Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Drawing Update

As I have written before, N. loves to draw and spends lots of time every day drawing.  He especially loves to draw buildings, and over the past 6-8 months he's drawn many many buildings that exist in the  imaginary world about which he tells long elaborate stories.
Two houses for sale in N's imaginary world
N's own caption explains this imaginary building.
As you can see, Tim has been using N.'s drawings to encourage him to practice handwriting and numbers.  Recently they learned about dates during their random encyclopedia reading, so N. drew a date tree and wrote an amazing fact he learned about date trees.  There are...
1,700 dates on one cluster of fruit!

N. has also been doing some drawings of real places recently, either from a photo or from his knowledge of the place.  Here's a drawing based on a photograph of a gorgeous old building in Duluth, MN, The Lyceum, which was demolished in the 1960s.

Our living room (l.) and new kitchen addition
N.'s passion for drawing and for buildings plays a huge role in our commitment to unschooling.  I love that he can spend as much of his day as he wants on this.  Not only is it a fundamentally crucial activity for him -- there is some way in which he simply needs to draw -- but it gives us so many learning opportunities as we study principles of building, the history of architectural styles (which leads to many other areas of history), learning about different cities where his favorite buildings occur, etc.  His art is central to his experience of school, instead of an extra-curricular interest.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Unschooling Tests

When I was in first grade, I was required to take timed math tests that had a negative impact on my sense of my aptitude for math.  This experience has made me very resistant to the No-Child-Left-Behind testing culture of today's schools and was a crucial influence on my interest in homeschooling.  I wanted to homeschool our son to give him an education focused on real learning, not tests.  My ideal vision was that we would never have tests (beside the yearly standardized test required by the homeschool law in our state).  I thought that we don't need tests since we know what N. is learning because we spend so much time with him.  I am concerned that tests orient children toward external motivation for learning, learning in order to do well on a test, rather than encouraging intrinsic motivation.

Tim disagreed slightly with me on this issue in part because he had no negative associations with tests from his childhood.  He's been doing little math tests with N. and calling them tests.  (See picture at left for an example of one of their "tests").  At first, I was upset when I discovered this.  But then serendipitously some articles in the New York Times helped reframe tests for me so that I could think about them as learning tools rather than only in terms of my own negative previous experiences.  As one recent article points out, "cognitive scientists see testing itself — or practice tests and quizzes — as a powerful tool of learning, rather than merely assessment."  Taking tests or quizzes helps reinforce knowledge; according to this article, studying for one session and taking a test in a second session leads to better long-term retention than studying for two sessions.  

There's no question that the timed tests I took were not productive in reinforcing knowledge, but I think we can structure little low/no-stakes quizzes to be a productive part of N.'s learning.  These can take the form shown in the picture above, or of the Charlotte Mason-style recitation that takes place daily when Tim and N. tell me at supper about what they studied during the day.  Tim and I have agreed that written "tests" not be graded or marked with stars in order to keep the emphasis on intrinsic motivation and to keep tests oriented toward learning, not assessment.

It's easy in homeschooling to try to correct all the perceived wrongs that we parents experienced in our own childhood schooling.  Our discussion of tests highlighted for me the importance of maintaining our focus on N.'s educational needs and of refraining from projecting my own past on him.  Furthermore, I am happy to take advantage of experiments in psychology and cognitive science that illuminate how our brains learn and work.  Much of unschooling dogma seems to be based primarily on anecdotal accounts, and I think it is important to bring that dogma in conversation with rigorous science.  Sometimes that science may inspire adaptations of unschool dogma, while in other instances scientific findings will support our educational methods. 

Thus, while some kinds of tests can be effective learning tools, I still believe that the multiple-choice testing model in much of education is counterproductive to and a poor measure of learning.  In a recent Times op-ed, psychology instructor Susan Engel describes what assessments should try to gauge: "the qualities of well-educated children: the ability to understand what they read; an interest in using books to gain knowledge; the capacity to know when a problem calls for mathematics and quantification; the agility to move from concrete examples to abstract principles and back again; the ability to think about a situation in several different ways; and a dynamic working knowledge of the society in which they live."  This eloquently captures our primary homeschool goals.  Little quizzes can play a role in N.'s homeschool learning while we remain focused on these broader goals.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Butterfly Identification

We are seeing more butterflies on our out-of-control cosmos this year than ever before, and Tim and N. have spent much of this week watching and identifying them.  They've spotted Eastern Yellow Swallowtails, Gulf Fritillaries, Monarchs, Viceroys, and different kinds of Skippers.  N. has learned about the markings and shapes of the different kinds, and loves shouting out the name as soon as he identifies one.  They are using the excellent Butterflies Through Binoculars as their guide.  This activity appeals to N. because he loves categorizing things, and the immediacy of the butterflies in our yard makes identifying them far more compelling than simply reading about them would be.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Learning and Games: Monopoly

Last week, before I left for work in the morning, N. caught sight of a box on a high shelf that has long tantalized him because it has a picture of a train on it, and he asked if he could look at it.  I told him it was a game called Monopoly but it was for older kids.  He still wanted it, so I took it down and of course he immediately wanted to know how to play.  I started teaching him the basic rules, and he was completely absorbed.  It was all I could do to get him to pause so we could eat breakfast; I promised Daddy would take my place in the game after we ate and I left for work.

I called home to check in with Tim and N. later in the day, and heard that they'd played Monopoly for 3 hours, until they finished the game we'd begun.  N. won!

It had been many years since I last played Monopoly, and looking at it through the eyes of my six-year-old, I was impressed by how much the game develops the main learning tasks N. is focused on right now: he had to work hard to read the property cards as well as the chance and community chest cards.  He had to do lots of math as he managed his money.  In the game he finally seemed to understand the concept of making change with bills, something that had been confusing to him in real-life situations.  He learned about auctioning and mortgaging and rent.  And playing with Tim, he learned about thinking strategically and logically because Tim is all about optimal play.  As N. told me, he made a particular choice in the game because "that's one of Daddy's principles."  A true card player, Tim plays games to win, partly because he likes winning, but mainly because he likes the intellectual challenge of figuring out the optimal move or play at any given moment and in the long term.  It drives him a bit nuts that I don't generally play games this way but am much more haphazard (and am no card player).  I suspect he and N. have many hours of games ahead of them!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Unschool in Kids' Books: What to Do About Alice

What To Do About Alice?: How Alice Roosevelt Broke the Rules, Charmed the World, and Drove Her Father Teddy Crazy! by Barbara Kerley tells the story of Roosevelt's unconventional oldest daughter.  She was a wild, physically exuberant girl.  Before her family moves into the White House, she shudders as she watches the prim girls of a New York boarding school walk down the street while she has dreams of climbing trees and owning a monkey.  When her antics in D.C. (including joining an all-boys club and requiring the boys to dress as girls in order to sneak into the White House to their club meetings) get to be too much for her father, he threatens to send her to that fancy girls' boarding school back in New York.  After weeks of crying every day at the thought of going to school, she presents an alternate  plan for her education to her father: she'll teach herself by using his extensive library.  And that's what she does.  Her antics continue into her adulthood, providing ample tabloid fodder, but she also becomes a very effective representative for her father, both at home and abroad.  She also becomes one of his most trusted advisors.  She eventually makes a savvy political marriage and remains a crucial institution (nicknamed "the other Washington Monument") in D.C. throughout her long life.  We loved this story for its representation of independent learning enhancing the life of an irrepressible child.

New York Times review here.