Teaching and Learning

A week or so ago (I have completely lost track of time here folks), I left a comment on the Homeschool Math Blog that I have been thinking about expanding on here. Mother Crone’s aside about high school geometry reminded me. This is in no way a criticism of Mother Crone as I think what she has said is very common, as reflected in the Homeschool Math Blog entry on the question Can I teach my child Algebra?.

There are various ways of thinking about teaching. It seems that the most powerful one of these is to think of it as an expert imparting knowledge to a novice. The flow of knowledge is one-way: from the teacher to the student. In general, when we think of teaching in this way we also have high expectations of the teacher in terms of knowledge. It is not good enough to know just more than the student; we expect the teacher to be an expert in the subject or at least know substantially more than the student. In this mode, the teacher ought to be able to answer any question the student might have. The level of expertise which we seem to expect of teachers rises with the age and level of the students. Thus Mother Crone does not worry about her ability to teach her son now but rather at some future point when, presumably, his level will more closely approach her own level of knowledge.

This way of thinking about the role of the teacher and the relationship between teacher and student is widely contested and criticized. However, the frequency with which we challenge the quality of teachers, the ways in which we challenge them, and the frequency with which we feel we need to explicitly argue against this model of the teacher is indicative of the powerful place this model has in our culture. Our anxiety about our abilities, as parents or in other aspects of our lives, to ‘teach’ our children (or our colleagues, or whoever) something also speaks to the power of this model.

As a (new) homeschooler I find that much of the advice is based around the “inevitable” questions of one’s ability to teach one’s children. These questions are rooted in the model of teaching outlined above. I wish to challenge the terms of the questions. What happens if we think of homeschooling not as being “teacher-parents” but as learning together with our children? How does this help us, as parents, to feel more confident in our ability to “teach” those subjects we feel weakest in (like geometry)? If not “expertise” or greater knowledge, what do we bring to this learning experience that is of value to our students?

We have much more experience of learning things than our children do. We have a range of strategies to draw on for learning and we have the time and inclination to go and read books about learning and education to discover new ones. Perhaps more importantly, we have knowledge of our child’s preferred learning styles. We are able to assess what kinds of approaches and resources will work for this particular learner. And we are able to adapt the approach or resources to take into account the way this child responds to them. This seems to me to be one of the major advantages of homeschooling as even excellent teachers are not able to be this flexible when they are dealing with larger numbers of students.

Also, we have more developed skills of finding resources, even if we haven’t used these (much) for the subject at hand. And we have a broader range of knowledge that can contribute to our learning of this particular topic and help us evaluate the resources we find. We are able to situate this topic in relation to others. We may understand some of the “big ideas” even if we struggle with the details. Never underestimate the value of your ability to identify other people who have useful knowledge and skills to contribute, whether these be friends or professionals.

Considering these different views of teaching and learning highlights the importance of self-confidence for creating effective learning environments. If you lack confidence, your performance will suffer. Recognize your own strengths and weaknesses. Find resources (people or books or whatever) to complement your strengths by making up for your weaknesses. And go forth confidently in your role as partner in the learning experience. When not feeling confident, it is useful to remember that sometimes pretending we know what we are doing is good enough to get the ball rolling. Once you are into it, you will realize that you really can help your child learn anything. And you will learn a lot along the way.

edited to add a link to Etienne Wenger who M-H mentioned in the comments. My friend Peter is really into this stuff so it is nice to be reminded of it in my current context.

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3 thoughts on “Teaching and Learning

  1. Excellent points, and I agree totally. This is how we are learning Latin, and I must admit he is getting it much more quickly than I am! I never had a friendly relationship with geometry, so that is the stress. We are going to have him take class once a week at a local homeschool learning center, so that we can make sure we are staying on the right track together. The teachers there are more than willing to answer email questions from Moms with questions as well…a win-win!

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  2. Great post, Jo. The ideas of Ettienne Wenger (google will explain more) on communtiies of practice and how we learn might help folks get different ideas about these issues too.

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