most of our learning occurs through conversations anyway. We accept that we don’t need a classroom to learn in.
Learning is fluid and we are always “on.” There is tons to learn and it’s all very interesting. But we are also human and we get tired.
No matter how much we tell ourselves that there is no reason to stop, at some point, we need a break to recover if only to catch our breath.
No External Rewards?
However, most unschoolers I know don’t like sticker charts and other external motivators. Traditional homeschoolers also tend to shun them because they believe learning (and all virtue) should be its own reward. That’s another reason they do not pay their children for chores.
But that’s awfully Stoic of them. And much as I’ve enjoyed reading Meditations, that Roman philosophy is not for me.
As homeschoolers, we have the opportunity to create various finish lines for our children. They don’t have to be sticker charts and they don’t have to based on the public school calendar, but they do need to give them goals and a sense of accomplishment and closure.
So do your end of the year / summer school pictures or take a great vacation. By all means, motivate your children with sticker charts, goals and video games, if need be. Or take those sticker charts and put them toward a bigger reward you’ve chosen.
Don’t accept a finish line just because it’s handed to you. Establish some great finish lines – on your schedule and motivated by your needs. And walk through them with your family.
A finish line can be a huge motivator. Don’t dismiss the idea just because you homeschool.