Saturday, 22 April 2017

Mastery versus Spiral

Sometimes I wish I had more time to really think about educational theory and debate. When we first started homeschooling, I made this a bit more of a priority, and at the same time I was studying for a Certificate in Education. What really made an impact on me was the importance of recognising, and responding to different learning styles. This has been very much brought home to me by teaching two boys who are six months apart in age, but massively different in their approach to learning.

When considering which maths programme to use, we chose Singapore Maths. This blog article summarises some of the strengths nicely. An interesting point of debate is whether one should use a 'mastery' or a 'spiral' approach. For me, like many other areas of education, I feel it can be wrong to 'religiously' adhere to a particular approach, but to remain flexible according to the prevailing need at the time. I would say we use a predominantly mastery based approach, but also seek to spiral the curriculum to bring reinforcement after a period of time looking at a different topic.

I like that Singapore maths provides extra 'intensive practice' workbooks - there are times when my children seem to grasp a concept rapidly, and the lack of drilling and repetition is valued. But there are other times when they (sometimes one more than another) just need a little more time. I also like the optional 'Challenging word problems' which seek to provide true to live practical application of where the numeracy skills are important. I recently had a discussion with a friend where she asked, 'What is the point of quadratic equations?' I would have probably asked the same question at the end of secondary school, but now through the biomedical science research with which I am involved, I regularly use quadratic and differential equations. Would it not have really brought the topic to life had we been exposed to such real-life examples in secondary school? Anyway - I digress!

The importance of mastery is that a child really comes to understand and be fluent in a particular area. This is not learning for learning's sake or 'teaching to the test', but developing a mature grasp of the material at hand - be that language arts, mathematics, scientific discipline, musical skills, foreign language... I could go on. A beauty of homeschooling is that we can take time to re-inforce areas where a child struggles, and take time to develop that fuller understanding before moving on.

Over the past year, there have been times where we have paused in our 'schedule' because we have recognised that one child or other needs a little longer on a topic. Then, we use both the materials we have to hand, and seek other, creative approaches to communicate the topic, before returning to the structured materials. It is very encouraging to see that moment when the penny drops, and a child suddenly moves forwards in leaps and bounds. Overall we have not found this to delay us - whilst there might be some topics which require extra time, others are grasped immediately, or perhaps have already been covered almost in the course of daily life. It is great to be able to move forward quickly at times, and slow down at others, and indeed to spend longer going over the basics with one child whilst setting the other a more advanced assignment.

We will finish our 'academic year' next week, and the next batch of resources are on order. This gives us a short break, and it is often valuable for us to reflect on which areas have been a little weaker, and seek other, creative ways to re-inforce principles. For language arts, this is often letter writing, for maths it might be practical problems, using manipulatives or drawing number grids in chalk in the back yard. Often I try to use 'stealth attacks' - so that the child/ren don't always realise they are being taught. We try to choose games and puzzles which also build on what they have learnt, and it is good to have a couple of weeks where we do more of these types of activity. (As a parent, these days are every bit as structured and planned as the more 'formal' days, but the children hopefully don't see this and enjoy the freedom!)

But whilst I love the mastery concept, I am also grateful for the way the curriculum spirals - this means that with three boys doing language arts at different levels, between them there will be re-inforcement of concepts without them feeling they are repeating the same  topic. I have found that an added benefit of home educating a group of children who are close in age, but are covering slightly different materials.

In conclusion, I am thankful for the flexibility of home education. I am glad to be able to choose resources that seem to fit the learning styles of my children, and where there is space to slow down or speed up depending on aptitude. 

Thursday, 6 April 2017

Highlights of the homeschooling year

I haven't written for a couple of weeks. A few friends in different places have been facing trials - bereavement and serious illness. I've been feeling far from home, wishing I could be closer to my friends and really stand with them, but at the same time am amazed at how our good and loving God provides so abundantly. I have been challenged by the contrast between those who 'do not grieve as those who have no hope' and those who have no hope whatsoever. It truly is the contrast between life and death, light and darkness, hope and hopelessness. Everything else seems trivial in comparison.

But of course, meanwhile time has been passing. We will finish our academic year in two weeks time, and I was excited to place the order for next year's materials. I need to write reports on the boys (I do this lightheartedly, but I find it a helpful exercise to stop and reflect on their development, on their strengths and weaknesses, on major achievements and accomplishments, and on areas which are more challenging and perhaps need a slightly different approach. As a Christian homeschooling parent, it is good to be able to include areas like spiritual growth and character formation alongside the more traditional subjects).

Last night I was reading a couple of old blog posts from I looked back with a smile to the days when I had two toddlers and a baby, and when we spent many many hours walking in parks and learning about nature. At the time, it felt that we would be in that season of life forever, but as I read some of the posts, it seemed a long, long time ago. I read about some challenges I faced, and again, these seemed like distant memories, and I had to think, 'Oh yes, I do remember feeling that way'. So often, we are kept fully occupied dealing with the needs of each day, and that is not a bad thing. But I notice that I can forget to celebrate milestones and achievements, or simply to reflect on the things which make the homeschooling lifestyle so rewarding.

1) Reading. We have always spent hours every day reading aloud, and that was a major driver in us choosing a literature based curriculum. This continues to be highly enjoyable, but what has really taken off this year is the ability of my older boys (aged seven) to read independently. It is not just that they can read, but that they love to read, and can often be found hiding in a quiet corner with their noses in books. My older boy is forever surprising me with facts which he has read somewhere (this also warns me of the importance of only having things I am happy for them to read lying around! Thankfully we have been very intentional about our book collection). Another advantage of being able to read well is that they can read aloud to the younger children, and that brings a wonderful shared family time (and I can do something like cook dinner whilst this is going on).

2) Logical thought. Another major reason we chose to home educate was that we wanted our children to be able to critically appraise situations or evidence, and to reach a logical, balanced conclusion. This was something I felt was lacking in my own education, and seems to be even more lacking in mainstream UK education these days (although granted, there may be exceptions). I did not want them simply to be spoonfed and be able to regurgitate facts, but to be able to think. The balance of 'living books' chosen by Sonlight really helps foster this critical thinking, and the Science packages are great in that they encourage the children to form a hypothesis, then design experiments with a specific aim and method. I often find them puzzling things out in the garden or with their lego (or other toys), trying to design and work things out. I have really enjoyed watching this develop.

3) Vocal expression. I suppose this links with both language arts skills and logical thought, but I am impressed with the way my boys can explain what they like or want (or what they dislike) and explain why. My husband and I are never satisfied with 'Because I don't want to', or 'Because I don't like it' - we get them to explain why. It is just a gentle questioning that goes alongside every day life, and would not obviously seem to be an educational tool, but it helps them consider how to order their thoughts and make a compelling case for what they are saying. I like that as homeschooling parents we are always around our children, and so can gently reinforce lessons from earlier in the day or week, and we can consider practical illustrations which might complement an area they are struggling to comprehend. We sometimes plan 'stealth attacks' as described by the Brave Writer author. So, whilst we don't set homework, we don't have a clear demarcation between 'school time' and 'life time'. I love that.

4) Creativity. I have always enjoyed the way the children will act out stories they have listened to. It has often surprised me just how much they have taken in. As they get older, some of these games get more prolonged and elaborate. We are not quite a screen-free home - we occasionally take the children into the study and watch a programme (usually a documentary, rarely a film) on the computer, but this is not even a weekly activity. We see other children of similar ages who prefer to spend long periods of time on tablets and screens, and indeed whose parents think life and particularly travel would be impossible without these. I find that a little sad because there is so much more!

5) Freedom. Perhaps relating to the point above, I love that my boys have plenty of time to play, to create, to imagine, to be children. They are not ferried to endless extracurricular activities, nor are they stimulated with excessive screen time and 'entertainment'. This gives them time to play, learn and explore together. Through playing together, there are of course times when disagreements and squabbles arise; they need guidance in how to navigate these, and each is an opportunity to remind them of their memory verses and Biblical principles regarding how we should treat one another. It is easy to forget what an important aspect of education this is.

These are simply five areas where I rejoice in how homeschooling enables my children to develop not only academically, but more importantly, into people who can think logically, can apply truth into situations and can develop creative solutions to problems. What areas have been the highlights for you?