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Saturday, November 10, 2018

What is a philosophy of education, and why do you want one?


 A philosophy of education?  For some people that's what the southern side of the family might once have called a high falutin' term, elitist even.  Showing off, waste of time.  Can't you just get by on using what appeals to you, going with your 'heart?'

 On the one hand, yes, you can get by without a formalized philosophy of education.  If you are a parent and your children are nearing school age, you have probably already taught them things like numbers, shapes, colors, fruits and vegetables, how to eat with utensils, memory verses, nursery rhymes, the names of his relatives and friends, body part names, how to talk, brush their teeth, toilet, be polite to great-aunt-Linda, say please, thank-you, and you're welcome, a number of safety rules, and too many other things to count.  Probably you did it all without ever hearing or thinking the phrase "philosophy of education."  You probably even did it well.

  You can send your kids off to school for years and never once stop to consider what you believe about how children learn.  You can home-school for years and never give any thought to the question of your philosophy of education, in fact I know many people who do.

But here's a secret- whether you have carefully thought about it or not, you actually already do have a philosophy of education.   Thinking deliberately and mindfully about it will save you some time and unnecessary steps later.

As a homeschooler, thinking through what  you believe about how children learn will help you choose curriculum, materials, and a homeschooling style that are mutually supportive rather than constantly undermining one another. If you are a taxpayer or a voter you are often called upon to vote on matters of education- school board members, funding, bond issues, textbook selection, or you just need to help your kids with their home work.  Or maybe you are teaching in Sunday School or want to start a neighbourhood Bible club for the kids on your block.  You should know what you believe about how kids learn, what they should learn, and why so that how you vote or teach really does reflect what you believe.    If you send your kids to public school, this will help you choose schools and teachers compatible with your goals.  These are all areas where you will be better informed about what you are doing if you have worked out what you believe about learning and why you think so. 

What do you believe about education and learning, and why do you believe those things?  After all, that's all a philosophy of education is.

Here's why I said it will save you time to think carefully about what you believe about education. In my observation,  some of the most frazzled and fractured moms are those who are tying to homeschool or public school- or parent!- by a philosophy that isn't really their own, but they do not realize it because they do not know what their own philosophy is.

 Where should you start?  You could just sit down and think about what you believe about these questions:
What is the purpose of education?
How do children learn?
What should they learn.

Years and years ago when we started homeschooling, we began working on our own philosophy of education when I came across a short article in  the Dec. 1985/Jan. 1986 issue of The Teaching Home Magazine.  The article is titled "How To Write Your Own Philosophy of Education" and is by Bonnie Van Bogelen. Two parts of the article that helped me the most were:
1. a series of questions to consider in order to develop and solidify one's own ideas about education, and
 2. the idea that this might actually be something parents should do. How to develop our personal educational philosophy?  At that time, it hadn't even occurred to me that I needed one- I was just going to homeschool, after all.=)

Having begun the work of thinking through this topic, however, I found it stood me in good stead in other areas than simply home schooling.  It was useful to know  when considering whether we should participate in this extra-curricular project, or another one, or none at all;  whether we should buy that resource or use the library.  Knowing what I believe about education, learning, and the development of character hasn't stopped me from making many mistakes- I am an inconsistent mass of human contradictions after all, but it has saved me from some, and it has helped me salvage the wreckage of others. Knowing what I believe about education and why has also helped me more easily make decisions about whether or not to have a separate room for school, to go on some field trips, participate in co-ops, buy one literature book or another, and more.

So how would you develop your own philosophy of education?  I started with the article mentioned above.  The questions were open-ended. The author supplied Bible references that might be helpful to one seeking a biblical foundation for her educational philosophy, but they were references only, no commentary.
 Mrs. Van Bogelen suggested starting with 'reading and studying scripture passages related to education, teaching and learning,' and taking notes along the way, and perhaps using a concordance or topical Bible to help find other passages and topics to consider.  My husband and I did this, but I read other books, as well, and shared excerpts from them with my husband (we had a bulletin board in the bathroom and I posted long, typed quotes from these books).  While I do believe the Bible has all I need for Life and Godliness and it is rich with principles, it does not have many specifics when it comes to stuff like teaching a child how to bake bread, learn English grammar, the multiplication tables, or compose on essay on the causes of the Civil War, and to describe the first ten battles of said war in chronological order.

 Here are some of the additional books I read to help deepen my thinking (these are in no particular order): Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education
For the Children's Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School
Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling
The Underground History of American Education: A School Teacher's Intimate Investigation Into the Problem of Modern Schooling
Going Home to School
Towards a Philosophy of Education in Modern English: Volume 6 of Charlotte Mason's Series
NEA: Trojan Horse in American Education
Why Johnny Can't Read: And What You Can Do about It
Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong: And What We Can Do About It
Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Child's Moral Imagination
The Rule of Saint Benedict
How Children Learn (Classics in Child Development)

These were not the only books I read, and of course, I did not read them all at once.  I continue to read and think about what I understand about how education works even though my kids are all grown and I am no longer homeschooling.   That's because one part of my philosophy of education is that Mom needs to keep her brain fresh. Another point to remember is that what resonates with you at one stage in life might just happen to touch the right chord, but when you got back to it later, years later, you find that the book or article that started you thinking long such interesting lines is really much shallower than you recalled. Things speak to you differently at different stages of your life.

 So what questions should be considered as you develop your ideas about education?  Here are some: Who is God, and what, if anything, does he require of us?
 Who are we and what is our purpose on earth?
 Who are our children?
What nature of being are they?
Who, if anybody, owns the children?
Who is in authority over us and our children?
 Who is ultimately responsible for the education of our children?
What are my responsibilities toward my children?
What are the state's responsibilities towards us?
 When does education begin?
 Does physical development affect the ability to learn?
  Are there differences between girls and boys and how they learn, how they mature?
What are the goals of education?
What subject areas should be taught and why?
How do children learn?
Are there principles that should guide the choices of resources?
What, if anything, do discipline and creativity have to do with education?
What does education look like when it's happening?
What is the difference between the state of being educated and being uneducated?
What does education do for the educated human being?
What sort of results do we expect from that thing we call education?
How would I measure success in education?
What role does mind play in education?
Does the mind need food, too, and regular meals, and what is its proper diet?

Some questions are themselves so worded as to already presume a basic idea about education.  People question whether character or academics is more important, but I say that is the wrong question because character and academics shouldn't be mutually exclusive.

You needn't answer every question on my list.  That's just a platform for you to start with. Pick and choose.  There are other possible questions as well.
Back in the 80s, I pulled out a notebook and pen and started writing and thinking, and  30 years later I find that much of my writing and thinking still brings me back to these questions:
What does God require of me?  What is education, learning?  What is it *for*? How do I learn? What is it important to know? What is knowledge?  What does God require of parents?  Of our children?  Who are the children?  What is their purpose in life? What does education look like when it has occurred?  How do you measure it?  and most practically: "Is what I am doing truly reflective of what I claim to believe about these things?"

 Thinking through these questions helped me to develop the ideas behind this bit of advice I give to new homeschoolers:
You're not a school. You're a family. Many of the tools for school (worksheets, multiple choice tests, true/false tests) are effective ways of working with a large group of unrelated people within a constrained amount of time to get them through the same amount of material in nine months or less. Using their tools to home-school is like using a chainsaw to butter your bread. They are dealing with kids whose parents didn't come home last night, kids who got off to school with a smack and a curse, kids whose parents read to them every night and play educational games with them and bring the dictionary to the dinner table and kids who have been brought up in an environment as stimulating as a piece of white bread. They are dealing with 20-30 kids with varying interests, abilities, and backgrounds. They are dealing with a climate of suspicion making it impossible for them to kiss a child, give out a Tylenol, or defuse a tense moment with a group prayer.
You don't have most of these issues to deal with. Even those of us with adopted children from difficult backgrounds have fewer than 20 of them, and we have them 24 and 7 rather than 8-3 for five days a week. You can curl up on the couch with a good history book and your sweet children and read together and talk about it and you will have covered as much ground in literature, critical thinking, vocabulary, and history in half an hour as many a public schooled child does in a week. You may not have pen and paper work to show for it, but the work of the. mind happens in the mind, and it is what happens in the mind and heart that constitutes education. That's probably over stating my case a might. Workbook pages have some use- math practice, But I would think carefully about transferring into home use tools developed to make a large institution run smoothly - You don't need ID cards, lunch cards, or roll call at home, for instance, and for the most part you do also do not need worksheets, formal spelling instruction, formal vocabulary lessons for seven year olds, and many other tools developed for institutions rather than families. (Those toilets that are wall mounted for ease of mopping beneath, however, yeah, I'd totally take one of those.=) The key is to think carefully about those tools and whether or not they do what they supposed to do. Math worksheets do not generally teach math concepts, for example, but  they do give your child a chance to work on developing speed and competence in basic arithmetic work.  They can be useful, but they need to be used for the right purpose- practicing, in this case, not learning. Thinking through these questions can also help you put your lives or at least your homeschool in the right order- if real learning comes from something other than workbook pages, shouldn't you be doing more of those other things than workbook pages?  If you believe that books are vital to a good education, shouldn't there be plenty of time for excellent books? Developing your own philosophy of education, or at least working towards that idea, also helps you clear the ground of all those  underlying assumptions that we generally pick up in public school, from television, even the air around us it seems- assumptions that don't always have much to do with actual academic topics. We can see, once we give it some careful thought, how we pick up these assumptions from  how school functions as much as in any particular teaching, and we see their implications in our own lives, in the kind of people we are, in what interests us, in what bores us. I'm talking about things like how to study, how to learn, what we come out of school believing about ourselves, about who our friends are, about how the world works, about our expectations for what is normal, about peer relations, about the use of free time, about the purpose of education, about knowledge, values, ideas, family, state, kirk, and home, about utilitarianism, politics, and more. In every culture there are assumptions imbibed in the very air, things more caught than taught, things we don't even realize we believe because the assumptions are so deeply ingrained in us. It takes a long time to unearth those assumptions, and it takes longer to actually think about them and replace the assumptions with carefully thought out reasoning. Ask yourself, sometime, what do you think about X, and why do you think so? Where did you learn this? How do you know? For X, insert almost anything. What do you think about socialization? What is it, what does it look like, how does it happen? Why do you think so? What do you think about learning? What is it? What does it look like? How do we learn something new? Why do we learn? Where do we go to learn? How do you tell when something has been learned? And why do you think so? What do you think about government? What should it do, what should it not do? How should it do those things? Why? Where does it belong, where does it not belong? Who decides? How? Why? Why do you think so? Where did you learn this? How do you know? So, what is education? What is our  philosophy of education? Here's one part of what I wish for our home education efforts:
-- We wish to place before the child open doors to many avenues of instruction and delight, in each one of which he should find quickening thoughts. ... Our aim in Education is to give a Full Life. -- We begin to see what we want. Children make large demands upon us. We owe it to them to initiate an immense number of interests. Thou hast set my feet in a large room; should be the glad cry of every intelligent soul. Life should be all living, and not merely a tedious passing of time; not all doing or all feeling or all thinking -- the strain would be too great -- but, all living; that is to say, we should be in touch wherever we go, whatever we hear, whatever we see, with some manner of vital interest. We cannot give the children these interests.... The question is not, -- how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education -- but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?
School Education, by Charlotte Mason, page 170-1 Childhood is the time for fertilizing the mind's soil, for sowing so many of those seeds which are the starting ideas of great thoughts. We may not see the fruition of those ideas in our lifetime, and not knowing what the future holds, we must sow as widely as possible, introducing our children to as broad and generous a banquet of thoughts and ideas as possible. We desire that their "reading should be wide and varied enough to allow the young scholar to get into living touch with earth-knowledge, history, literature, and much besides. These things are necessary for his intellectual life, and are especially necessary" as foundational material, the building blocks necessary for the rest of his life. As you can probably tell, assuming you're a newer reader, our search for an educational philosophy that resonated with us and reflected our values led us to Charlotte Mason. How about you?  What do you believe about education and why?  Do you have a philosophy of education that you have worked out?  What resources did you find helpful in thinking through your beliefs about education?

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