Every day in classrooms all across America (and the world), teachers stand in front of students and lecture. In many homeschools, parents read the text to their kids, or have them sit in front of television and computer screens, and the same dynamic is evident. The students listen, take notes, read assignments and write the answers to the review questions or supplied problems.
Doesn't it make sense to have people who know stuff explain stuff to people who don't know stuff?
For the last couple of decades, researchers in cognitive science have been exploring how the brain creates connections, especially between short term and long term memory. This is the crux of how we learn and retain information.
Testing seems to indicate that students are learning, but further study reveals many students have discovered they can place just enough information in their short term memory to reproduce it on a test, and then forget it. Lather. Rinse. Repeat for the next exam.
But for knowledge to 'stick', it must make the leap from a sensory perception to short term memory to long term memory, and this is best accomplished by repeatedly using the information, not just repeating it.
This is the main weakness of the lecture; students are basically passive, even when they are taking notes and repeating answers to problems.
Another weakness of the lecture is the 'curse of knowledge' - a teacher who has taught a particular subject for years is more likely to use jargon and complex explanations, forgetting the difficulties of being a beginning learner trying to grasp a new idea. Since short term memory can only hold about 7 or 8 items at a time, and that for barely a minute; long, involved explanations literally go in one ear and out the other.
The sooner a student is able to think about, question, discuss, and apply knowledge, the sooner they will begin to move the information into long term memory.
Lectures, or 'information dumps', usually move much too quickly for this. Lesson plans attached to teacher evaluations, testing, and school funding create a pressure cooker in the classrooms where even though the teacher is in the hot seat, it's the students who get baked.
Homeschooling parents who grew up in traditional classrooms are conditioned to reproduce it at home, believing it to be the best way for kids to learn. After all, the federally controlled public school system with its myriad of professional overseers must know what they are doing, right?
Never underestimate the power of "That's the way we've always done it".
There have always been teachers who understood the need for students to interact with and use information in order to cement it into their brains, but this should become much more mainstream. Unfortunately, with the continued and increasing pressure to conform to national standards such as the Common Core, and 'prove progress' with standardized testing, the only place we are likely to see improvement in this area is in higher education.
Homeschoolers, however, have the freedom to incorporate hands-on activities, problem solving, discussion and debate, and project based learning at any time.
Hands On Activities:
- use a multi-sensory approach whenever possible
- perform science experiments with basic chemistry and physics
- let kids follow a recipe and cook up something fun
- use historical reenactments of important events and speeches
- create timelines to show the interaction of people, events, culture, science, and the arts
- have kids do interpretive readings of poems and short stories
- build models and diorama of geographical features and famous landmarks
- incorporate music and dance from different eras
- get out paints and brushes and let kids copy the styles of artistic movements
- can be introduced by experiencing positive and negative consequences of behavior
- then differentiate between general solutions that tend to apply across the board, and when specific techniques need to be applied
- take time to identify and analyze real life problems; budgeting, household repairs, troubleshooting electronics
- use word problems as much as possible
- allow students to continue to work toward solutions with minimal interference
Discussion and Debate:
- flip your classroom - have kids present the material to you and siblings
- allow kids to ask questions, even if they ask hard ones or question closely held beliefs - the only requirement is a respectful attitude
- play "devil's advocate" and have students defend their position
- older students can join a book club, speech club, or debate team
- instead of hinting at and giving answers, ask questions that lead to deeper thinking
Project Based Learning:
- a joining of all-the-above
- requires research, investigation, experimentation, and teamwork when possible
- concludes with a presentation such as those listed under Hands On Activities
These methods quickly move the student from an abstract approach, where the student sits and imagines the concept the teacher is describing, to a contextual and concrete internalization, where the student is using those concepts in real life scenarios.
One thing a parent might notice is that these methods require us to deschool, and sometimes will not fit into an inflexible school schedule. Parents will need to model solid problem solving skills and the ability to think critically about complex and even controversial topics.
The reward of providing your child with a firm academic foundation and a love of learning is worth the time and effort, and the letting go of traditional classroom methods.