An Education Philosophy Emerges
(Originally published in the the Rideau Valley Home Educators' Association's newsletter)
In the summer of 2003, I took my two youngest children and went to stay with my father for a couple of days, while my Mom was away, in the Montreal suburb of St. Lambert. While out to get groceries we spotted a ship going by in the Seaway Canal at the end of the street. There was an immediate demand to be allowed to go to the observation deck of the nearby locks; with my Dad clamouring for the expedition just as loudly as the kids. I had enjoyed visiting the locks as a child, and again over the years with my own children, but I had my doubts. Lately, the observation deck had been locked whenever we tried to access it. Nevertheless, we drove over to the canal to check it out, and were delighted to see a giant tour bus in the parking lot. The tail end of the tour was just disappearing up the stairs into the deck, and we slipped in behind it.
As the ship settled into place in the locks, I noticed that the tour guide was silent. The ship itself was an amazing sight, but surely, I thought, it would be much more interesting to the tour if they knew that it was a “Laker”, specially designed for the Great Lakes, and that it had probably come from the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and was carrying iron ore. Surely it was an interesting enough fact to state that the ship would be able travel all the way to the middle of the continent, and might possibly pick up a load of wheat at the other end. Even when the ship rose and its name became apparent (“The Honourable Paul Martin”), nothing was said of the economic-political significance of this particular shipping line to Canada.
At one point, a woman looked over at the raised lock bridge and commented to nobody in particular that it must be an awful thing to have to stop traffic over the main bridge (a busy link to the island of Montreal) in order to let the ship through. There was silence from the tour guide. She said it again, and I decided to be the nobody she was talking to. “They re-route traffic to the other lift bridge, see?” “Oh”, she said, looking at the cars pouring over the closed bridge behind us. Surely the tour guide could have at least told her that!
The ship made its way through the lock, pictures were taken, and the tour returned to its bus; but from my perspective, the people had learned nothing: they had merely seen a big boat being lifted by water in a big tank. The incident nevertheless allowed me to define some thoughts, which had been slowly emerging in my mind, on the nature of education.
At the time of this event, I had been homeschooling for eleven years and had made a few discoveries. What had started out as a simple task (buy a curriculum and teach it to the kid) had become a clash of personalities between me and some of the curricula. Why, I wondered, must this poor child fill in a bunch of blanks about some obscure grammatical rule and pore over meaningless lists in order to prepare for a test? And why must her poor mother listen to so much complaining?
I began to realize that there was more to an education than merely putting in the class time. This was difficult for me to overcome. I had grown up with the “class time” notion; in fact, I was a product of it. Just as that tour guide had undoubtedly crossed “St. Lambert Locks” off his touring list and considered his job done, I had crossed “Grade 11/ Cégep” off my life list, and considered my education complete.
I, like that tour guide, had not equipped myself with the ability to look around me and find out with my own eyes how traffic is dealt with when the bridge over the locks is open. I was now in danger of passing the same faulty educational notion on to my children: “You’ve finished filling in book one of grade three, now let’s get on to book two so that we can check grade three off your list.”
My philosophical shift has perhaps not changed much about our homeschool. I still require the answering of questions, the writing of essays, the hammering out of math problems, and the writing of tests; but, I feel as if I approach the process as a way of preparing my four children for the future, rather than as a need to fulfill the tyrannical demands of a system. This poor mother must still listen to the complaints, but my response has changed: it has gone from, “You must do this so that I can cross grade three off your list.” to, “You must learn this because it is part of your world.”
This outlook is also reflected in the decisions that my husband and I have made about high school for our two oldest children. Our eldest is in an intensive course of study to enter the professional ballet world. “High School Diploma” was merely an item to be crossed off a list; and in order to achieve it, she was going to have to put in time in tedious ways that would interfere with her dance studies. Therefore, we chose to have her follow a set course of study at home, loosely based on the Ontario high school credit requirements.
Our second daughter was showing a need for a greater academic challenge than I could provide for her at home. Therefore, we have enrolled her in a private high school for September. Again, the goal is not that she will achieve a highly desired item-on-a-list, the high school diploma; though that will, in the end, be the result. If that was our only goal, then the local high school would have perfectly met our needs. Instead, we have chosen a place that we discern will inspire her and make her four years in a classroom worthwhile to her, rather than worthwhile to a system.
When I first set out to homeschool my children I didn’t realize how advantageous it would be for them to spend most of their childhood outside a classroom. I’m glad that I have been able to guide their growth without having to take faulty educational notions into account. I hope that my children’s learning experience will consist of more than just watching big boats go by.