Sunday, November 26, 2006


Reading Home Schoolers Content to Take Children’s Lead gives a much different impression about the unschooling movement than viewing the slideshow gives. The tone of the article, at least in the opening paragraphs, painted a negative impression about the teaching method. It sounds like a free for all.

Yet the picture of the family calendar shows, that there is a weekly structure to this homeschool and that the calendar is very full. In one picture, the 6 year old works alone with a math workbook and the aid of some beads. Other children are reading or playing educational games. In every picture, piles of books spill everywhere.

Unschooling looks very similiar to Constructivist Education. Read this explanation of Constructivist learning theory from the Institute of Inquiry (link).
What is meant by constructivism? The term refers to the idea that learners construct knowledge for themselves---each learner individually (and socially) constructs meaning---as he or she learns. Constructing meaning is learning; there is no other kind. The dramatic consequences of this view are twofold;
  1. we have to focus on the learner in thinking about learning (not on the subject/lesson to be taught):
  2. There is no knowledge independent of the meaning attributed to experience (constructed) by the learner, or community of learners.
It is not as crazy as it sounds. I have reluctantly taken on the role of partially homeschooling Iris in math. She does her homework at school and her lessons at home. Her teachers also supplement with age-appropriate GATE math materials. She comes home with logic puzzle worksheeets that she loves. I also bought The Adventures of Penrose the Mathematical Cat for her.

I had originally intended for us to read one story (of 28) in Penrose every week. So much for that plan. Iris has pretty much read through the entire book on her own. She appears to be attempting the activities on her own and asks me for help when she is really determined to explore a lesson in depth. Other times, she just like to read it for the stories.

In one chapter, Penrose explains how to see the forest from the trees with probability. Now Iris sees probability everywhere. When we played Candyland, I showed her how we could substitute a die for the pointer that goes from 1 to 6.

We rolled one die many times and graphed how often each number came up. We then rolled two dice and graphed how often each individual number came up and how often the sums came up. Our graph of sums did not look like the one in Penrose. Why? The answer lay in the uneven distribution of individual numbers evident in our first graph. Evidently, these 2 dice almost never fell with the 4 face up.

That got us started on how dice can be loaded (with internal weights) so that the probability of coming up with some numbers can be increased or decreased.

That led us into random number generators on computers. I tried to write a random number generator for her on my iBook with GNU Fortran 95 but had trouble with the random number seed. (This actually led to a 2 month detour during my PhD research in which I learned about and tried different computer random number generator algorithms.)

Next, we will investigate the random number generator in Microsoft Excel. Anyway, this one story in Penrose has led us into many interesting discussions about math, physics and computer science. We are both having fun and she is really learning. Sounds constructivist to me.

What does Read More! mean?
Because I am rather longwinded, I have split up some of my posts so that only the first part displays initially. To read the rest of the post, you need to click on "Read More!" Unfortunately, the "Read More!" shows up on all the posts, even on the old posts when I did not employ this technique. Going forward, I will note when there is more of the post. Try clicking "Read More" to read the rest of this post.

Back to the Unschooling article.
Mark's major beef with homeschooling is the lack of diversity of opinions and approaches. In this we agree. Exposure to different teachers introduces children to different styles of teaching and learning. Even when children who get teachers they don't "click" with, they learn important lessons about human nature.

The red flag that I saw in the Unschooling article was about the math lessons. The parent quoted mentioned math only in the concrete computational sense. I fear that many parents won't expose their kids to the beauty of math because they have never experienced the full beauty of math for themselves. But that brings us back around again to showing children a diversity of experiences.

There is another article in today's NY Times about
What It Takes to Make a Student. Notice how it involves teachers working 50 hour workweeks for which they are not fully paid for the extra time they put in. Why?

1 comment:

  1. I noticed the same discrepency in the article vs. the slideshow. I thought the article was rather negative and one-sided. I did also notice though that one can see what one wants in the slideshow. You are observant and meticulous in your observations but I think many people would just see the child jumping or a lot of kids apparently standing around and not look beyond that to the other available information.

    I think home schooling, unschooling, or constructivist education all have various good points, but tend to agree with you about the lack of diversity of opinions and approaches. Dedicating the same energy to assisting in a child's education as much as possible and encouraging further learning and experience seems to be important.

    Home schooling only exposes children to one set of teachers and even the best and brightest of us cannot cover everything no matter how much we might wish to do so. Exposure to other teachers and methods will introduce children to ideas and that otherwise might never occur, and will also help children learn to deal with many different kinds of people and situtations. But parents who home-school are inherently interested in their children's growth and welfare, unlike many parents of poor-performing children (see the second article) and it is possible those children will do well because they were given the proper tools for success even in an unconventional setting. Part of me wants to say think how far they might have gone with the home-schooling as supplemental to the opportunities offered by a good school-based education, but I am aware that this is my own bias.

    Your worry and comment about math points out the same shortage of experience. Most parents don't have your ability and skills and interests in math. Some of us might know someone who does and could find mentors for our children, but many could not. This is true, I am sure, for many other fields as well.

    And I can go on and on, ad nauseum, turning this comment into a tirade so I think I will stop and read the second NY Times article again.

    An interesting, thought-provoking post.