Saturday, September 12, 2009

Dragons and Rockets and Pi, Oh My!

I attended a Homeschool 101 meeting for new homeschoolers and I was blown away by some of the observations and examples of "interest driven learning" and "child directed" learning and how allowing a child to follow his passions and interests unfolds as the child matures and grows. As the child gets older he may go from asking hundreds of questions about a wide range of subjects to honing in and becoming an expert in one.

The typical scope and sequence designed for the classroom can work against that natural learning and curiosity for the child learning in freedom - the home. It seems mind boggling that strictly adhering to a program designed to teach children "everything they need to know when they need to know it" could actually slow some children down. A few of us have observed this.

I heard a few examples but I have an example of how my children's curiosities take us away from our school books or my lesson plans:

The other day I decided to read "Sir Cumference and the Dragon of Pi" to my children for math. Looking through the book I realized that there were a few words I needed to familiarize myself with: circle, radius, diameter, and circumference...

I wrote these words on one of our dry erase boards and let the children witness as I review-taught. That's mom purposefully thinking out loud as she familiarizes herself with something she should know by now. Believe it or not my children have learned much from my bad memory.

For radius I told the children to think of sun rays. I drew a sun and several "rays" which "emanated from one point." I drew these rays about the same length which eventually suggested the shape of a bigger circle. (This was to set up my explanation of circumference.) As I drew these many "rays" I said, "rays" and "radius" out loud.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the book: Just mentioning the word "sun" set my seven year old off into a question tangent. He wanted to know "how come our sun is a small star but it's so bright?"

I explained that our sun is very close to us compared to the other stars and that is why it appears bigger and brighter... I didn't finish my explanation because that triggered another question, "How far away is the sun from earth?"

My hubby and I couldn't remember so I said, "I don't know the exact distance but if you headed towards the sun in a rocket it might take several months to get there." I added, "If you headed for the nearest galaxy at light speed you wouldn't get there in your life time..." Which brought up more questions... "How fast is light speed?" which triggered more questions...and more...

We ended up in a family discussion of what all it would take to get a human to the nearest galaxy - alive.

It is common for one topic to trigger curiosity about other topics. This is part of the reason many homeschoolers see adhering to a typical scope and sequence as limiting their child's learning.

Even my own plans to read a book and to talk to my children about "radius" had us orbiting subjects like "the solar system" and "light speed."

I think these questions that take us away from the lesson plan can be more important than the lesson. When a child asks questions it shows that child is thinking. Thinking should be the goal of learning and not just finishing a workbook. The questions can then be the curriculum.

Trying to review these words so that I could read a book I planned to read sparked so many questions that we almost didn't make it to the book. It got to the point where I told the kids, "Go get your notebooks because I want to read this story to you TODAY but keep asking questions and I'll write them down..."

The story is about a little boy who has to solve a riddle to save his father's life. The riddle is the definition of Pi and the little boy has to find that number. You get to be there for his "ah hah" moment and you are there as he tests his theory on an onion, a pie, a wagon wheel...

After we read the book we did our own hands-on discovery of Pi. We collected several round objects from the kitchen and cut strips of paper the exact length of the diameters. Then we could see how for each object (circle) three of the diameter sized strips fit around the circumferences "with some left over."

Days later we are still using the questions and looking up and talking about exact distance from the earth to sun, astronomical units, and today (now a few days ago) I said something crazy like, "I guess the closest we can get to time travel is looking up at the stars at night." Which was a remnant of our discussion of "light years" and galaxies being so far away it would take several generations to get there...

So we have already "put down the school books" to go off down a "bunny path" as one veteran mom put it...

This is an example of what I mean when I talk about focusing on the learning and avoiding the schooly things. I will abandon our "school" for "learning." The questions are the superior curriculum and I will "let the questions be the curriculum."

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