Clara's Clearing

Clara's Clearing

Uncertainty, Improvisation, Approximation

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

This blog is part of Educating My Boy: Chronicles of a Free-Schooler

While going through emotional breakdowns and making life changes I don’t expect myself to be “teaching” or my son “studying” an awful lot. Math has completely slipped but we do keep on plodding through my version of a liberal arts “curriculum.”  As I pick books and read and discuss them with Jack I give education more thought than I probably ever did. I am determined to give my son an excellent education. (Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon… and for the rest of his life.)

The more I think about my educational philosophy the more I realize I don’t really have one. I have strong feelings about what I like or think is important but I can’t even begin to formulate some kind of theory, or subscribe to anybody else’s. Uncertainty, improvisation, approximation: this is the closest I can come to describing my approach to education.

First and foremost: Uncertainty. I have no idea what I’m doing. Yes I’ve studied Adler and Piaget. Yes I’ve read Rudolph Steiner and John Holt. Yes I have even taught preschool and college. In fact, as a result of doing all this I have come to the conclusion that the human brain is so complex and the human experience so varied that nobody can be all that sure about how children learn and why.

John Holt sums it up nicely: Fish swim, birds fly, and children learn. Obsessing over ways of teaching children is like trying to break down swimming technique for a fish or flying technique for a bird. Waste of time – so I’m not going to bother about teaching method or curriculum. But neither do I have the personality to just let my kid loose in a green meadow or the library stacks and put my faith in his chance development. So I try to provide some kind of direction.

Which brings us to: Improvisation.

Pick a book, any book – especially when  it’s a tried and true good one – and you can improvise lessons in all kinds of subjects: history, geography, psychology, sociology, art, science, you name it. When I was reading Around the World in Eighty Days with Jack I put an atlas in front of us and traced the journey that is described in the book. Now I myself have a much better idea of exactly where the Red Sea is and how close Shanghai is to Tokyo. I know that Jack is not going to learn all the places we looked at on the map but world geography is not going to change. Each time he encounters one of these places he’ll likely to remember a little more about it.

And all kinds of other impromptus lessons also popped up: the invention of steamboats, castes in India and butler/master relationship in Britain, cultural traits and the idea of stereotypes, the tricks of creating suspense while telling a story, the perils of building railroads in the American wild wild west, and on and on.  

The same process goes on with other books we read. I have no idea what I’m going to “teach.” In fact, more often than not I don’t even have anything to teach. We look up things, we guess, we admit we don’t know – and we even often admit we’re too lazy to look something up.  We move on, we go back, we lose interest, we persist, we fight… The process is very much like improvising a dance sequence. In the end we have made something – however invisible it may be after the moment – and ended up somewhere different from where we started.

Which brings us to: Approximation.

This is one of those things that I feel very strongly about. I think it is completely absurd to have in mind some kind of absolute learning destination: You have arrived at point A and now you know: Physics. You have made it to point B and now you are: A Musician. Congratulations! Now you know Cooking and you can Doctor… You have arrived. You can now stop.

That’s not how it works, is it? I think it is much more accurate to think of learning as achieving approximations. In fact, I think of learning as a kind of spiral. You sort of hover around the same point in larger and larger circles covering more space, or in smaller and smaller circles approaching a center. There’s no beginning and there’s no end. There definitely is no concrete, absolute chunk of learning called Knowledge. Everything is in degrees and approximations.

So as for us right now, I am going to improvise teaching and Jack is going to get approximately educated. That’s the best we can do.


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