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It’s All About the Process

2 Oct

“Children are not our own art products to be turned out well, but their own life work in continual process.” ~ Jan Fortune Wood

A few weeks ago, I ran into a mom I had met back when our kids were toddlers. She asked about the school and said, “I have been following you all on Facebook and I just want you to know that I LOVE Sudbury!” Then she paused and with concern in her eyes, “So, have your daughters found any interests yet?” I cringed inwardly, but smiled and replied, “My 9-year-old is taking piano lessons and my 6-year-old is into horses right now.” Her eyes relaxed and, as if trying to reassure me despite my choice of schooling, she exclaimed, “Oh, that’s great! They might end up working in those fields. You never know.” Because I like to pretend I am “normal” sometimes, I changed the subject.

To be fair, this mom is more enlightened than most. At least she didn’t say, “Well, that’s nice but when will they ever learn calculus?” I’m sure she would have listened to me had I had the energy to explain more at the time and I think she would have deepened her understanding of the Sudbury model. Since then, however, it has been on my mind. Had this mom asked me about my daughters’ interests a few months ago, my response would have been “dancing and Minecraft.” A few months before that, it would have been “dolls and fancy handwriting.” I wonder if she would have been worried.

And this brings me to the point of my blog post. I’m not worried about what my daughters pursue, or what they don’t pursue, because I know it’s all about the process.

HorseMy youngest daughter will probably move on from her current horse phase. (And my bank account would certainly appreciate that!) When she does, I won’t feel bad that she gave it up or feel like it was a waste of time, because I know how much she has learned. The learning that I am talking about has nothing to do with horses. Again, it’s all about the process. She had to find and choose a horse ranch that would give lessons to such a young student. Of course, I helped her with searching on the internet, making appointments, and taking her to each place, but she drove the entire process and made the final decisions. After her second lesson, she decided that she wanted to learn more about taking care of horses, so she spoke with her instructor. Now she uses some of her riding time to brush the horse down and clean out its hooves. Lately, she has been talking about finding another ranch where she can do more care-taking like feeding and washing. It will be interesting to see where that will lead her, but for me, the most valuable part is how she is learning to determine her own goals and learning how to express them to get what she wants out of her lessons, whatever those lessons or experiences may be.

The same goes for my oldest daughter. After playing around with her keyboard at home for years, she recently decided to take formal lessons. She meets with her piano teacher once per week at school and is really enjoying it. I try to stay out of her way, but every once in a while her piano teacher catches me and can’t wait to tell me how well my daughter is doing and how fast she is learning. It doesn’t surprise me nor does it make me particularly proud. I know my daughter does well in whatever she puts her mind to. That’s her process. She dives into something completely without any pushing or prodding. And she always has her own motivation for doing things, which she may or may not share with others. I have seen her teaching piano to other students at school and even writing her own songs, which she meticulously keeps in her manuscript book. I know that once she has achieved her goal, whatever that might be, and has gotten what she needs from the experience, she will move on to the next thing and she will completely devote herself to that.

Whether they are playing with dolls, building a house in Minecraft, making up dance moves to the latest Gwen Stefani song, or inventing new ways to write their name, the content doesn’t really matter. They are learning so much in the process of pursuing their own interests. As they get older, their interests will change and their goals will become bigger, and they will continue to learn what they need to achieve those goals. This is hard for most people to wrap their heads around. Traditional schooling is all about content, pre-determined by someone else, and how to stuff as much of it as possible into the minds of children. But that content, which changes constantly, can be learned anytime, especially when it’s actually meaningful to the learner. The process, on the other hand, gets hard-wired into us fairly young and becomes the filter through which we learn anything new.

My daughters’ Sudbury school is the perfect place for them to refine their process. It does that by giving them the freedom to choose their own content all day long and the time and space to figure out how to get things done. I think this, and not necessarily a focus on specific, adult-approved content, is what will most help them achieve success in the future. After all, success is a process too!

Five Lessons on Learning

18 Nov

My daughters go to Sunset Sudbury School, a school that allows them to follow their own interests all day long. There is no teacher telling them what they must learn, nor is there anyone who assigns grades to their work or administers tests to measure their progress. When I first tell other parents about my daughters’ school, naturally, their first question is, “But how do they learn?” I used to launch into a description of organic learning and how reading and math are easily learned when a child is ready… blah, blah, blah. But the truth is my daughters are getting far more important lessons on learning that will carry them throughout the rest of their lives.

1.  Learning is something you actively seek, not something that happens to you.

When she was four years old, my oldest daughter told me that she wanted to learn to read. After trying to help her a few times, I realized that what she really wanted was for reading to magically happen to her. I resisted the temptation to help her after that and repeatedly told her that she would learn to read when she was ready and willing to do the work. A few months after her 7th birthday, she discovered phonics and began sounding out words and asking people to sit with her as she read out loud. She became a fluent reader in about nine months. For me, the important thing was that she completely drove the process; no one at school pushed her along nor gave her gold stars for her progress. As a result, my daughter knows that she has the power to learn anything she sets her mind to without waiting for someone else to show her the way.

2.  Learning is not separate from living.

My daughters will often play at school all day long and then come home and work on academics. It’s not uncommon for me to hear, “Mom, what’s six plus three?” from my five-year-old who is checking her work, or “Mom, how do you spell ‘restaurant’?” from my eight-year-old who is working on a new story. On their days off from school, activities like going to the beach or going to the planetarium have equal value for them. My daughters don’t label one activity as “fun” and the other as “learning,” and they never resist opportunities that might seem a little too much like traditional school. Most importantly, whatever they are doing, my daughters are always curious and always asking questions. For them, learning is an on-going, integral part of living.

3.  Play is serious work.

Don’t get me wrong. Playing is always fun for my daughters, but they also take it quite seriously. While rushing out one morning, my five-year-old yelled, “Mom, wait! I have to get some extra clothes!” She and her friends were working on a dance routine and they had all agreed on what to wear. Another time, I found my eight-year-old gathering materials for her next role-playing game, in which she and her friends might stay in character for days. My daughters and their schoolmates expect each other to be prepared for the next day’s play. Because their school doesn’t place more value on one activity over another, my daughters take their play quite seriously and work hard to make it meaningful as well as fun for all. The line between play and work doesn’t really exist for them.

4.  Whatever your age, you are as capable as anyone else.

Students are not segregated by age at their school. Instead, students naturally group themselves throughout the day according to their interests. For example, an 11-year-old might be playing cards with a 4-year-old, or a 7-year-old might be showing a 13-year-old a new video game. There are also jobs at school that students and staff must fill to ensure that the school runs smoothly. Any student can fill these positions, provided they do a good job, regardless of age. However, in School Meeting recently, we voted to restrict an important job (JC Clerk) to students age 8 and above. When my five-year-old first heard about the motion, she was quite upset. She enjoys being JC Clerk and is quite confident in her ability to do it well, so she came to School Meeting to lodge her complaint. The motion still passed, but School Meeting included a clause that allowed for younger students to be voted to the position on a case by case basis. My daughter truly believes that she is just as capable as any older student, albeit with a little less experience and a little less skill, and I love that their school reinforces that belief.

5.  Trust yourself and follow your own definition of success.

Because their school doesn’t assign grades and doesn’t group students by ability, my daughters don’t necessarily compare themselves with others and they don’t mentally create a pecking order among their peers. Instead, they see each individual, including themselves, as a bundle of talents and quirks. When a well-meaning adult recently praised my 8-year-old daughter on her reading skills, the adult asked if her little sister had started reading as well. My daughter replied, “No, but only because she’s not interested yet.” My daughter intuitively knows that she and her sister are each following their own path on their own schedule and that one person’s process is not necessarily better than another’s. Their school gives them both lots of room and encouragement to trust themselves and to constantly define what success means to them.

I feel so lucky that my daughters go to a school that provides them with these lessons every day. I love their attitude towards learning, their trust in themselves, and their respect for others. I know that all of this will serve them well in a fast-changing world that will require them to be creative, self-motivated, and on-going learners. And I trust that these lessons will help them find happy and fulfilled lives.

Little Scientists Can Teach You A Lot

11 Sep

Two students were in the science lab this morning doing “experiments” with vinegar, baking soda, corn starch,Scientists dish soap, food coloring, and who knows what else. They looked quite serious with their safety goggles, beakers, and test tubes. Soon a handful of inspired younger students rushed up to me and asked if they could be certified to use the lab equipment. They stared at me patiently as I read the rules. And then they nodded their heads vigorously when I repeatedly emphasized that it was everyone’s responsibility to clean up.

Since a few of the students are fairly new to the school, I thought it would be nice to do some activity with them so that they could get comfortable with the materials in the lab. I asked them if they would like to make cornstarch goo and they all agreed.  Soon there were oohs and aahs coming from the new little scientists along with lots of giggles. A few more students joined in and I almost became overwhelmed trying to contain the mess. There was goo all over the table and on the floor, cornstarch tracks on some of the rugs, and a pile of dirty bowls, dishes, and utensils. Thankfully, after about twenty minutes or so, the students were ready to move on. I sent them to the hose outside to wash their hands, which were dripping with goo, while I stayed behind to clean up.

Now, my story could end here and it would all be about how wonderful I was to engage these young minds and teach them some science (the properties of non-Newtonian fluids) while having lots of fun. Well, this is not the best part of the story…

The cleaning took me longer than expected, but I was enjoying the quiet break. Suddenly all the young scientists returned to the lab and began their experiments anew. “Oh, no. This is going to be a disaster,” I thought to myself, but I kept my head down and tried not to pay too much attention. I was determined to finish up and leave before the lab was trashed again. Well, I was in for a pleasant surprise. The two original students quickly took charge and guided the younger students. They suggested combinations of ingredients and showed them things like how to use a straw to make bubbles. When one of the younger students spilled their solution on the floor, an older one dashed off and reappeared with a towel to put under her feet. There were also many gentle reminders about being careful, keeping things in order, and cleaning up after oneself.

The thing that surprised me the most, besides the fact that no one ever asked for my help, was how serious and calm the entire scene felt. I would occasionally hear proud exclamations of, “Look what I did!” or “I make the best experiments!” but overall everyone was very focused. After almost an hour, one of the younger students, who had just been certified, came to ask if I would check the lab. She wanted to know if they had cleaned up properly. I was startled to find that the lab was spotless! All the equipment had been washed and put away and all of the surfaces had been wiped down. Even the floor was dry. I couldn’t contain my delight. “Wow! It looks beautiful!” The student stood beaming at me, not so much at gaining my approval but more with a look of “I told you we could do it.”

Kids are amazing when you get out of their way. They are often capable of so much more than we expect. I guess I was the student today.

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Free to quit math class

18 May

“You either learn your way toward writing your own script in life, or you unwittingly become an actor in someone else’s script.” ~ John Taylor Gatto

An 11-year-old student recently asked me if we could set up a math class. I asked her why she wanted to study math. She replied, “Because I want to.” Usually this isn’t a good enough reason for me, but I know this student fairly well. She is very private and often takes her time to share what she is really thinking, so we set an appointment for the next day. I wanted to get a sense of where she was mathematically, so we went through the basics – addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, decimals, place values, and basic geometry. She seemed to have a solid foundation, so I told her we could move on to algebra or go deeper into geometry. She decided to pursue algebra because she felt she already knew a lot of geometry. We agreed to meet four days per week for half an hour.

What a pleasure it has been to work with this student. She always remembers to reserve the room, she is always ready to start on time, and she is always focused. She grasps math concepts quickly and can apply them immediately. I have to admit, for a minute or two I felt like a really good teacher. After a couple of days, however, I realized that I was doing very little teaching. The student already had a strong intuitive sense for math concepts. All I was doing was teaching her the language of math – a number next to a letter means that you multiply the two, a little raised number (an exponent) means that you multiply the base number by itself that many times, etc. I often reminded her that this language is just something invented to help people communicate mathematical thinking to each other.

Algebra also involves the use of variables and writing down the relationship between them. It’s a tool that is helpful in solving more complicated problems. A simple example is 3x + 5 = y. You can plug in a number for x or y and solve for the other variable. Solving for y in this case is fairly easy, but solving for x is a little more complicated. Learning algebra involves learning the steps to solve for x and y. I should add that these are the steps that I have to follow to solve a problem like this. And this is how most others have to do it too. But this student solves problems like this in her head!

At first I attempted to teach her some of the algebra “tricks” – isolate the variable, do to one side of the equation what you do to the other, etc. – and show her how to write these down step by step. After all, I can still hear my middle school math teacher saying, “Show your work.” But the student resisted and I reconsidered. She has an amazing ability to manipulate numbers and variables in her head. Why should I mess with her process? After all, she’s refining a talent that is really hard for most people, a talent that is really useful in areas outside of math.

Thankfully, I don’t take any pride in my “gifted” student’s math abilities. I sometimes think about what could happen to her in a more traditional education setting. I am sure that her math skills would be noted and rewarded, maybe even with trophies. She might even begin to believe that math is her “thing” – she’s good at it, most others think that math is the most important subject, and she often hears about the need for more scientists and engineers in the media. But is math really her passion? Does she really like it? And more importantly, is math her ticket to a happy life?

The student and I are still enjoying the class, but when and if she gets bored or her interest wanes, I will support her in moving on to something else and I’ll be happy that she is confident enough to do so.

This blog post was partly inspired by this TED video by John Bennett – Why Math Instruction is Unnecessary – and this Psychology Today blog post by Peter Gray – The Most Basic Freedom is Freedom to Quit.

What does “organic learning” look like?

5 Feb

“What we want to see is the child in pursuit of knowledge, not knowledge in pursuit of the child.” ~ George Bernard Shaw

I was driving my daughter to school one morning when we stopped at a traffic light right next to a truck with a bed full of small tanks. “What are those Mommy?” asked my 6-year-old. “I think those tanks contain some sort of gas,” I replied.

Pause. “What’s a gas?”

“Well, a gas is kind of like air. It’s not a liquid like water or juice and it’s not a solid like ice or this steering wheel.”

“What’s it used for?”

“Well, for lots of things. That lady at Party City filled our balloons with helium gas to make them float up and our bodies use oxygen from the air we breathe.”

“Ooh. I know where oxygen comes from!”

“Where?”

“Trees!”

“That’s right.”

Pause. “Mom, how do people breathe oxygen in the desert?”

“Well, you don’t have to be right next to a tree to get oxygen. Trees let out oxygen all over the earth and then it mixes with the other gases in the air and travels all around the planet.”

“Mom, what’s the rainforest?”

I thought to myself, “Whoa! That’s a pretty cool jump.” We continued to talk about the Amazon, South America, Brazil (where a friend recently traveled), and how people might be able to live in the jungle without modern comforts. Finally, her interest waned and she turned her attention to the Nintendo DS in her hand.

In this short conversation, my daughter and I touched on chemistry, biology, weather, geography, and anthropology all because we pulled up next to a truck full of tanks. She’s got a lot more information in her head than I imagined. It reminded me that she is learning all the time and making connections for herself.

When we arrived at school, I knew that she would probably share her new knowledge with someone else who might connect it with something else that they had learned. This is how organic learning happens.

My daughter attends a Sudbury school where kids are free to interact with each other and follow their own interests all day long. Because she isn’t forced to learn things that she may not be interested in, she has the time to do her own investigating. When I hear her friends at school gently tease that she asks too many questions, I know that this is the right place for her to get what she needs to build her own knowledge of the world.