As a successful product of public school, I am often asked, "Why did you and your husband choose to homeschool your four boys?" True, I was a member of the National Honor Society, in honors science and honors English, and even voted Most Likely to Succeed - giving the appearance of being one smart kid. Then I took the SAT test. When the results arrived, my counselor called me into her office, showed me my low scores, and advised me not to attempt college.
Why this huge disparity between my poor standardized test scores and my stellar twelve-year academic performance? Two things were at play.
First, many people do not perform well on standardized tests. When I took my GRE to enter graduate school, I again scored poorly. A brilliant friend, who had taken the test with me, called to compare scores. When I told him my score, he said, "No, Jessica, add the verbal and the non-verbal scores together." I replied, "I already have." Standardized tests are not my cup of tea, and yet, in graduate school the bulk of my grades were A's, sprinkled with B's.
The second explanation is that I was well-trained in regurgitation. With a photographic memory, I could fill in blanks, receive A's, and promptly forget my regurgitated answers. Public school was product-, grade-, and results-oriented. There is still some of that thrust today. The emphasis is on passing the TAAS test, with weeks to months spent teaching the test! I was a shining example of one who could pass the test, graduate with honors, and not even be educated! If homeschooling parents and public school teachers want to break out of the product-oriented mold, unleashing children's creativity and thinking, what can they do differently?
Discovery Learning Fosters Creativity and Thinking
Discovery learning usually involves a hands-on approach. This also naturally lends itself to problem solving. Children come up with solutions to problems without following prescribed step-by-step instructions. The child himself must think through the solution and determine his own steps.
When I taught in public schools, I prided myself on making my science classes hands-on, by showing my students a picture of a complete circuit, giving them the components, and allowing them to construct a complete circuit, per the diagram. As my friend, David Quine, would say, "Why not give each child a C-battery, a flashlight bulb, some paper clips, and see who can make his bulb light first?" Real discovery learning does not tell an answer. It poses a problem that causes light bulbs to go on in children's minds.
I recently received an email from a women who loved the hands-on, discovery approach for her children but was married to a clean-freak. While the mother wanted the children to set up a huge model ear that they could crawl through under the dining room table, the father preferred filling in workbooks. To him, messiness was non-learning, yet learning and retention clearly increase through multi-sensory, discovery learning. Fortunately, the mothers of Thomas Edison, the Wright brothers, and Teddy Roosevelt allowed their young boys' genius to develop amid a mess. These mothers' tolerance of messes netted the 20th century the light bulb, the airplane, and a US President. I am convinced that the Yankee ingenuity of yesterday has been stifled today by adults' compulsion for children to fill in workbook blanks.
There are many new unit study curricula out on the homeschool market, yet a closer look reveals that all unit studies are not created equal. Successful unit studies not only have a central theme and offer many related activities and projects based on that theme, they also encourage discovery learning. Discovery learning is not merely the absence of instructions; it is the absence of instruction plus the presence of carefully constructed open-ended questions that lead children to the next thought, then the next thought, and finally to the big concept that connects their single activity to the larger issue being studied.
Why construct a model ear to crawl through under the dining room table if the emphasis is not on the Creator's intricate design of the ear and the ear's purpose - attentiveness to God and His creation? Otherwise, the projects become little more than activities for activities' sake. Those activities that lead to the consideration and discovery of existing truths are worthy of our time.
Dialogue Stretches Students' Thinking Skills
Product-oriented education is obsessed with the answer, rather than the thought behind the answer. Dialogue, on the other hand, draws answers out of students, while demanding that students think in the process. Anyone who has seen the movie Shadowlands, recounting the life of C. S. Lewis, has seen the art of dialogue at its best. At Oxford and Cambridge, young men came to class ready to dialogue with their mentor about what they had read. C. S. Lewis posed question after question to the students, each time insisting that the views they held be proved and supported. While a workbook asks for a single word to be regurgitated, dialogue asks for an original thought to be articulated and supported. Because homeschool class sizes are small, homeschooling parents have the unique opportunity to use dialogue to stretch their child's reasoning and thinking ability by asking open-ended questions, such as, "What would happen if... ?", "Which solution do you think is best?", "Can you support your belief?"
Beware of unit activities that end with phrases such as, "tell your children..." or "read to your children..." as the consistent bottom line. Of course, as parents we are continually speaking and reading to our children, but if our curriculum ends there, we are merely teaching on the surface. Only when we engage in dialogue with our children do we dig into the heart of learning, encouraging our children to think and understand.
I encourage homeschooling parents who desire to raise thinkers to employ the methods of discovery and dialogue. Real thinkers cannot help but be educated. As my friend, Erin Blain, says, "Be obsessed with education, not graduation." Allow graduation to take its proper place as the icing on the cake of education.