Using a Child's Interests/Unschooling
Using a Child's Interests
to Maximize Learning
Ever been to a meeting that didn't interest you at all? It can be hard to get anything out of such a meeting, and you are likely to go home complaining about the boring waste of time. But if you attend a meeting that interests you, you are likely to gain a lot of new insight from such a meeting and to go home recommending it to everyone and talking about how much you learned.
The same applies to kids. They learn a lot more from lessons that they are interested in and want to study. Whether a parent focuses on letting the child study what the child is interested in right this minute or on helping the child research questions the child has, or if the parent works first on getting the child interested in the things that the parent wants the child to learn, studying what a child is interested in will result in faster, more efficient learning.
As homeschoolers, we don't have to copy the schools' method of having a schedule of lessons that we can't veer from. We can take advantage of a student's interests, of teachable moments, of questions that suddenly pop up that might not have been related to the lessons at hand, etc. We don't have strict timetables and too many students to deal with. We can take time to deal with a child's and know that that time isn't taken away from the learning; instead focusing on a child's interests will help the child learn the most possible. It will accelerate the learning as the student pays more attention and tries harder to understand.
Thankfully, there's nothing in Florida home education laws that requires home education parents to teach on a strict schedule, nothing that requires us to teach what's in a textbook rather than what interests a student right now, nothing that prevents using a child's interests to increase their education.
Unschooling is a method of homeschooling that focuses on using a child's interests to direct the learning. Unschoolers typically avoid textbooks, workbooks, and structured learning apps or programs unless the child asks for them. Unschoolers will strew the environment with educational games, kits, books, videos, programs, brochures and flyers for programs, etc. to attract the child's attention and get the child interested in a topic. The parent may do things like bake cookies and double the recipe to get the child curious about fractions and how they work, or set out a video on space exploration to make the child wonder about that topic.
Note that unschooling isn't the only homeschool method that uses the child's interests to help the child learn more.
Eclectic homeschoolers will use the child's interests in some areas, but may use traditional curriculum as well. Eclectic homeschoolers mix and match different methods of education to best meet their family's needs.
Relaxed homeschoolers may use a child's interests in a lot of the learning but may not allow the child to direct the learning--or not all of it. Relaxed homeschoolers may use the child's interests but the parent may direct the way that works in one or more areas. The parent may attempt to get a child interested in a topic but push the child to learn it even if the child hasn't necessarily become interested.
Working with a Child's Interests
Q: I've heard a lot about working with a child's interests, but I'm not sure that I agree. It sounds good, but my 10-year-old isn't interested in learning multiplication or division or higher level math. This sounds like I should quit pushing him to learn it. Or am I missing something?
A: Working with a child's interests can mean spending time learning whatever the child is interested in. So, if he wants to know about sharks, spend time learning about sharks. But a parents' job, in my opinion, is to stretch the child's horizons and provide an education that will serve him well as an adult and help him function well in society, earn a living, make him less vulnerable to scams, etc. So if he wants to know about sharks, get books on sharks and work on both reading and science skills. Include some history and social studies with information about where sharks are found and how people have treated sharks. Include math as charts and graphs are studied or proportions are used to compare sharks in photos to real-life objects or people in the room. Don't just settle for learning exactly what the child is interested in; sneak in other learning, too. If it involves the child's interest, it will likely go over well.
But I've known a mom who stopped math lessons at an early third grade level because her son wasn't interested in math. To me, this is a sad misunderstanding of how we should work with a child's interests. Instead of throwing in the towel because he's not interested, I recommend taking it as a challenge to get your child interested.
As a young homeschooled child, one of the things that sparked my interest in math was seeing its power. I watched as my dad daily, at noon, used his black triangular sextant to look at the horizon and then used the measurement on it, along with an old-fashioned slide rule and a fat book of trigonometric tables, to calculate where we were on the globe. Though we were surrounded on all sides by blue water, with no landmarks in sight, math enabled him to figure out our position. That was powerful! And it made me want to learn it.
Perhaps you aren't circumnavigating the globe and using trigonometry in your daily life in that same way, but math is used on a regular basis by adults. It's a useful tool that helps people measure ingredients to bake cookies (or even to make double- or triple-size batches in one large bowl), make sure they have enough money to go on vacation, build shelves or other projects, etc. Figure out what you do (or could do) with math and do it around your child.
Another way to build a child's interest is to do some projects or hands-on activities. Use building plans. Bake multiple batches of something. Help the child take on a small business and keep records of his expenses and income. Even take a word problem from a math book and act it out (and add as much drama as you can to spice it up). Find board games or card games or fun computer programs to make it seem like fun.
There are trivial ways that may work better than expected. For example, do math problems with a paint brush and water on the sidewalk. Or with magnets on the refrigerator. Or with the answers written on a tic-tac-toe board. Or suddenly give a treat because of the math. Cheer like a cheerleader when the math is done right. Put stickers on papers. Proudly show the math to relatives and tell them how much he's learning.
But another method of getting a child interested in learning more math is to step back and help him see why adults have been teaching math to children for so much of history. (When I worked at the Field Museum of Natural History's library, the oldest item in the rare book collection was an ancient Egyptian papyrus with math homework on it.) Help him look at different careers and how math is involved in them. Help him understand that even with fancy computer programs, he'll need to have enough understanding of math to recognize if an answer makes no sense. Help him to see that without a knowledge of math, he'll be limiting his options in the future as many positions will require a knowledge of math. And then take it another step and make sure that he is ready for the math. If he's not ready, back up and re-learn the math needed to move on to the next level. Be encouraging, reassuring him that he'll get it eventually if he keeps working at it; let him take a break for a bit if needed, but then find a fun way to reintroduce it.
So, should you give up on math (or some other subject) with a child that doesn't want to learn it? No. Though you might take a break for a few weeks--particularly if he's reached a point of total frustration. Then begin again with some fun method, with work that he can easily handle, cheer a lot, try to find some projects or games to use, let him see how it will be helpful in adult life, etc. If he's capable of learning, I'm convinced he'll eventually get it, but you might need to take time to help him get interested. The time and effort that takes will pay off greatly as his learning will increase so much once he's interested.
Hope this helps,