Learning to Learn

(A story shared by a former homeschooler and a homeschooling Mom of three)

Education—what do we want from it, really? When we send our children through twelve years of grade school, what are we hoping they will acquire? And are they really getting from the experience what we want them to get?

What is homeschool? Is it really more effective than public school at giving our children a quality education? Why isn’t public school the best way to meet these goals?

As I see it, education has two major goals. One is the assimilation of information, learning of whom Genghis Khan conquered and when, and learning that 6×4=24. The other is more subtle, and I call it learning to learn. It is simply learning to tackle whatever problems life may throw on you.

Both homeschooled children and public school children memorize the same basic body of facts that ‘those in the know’ have deemed necessary for an educated person in today’s world. Where homeschooled children have the edge on those who go through public school, is in the second goal: they have a better model for learning to learn, for discovering how to discover, for becoming lifetime learners that relish new challenges and new experiences.

I am a homeschooled graduate. While I learned, in my schooling experience, the same plethora of facts my public school peers did, the focus was on something different. I learned how to learn. I learned that I could learn anything, with a little work and trying. I learned how to read— anything from lightly written news articles to weighty science papers and to old philosophical treatises— and I learned how to think critically, analyze logically, and problem solve.

These should be the goals of education. It’s nice to know when Columbus discovered America, and that he did discover America, and it’s useful to have ‘99’ jump into your head every time you think ‘9×11’. But those are just nice peripherals. After all, the vast majority of facts you’ve memorized are facts you’ll never use again, and there is an enormous number of facts you will actually need to use in your life that you’ve never had a chance to memorize. The key is not what you have learned. The key is what you can learn. The key is whether your habits and thought processes are those of a learner, or simply those of one who can flow with the current and repeat some long- memorized facts.

What this means is that it is more important for a child to be able to find out why the city of Alexandria fell to the Persians in the year 619 A.D than to know that “In fourteen-hundred-ninety- two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” It is more important for him to be able to listen to a politician’s speech and point out which parts are valid arguments and which are logical fallacies than to know the meaning of every fourteen fancy vocabulary word used. It means that it is more important for your child to be able to find out how to solve an un-memorized math problem than simply to remember those he has memorized.

Homeschooled and homeschooling parents don’t shun memorization. After all, you don’t want little Johnny to have to invent the wheel every time he wants to drive to the grocery store. What you do want though, is for little Johnny to be able to invent the wheel—and the automobile— anytime he is in a place where he wants one, and doesn’t have one ready. Then he will be able to join the ranks of those who make a difference in this world, who push the darkness back little by little, who make life changing discoveries or help hurting people in ways no one thought possible.

When you take your child out of public school and make a commitment to schooling her at home, you are embarking on a journey of discovery, a partnership with your child, in which both of you will learn many wonderful things you had never dreamed of but in which both of you are discovers and learners. It’s not about what you know, and you don’t need to be well versed in a subject to teach it to your child. Rather, it is about what you are willing to learn. When you can model to your child the joy and excitement of discovery, they will learn. Not just for a test—tests are of little importance in homeschool—but because they care about the material. When they begin learning for the joy of learning, they will become first class thinkers, discovers, and researchers. And they will remember what they learn.

Think about it. If you learn the different parts of a centipede because it is going to be on your next science test, you are likely to forget them when the test is done. But if you learn it because bugs are cool, and centipedes are even cooler, and it is great fun to discover what all those parts are, the names will stick with you—forever.

My mother had a tenth grade education; but she graduated from her homeschooling her four children who all went on to take degrees in different Ivy League schools.  How did she manage this? Did she run her home as a first class prep school? No, the secret of her success was simply this: she loved to learn herself, and through her teaching, through her guidance, and sometimes just through her gentle encouraging presence she thoroughly instilled that love of learning into her children.

Because of the way my mother taught us, we know that there is no problem too hard for us. Children hardly ever fail because they are stupid. They fail because of mental blocks that have been set up in their minds, because of fear, or because they have never learned how to learn. In an environment of joyful discovery, where learning for learning’s own sake is encouraged and helped, any child will blossom to become the best she could be.

The right goal of education should be to turn out children, or men and women, who are well- equipped and ready to learn.

And this is why homeschooling is a better educational model than public school. Because public school, in its attempt to be mainstreamed and convenient, has lost track of the essentials. It no longer makes any real attempt to turn out original thinkers; instead, it works as a long assembly line, turning out little mental automatons who can recite beautifully the things they have been taught.

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