Saturday, December 29, 2007

What Will They Need to Know?

So what does it mean to be educated? Personally, I like this definition of education (which I found here):

"the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life."

I think most people would agree that the goal of education is to prepare--to equip us for what we might face in the future. But is it possible to know what any given person will experience in his or her "mature life"? Are the things I need to be prepared for the same as what everyone else needs to be prepared for? To some extent, of course, we can make intelligent guesses. However, any list of necessary knowledge and skills we try to create (and then try to teach) will always be lacking, since it will be finite, while the body of all knowledge and the sum of all possible experiences is infinite. No matter what you do, there will be "gaps".

Because it is simply impossible (for me or anyone else) to teach my children "everything they need to know", the goal of my agile homeschooling philosophy is to teach them how to be "agile". I want them to learn how to be flexible and adaptable, to know that they are equipped to face new ideas and new challenges, to have tools and strategies at the ready to help them cope with whatever life may throw at them. I want them to gradually take charge of their own learning instead of simply studying things that someone else believes they "need to know".

I can't help thinking of a man I know who is in his early eighties. He is an intelligent and resourceful person who has confidently and creatively overcome many challenges throughout his life. One challenge, however, causes him to immediately throw up his hands in defeat--using a computer. Now, there is absolutely no way that his schooling, undertaken decades before the advent of personal computers, could have explicitly prepared him for this technology. No one at that time could have possibly foreseen what he would need to know all these years later!

Unfortunately, what this person did learn, is that he is supposedly not capable of dealing with this type of challenge. When anyone tries to walk him through the steps of using a particular program, for example, he instantly "shuts down" and says something like, "I can't understand all this modern technology. Just do it for me!" He also bemoans the fact that "they" (meaning something like "the dag-nabbed young people who invented all of this dag-nabbed technology!") aren't doing anything to help people of his generation learn to use computers. Apparently it's not his responsibility to learn, but someone else's responsibility to teach him. (When we pointed out that we were young people who were at that moment trying to help him, he mumbled something about it all being far too complicated for him to even try.)

So the assumption that any method of education can teach children "everything they need to know" is simply false. No one can foresee what knowledge and skills a person will need in the future, and we cannot teach everyone everything, since knowledge is infinite. The best we can do (and I don't mean that in a defeatist sort of way--I really believe it is the best we can do) is to teach our children how to learn, how to face challenges, how to succeed, and what to do when they fail. This is an important part of the agile approach to homeschooling.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Everything They Need to Know

Another question I often get about homeschooling is "How do you make sure they're learning everything they need to know?" I find this question fascinating, because it involves some interesting underlying assumptions. When you ask this question, you are at the very least assuming:
  • that there is a defined body of knowledge necessary for a person to learn in order to be "educated".
  • that this body of knowledge is the same for each person.
  • that a degree in education makes a person an expert on this body of knowledge.
  • that it is possible to know and list the elements of this body of knowledge.
  • that a government-sponsored or private school, with its degree-holding educators, has access to that list and always follows it.
  • that, in order to educate his or her child "correctly", a homeschooling parent must gain access to and follow the same list.
Many people who ask this question also assume:
  • that certain things must be learned by all children at a certain age or in a certain order.
  • that children can't or won't learn things unless they are explicitly taught.
  • that children must be tested in order to prove they have learned something.
I find it difficult to answer the "everything they need to know" question because I don't agree with any of these underlying assumptions! This is a problem, since most people who ask the question aren't prepared to rethink these ideas that have been so deeply ingrained by our culture. I plan to use the next several posts to discuss each of these assumptions and why I disagree with it.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Why "agile"?

One of the most interesting things about homeschooling has definitely been the variety of reactions we get from people when they find out about our choice. Of course, we're coming to this at a great time. Gone are the days when people automatically envision a family holed up in a shack in the woods, unwashed and hoarding a year's supply of ammunition in the cellar. I mean, homeschooling is so mainstream these days, along with charter, private, and virtual schools, that it's almost counter-cultural to send your kids to an ordinary public school within whose boundaries you actually reside.

So, although it's slightly irritating to be lumped in with a homeschooling "movement", I do appreciate the growing attitude of acceptance we have encountered. People don't immediately attack with the tarnished sword of the socialization issue, but are usually more interested in listening to the whys and hows of our choice. This is refreshing! (Not that everyone "approves" of what we do and how we do it, but that's okay. We're not doing it for them!)

So how do people respond? More and more often they mention someone else they know who homeschools (proving the growing popularity of this educational path). Sometimes they respond defensively, feeling the need to justify their own differing choice for their children. (This is absolutely unnecessary, since my own decision to homeschool doesn't mean I believe everyone should do the same.) Frequently, they tell me enthusiastically about a "fabulous" program they've heard of where the state gives you "free" materials, including a computer, and takes care of record keeping and evaluation for you. (This is, I'm sure, a great option for many families, but it is definitely not the right scenario for us.)

Another thing people are often curious about is what curriculum we use, or, if they happen to be homeschooling savvy, which educational philosophy or approach we have adopted. The answer I usually give is "a little bit of everything that works!" or "our own unique mix of things" or "I guess you could say we're eclectic homeschoolers." All of those answers are true, but the more I've thought about it, the more I feel the desire to describe in greater detail, both for myself and for others, what our approach to homeschooling is all about. Thus, this blog is born!

I've decided to call our educational philosophy "agile homeschooling". The basic meaning of the word "agile" is "able to move quickly and easily." The term has recently been adopted in the software field, referring to a development style that is adaptive and flexible instead of hindered by predetermined specifications. Apparently, an entire philosophy of programming has grown up around the concept, complete with its own Manifesto. As I learned about this approach to software development, I realized that many of the principles mirrored my own philosophy of homeschooling. My hope is to use this blog as a vehicle to explore, refine, and share my ideas about what the term "agile" means in the context of my own homeschooling experience, both in theory and in practice.