Unschooling With A Cirriculum Pt 4: Ten Things to Do

This is part 4 in a series. Part one can be read here, part two here, and part three here.

1) Stop the tests and quizzes
So much quizzing that educators do strikes me as incredibly pointless. If a child can correctly use letter sounds correctly in speech then obviously they know the difference. Why do they need to be quizzed on letter sounds? Professor Papert complains about these kinds of test, claiming they cut facts off from all their natural connections with things. 
John Holt says that, “When we ask children questions to find out whether they know something we almost always cut short the slow process by which, testing their hunches against experience, they turn them into secure knowledge. Asking children questions about things they are only just beginning to learn is like sitting in a chair which has only just been glued. Under pressure, students stop trying to confirm and strengthen their faint hunches. Instead, they just give them up.”
Testing creates a reliance on outside sources for correct information and undermines a child’s ability to say, “this I know, without a doubt.” Coincidentally, this can then lead to lower test scores, even when a child may know the material. Even at home, parents often do quizzing by asking a beginning talker, “What’s this? What about this?” 
Testing carriers with it the underlying statement, “you have not clearly demonstrated you know this, so I will ask you directed questions to determine your inadequacies.” Just think at how upset teachers become when they have someone “sit-in” on their class. It’s not fun being tested, especially when you feel like the results you produce should speak for themselves.
2) Allow them time to test and prove their own hunches
 We often want to rush in and correct our children as soon as they make a mistake. When children are learning something new like how to read, they will do many things that we think our nonsensical and clearly wrong. But just like a miniature scientist, children are testing out what constitutes the “rules” of this activity and sometimes wildly inaccurate guesses provide them with valuable information. Hold your tongue and allow them time to find and correct their own mistake.
3) Praise for effort, not being smart or producing a desired result
One of the biggest benefits to homeschooling is that there does not have to be a “right” answer. Surely there are answer that are unarguably correct or wrong, but when you are homeschooling, you can reach a conclusion of “answer unknown,” and the child can still leave feeling good for the amount of heavy thought that was put into the problem. We do this with reading often. Sometimes a word will simply not lend itself to be sounded out. So it’s left alone and we move on. Someday, she will come to that word and be able to do it, but it doesn’t have to happen today, and I can still praise her for the effort she put in attempting the difficult problem.
This kind of praise has shown to be a much greater motivator that praising children for being smart or even giving the “right” answer. In the book Nurturshock the authors point to studies that show when children are told they are smart they actually become less motivated in school. The thought is that when people think they are smart, they are anxious to not be proven to be dumb, so they avoid those things which they are not already highly skilled at doing.
4) Make yourself available to help them pace themselves
Young children who are learning a new task have a brain that works faster than their bodies. When my daughter was learning to write she would omit words, leaving a jumbled pile of incoherent sentences. It wasn’t that she didn’t know how to compose a sentence. Her brain just worked much faster than her writing ability and it would leap ahead before she was able to write a complete thought. Eventually, this lead her to not wanting to write at all, because her writing was so far removed from what she wanted to say. I realize now how my reaction to her created this unwilling attitude. Instead of pointing out how inaccurate her writing was, I should have made myself a more pleasant form of help, assisting her in slowing down her thoughts, or encouraging her to provide a picture for readers reference.
5) Value children’s interactions with each other
Children learn exceedingly well from other children, especially those slightly older than themselves. This shouldn’t be surprising. “Learning” for them is usually playful and flexible, and much less intimidating. It occurs along children’s own terms and in their own language. It shouldn’t surprise us that learning a cartwheel from a child who can already do them, verse learning from a professional gymnast, would be much less intimidating and they would probably be able to communicate on a level we would understand. I always think about my own computer skills this way. I learned everything I know about computers by myself or with help from friends. My dad, who is a computer scientist, was infuriating when I asked him to help me do something on a computer. His expertise made his conversation and actions so incomprehensible to me I left more confused than informed. Every thing he did was over complicated for what I was wanting to happen.
6) Sometimes it’s better to not double check your work.
Any student who has taken a test knows this is true. While double checking can be useful, second guessing is a large problem that leads to confidence failure. It’s a crippling habit when you go back over your answers and start to think, “wait, is that right?” or “That answer couldn’t be right, it couldn’t be that easy, or they wouldn’t have asked me the question in the first place.”
7) Remember there’s no correct way to use school supplies
I know we all remember how terrible it was to be able to use things like math counting blocks but then get scolded for stacking them or making shapes with them. I would die when I would see those boxes get put away when I didn’t get a chance to play with them. 
Bill Hull, who develops learning tools for children would describe testing a new product: “If when a child came in for the first time we tried to get him to work right away we got nowhere. The child would try to do what he was asked to but without joy or insight. But if at first we let the child alone for awhile, let him play with the materials in his own way…they were ready and willing to play very complicated games.”
8) There are many different ways of learning
I read on a forum once a mom asking for help with her three year old daughter. “She is really interested in reading and I would like to encourage her. She has just seemed to memorize words though and I want to her able to learn how to read properly. What are some good reading programs I can use?” Um, I’m sorry, read properly? First of all, memorization is a key component to reading…no adult sounds phonetically out every word they come across. That’s why even in schools they teach sight words. And in fact, most self taught learners teach themselves to read exclusively through memorization. By memorizing they are able to then recognize patterns and make educated guessed about unknown words. 
And this can really go for every subject. Don’t focus on your child learning correctly if they are learning something themselves. The whole point of a lot of common core math is that there are many ways to reach a solution, but yet many still act as if there are still only correct and incorrect ways. In spelling most children begin by a desire to send messages. Therefore their spelling correctly comes second and only becomes essential when they realize correct spelling leads to a correct message. If their goal had been writing, they would have wanted to write word lists, not notes or stories. I have one of each (a messager and a list writer). Both are correct.
9) Expand your vision of what learning can be
Many parents question their school’s curriculum, saying, “What good is it? What are they learning?”  by which they mean how does this help them on The Tests. In any absorbing activity children are learning something. You may not know what it is, and it is probably different for every child. But the very act of having their brain completely engaged in something indicates that learning is taking place. I make it a point to not call my children away from something that they are really engaged in, even to do something “important” like school. I may give them a warning that in “half an hour we’re going to do this,” but I never call them away immediately. 
10) Know your child’s ability, not their age
As I mentioned before, my daughter had a hard time reading at her level and it was only after we went to harder books, that were more interesting to her comprehension, she began to pick up. Many schools are also based on the assumption that children should spend time memorizing facts before they’re ready to do things with those facts. However, most children have been shown to learn in the exact opposite manner. I talked in my last post about allowing your children to experience before you give them the words to understand those experiences, because it is the doing that grounds the knowing, not the other way around. Don’t ever assume that because your children have not been told how to do something that they can’t. Most children would learn how to do more advanced math by simple exposure and reflection on what they already know. Allow them to make their own discoveries.
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