Sunday, April 28, 2013

Out of the Maze

 from June 2008

Almost daily I read what other moms and teachers write on the Living Math Forum, a Yahoo group I enjoy. The following quote snagged my attention.

"Sometimes I laugh to myself because my undergrad friends would say, 'You are SO smart.' Really, I was pretty dumb. I was like a rat in a maze--just do what you're taught, don't even think."

I was--am?--one of those rats in the maze. I learned the material presented to me for the sole purpose of earning an A (and all the benefits which accompanied it). Once I accomplished that, I turned the corner, sniffing around for my next one. Somehow I missed the reality outside the maze. My husband, who is one of the clearest thinkers I know, couldn't be bothered with a silly, old maze. He didn't play by the rules, as his GPAs reflected, but he knew how to think, and he knew how to communicate his thoughts.

In the early days of my teaching career, I began a quest to learn how to teach outside the maze, to keep students from mindlessly meandering through the maze. My insights are shallow, my implementation is imperfect, and my learning is ongoing, but here is what has helped our family thus far.

~We keep W. B. Yeats' wise words before us: "Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire."

~We avoid workbooks and other rote memorization methods which can program a child to turn off her mind as she fills in the blanks.

~We fill the house with living books of all kinds to encourage reading. We avoid fluffy books which lack content, have a a controlled vocabulary, or include poor writing.

~We visit the library regularly.

~Writing for real purposes is vitally important. We have a large collection of the girls' own books, portfolders, and projects.

~We try to give the girls many and varied experiences to help them connect their learning to the world.

~We encourage creativity and decision-making.

~We try to teach skills in context rather than isolating them.

~We encourage the girls to set their own goals. We are here to help them learn in whatever ways we can, but their education is ultimately their responsibility.

~As they play, the girls re-enact what they've learned.

~The girls don't work for grades; they work for excellence.

~We talk together a lot.

~Our girls observe our continuing desire to learn.

~We teach them how to learn, so they may continue to do so when they're no longer at home.

Marilyn Burns says in Math: Facing an American Phobia: "And to learn with understanding, students' curiosity about mathematics must be tapped, their thinking must be stimulated, and they have to be actively engaged in learning and doing mathematics. It's not okay to do anything less than that and call it education" (79). Burns is primarily focused on math, but the principle can be extended beyond math. Curiosity, stimulation, and active engagement are the breeding grounds for students to grow as thinkers, not in a contrived maze but in a big world where learning has no end. 

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