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.

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