It is 2020 and we are effectively watching life as we know it change before our very eyes. In March they said, “15 days to slow the spread.” Then in June they said, “people need to be wearing masks all the time.” Now here we are in November and they are saying, “we have to lock down again because people aren’t doing it right.” Whatever your political opinion on how this pandemic is being handled by the government, we can all agree that the situation has highlighted faults and failures in our system. Things we have accepted for years as “normal” and “expected” are vanishing, while things that we considered “impossible” or “crazy” have become commonplace. It’s leaving us all wondering what the heck happened. In an effort to be optimistic, however, this situation is also giving us a unique opportunity to examine the things we’ve taken for granted.
One area that I have put under the microscope is education. When my four kids were sent home for
Disaster Distance Learning, what they were learning in school was shoved in my face. Years and years ago, when we got our first dyslexia diagnosis, how they were learning was shoved in my face. Distance learning dramatically changed the HOW and highlighted the WHAT. Deciding whether or not to pull my kids out of school entirely caused me to spend countless hours closely looking at WHAT I wanted them to learn and HOW to best accomplish that.
For the last 8 months the phrase that has constantly echoed through my thoughts is this: Surely we can do better. We have to do better!
So I set off on a quest to find what better looks like and who “we” is (hint: it’s not the establishment (and I apologize for the bad grammar!)).
What do I want my kids to know?
This is the first question to be considered when doing an educational reevaluation. In this day and age it is stunningly easy to just go along with the status quo and assume that people smarter than me will decided what my kids need to know while also ensuring they get there. Stepping back and deeply thinking about what I want my kids to know is what really changed my perspective on formal education.
To figure this out, I fell back on a good old fashion brainstorming approach: mind mapping.
Putting my ideas together in this format helps me to get a clear idea of my own expectations. It was much easier for me to do on paper than it was on the computer, but I’m guessing that’s just because I’m old fashioned at heart. This style is easy to adapt to an individual family or to a specific child within the family, to add to, or to take away from, to personalize.
You’ll notice that I don’t have a stand alone category for science. That’s not because I don’t value science; it’s because I know how easy it is to incorporate science in with other subjects. A hike in the woods easily becomes a lesson in life science or biology. A cooking lesson can be a lesson in chemistry. You can tailor your mind-mind to your own ideas of what you want your child(ren) to learn.
What does it mean to be “educated”?
This question goes hand in hand with “What do I want my children to learn” but is actually a different question entirely. Step back and look at what modern society considers an educated person to look like. It is no longer about quoting classical literature or knowing just the right poem to send. Neither is it about growing food or fixing machines. The definition of educated from the 20th century no longer applies to the 21st century.
Being educated in this day and age is more about one’ s ability to find the right answers than about knowing them. It’s about articulately communicating your ideas to a wide audience through social media. It’s the ability to navigate complicated technology with easy and adaptability. Know all the Shakespeare you want but it won’t help you get a job any more than knowing trigonometry will help you grow tomatoes.
What do I take for granted about school?
It took a surprising amount of thought to figure out what I’ve been taking for granted for the last 8 years. Since my oldest daughter started kindergarten, there are certain things I’ve just assumed would happen at school. Learning to read, for instance, or how to do math. I assumed that their teachers would nurture them and walk them through the process of learning. I assumed I would get some free time once they were all in school, or at the very least a slight lessening of pressure as someone else cared for my child for a few hours. I assumed a lot of things that I didn’t realize until I started considering taking my kids out of school.
What are my concerns about what they are learning in school?
This question needs to be a blog post in and of itself! The more I learn about what is taught in school the more horrified I am. I’m not talking about the 3 R’s or even about technology or social relationships. I’m talking about the subconscious messages that schools are teaching our kids. Compulsory education (when the government determines what must be taught) opens the door for all sorts of special interest groups to get their hands into what our children are taught. If 2020 has highlighted anything, it has highlighted the way schools are a pawn in the political game.
For instance, did you know that companies can “sponsor” different aspects of education? I didn’t! Until my 5th grade daughter came home from the Birds and Bees talk with a swag bag from Always. Of course the schools won’t ever say that it’s a sponsorship because it’s considered a donation, but what company wouldn’t like to be the first one to put their brand into the minds of potential customers? What about Stayfree? Or HoneyPot? Schools have also allowed special interest groups to have a direct say in what is taught in schools. A great example of this (whether you agree or not) is that science books now include information about the scientist’s personal life, including sexual orientation. This is not meant to spark a debate about whether or not this is okay, it’s simply a call to consider what your children are learning and how that lines up with your own values.
Then there are the concerns about the social pressures they face at school. As our oldest daughter prepared for middle school, we couldn’t help but see that she needed a few extra years of being a kid before she became a pre-teen. She would be eaten alive by the social pressure of middle school. And it’s not just the middle/upper grades that expose kids to this pressure. One day I caught our second grader using her tablet to watch YouTube in her room – a major violation in our house because YouTube is forbidden anywhere but the TV in the middle of the house. She told me she was watching drawing videos but closer investigation revealed she was watching Disney Zombies – another major violation because I’d expressly told her she was not allowed to watch that movie (I felt that it would be too scary for her). Why did she do this? Because the popular kids in her class talked about it all the time and she wanted to fit in. She was willing to break rules and lie to her mother in order to fit in – IN SECOND GRADE!
Educating: traditional schooling, homeschooling, unschooling
So what are our options in 2020? Traditional schooling – where our kids go to a campus, sit in a classroom, and are taught by a certified teacher amongst a group of their peers – is not a realistic option anymore as we are in the midst of a pandemic. Traditional schooling in our community has changed to only a few days a week for a few hours a day with desks six feet apart surrounded by plexiglass. My personal opinion is that it will be a year or more before we go back to traditional schooling as we knew it in 2019.
Homeschooling as an option puts the role of teacher, administrator, and disciplinarian on the parents in a much more obvious way than distance learning. When you better understand what your role is you are better able to fulfill it. The decision to homeschool and how to homeschool is massively overwhelming for those of us who have never considered it before. Where do you buy curriculum? How do you choose curriculum? What kind of group do you have to be part of? What about all the things that kids will miss out on, like social interaction? The decisions that go along with homeschooling are innumerable! Homeschooling has structure to it and follows along with the grade-level expectations of traditional schooling.
Unschooling has become a thing over the last few years and basically means that you don’t follow a formal schedule, curriculum, or set of standards. You decide what your children need and the best way to teach that to them. It takes the mind map above and implements a plan that best fits your family and your children. Unschooling does not mean that your children are uneducated; it means that you allow education to be directed by a child’s interests and a family’s activities. While it falls under the umbrella of homeschooling, it an approach that rejects the traditional aspects of homeschooling structure.
In 2020 the best question to consider is this: What is best for my family? Then have the courage to do it no matter what the outside your family say. I say Have Courage because it does take a tremendous amount of courage to do what’s best for your family when it doesn’t align with society’s expectations.