Saturday, June 07, 2008

Converting Fahrenheit to Celcius (turned into a rant on democratic schools)

My children and I have a little game that we play whenever we get in the car. When I start the engine we all look up to see what the temperature is in Fahrenheit and then everyone guesses what the temperature would be in Celsius. Then I click the button to change the temperature display to Celsius and the winner gets nothing but the hoorays or boos from the other family members. If my oldest is with us he will win. After today, the game will forever be changed as my daughter was introduced to the conversion formulas in her math work book.

Do you remember the formulas? I certainly didn’t remember the formulas and I just went over all of this with another child just a few years ago. I’ve been in the fifth grade THREE TIMES and still, I am NOT SMARTER THAN A FIFTH GRADER.

Here it is just in case you are like me and can’t remember:


That’s three easy steps!
1. Replace the letter C with a numeral (temperature) and multiply it by 9.
2. Divide your result by 5.
3. Add 32 to that.


What is interesting is while I don’t remember the temperature conversion formulas that I’ve learned and that I have taught twice; I do remember what my first child was ‘into’ when he learned how to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit. I remember because it was during a time in our home school adventure when I decided to try out the methods used by “democratic schools.” If you haven’t heard of democratic or free schools let me just say that they are a shocking contrast to the schools that you and I spent 13 years attending. Many of us can’t fathom their existence without some twitching of the eye.

A democratic school is a school where the child is free and has control over what she will and will not learn. The child would work with teachers to create a curriculum and the “teacher’s” job would be to find ways to bring that learning to the child. The child may want to learn to play the guitar for the next few months and/or may want to learn how to create web pages. The child has that freedom. The children are encouraged to teach classes and to share what they have learned with others. The graduating body will have its share of “slackers” just like any other school. The alumni stories are amazing!

Anyway, after a several months break from academics and encouraged by a bit of “burn out” academically, I decided to give democracy a chance – in education. I told my children that we would only learn about the things they wanted to learn about. I told my children to make a list of all the topics that they wanted to learn about and that their lists would become their curriculum. They were in charge of “school.”

Each child created their own list. My daughter dictated her list to me. Her list contained the names of various fluffy creatures like: lion, fox, cheetah… We took the lists to the library and checked out many books on the first words on each list. We spent the next few days on the living room floor reading, learning, and sharing our discoveries with each other. This was a wonderful time in our educational journey together as a family.

My son had “gems and minerals” first on his list. He was always fascinated with rocks. One of the first books that he dictated to me before he could read was titled, “MY ROCKS” and it was a book about his rock collection. So it was natural that he would check out many books on this topic. He began to take an interest in diamonds and “diamonds” was added to his list of topics that he wanted to learn about. As he was reading about diamonds he found out that they had a melting point or boiling point, I can’t remember. This book only gave this temperature in Celsius. This made him curious about what how to go about converting Celsius to Fahrenheit. Converting Celsius to Fahrenheit was added to his list. One day, he came to me and said, “Mom, help me memorize the periodic table of elements.” It was amazing to watch one topic, “gems and minerals,” trigger a curiosity about diamonds, converting temperature, and eventually the periodic table of elements. When he wanted to rest, I let him.

My daughter at some point in her self created interest driven curriculum ended up wanting to learn how to create a webpage to display some of her favorite animals and her artwork. We did that. I miss those days and my son just told me the other day that he thinks he actually learned more during that time of academic freedom that at any other time in his life.

Many people fear that allowing a child this type of freedom would result in havoc or laziness but I can assure you that I didn’t see that.

I saw the opposite. I watched as one topic or interest would trigger another like a domino effect. Something happens to a child when they are allowed to be in charge of their learning. It becomes “theirs” and they cherish it more. Freedom is a good thing, especially for children, and it's very important for learning.

All that flooded back to my memory yesterday as my daughter’s math book explained the concept and gave the formulas for converting Celsius to Fahrenheit and vise versa.

My son was very influenced by his sister's lesson. Here is the post about that: Family Learning: Coffee thoughts - multiple ages in the learning environment


Country Gal said...

What a great concept- letting the kids direct their learning! Why and when did you stop?

I'd love to hear more!

Rebecca said...

The only constant is change. We go through phases where the kids are super curious, motivated, and "into" something that takes up most of their time and attention and then we have those times when mommy is directing the learning. We also have phases where we are learning together as a family. Sometimes we do all at once or one at a time.