Friday, April 27, 2007

What IS Learning, Anyway?

To add to Karen's Loads of Good Learning collection:

JoVE wrote a post about a good(learning) day and and Melanie wrote about some of my comments and related the habits of a (homeschooling) mother to the way we approach prayer.

JoVE writes:

I do recognize good days. But not all of those days are good learning days. Some good days are good because Tigger learns a lot. Some good days are good for other reasons. My response to the original question might challenge the terms of the question and address the "elephant in the room" which is a certain amount of understandable anxiety that homeschooling ignites. I might say, not every day will be a good learning day. But that's okay. Observe your children. Approach the task of parenting, schooling, and just being in relationship with them in a thoughtful and loving way. Trust yourself to do the best you can. And forgive yourself when you make mistakes.
I think that the original What Makes a Learning Day? came about because Theresa was answering the question of a friend about how much is enough and how you can tell. The friend was, from what Theresa wrote, a homeschooler who was attracted to a more flexible project-based learning style but unsure of how to make it "measure up" in the way we are accustomed in our society to measure learning. Now that JoVE points it out, I realize that all of us in our own ways have been trying to answer the question within that frame of reference, because it is commonly asked by people who see our more organic mode of homeschooling and wonder how it can be "enough". If I relate her elephant analogy to the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant, sometimes we are trying to explain our understanding of the elephant to someone else who is sensing a different part, perhaps only a single part, and we are hoping (unlike the blind men, who were stuck in their own mode of sensing) to get perspective on the whole thing in the process and lend understanding to others.

And yes, I am sure most of us deal with that anxiety about the elephant at some points too. I know there are some days where I can't see what we DO have because I'm fretting about something that is not happening.

Melanie compares homeschooling to prayer and writes:

When I was a teacher at the state college, one of my biggest frustrations was the wall of separation between my faith and my work. I love teaching, but I often felt like I was spinning my wheels and getting nowhere. I know homeschooling will have plenty of those frustrating days, but at the same time it will be rooted in Love in a way that my teaching career never could be, much as I tried to breach that wall. When I contemplate my decision to homeschool Bella, I feel as if I've finally connected the dots. I've found my vocation at last, to be both a teacher and a mother.
I think she is pointing to the truth that homeschooling is almost by definition an aspect of our mothering, our parenting. We homeschool because it seems to be the best way to be a parent. When my sixth child Aidan was in the hospital for months and my oldest, Liam, was just entering "the high school years" at the same time, my husband and I confronted this directly. Before that, we largely took for granted that our homeschooling was part of our parenting. They flowed together fairly seamlessly.

But we found that parenting during that crisis situation meant putting other things in front of the academic "learning" side of homeschooling. Suddenly survival and nurturing were way on the front burner. Other things had to step back. We had always known that our homeschooling was about something way more than just "schooling" but that was a turning point in confronting that we were parents first of all and that homeschooling integrally derived from that. In other words, that homeschooling was still homeschooling even when the learning process was practically the last thing on our minds.

There were days when after I came home from hours of holding my critically ill infant and holding back tears, all I could manage to do with my other kids was cuddle them while they watched a cartoon. And that was OK, because that was meeting a need that was much more foundational than the academic one. The kids could catch up on the academics (and did). But if I pushed aside our need to connect and be there for each other because "now it's time to do school" then I would be choosing the lesser part. It would be building a house on sand because according to Aquinas, Maslow and many others, what society considers "learning" is built on a foundation of other things -- trust, attachment, interaction, safety. Without what we sum up as Love, the effort to "teach" kids often teaches them the wrong lessons, or simply has no influence at all. We see that going on in the public schools where the efforts to systemize learning end up breaking it loose from the very things that make learning possible.

Frank Smith writes about this in LEarning and Forgetting, the book I was blogging about recently. He writes that "you learn by the company you keep". I want to write more about this book some other time, but for right now I want to focus on the part that relates to this point. He says that in the context of a relationship, of identification with what he calls a "club", you learn almost effortlessly, as a byproduct of your association with that "club". In other words, as JoVe was saying, "Learning" is not the main thing about life. That would seem to make "learning" a goal, whereas it's actually a process. Smith would seem to say that when a person finds a group with whom he identifies himself -- for most people, their first "group" is their family -- he effortlessly acquires a complex array of skills, attitudes and contextual information. These things lead to further things, but they can't really be isolated from each other, and "learning" can't be isolated from all the things that make learning possible, and the things that make learning into something that is valuable.

I think of my youngest child, Paddy. Last evening I read to him for almost an hour. We read, first, Winnie the Pooh, then Beatrix Potter's Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, then a Bible story about Noah's Ark, then "Follow the Drinking Gourd" about the underground railroad and slavery. When I consider the richness of this experience, "learning" seems like a thin word. Sure, he was learning, but that wasn't the first thing on our minds, any more than you think of your breathing when you are feeling wonderfully healthy. Sitting together on the bed, our eyes on the same page, my voice putting into spoken form the written words that are yet inaccessible to him, while he studied the pictures and asked questions like "Mr McGregor didn't know the bunnies had gotten out of the bag?" He chose the books himself, but of course they were books that were available for him to choose. I noticed that much of the language was fairly difficult -- words like "soporific" and concepts like "slavery" which he certainly couldn't have defined or passed a test on. Yet he was comprehending the stories and they were obviously resonating with him, because his attention was rapt.

I wasn't reading to him in order to "teach him something". We were sharing something we both loved, and sharing time with each other. In the process, we were both learning, but as a byproduct. Smith says that while we experiencing life in our "club", we are not only learning, but we are learning how to learn and what learning is for. This is a complex yet natural operation, like the operations of our circulatory or sensory system. Charlotte Mason talks about the "Science of Relations" ; perhaps this is another way of saying "you learn by the company you keep."


Karen E. said...

Another great post, Willa.

Yes, JoVe hit on, and then you expanded here on, why I felt nagged to get back to that original post -- because I realized I was answering it within the confines of the original post/construct of "a learning day."

And there's nothing wrong with that -- because, as you said, Theresa's original post was a specific answer to a friend's specific question (sort of a "how do I know the state will consider this homeschooling?" sort of question from her friend.)

But, we homeschooling moms can never answer a question simply, can we? It always leads to pondering .... :-D

Mrs. Darling said...

Good post Willa. I want to write on this subject myself. I dnt know if I'll get to it today because Im rather dizzy. It feels like an ear infection or something. But I did really like your thoughts here. Great job in explaining yourself. I often get too wordy and never get to the point! LOL

Willa said...

Mrs Darling, thanks for commenting and I hope you do write about the subject. I always like your rambles and think they do get to the point even if by the scenic route, which is always more interesting and colorful anyway : ). Hope you feel better and that it's something minor and treatable.

Karen, I can't STOP pondering -- yikes! I like the way you and Theresa and Melanie can move it back to the concrete details -- I often have trouble doing that!