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. 

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