Monday, February 8, 2016

All You Need to Know

While Teaching from Rest (and the companion material) has been inspiring my soul and driving my contemplation of why I am doing what I am doing, Math on the Level has inspired contemplation into the how of our homeschooling.  But then it got more interesting.  There has been a fascinating interplay between the two sources.  And it has been this convergence of ideas that has kept me searching and experimenting!

A long time ago I recognized in myself a propensity to create frustration for myself by stewing over what my children should be able to do.  "She is [x] years old!  She should be able to go upstairs and straighten her room without constant supervision!"  "He is in [x] grade!  He should be able to read at a higher level!"  "She should be able to focus on her work for more than [x] minutes at a time!"  "It should not take a [x]-year-old this long to [complete a given task]!"

But where do all these "shoulds" come from?  If I'm honest with myself, they come from the fact that I decide how well I am doing as a mother by comparing myself to other mothers and their children.  Not only is this a shaky and inaccurate way to determine if I'm doing my job well, it fosters an attitude of competition rather than cooperation.  If your kid does worse, my kid looks better, right?  It's hard not to take satisfaction in your failures if they make me look like I have a leg up. And, as destructive as it can be to friendships to compare myself and my children with others, it is far more destructive to my children.

But what if you aren't comparing your children to other real-life children, just to "theoretical" children or "the average child"?  Isn't there some value, you might ask, in knowing what a "fourth grader" should be able to read or in having clear expectations for a "three year old"?  Well, yes and no.

When I taught in a public school setting, it was necessary for someone (in our case the Virginia Department of Education via the Standards of Learning) to organize material by grade level simply to facilitate the division of labor.  If the third grade teachers and the fourth grade teachers both taught Virginia history and nobody covered Ancient Rome, there would be a problem.  It was also useful to have math and language topics arranged by relative complexity to give teachers a general understanding of what concepts were reasonable to teach to a Kindergartener as compared to a fifth grader.

But what if you remove the division-of-labor factor?  What if you are a homeschool mom?  Or, what if you are a parent teaching your child a skill like putting away the silverware, sitting quietly in church or keeping her attention on a job?  Yes, it is still helpful to know what is reasonable to expect at a given age or stage.  But in another sense, it is somewhat irrelevant.

Let's say, for whatever reason, based on whatever statistical or anecdotal evidence, I'm convinced that my child should be further along in math or reading or should be able to sit still in church better than she does.  How much of an impact should that have on what I do today or tomorrow?  Regardless of where you start out this morning, what you should expect from your child today is one day's worth of progress.

In his conversation with Sarah Mackenzie, Andrew Kern said, "To what level has my child mastered this skill?  And what is next?  Nothing else matters."  I tend to agree.  I need to know where my child is.  And I need to know what the next step is in helping him grow.  And that's it.  Yes, it's OK to have a general concept of what you're aiming for.  And it's OK to observe how your child compares to "the average child" as a part of understanding his strengths and weaknesses.  But when it comes down to today, the task is still the same: make one day's worth of progress on the journey.

Math on the Level has shown me a practical way to do both of those things - know where my child is and decide where to go from here - and with less of a focus on the "should" of other children.  I love it when ideas from different venues harmonize!

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