Preparing Our Kids for a Challenging Future, Part 2: Raising Eager Learners

The new economy is a completely different environment from the one our parents and grandparents knew, the one that’s disappearing. It’s no longer the norm for someone to work for one company for 40 years by doing what they’re told and behaving themselves so they can be rewarded with a gold watch and a nice pension. The length of the average job has already dropped to a little over four years.

Workers are laid off on a regular basis. Entire industries become obsolete and disappear, or simply move to the other side of the world where labor is cheaper. Change is coming at us more rapidly than ever, and those who are willing to adapt to these changes by learning new skills will thrive.

To raise children who eagerly learn new skills, we need to give them the opportunity for free exploration, hands-on learning and real-life experiences where they learn to fail. This isn’t easy for us as parents, because we weren’t allowed to learn this way. We went to school, where we were told what to learn, and we had no choice in how we learned it. But we must do better by our children, because they need to be prepared differently than we were.

Free exploration is important for people of all ages, but in our society it seems that only babies are allowed the privilege. They crawl everywhere, chew on new items they discover, and absorb every experience like the little sponges they are. But before long, they’re sucked into the world of school, where their learning is “guided.” Goals are set by educators, and free exploration comes to an end.

How sad and how unnecessary! It seems like we’ve taken a step backwards when it comes to early education by taking away children’s freedom to explore and learn. Today, two-year-olds are put in preschool, but when I was a child, we were free to learn through our play until age five or six. (The public school I lived next to didn’t even offer kindergarten.) And for generations before us, children didn’t go to school until they were older. Among American pioneers of the 1800s, children went to school sporadically if at all. But they learned what they needed to know while working with their parents to set up homesteads in an unfamiliar environment. Pioneer travels were the ultimate free exploration.

Homeschooling gives children the time and opportunity to learn through free exploration, if their parents don’t force them into the public-school-method learning mode. The children of today who are free to read what interests them, explore computers, and learn about the world by visiting museums and other sites of interest will be tomorrow’s eager lifelong learners.

Hands-on learning is the primary way babies learn, and used to be the way everyone learned. But the pervasive influence of school turned us toward attending classes and reading books as the preferred way of learning. (There’s nothing wrong with reading books, but some subjects cannot be learned by merely reading about them. There’s a huge difference between reading a recipe and actually baking the cake.) And of course, since schools contain large numbers of children, hands-on learning experiences are minimized because they’re so cumbersome.

But this is another area where homeschooling shines. Homeschooled kids can learn with their hands every day. They bake, paint, build and create whenever they feel inspired. Logistics don’t allow this to happen in school. Think about it: there’s a big difference between the mess created by a couple of siblings finger-painting and 35 school kids finger-painting. So finger-painting happens at home a lot more than it does at school, and it’s usually initiated by the kids’ desire to finger-paint, not a directive on the teacher’s lesson plan.

Kids who work with their hands all the time not only learn better, but also become accustomed to being creative. If there’s anything we’re going to need to solve our formidable economic and technological problems in this world, it’s creativity!

Next: Part 3, Why Your Child Needs to Fail

Eek! Kids are Getting Fat and Dumb!

We must take away summer vacation because it’s making kids stupid and obese!

That’s the battle cry from Peter Orszag, who decrees in this article that:

Kids lose some of what they learned during the school year over the summer.

Kids get bigger over the summer.

Therefore, summer vacation is bad.

His recommendations?

Make the school year longer (a euphemism for getting rid of summer vacation).

Put low-income kids into six-week long summer school sessions.

Put low-income kids into summer reading programs.

At the end of the article, he suggests that one or more of his solutions be implemented via an act of Congress. Sigh.

This is so silly. America’s public schools are graduating increasing numbers of kids who can’t read or do math; when something isn’t working, why on earth would we want MORE of it?

As for kids getting bigger, it’s true that some parents let their kids sit inside and watch movies, play videogames and text their friends instead of sending them out to play for fresh air and exercise. A bad idea, for sure, but it’s not up to the government to take over those kids’ lives. Besides, there’s another reason some kids get larger over the summer. Remember when you were a kid starting back to school after summer vacation and you noticed that some of your classmates had grown noticeably bigger and taller? They’d had a growth spurt. That’s what kids do (unless they’re sickly); they grow. One has to wonder, do these do-gooders like Orszag even have kids?

Remarks coming from Orszag and his ilk these days aren’t really about kids’ well-being anyways; it’s about control, government control of our children. We need to shoot down their arguments, including their assumption that kids learn more during the school year and lose at least a third of what they learned over the summer.

Kids don’t lose what they’ve learned unless it was something they were forced to learn that they merely memorized and forgot once it was no longer needed (i.e. school). Here’s how we know this:

How many kids forget how to ride a bike?

How many kids forget the lyrics to their favorite songs?

How many kids forget how to play their favorite video games?

We learn what we’re interested in, what’s useful to us and what we find irresistible. Public education rarely offers such things to kids, Increasingly, today’s kids are faced with more indoctrination than instruction; the instruction they do get is apparently not working for a lot of kids. Masking these issues by blaming summer vacation is a cop-out

If the do-gooders really wanted to know what works for kids, they’d study homeschoolers. The success of homeschooling is well-documented. Homeschooling parents will tell them that their kids are learning all the time, even during summer vacation. And when homeschooled kids do forget something they learned (usually something their parents expected them to study, as opposed to something they wanted to learn), they pick it up again pretty quickly when they go back to their studies. But as long as they’re getting plenty of time and opportunity to learn at their own pace and to pursue their own interests in addition to the studies their parents require of them, they don’t lose much of what they’ve learned. (I know this from observing my own homeschooled four.)

But the do-gooders will never study homeschooling. Why? Because most homeschooling parents’ goals for their children are about learning, not control. And these days, sadly, our government seems primarily bent on control.


Schools Step Out Onto the Slippery Slope of Educational Freedom

And so it begins…school districts are finding that they can keep their school year from being extended further into summer by allowing kids to learn online on snow days. And already they’ve discovered that kids like being free to learn online, and parents like seeing what the kids are learning. Isn’t this an interesting turn of events?

Personally, I think they’ve stepped out onto the slippery slope of (dare I say it?) educational freedom. Of course they think they don’t want to be there; note the comment of this parent:

“I think it’s a great tool to have,” said Cameron’s mother, Jane. “Obviously it’s not going to replace going to school. But for situations like this, I think it’s wonderful.”

I think it’s wonderful, too, because once people get a taste of freedom, they want more. I can picture kids being allowed to stay home on Veterans Day as long as they do an online history study assigned by their teacher. How about Valentine’s Day at home? They can exchange virtual valentines on Facebook while finishing their math homework online. I’m sure you can think of other ways kids can learn at home on school “holidays.”

Here’s where the slippery slope comes in: the more kids “do school” online, the more they’ll want to keep doing so. As for the school districts, they’ll soon find all sorts of reasons to let kids learn online because it will save money (most school districts are hurting financially these days) and teachers will be free to supervise from afar.

The increasing numbers of parents who either work from home, work part-time or are unemployed means there will be adult supervision during the day. Once regular days of “school at home” become more prevalent, and everyone gets comfortable with the concept, more families are going to take advantage of full-time virtual learning as offered by the public schools here in Wisconsin and other states. I can picture angry taxpayers eventually insisting that the schools consolidate their physical facilities to reflect the lower numbers of kids showing up, thus lowering costs. As for the kids who are too poor to have a computer or Internet access, the cost could be taken on by the school district for much less than the cost of keeping up all the buildings and staff.

And just think of the teens whose grades will go up because they can do school later in the day, after they’ve had enough sleep, instead of getting up at 6 am!

Yes, this turn of events has real possibilities.

One Thing We Don’t Have to Worry About

Today’s big news story is making headlines all around the world: shocking video exists of a teacher at a charter school in Texas slapping, kicking and dragging one of her students while other students watch.

I won’t watch the video; I doubt that I could stomach it. But one thing I know for sure: when you homeschool your kids, you never have to worry that a schoolteacher could do this to your child.

Do Kids Need More Time in School?

President Obama recommends  shorter summer vacations for U.S. schoolchildren so they can attend school for more days than they do already, because he believes that they’re at a disadvantage compared to students in other countries.

His Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, says more school hours will “even the playing field” when it comes to comparing our schoolchildren to those in the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, homeschoolers excel with far fewer hours of instruction than most public schoolchildren receive. So is it really more hours of instruction that schoolchildren need?

First off, President Obama’s assertion appears to be inaccurate:

Obama and Duncan say kids in the United States need more school because kids in other nations have more school.

“Young people in other countries are going to school 25, 30 percent longer than our students here,” Duncan told the AP. “I want to just level the playing field.”

While it is true that kids in many other countries have more school days, it’s not true they all spend more time in school.

Kids in the U.S. spend more hours in school (1,146 instructional hours per year) than do kids in the Asian countries that persistently outscore the U.S. on math and science tests – Singapore (903), Taiwan (1,050), Japan (1,005) and Hong Kong (1,013). That is despite the fact that Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong have longer school years (190 to 201 days) than does the U.S. (180 days).

Apparently children in the countries that outscore ours in math and science attend school for more days per year but fewer hours per year. So the suggestion by Obama and Duncan that a longer school day results in “gains” (test scores, which do not necessarily equal learning) is not backed up by the foreign countries whose kids outscore ours. They actually have shorter school days.

But if you read the entire article, you find that merely educating kids isn’t really the point anyway. Here are your clues:

The president, who has a sixth-grader and a third-grader, wants schools to add time to classes, to stay open late and to let kids in on weekends so they have a safe place to go.

Summer is a crucial time for kids, especially poorer kids, because poverty is linked to problems that interfere with learning, such as hunger and less involvement by their parents.

That makes poor children almost totally dependent on their learning experience at school, said Karl Alexander, a sociology professor at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University, home of the National Center for Summer Learning.

Aside from improving academic performance, Education Secretary Duncan has a vision of schools as the heart of the community.

Those hours from 3 o’clock to 7 o’clock are times of high anxiety for parents,” Duncan said. “They want their children safe. Families are working one and two and three jobs now to make ends meet and to keep food on the table.”

Do you see it? What we’re talking about here goes way beyond merely educating a child. This is about raising children because their parents have been deemed unable or unwilling. This is about schools becoming publicly subsidized daycare centers for school-age children, even on the weekends.

What it’s not about is how many hours of instruction it takes to educate a child so he can beat the math and science scores of kids in other countries. Homeschoolers have already demonstrated that.