Holistic learning

Published by Lori Pickert on March 25, 2009 at 02:43 PM

Part of AmyK’s comment on last weekend’s open thread:

Thanks for the wonderful quote! i believe this so much yet find myself constantly trying to create more “school” type lessons at home and it is not working. My daughter has been struggling with the very school-ish stuff all year yet when she is busy and involved with a project like making a robot or making crafts out of a book she chose or playing outside making a mud-maker invention, she’s so “industrious” and curious and “taking pride in work well done.” Meanwhile with the schoolish things, she complains and hates it and doesn’t take care with it and we get in big power struggles and we’re both miserable.

We’ve been talking about starting with a project and pretty much just doing math and project work after we get back from the trip we’re about to go on. She looks excited and relieved and honestly I feel relieved too. I am hopeful that we will move in a positive direction now getting into what I think we both want but I’ve been a little afraid to let go and let happen.

School-type lessons vs. projects … it’s funny, isn’t it, how we are so used to “lessons” looking a certain way — knowledge acquisition in the form of Q&A, fill-in-the-blanks, boldface terms, quizzes, tests, etc., that when we see it in its natural state, presented holistically, we feel uncertain.

Children naturally seek sense and meaning; they are drawn to doing meaningful work — work that actually means something to them.

They will work energetically to construct knowledge — to add bits of information and knowledge together and make something that is bound together with meaning.

They will strive to tease apart the strands of knowledge from a complex subject or idea.

They will eagerly acquire and hone skills in order to express their own ideas.

But so often, we don’t give them something whole to work with. We give them broken bits and expect them to concentrate, memorize, repeat back — even though those bits don’t have meaning. They don’t make sense. (And I mean that in the deepest sense of the phrase — they do not create real understanding.) And they are swiftly forgotten.

Because we learned this way, we tend to think of it as “real” education, “real” learning — the schoolish way. Because the other way is too particular, too slow, too narrow, too enjoyable.

Because the adult is supposed to say “jump!”, and the child is supposed to say “how high?”

We need to think hard about how we really learn best ourselves, and we need to at least experiment with letting children learn something holistically — giving them something whole, something filled with sense and meaning, and letting them learn their way to real knowledge.

Also see: Holistic Learning, Continued


Comment by Arwen on March 25, 2009 at 04:03 PM

Lori, that has got to be one of the best articles on education ever written. I strongly believe that the biggest problem wth our education system is that the more we (meaning government) try to "improve" it, the more it moves away from actually teaching kids how to learn. Memorizing facts for a test is definitely not learning.

I want to add to Amy (and someone may have already said this, I didn't read that open thread - sorry) to remember not to get discouraged if things don't work out the way you picture them right away. I think (although I am no expert) that this is one of those things that takes a lot of practice to learn.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 25, 2009 at 05:07 PM

arwen, thank you!

and you are so right — this does take a lot of practice to learn. and it’s worth it. ;^)

Comment by Amy on March 25, 2009 at 05:37 PM

I commented ages ago. Where'd it go? Sigh. No time to re-create it. :(

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 25, 2009 at 05:49 PM

it disappeared into the internet ether! :(

Comment by Lisa on March 25, 2009 at 06:04 PM

"School-type lessons"--I have been watching my 13 year old lately. When it is a school type thing she does it in a hurr,y and most often, badly. If it's demanding and unschoolish she usually does very well. There is an example in my post on this, but her work in teaching herself beading is the best example. While she may protest or dramatize it as "impossible," etc she does not wait for "help" or pretend it's hard, she just digs in and figures it out. My post is here if you are interested.

Comment by Amy on March 25, 2009 at 06:06 PM

ok, the baby is asleep, let's see if I can summarize...

My father actually did used to tell us that "jump/how high" statement. I think he was trying to be funny, except that there was a definite vein of seriousness in his words. I am not happy about what lessons on parenting I absorbed in my childhood, nor am I happy about how hard it is to exorcise those lessons.

The only subject we do in a traditional sort of way is math, but that's because my son really likes workbooks (dunno on that one!). It almost feels like cheating on my part, because he picks it up so easily. On the other hand, I have no doubt that that's because we've been incorporating math for years and years now, and we still do. Learning is not confined to a specific time, place, and method, and I don't want my kids to get that idea. I think once I've gone through the entire cycle of our first homeschooling year, and I know exactly what the district is going to ask for--or I feel more confident in my ability to turn them down, or set a precedent--then I'll be more relaxed, although I feel like a slacker half the time anyway. ;)
my time is up...

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 25, 2009 at 06:30 PM

lisa, thank you for sharing that post!

amy, re: “jump/how high”, i wanted to come back and talk more about that, too. we all start out with complete power over our chidlren; the question is — how do we transition from that point to 20-or-so years later when they have complete power over their own lives? as i wrote the other day, i am happy to have my sons’ respect and trust. i admit, if i said “jump!”, they would probably say “how high?!” :^) but it’s about using that power for good, responsibly, not abusing it, and not wasting it — so we end up with young adults who respect and trust us, yes, but respect and trust themselves. that’s what it’s all about, right?

i am sure you are right re: getting through that first year — with experience comes confidence!

Comment by Sandy on March 25, 2009 at 07:13 PM

I think another reason we find it hard to let go of the 'schoolish' mindset is that we know that it is the standard by which our children, and by extension, we, will be judged. Everyone will compare our chldren's 'projects' to stacks of workbooks and reems of paper and the latest round of test scores. Even though we know our kids are learning, more in less time and with less stress even, it is still hard not to intimidated by those stacks of paper. We all like our work to be validated. It takes a lot of courage to step out of the mold and do something that we know will probably not be validated, even though it produced a better result. In the end, our kids have to live and work in a world run on test scores and report cards. We don't want to feel like we're short-changing them. Even though we know it's the kids who aren't getting to do projects that are getting short-changed, there are still some days when it's hard to let it go.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 25, 2009 at 07:24 PM

sandy, good points. i think i am probably out of the norm about this, as i have complete confidence that my sons are learning more and will retain more. when people cast a doubtful eye, i don’t try to win them over to my point of view; i just smile and change the subject. :^)

i think you are absolutely right, though, that this is how a lot of people feel and is part of what affects their confidence.

i don’t think, though, that children will necessarily “have to live and work in a world run on test scores and report cards”. i’ve been self-employed my entire adult life, and i’m not preparing my sons to be part of bill gates’ “workforce of the future”. but again, i’m used to living, working, and learning off the main path; i’m fully cognizant of how possible a non-mainstream life is — and how enjoyable. :^)

Comment by Sandy on March 25, 2009 at 07:55 PM

Well, I was thinking when I posted the comment that I homeschool and my husband owns his own business, so I too, should know that you don't *have* to live in the report-card-and-test-scores world. Even so, I still feel the pressure often. I think, though, that it will be easier for my kids to educate my grandchildren in ways that make sense, because they won't have school to compare it to. And then my grandchildren will thank me. :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 25, 2009 at 08:31 PM

oh, but you know kids always do the opposite of their parents, so all of our grandchildren will probably go to public school! :^)

Comment by nancy on March 25, 2009 at 08:57 PM

I agree with your comment above:

i don’t think, though, that children will necessarily “have to live and work in a world run on test scores and report cards”. i’ve been self-employed my entire adult life, and i’m not preparing my sons to be part of bill gates’ “workforce of the future”. but again, i’m used to living, working, and learning off the main path; i’m fully cognizant of how possible a non-mainstream life is — and how enjoyable. :^)

I run into so many homeschoolers that don't think this way and they are driving themselves bonkers trying to prepare their own children for the world the same way as schools and for the same reasons. Sometimes I want to shake them and tell them to wise up!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 25, 2009 at 09:02 PM

i have to say, i have met some homeschooling families who seem to think it’s an opportunity to get a leg up on the competition, not so much a chance to delve into what makes an authentic life! ;^)

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 25, 2009 at 09:06 PM

“authentic life” was poor phrasing — a bit vague. what i meant to say was — a life that is more suited to them as individuals, more customized, more authentically matching their personal values.

Comment by michelle on March 25, 2009 at 09:15 PM

This is all such good stuff!

I'm thinking about switching my boy from the feral, hippie school, to the slightly more conventional, but still alternative-y school. I so wish we could sit over tea/coffee and you could help me sort my mind. It's almost too abstract for me to verbalize. Every time I read the unschooling quotes/comments, I think, YES!, then I try to work that into my life, the life where my child wants to go to school and be away from me for many hours a day. I don't think he doesn't like me, he's just hyper-social. I figure he'll be ready to move out at 14 or 15. Now to find the right learning situation for him, that's the mystery. Will I make the right decision?

Sorry to be off topic.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 25, 2009 at 09:35 PM

lol re: wants to go to school and be away from you for many hours a day. now, my kids aren’t like that — they are little chips off the ol’ hermit block — but i know lots of hs’ed kids that are! :^) of course, it helps if you live in an area with lots of hs’ing resources and don’t have to drive them everywhere.

that said, of course hs’ing isn’t the best choice for everyone — just had to give a shout-out to those hyper-social hs’ed kids.

re: making the right decision, pfft — you know i don’t put much store in that. you make the best call you can, then you pledge to deal with whatever happens in a forthright and timely fashion. that’s all you can do! you can pick the perfect school and still get the worst teacher, or pick the perfect school just as they change principals … murphy’s law. or you buy your kid new sneakers and he outgrows them in *two weeks* .. wait. that’s me.

i would love to help you sort your mind, though. especially if cookies are involved.

Comment by Sarah Jackson on March 25, 2009 at 10:20 PM

This is such a great post. We just bought a math curriculum (mainly because she enjoys the math games that make up most of it) but other than that, we're trying to take a more holistic approach. I think the only time I have trouble is when I explain what we're doing to other people. I get the raised eyebrow when I say that we're not using a packaged curriculum, and then when I explain Annika's farm project, and everything it involves, I see their ears perk up and the wheels start to turn as they imagine what that kind of learning would look like. Once we've talked about *how* we're homeschooling to someone else, then it all falls into place for me all over again. I need that right now, at the beginning. While we make our way in this, it's so good for me to explain it and know that it really is as cool as we thought it would be. Even on the days that are a struggle - the ones when I feel like I'm pulling her along - I know that good stuff is happening. I just might not be seeing it right then, but I will.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 25, 2009 at 11:18 PM

thank you, sarah! it sounds like you are doing great.

Comment by Dawn on March 26, 2009 at 02:40 AM

When I think about this journey from a holistic veiwpoint it makes more sense than ever. There is no question that I have my doubts some days... but those are usually the days I drop the ball...
I am amazed when I see how things come together with her... One thing that leads to so many other places in her mind. in her play. in her songs. in her art. in her stories and the books she makes. on and on...
I know I would be setting her up for a daily fight if I sent her to a typical learning situation. That would be a frustrating life for her. A constant fight with the norm.
Many people enjoy the norm and staying within that space. It is safe there. Fionna is never going to be in that space. That has been one of my most enlightening lessons from her. Living outside the norm... on the outskirts you might say!

Comment by amyk on March 26, 2009 at 02:54 AM

hey, thanks again, lori. i really enjoyed that post you wrote based on my post. and again, every thing you said is so true. i find myself nodding in vehement agreement. when working in public schools especially since having my own kids, i constantly found myself echoing these same sentiments you're talking about here. it's been since i started homeschooling that i find that i can believe those things in theory but get nervous as heck about going way off the beaten "school path" now that i'm responsible for her education, know what i mean? i think for the very reasons sandy mentioned above... that i might be "short-changing" them because they're not getting the pile of worksheets and taking tests. when she was in school and i was working in the public schools, i always felt like it was too much pressure and too "academic, " not holistic enough. now i worry about the opposite.....maybe i won't be "academic" enough.

but hey, deep breaths, one day at a time. right now i feel like moving to more holistic projects is the way to go for us, really the only way homeschooling will work for us. i also think it will help us in creating an atmosphere of trust. i read in one of your older posts, lori, where you said something to the effect that your boys trusted you when you said it would be important to learn a certain subject or study something more tedious because they knew you respected them and their interests and how they learn (badly paraphrasing but hoping i'm getting the general gist here). i think my daughter and i will need some time to regain that mutual trust because we've had these power struggles going on all year. i really want her to see i respect her and her learning ventures so she gets that trust again...hope i'm making sense!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 26, 2009 at 03:31 AM

dawn, beautiful. :^)

amy, yes! you are making sense, and i know that post you’re referring to and you paraphrase me well. ;^)

it doesn’t have to be entirely one or the other … there can be a balance. homeschooling allows us to experiment (even if it’s challenging and not always comfortable!) and figure things out, knowing we can fix it if we make a mistake. we need to take advantage of that freedom. schools and teachers, for the most part, don’t have it. we also have time — loads and loads of time. time to lie in bed looking at the ceiling and daydreaming. time to read a whole book in one go. time to try new things without giving up old things. they don’t have that, either.

schools can make an argument that they can’t afford to give these things to the children in their care — but we really can’t. we have the time. we just need to have the courage.

Comment by Alice on March 26, 2009 at 11:19 AM

My daughter is really interested in marine life at the moment and I got her some books out of the library. I have never been interested in this topic and knew nothing about it. I remember picking up one of her books, flicking through and thinking "this is so hard" and actually feeling quite sick in my stomach. And then I told myself "relax, you don't have to actually memorise any of this"LOL. I then sat down and enjoyed reading about all sorts of interesting things, like the various depths and what they are called, the different kinds of land formations, etc and who inhabits where.

I guess my school 'training' was that I would have had to memorise all that. If I had a reason to memorise those facts, I am sure they would come easily - if not, is there any harm in keeping the facts in a notebook to pull out when you need them. Why do we have to memorise everything so that we can prove that we know them in a test anyway? If I go to buy fabric yardage - even if I love fabric - I keep the measurements for various things in a notebook. I can't memorise everything.

To get back to the point - I was organising my daughter's drawings the other day, and I found all of her marine life work. She hasn't been working on this project very formally because we have been concentrating on balancing her school life/free time and trying to get out of those power struggles that another reader mentioned. Even though it may not seem like much, a few drawings, a shell collection, a map of the meditteranean - I can see how she has made connections, has explored concepts, and has acquired things like map reading skills (that was an unexpected tangent). I am also happy that she has begun an interest that will likely remain for life, not like those 'dreaded' school subjects that, as soon as you have been tested, you close the book forever.

My daughter loves math workbooks too. And so did I. I guess unschooling doesn't mean you can't do anything that looks schoolish. Look at me, I'm unschooling my daughter who attends public school!:)


Comment by Cathy T on March 26, 2009 at 01:09 PM

"Work that means something to them" and an "Authentic life" - I can relate to those phrases. I have actually started to throw away any catalogs that come to my house about curriculums and not LOOK at them first. Bt getting away from that mindset, I don't have the opportunity to think "Hey, we should do that" when I don't know what I'm missing. I'm NOT missing things when I listen to my kids and periodically assess where they are...

My goal as well as my husband's goal for each of our kids is for them to have the skills to be able to be happy in life with whatever they want to do, be self sufficient (live within their means - if you have an expensive hobby then make the needed money to support it), and give them the skills needed to be able to attain the goals they set for themselves. If that means they'll need (or want) to go to college, we'll make sure they have the skills they need to succeed in college but we'll do it OUR way, authentically.

During their years with us, I hope to help our children find meaning in their lives and to have good relationships with each other.

Oh, and my boys have already asked if I'll homeschool their kids! LOL

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 26, 2009 at 01:27 PM

alice, thank you so much for sharing your story!

i think that stomach clench when you think “i have to learn this” is exactly how children feel who are used to “learning” meaning memorizing, doing assigned work, and taking tests.

i think this is why some people push away the vocabulary of learning (teacher, school, etc.) — because they are trying to change their mindset about learning and they need to rid themselves of anything that looks like the “old way”.

re: unschooling, i have said before, it is a term that doesn‘t mean anything to me, as the various people doing it are all doing such different things! most hs’ers these days do a very quick 5-second rundown of the recipe that makes up their particular learning life at that moment — “unschooling except for math”, “charlotte mason with a dash of waldorf”, and etc. i don’t think of project-based learning as being synonymous with unschooling by any means; although some unschoolers are doing just that, others aren’t.

it is wonderful that you could look over your daughter’s work and see the connections she’s made.

back to your enjoying the marine life books … i really think this is key — not the throwing away of the old vocabulary, but rediscovering how *we* learn best. that, to me, is the quickest path to helping our children direct and manage their own learning.

cathy, lol re: them asking you to homeschool their kids. ;^)

Comment by Alice on March 26, 2009 at 02:59 PM

“charlotte mason with a dash of waldorf” - a dash of vinegar and you have a salad:P

"re: unschooling, i have said before, it is a term that doesn‘t mean anything to me"
I do agree with you - I was being lazy when I threw that term in. You know, there is a woman here in Italy who has just started a yahoo group for homeschoolers in Italy (with an 'unschooling' bent - for lack of a better word) and she has come up with agreat term 'apprendimento naturale' (also the name of the group) which translates as 'natural learning'. I think that is a good way to describe it, and neither does it exclude anyone who is actually in school.

For Michelle - what you said about your son, struck a chord in me. I sort of think that my daughter needs time away from me too. She was very 'high need' as an infant, very reluctant to mix with children in groups, preferred the playground when it was deserted - but at the same time is very sociable. Perhaps school gives her a safe and predictable environment where she can socialise without depending on me to organise playdates, take her to her friends' houses, etc? In any case she likes school, she gets on well with her classmates and teachers, she says hello to the administrative when she meets them - and this is my shy little girl (she is 7). I don't know if I (the hermit mother) could have organised all this activity for her, especially in a country where homeschooling is extremely rare (Italy).

From the way you describe your son's school (feral) peraps you are not happy about the school, more than anything?


Comment by Lori Pickert on March 26, 2009 at 05:27 PM

“re: unschooling, i have said before, it is a term that doesn‘t mean anything to me” — rereading that, it sounds a little rude! :^) i just meant: it doesn’t impart enough information.

Comment by angelina hart on March 27, 2009 at 02:16 PM

I love the comment about how children always do the opposite of their parents! so funny to imagine all of our children having babies in hospitals and grandkids in public school running out of the classroom saying, "I got an A!"
well, it probably will happen so we might as well detach from the outcome now! And enjoy our lovely freedom days while they last. We're currently in Germany where homeschooling is illegal. So all of us Americans really ought to be just plain grateful and not so worried about the small stuff!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 27, 2009 at 02:59 PM

angelina, hee :^)

what is that saying about why grandkids and grandparents get along so well — because they’re united against a common enemy! ;^)

i agree with you re: not sweating the small stuff! and seriously, i am raising the boys to be able to make good decisions for themselves, so i can hardly quibble with what they decide! i get to live my life; they get to live theirs. :^)

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