December 1, 2017

Educational “Dipping Sauce”

During my years as part of the broad homeschool community, I’ve seen a propensity for home educating parents to believe several really destructive lies. 

One particularly devious lie is that educational activity must be a burdensome drag in order to be “real” or effective. Many have bought the bill of goods that says the learning process is something to tolerate and endure rather than enjoy. Sadly, that is true for those who attend institutional schools, which were purposely modeled after Industrial Age factories and designed to treat students as inanimate products on an assembly line rather than as unique individual human beings. Frankly, the methods and materials schools employ have not been adopted with children’s true best interests in mind and are not designed to optimize kids’ learning and holistic growth and development. Instead, as educational theorists like John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, and Peter Gray show us, what happens in schools has been consciously designed to hinder real education and to deaden children’s desire and ability to learn.

Kids in school are stuck with this unless their parents see the light and bring them home. But home educators have the freedom to do better – to consider a multitude of ways to actually educate (not merely “school”) our children according to how each has been uniquely created. The tragedy is that we too often assume that what schools do must be right – because, after all, schools have been around “forever” and school bureaucrats are self-proclaimed “experts.” Thus, we mistakenly believe we must mimic the rules, schedules, and activities used in school in order to do right by our kids.

Does this mean that every “school-style” resource and activity is educationally and/or developmentally unsound? Not necessarily; after all, even a broken clock is right twice a day. But, rather than take it at face value, we would do better to start off viewing everything schools do with extreme skepticism. In other words, we should – for our kids’ sake – treat school-style approaches as “guilty until proven innocent,” and choose to avoid replicating what happens in schools unless we definitively realize that particular bits and pieces of it might work for a certain child at a particular time.

For example, I know of children and teens who actually enjoy – and learn well from – workbooks. These kids are usually word- and/or logic-smart (according to definitions described in Dr. Kathy Koch’s excellent book, 8 Great Smarts). And if a parent determines that one of her children resonates with workbooks, she should find good ones and let the child have at it. But I can tell you as a “recovering” public school teacher that workbooks weren’t designed with children in mind; they are, rather, a means by which classroom teachers can manage large groups of children when the goal is making all of them do the same things at the same time in the same way. Most kids see them as something to tolerate and endure and will – if asked – admit that, though they may comply and finish their workbook pages, they do not necessarily learn from them. So, though workbooks might be useful in some contexts – and even though a home educational “diet” of nothing but workbooks is still better than what happens in school – they shouldn’t be our default tool for every child and in every “subject.” There are many other, much more educationally sound and enjoyable ways to help our children master necessary content. And the same holds true for pretty much every method and resource that is “normal” in school.

In fact, if an approach or activity you use is typical of schools, I challenge you to deeply consider whether or not it’s the best tool for truly meeting your child’s educational and developmental needs. The truth is that there are so many other ways to help children learn and learn well. And people of all ages actually learn more thoroughly and effectively when they enjoy the process, so most of the time the drudgery of school-style approaches should be a last resort, replaced with various non-schoolish educational activities – including, but not limited to, games! – that actively account for all eight “smarts” as evidenced in each individual child.

Some will respond to this idea with skepticism. They’ll say that learning cannot always be engaging and that some concepts will always be a drag because they’re difficult to master. They’ll say that kids need to “suck it up” and effectively eat their “educational veggies,” like it or not.

Obviously, it’s true that a certain knowledge base and a mastery of some particular skills – i.e., reading well, communicating clearly orally and in writing, mastering computational math – are essential. However, foundational skills are, by definition, something that all can master in due time. Thus, just as we would not demand that a three-month old baby learn to walk or that every toddler use the same potty chair, if we employ the right tools for each particular child and address various learning tasks when each child is truly developmentally ready (i.e., not simply because she’s reached a certain chronological age), even “hard” tasks like learning to read can, indeed, be accomplished in an enjoyable fashion. And in regards to other knowledge and skills – things like writing a novella or understanding differential calculus – we have to remember that not everyone needs it all. But if a child is wired for creative writing, even the difficult task of composing a novel will still be a joy. And if a kid has a propensity toward higher math, he’ll work hard in that very challenging field but actually enjoy the process.

In conclusion, when it comes to what methods and approaches we use, it’s not a cop-out to replace the banal, joy-killing norms employed in school with hands-on projects, personalized research, multimedia experiences, living books…and games. We don’t decrease “rigor” by finding learning activities our kids enjoy. Instead, we actually strengthen and deepen their learning and holistic development by honoring how each has been wired.

Seeking alternatives to school-style endeavors is like making a flavorful dipping sauce for your kids’ veggies. If you force-feed them plain vegetables, they may comply and they’ll get the bare minimum nutritional content. But they’ll grow to hate veggies and will avoid them as soon as they’re not under your authority. If, on the other hand, you provide that dipping sauce, they’ll enjoy the vegetables. They’ll also eat far more of them – gleaning the benefit of many more vitamins and minerals – and they’ll continue to eat their veggies long after they’ve left your home. 

Creative alternatives to schoolish norms are a wonderful educational dipping sauce. Take a risk and try some.


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