This is going to be one of those thinking-out-loud-oops-now-I-look-dumb-never-mind-I-take-it-all-back posts.
The biggest danger educators face when thinking about education is utilitarianism. It is such a subtle beast. Something isn’t working and we make a change and something new works and we get all excited and we tell everyone and we write a book and we petition the government for money and by the time we find out it really doesn’t work it is okay because some else has found out what does work and all we have to do is pour more money into what DOES work and voila! we have figured out how NOT to educate once again. World without end.
Where this really gets messy is in the government schools where the program from 10 years ago is still in place along with the program from 5 years ago along with the demands for the schools to catch up to the newest program because there will be tests.
This scenario happens on the macro scale in government schools but also on a micro scale in homeschools and smaller programs. One of the beauties of homeschooling is the ability to stop doing something that isn’t working and search for something that does work. This is a wonderful reality and yet a dangerous one because we find ourselves making decisions about education using utility as the main criteria.
But what is really going on when we find that one program was working but now is not and another program comes in and magically solves all our problems, at least for a while?
Having spent more and more time with Charlotte Mason this year and having thought quite a bit about short lessons, I think I am beginning to see what happens. The heart of this problem lies in the idea of attention. We starve our students by feeding them sawdust. At first they eat with joy because it is new sawdust but when they cannot digest it their attention diminishes. We panic and buy a new flavor of sawdust and once again our student settles into what he naturally craves – good food for the mind. He is hungry and excited to eat once again. Only once again we have failed to provide real food for his mind and so his attention is shortened.
The first thing I do when judging whether a curriculum is classical or not is to look at how it is marketed. If it is marketed as education in a box or as performing something FOR the student then I know it is not classical. A classical education has everything to do with the mind (attention) of the student and almost nothing to do with the materials used. This is why The Lost Tools of Writing (I am not paid to write this . . . unless someone wants to send me a check) is perfect. In a way, a curriculum like Lost Tools loses itself in the process. This is the best sort of tailoring because it takes place in the mind of the child.
Think of Socratic teaching. The only box you can put it in is the mind. It is fluid and tailored to the mind of the student.
This is how we learn. To learn we must give our attention to something. If we do not give our attention we do not learn. If a child is fed real food for the mind then we just need to tweak the serving sizes to insure assimilation.
Think about how newborns nurse. They have growth spurts when they eat copiously and other times when they “demand” less because they need less. My grandmother had a baby book describing how to scientifically feed babies on a four hour schedule, sometimes waking them up to feed and sometimes letting them cry with hunger until the proper time. Because of this idea, mothers ended up not breastfeeding their babies because breastfeeding is strictly supply and demand. Now we know the natural way for babies to be nourished was better than the scientific way; babies aren’t machines and neither are their minds.
Sometimes our children need a break to assimilate-synthesize what they have learned. Sometimes this break is just a different book. The master teacher learns to recognize this process, this supply and demand system. A master teacher will not try to stuff food into a mind which is trying to synthesize what it has already eaten or feed a starving mind a diet of junk.
A homeschool mother needs to be brave to nurture true learning naturally. A teacher in school needs to understand that just because a child got off at the last station doesn’t mean learning has stopped. In fact, you might be surprised to find that child waiting for you a couple stations up the line.
Classical education is not child-centered learning, it is human-centered. Andrew Kern says, “We are what we behold.” That is attention.