January 10, 2006

Kids and their Interests

We homeschoolers talk a lot about our students' “self-directed” or “self-led” or “interest-guided” education. The idea is that students should be able to pursue their own interests. After all, if a particular child loves construction, why not gear her science lessons around the physics of a tower crane and her history lessons around pyramid-building?

Certainly my own experience tells me this is a good idea. I distinctly remember wanting to learn more about things that my public schooling touched on: world religions, electric motors, the Wright brothers. Each time I had to abandon those interests because the class “needed to move on.”

I want to be careful about this self-directed learning, however, because—in my own experience—the opposite was also true.

I never wanted to study math, although I've always had a gift for it. If I hadn't been forced to study trigonometry, I never would have enjoyed a career in 3D computer graphics. If I hadn't been forced to read Dickens, I would have missed out on novels that have played a part in forming my character.

The classes I now wish I had taken in college—music history, chemistry, a classical language—are the very ones I willfully avoided. Some of the electives that I pursued instead were “lighter” classes, and probably a waste of my time.

What we want to learn, especially when we are young, is not necessarily what we ought to learn. If Plato was right that cave-dwellers need to be dragged out into the light, then perhaps we shouldn't be so quick to let our children choose the tunnels they think lead to the surface.

In fact I think that homeschooling is less self-directed than we homeschoolers let on. It's a rare child whose interests include learning phonics or memorizing multiplication tables, but homeschooled kids are almost invariably more facile readers and multipliers than their institutionally schooled counterparts.

If we really let that construction-minded daughter determine her own education, she might well choose to remain illiterate among the Tonka trucks in her sandbox. By letting her choose books about construction, we're meeting her halfway. We're balancing an appeal to her current interests with what we believe she needs to know.


Birdie said...

How true.

In our ten or so years homeschooling our children, we have tried any number of educational options from unschooling to pre-packaged curriculum. So far, the Charlotte Mason method mixed with occasional unit studies has worked best for us. It covers everything that needs to be covered quite well (if implemented correctly), but still lets the children chase the occasional wild goose. ;o) On the other hand, I know plenty of homeschoolers who are more than happy with a pre-packaged curriculum and others who are happily ecclectic. There is no one perfect method that fits every family, but there are enough methods and teaching styles for each family to find a perfect fit.

You are also correct that most homeschooling families are a bit more structured that they let on. I know we are!

DavidofOz said...

We have a core structure focussing on English and Maths with the rest being read or investigated based on interest. The tendency to avoid subjects - despite our abilities - is one I know affectes me and also my daughter. She is really good at Maths but says she is no good at it.
We make her do maths anyway so she can complain "I only got 96%! Woe is me!"

Random Images Art said...

We are also a homeschool family and one thing that we found was focusing not just on what our children want or need to learn but also on the way that they learn. We have to take two completely different approaches to learning for each of our 2 boys. One is very structured and "into-the-books". The other is very creative and works best with "hands-on" learning. It is equally important to consider the method of teaching in addition to curriculum chosen.

Michael Hardt said...

Random Images Art, of course I agree with you 100%.

We're fans of Dr. Golay's work which attempts to categorize children's learning styles based loosely on personality types. (A nice summary of his work appears in Debra Bell's Ultimate Guide to Homeschooling.)

Our two children have different learning personalities and—when we're at our insructional best anyway—we present any material to them differently. The content of a lesson and the style of presentation are closely related, but they are distinct.