February 12, 2009

Learning Journey

The other day I was thinking about how we learn new information and about the process that is involved in "thinking." It is a funny thing to actually "think" about "thinking," but I have to admit that it is something I have pondered often. I am keenly aware of this whole issue dealing with how we learn new things. I guess it stems from an internal desire to know more -- something I am guilty of -- you know -- the "curious cat" syndrome. I have always been the one who "needed" to know how things work, why things happen as they do, and so on. I guess my interest in thinking started back in 2004 when I first started to home school my son. At that time, I was a newbie, especially when it came to home schooling, home education, curriculum, and such. I knew nothing (to quote one of my favorite TV characters -- Schultz from Hogans Hereos) at all. I just didn't have a clue about how to teach my child at home, how to plan our lessons, or even how to instruct him (you know, in the basics -- the hows of it all). I did have an inkling though about "thinking" processes -- that was something that I had contemplated before and I really did wonder about it.

When I started to home school, I found myself confronted with some real "learning challenges." My son is highly gifted (probably more like exceptionally gifted, but who cares!) and had struggled to learn in school. He had been in a public school classroom for three years (four, starting in 2003-2004). He had done well his first two years (1-2nd grades), mostly because of really good teachers (teachers who were willing to let our son explore and be himself). Third grade was not good at all. He had a teacher who was overwhelmed by her large class, mostly of non-English speaking students, and who just wasn't interested in doing anything other than what she was required to do. That entire year was one of frustration. My son was frustrated, his teacher was frustrated, and we, his parents were frustrated. We didn't know what to do, so we went to the school and asked that our son be tested for gifted studies. They did test him, but he didn't qualify (not once, but three times). By the end of that year, we knew that we didn't want him to continue in that school. We sought other options and ended up at a small charter school. Mistake number one. This school, while functioning just above level, was not suited to handle gifted students. We should have heeded the administrator's advice when she said so in our first parent meeting. We should have heeded the Lord's advice when He said "don't go there." But we didn't and we put our son there and learned a very hard lesson, indeed.

That year was what I call our "year from Hell." It was the worst academic experience we could have imagined. Not only was there no discipline in the school, but the academic level was far below state standards. My son's fourth grade teacher requested that he be placed into the 5-6th grade class -- simply because she couldn't teach her children, 4th graders who were at about 2-3rd grade in skill. We moved our son up and found a whole passel of problems awaiting us. While academically our son thrived, he was bullied constantly and was taught inappropriate (putting it nicely) things by the 5-6th graders. In a small school, it is difficult to isolate a child, to keep them from associating with children who are, to put it nicely, heading down the wrong track. In a bigger school, the "play pool" is much larger and it is easier to say "honey, don't play with so and so." Not so in our school -- when you have 10-12 children out for recess -- all 10-12 play together.

Suffice it to say, our year was nightmarish. By March, we had decided to home school our son. We learned a lot along the way, what not to do, what we wanted in a curriculum, how we thought our son learned best, etc. It did help me when I started to home school and began the exhaustive search for curriculum. Thankfully, the Lord directed my steps and led me to a wonderful home school program called Ambleside Online (http://www.amblesideonline.org). A classically written curriculum developed off the teachings of Charlotte Mason, Ambleside offered a "different way" to approach education. Ms. Mason, a 19th century British educator, believed that learning was central to our being, right up there along with her belief in God (the Creator). She remarked that "education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life" and dedicated her life to creating a theory of education that promoted what she called "the science of relations." In short, she believed that God gave us all an internal desire to learn and that nothing was needed but a liberal diet of good ideas. Good ideas, in the form of books, would give plenty of interest and inspiration and would open up the mind to do what God created it to do -- to think. In detail, she crafted a program that not only taught the basics (and very well), but also gave food for thought when it came to moral/ethical character training. Often her program is called a "character education" because she spent a great deal of time talking about habit-training, training the mind for attention and the will to obey. Her style is decidedly old fashion and a bit stodgy, but only in the sense that she taught young people who were of the upper class. Her students learned Latin and French and read good books, the kind of books students today only read in college. She started her Y1 one students out reading great myths and tales and taught them stories to help them understand the world around them. She didn't test them to make them prove their mastery of the material, rather she tested them to have them demonstrate their level of understanding. Her system, while old fashioned and definitely classical in nature, offers a student the widest and deepest possible learning experience. It offers the best education, in my humble opinion, and is something educators need to carefully consider as a viable option for all school settings.

This background information brings me back to my original point -- the point about considering how we learn. I started down the path, following Charlotte Mason, and have ended up here where I am contemplating a return to graduate school to pursue educational studies. I am thinking of studying classical models of education in the hope of creating a theory of education for our 21st century classrooms. It is my desire to show that we can take past models and revamp them for use in the future. Charlotte Mason's methods do work and they can be used effectively, even in our most modern classes. The key is "how" to do it. Ambleside offers a wonderful program for home educators; however, it is not going to work in a class setting. Charlotte Mason's original programs were developed for classroom use, but they are not going to work in todays technological driven world. There has to be a way to merge her thinking and philosophy with our current need for better education.

It is something I am keenly interested in and I hope to have the chance to study and then put forth a theory that might prove successful in a class setting. We will have to see...

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