It has been nearly three months since I attended the workshop. In the intervening time, I’ve had a lot of time to think about and absorb what was said. It was weird to walk out of the workshop and feel such incredible release and freedom while simultaneously feeling, well, slapped. I wasn’t lying about the OUCH factor. It’s a difficult thing to wrestle with.
Having had the time to wrestle for a while, I find that I do agree with Andrew and Matt in the essentials. There is a reason I delved so heavily into the dragons and our own ways of learning in the last post- I find that without considering that, it is hard to move forward into considering what a education based in wonder, inquiry, and contemplation looks like, especially if you have been given some sort of learning or medical diagnosis. So much of what we have to deal with as parents of these amazing kids is endless meeting and appointment where we hear about how they aren’t measuring up to set benchmarks, whether they be developmental or cognitive. We keep hearing about how they will never do this, never do that, or that “they will be x years behind their peers in these areas”.
Honestly and truthfully, I don’t think it’s just a special needs problem- I earnestly believe that it is the same problem with our national view of education, period- we have become so focused on outcomes in learning that we have forgotten that there are very real human beings under those numbers. There are real teachers, bless their dear hearts, who are giving a hundred and ten percent every single day while facing some insurmountable cultural problems- things they themselves can’t do anything to fix- and then getting torn to pieces by administrations that can only see the numbers. They don’t see the love these teachers pour into their jobs. But even more so, our children have become numbers, too. We forget that they are children; we forget that they are human. We forget just how different everyone is and what challenges they might be facing.
The idea of achievement has become so ingrained in us that we don’t even see it as odd or off, which is why statements such as Andrew and Matt made can jolt us in such a painful way.
You must keep in mind that I am not saying this lightly. I am a second-generation homeschooler who was in a magnet/honors public school environment for my high school years, having experienced both private Christian education and public education in parts of my elementary years as well as being homeschooled. I worked in the homeschooling industry at a very high level for almost four years. I’m not saying that achievement based education is a “public school problem”. I’m saying that achievement-based education is a national problem, no matter what educational source (public, private, or home) that you might choose. Or maybe, even, that it is a Western problem.
We know from our own experience in learning that it just doesn’t work that way- that it takes us as adults quite a bit of investment of time and research before learning synthesizes into something useful. Why do we expect our children to operate on external time tables that we as adults don’t normally function well within? Also, why do we lock our children into only one way of being able to gather information for that learning experience? We as adults can pretty much instinctively know what information we need to search out to help us and will go to pretty much any end we need to get to where we want to go. I firmly believe that children are just as capable of doing so in an instinctual way and that we as educators need to help them access and refine that instinct….but….we very often have children put in a box that we wouldn’t put ourselves in.
How ridiculous it would be for me to tell my friend that the only way she might figure out to bake a cake is by reading and memorizing a cook book, and then getting mad when the cake comes out a complete flop! And how rare it would be for my friend to be willing to do such a thing in the first place, without being able to determine her own path to accomplishing such a task. And yet we ask our young students to do something that strange on a daily basis….
How much more true this becomes for children with special needs, who face myriad challenges! Instead of trying to fit them in a box that really wasn’t made for them in the first place, why can we not instead embrace a concept of muchness, as Kristine Barnett (The Spark) calls it? This is where the Circe view about the arts just absolutely clicked for me. All of it is based in mastery. It is based in “feeding” our students the best embodiments we can find in all areas. We function as guide: a guide knows the path because he or she has walked and explored it. A guide won’t push a traveler to do something dangerous or unhelpful- they want them to get Home. A mastery-based education isn’t going to get caught up in paradigms, because just as a written outline is not a paper/essay, a paradigm will never be the fullness of an education- it is just a tool to help structure a journey. A mastery-based education also takes into account the human taking on the education- the sparks that make a person a person. Their raw abilities, their own instinctual knowledge. A mastery based education encourages us to see our children as human beings, not their achievements or failings.
Having said all that, these questions are the questions and statements I have written in my notebook to guide me in planning:
Where is God?
I find asking this question helps center the needs in front of me. I know what God desires of my children and of me (act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly [Micah 1:6] quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger [James 1:19]) and this should be ultimate focus for the education of my children. Sometimes asking this question helps me to realize when the kids have been experiencing a lot of trauma from the medical stuff emotionally and to dial back expectations and planning and focus on healing.
Where are my kids?
This is where restful assessment comes in, but I again stress that this isn’t a benchmark thing, but a more holistic question. Has a child been sick? Is there something big coming up? What is going well? Where are they struggling? Not just academically, but spiritually and emotionally? You can have a child who is blowing through academic things without a problem but who is being foul to his brothers and sisters. Clearly in that situation academic pursuits take a back seat to the more important heart-issue concerns. If my child can recite the declension in Latin and calculate Pi to the hundredth decimal, but can’t be kind, respectful, and merciful some heart-level education is needed. (1 Corinthians 13)
Map, feast, muchness, out of the box.
The first two remind me to check the map and set the feast (best embodiments). The second two are what I consider especially for my special needs kids- is there muchness that I can bring to this concept? (This refers to something Kristine Barrett speaks to in The Spark– using what a child excels at or is interested in to support learning in all areas but especially deficient ones.) The last reminds me to remove the box, consider non-linear ways of learning, and to especially include all sensory inputs in learning a concept. [For example: Not just to talk about multiplication of a particular number, but to sing the table set to music, make Waldorf circles for the number, jump or dance up the number line, use every single possible small item we can think of to concretely count out groups of the number (it works even better if it’s edible! Fun and a treat!), to engage the whole body.]
I find when I am consistently paying attention to these areas, wonder and joy come much more easily. When I let an area slip off the radar, so to speak, dragons start popping up, needing slayed. If I remember, I will consciously remind myself to walk it back to the list. Sometimes it can take me weeks into months of dragon slaying before I think to myself, now wait a minute.
I should note here that the list doesn’t imply a balance- all things being held equal. It suggests a hierarchy- and as Andrew and Matt put it, when things are going flat and off chord, it is pretty obvious. When we look for harmony among these ideas, things start to sing- there is joy. When the first two questions are answered, the implied questions in the third statement are easy to answer. When I haven’t been asking the first two, trying to assess and answer the last statement is much more difficult- it feels foggy or overwhelming. This should be a clear sign to me that I am moving off map into dragon land, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes a dragon has to blow hot breath on me before it clicks that we’ve wandered from our purposes. I think the “packing list” for anyone else is going to be slightly different, but I would encourage you to find and decide upon touchstones that help you to focus on keeping first things first in your student’s education.
This post is fifth in the Wonder and Inquiry series.