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(Un)structured learning

This is going to be a post about creating a structure for your children’s education at home.

But before we go any further, I want to point out that structure is both over- and underrated.

I appreciate structure myself. I’m a big to-do list person. I’ve used every piece of organizational software I can get my hands on. I enjoy having a schedule and a routine. But ultimately I prefer to apply simple, flexible systems to my life.

Growing up, only about three hours of each day, maximum five if I had an activity, were well and truly structured. The rest were left up to me to be creative and make the most of the tools on hand — mostly some plastic animals, paper and markers, and a tape recorder.

Structure is over-rated. Systems, though…

No matter what age they are, your kids will benefit from simple, flexible systems. This will give them the tools not only to learn through uncertain times with less rigid structure, but also to continue learning through their entire lives.

You can use these three steps to create a simple, flexible system for your own children:

#1: Set quantifiable goals. “Do all your homework” is nebulous. It changes every day. Do you really care if every single math problem is done and every single page is read? Or do you want to make sure your kid remains curious and their brain properly stimulated? Here’s a better goal: “Spend 45 minutes reading.” Reading what, you ask? Again… does it matter? You might be surprised what ends up catching your kid’s attention if they get to choose (from what you make available at any given time, of course).

#2: Determine the bar for partial success. If you set a daily goal such as “Spend 30 minutes on 4 subjects,” and a day comes when everybody’s sick and grumpy and for everyone’s mental health you just want to turn on a show and all crash on the couch together… well, “failure” can undermine progress, so sometimes you have to count a partial success as a victory instead. In your own mind, know where you’re willing to lower your bar to from time to time (as necessary, in these uncertain times) without you and/or your kids being upset about it.

#3: List out the options. This is where you may want to pick other parents’ brains and heavily utilize the internet. Say you set that “30 minutes on 4 subjects” goal, and the subjects are math, science, literature, art, history, and music. Make a list for each subject of ways that your kids might satisfy the 30-minute requirement. (More ideas later.) Then give them the option to select something from the list so that they are empowered to make decisions about their education, and you already screened the choices in advance.

When it comes to setting goals, you’ll want to set up a time to speak to your child’s teacher(s) about this, if they haven’t already laid it out in the material they’ve sent home.

If you don’t have anywhere to start, here’s my own recollections: each week as a 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grader, I had a photocopy of a table that listed out my subjects on the Y axis and the days of the week on the X axis. On the very end, my mom wrote how many times that week I was expected to do a “helping” of that particular subject. (The size of a helping depended on the subject — for math it was one lesson from the grade-appropriate Saxon math textbook, for history it was usually spending about 30-60 minutes reading historical fiction or a textbook, for writing it was one page of double-spaced writing, and so forth. These helpings were determined and discussed at the beginning of each school year, so they grew incrementally with my abilities.)

As far as goals for a specific school year — how much I needed to accomplish to be considered passing for that grade — even my superpowered mom was required to go meet with a counselor at the local school at least once a quarter to review my math tests, book reports, and art projects, ensuring I was meeting district standards. This is where you really will have to find a way to work with someone in the school system, whether it’s your child’s teacher(s) or a specific person on staff with relevant expertise. Reach out to the school staff to learn more about flexible options for these milestone meetings.

On a daily basis, you can create a simple, flexible system to keep things running without having to constantly enforce specific activities (because let’s face it, if you have to do anything else around the home or for your job, there’s no way you can give your full attention to what the kids up to at all times — and it’s okay, because unstructured activities are great life experience too). Here’s what the routine for me, my brother (4 years younger than me) and my sister (6 years younger than me) looked like around the time I was 11:

  • Wake up around 7:30 or 8. Eat breakfast, hang out as a family.
  • From 8:30-9 AM until around noon, do schoolwork: complete math assignments, watch educational videos, read history texts, write reports and papers. (Note that schoolwork could continue into the afternoon, but we didn’t usually dawdle much.)
  • Eat lunch around noon. I usually helped prepare the food as well*. During lunch, we could read our leisure books if we wanted.
  • From 1 PM until they were finished, we did the chores assigned to us each day from the chore chart.
  • From whenever all schoolwork and chores were done until dinner, we had generally unstructured play. The caveat was that unless we were using software for creative endeavors (like writing stories, Paint art, or programming), we couldn’t be on the computer, and we didn’t own any gadgets, so the activities were all “offline”: reading, drawing, coloring, making up imagination games, building forts, crafting, practicing instruments, pretending to have battles in the backyard (considered exercise), helping with the yardwork (not always an option!), making (very bad) short films, playing with action figures…

*This has been one of the best skills for adulthood that I cultivated through homeschooling!

And as I am writing this in the midst of the coronavirus social distancing mandates, it’s even more important for me to underline the idea that there’s no one right answer when it comes to education. We all know people have different learning styles, but beyond that, how do you really know that your kid is equipped for what life will throw at them just because some semi-stranger assigned them a numeric evaluation? Yes, there are absolutely some hard skills that people who want to undertake certain types of jobs need to know, but if your kids don’t learn those skills this year — it’s gonna be okay.

Alright… now for me to make some lists of links and ideas of materials, tools, and strategies for how to actually get good information into your child’s braaaain!

Published inHomeschooling