Thursday, April 23, 2009

How We Began to Make Changes

Once we started using textbooks, we noticed that the same concepts, information, and skills were repeated each year. At least half of the text was devoted to a review of what had already been taught. Some new lessons were added, usually in the second half of the year. New information was offered in small bits. Joshua called it, "A little of this and a little of that." When I mentioned this to a friend of mine who is a teacher, she explained that, yes, this is the spiraling method: everything is reviewed continuously; then small amounts of new material are added to this review, a little bit each time.

Josh saw no reason why he should complete work pages about things he already knew. After he had seen something once, he remembered it. He didn't want to study it again. He hated these lessons. This left us with a dilemma. How could we keep school fresh and interesting? In our third year, we invented our own unit study method. With a textbook that was two grades ahead, we used each chapter as a springboard for a topic which we could study for a month. We added library books, board games, experiment or activity kits, art projects, and field trips. This worked so well for us that we continued to learn this way whenever we could. As we dived into our unit studies, learning became our joy again. The boys' delight energized me. Making plans for the things we would do and the books we would read became an enjoyable pursuit.

After this, I could even ask the boys what they wanted to study for science or history and get thoughtful answers. I would make a note of their wishes, find corresponding chapters in a good textbook, and build unit studies around those chapters. I could use my list of learning objectives from Hewitt to check off what we accomplished. This let me know if there were "holes" in our learning. There almost never were any. We found that learning has its own natural order which leads to a well-rounded set of skills and concepts. One topic naturally leads to another, then another, and another. Essential skills are acquired in the great adventure when they are needed.

We started with unit studies in science and history, and I still think those are the subjects that adapt most readily to this way of learning. Although we first used unit studies for history and science, we readily and naturally began to apply our new method to other subjects. Soon we were deep in unit studies for math, English, geography, art, music, even health. Sometimes these subjects were all combined in under one idea, like Egypt or oceans. We discovered that we learned more efficiently and effectively when we focused on a particular topic for several weeks. After a couple of years, our lessons had exceeded the expectations for every subject in the elementary grades. We expanded our studies to include additional topics not covered in our textbooks: ancient history, archeology, architecture, classical literature, exploration, oceanography, ornithology, engineering, astronomy, and chemistry. Supper time arrived in the evenings and no one wanted to stop. I had to insist on a short break every summer, so that I could set things up for the new year, but I did it in the face of loud protests and pleading. They never wanted school to end.

It was marvelous. That's the only word I can think of.

How did school become the fantastic world that we navigated with such happiness? It's simple, really. We began learning in a way that was sensible to us -- exploring things we were curious about and teaching ourselves. In the process, we stretched ourselves and gained new skills. It was learning that was as natural as breathing.

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