Wednesday, February 15, 2012

School vs. Learning

Never let formal education get in the way of your learning. - Mark Twain

I asked my eldest the other day, if you could decide what you wanted to learn and learn it in any way you want, how would you learn it? I expected to have to prod for an answer, but she had an immediate response. She would learn through real-life activity. Building a house. Working in a zoo. Labs in chemistry class don't cut it, she said. Ah, now that was enlightening.

At an at-risk student conference I attended when I was a teacher, I heard of a school that does just that. The students earn credit for high school classes through "internships". English credit for working in a newspaper office. Biology credit for working for a vet. Sometimes they even got paid for their time. They learned real-world work skills. They networked with real-life professionals and mentors. And often, they found their passion and ended up getting hired by one of their mentors at an internship. BRILLIANT, I thought!

Let's be honest. This is real education, yes? This is how real adults in the real world learn things. We learn economics by having to manage our own money. We learn auto maintenance by having to figure out why the car won't run. We learn things on an as-needed basis, and the knowledge sticks because we have to use it.

I recognize this in homeschooling. My kids will clearly understand the parts of a cell and their functions -- but in a few months, that knowledge has dissipated for lack of use. How often do you need to know the purpose of a mitochondria? They memorize lists of vocabulary words, but only the ones that work themselves into their active, daily-use vocabulary stick.

Which all makes me ponder the relevance of spending so much time teaching, say, stoichiometry in chemistry class. I know, I know -- I'm picking on science. Someone else might argue that kids don't need to be able to identify and name a correlative conjunction in a sentence. There may be a case to be made for learning the details of a discipline you don't intend to use later, even if just once for a general level of understanding. I just think we need to consider more carefully what kids need to know for the future and why. And then, what is the most effective way to teach these things. Because a classroom environment is rarely it.

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