“Boredom was everywhere in my world, and if you asked the kids, as I often did, why they felt so bored, they always gave the same answers: They said the work was stupid, that it made no sense, that they already knew it. They said they wanted to be doing something real, not just sitting around. They said teachers didn’t seem to know much about their subjects and clearly weren’t interested in learning more. And the kids were right: their teachers were every bit as bored as they were.” John Taylor Gatto in Against School
The dictionary describes boredom as ‘the feeling of being bored by something monotonous.’ At six years of age my son didn’t have the words to sum up his school experience, the closest that he could muster was to provide me with the description of the feeling that it evoked in him. This feeling was ‘boredom’. Furthermore he often relayed to me that he did ‘nothing’ during his school day. I knew this could not be thoroughly accurate however I sensed this was a reality for him. In time I reached the conclusion that if he had the wisdom of experience he would have communicated something along the lines of – ‘learning in school is making little sense to my life, I am consequently unable to include in the activities being presented to me, consequently I live in this state of tedium which makes me feel bored.’
“We ask children to do for most of a day what few adults are able to do for already an hour. How many of us, attending, say, a lecture that doesn’t interest us, can keep our minds from wandering? Hardly any.” John Holt in How Children Fail
In contrast whenever my son spoke about football his eyes would light up. He would clue me in on anything that I wanted to know about the subject matter, from rules of the game to top scorers in the premiership league table. He would press me to take him to his favourite team’s matches and would use every spare minute practising his football skills outside. When someone had some titbit of information on football he would stop and listen adding his opinion. He would read the latest football magazine from cover to cover and save up every penny to buy the football cards that he religiously collected. When passionate about a topic we are much less inclined toward tedium. This was one of the main reasons why we started to home educate nearly eight years ago.
Characterising our home education approach as life learning unschoolers, I recently found myself falling into the trap of providing a schooling style approach to learning during a weekly lesson with my daughter (never home schooled), and five of her friends. With the help of another Mom we assumed the running of these science based lessons. Every child chose to attend these lessons and could leave at anytime, in other words they wished to learn about science in these lessons. For the first six months the children seemed engaged as we followed the Usbourne Science book, working our way by basic science kitchen experiments. However in the latter months they appeared to lose enthusiasm. As their interest waned, I lost spirit in these gatherings. Disheartened, I could hear myself coercing them to participate, already raising my voice so as to be heard over the top of their disinterested chatter.
“The biggest enemy to learning is the talking teacher” John Holt in How Children Fail
My instincts warned me that these lessons had lost their mojo. I found that I couldn’t continue any longer, this way of learning had developed into lessons that went against everything that I had come to believe in. We held a meeting with all of us ensconced on the floor in a course of action. During this non-judgmental setting the children found a place to express their without of connection to the science that we had been attempting. by this dialogue a phoenix of an idea arose out from the time of action, gathering form as we animatedly visualised the unexpected shape of our future science meetings.
In mock Harry Potter style we now arrive every Monday morning and symbolically go into our Room of Requirements, where each individual is working on a project that they have chosen to study. A project may take one week or many months. The boys are currently building a potato rocket launcher, one of the girl’s is mastering a deeper understanding of gem stones and the remaining two girls’ are building their own dolls house – complete with working solar lighting and a water fountain. This course of action demonstrated to me the strength of non-judgmental listening and hearing, none of us could have ever imagined this would be the outcome.
“We learn to do something by doing it. There is no other way.” John Holt in Teach Your Own
One of the main meaningful’s to the success of integrated learning is to ‘do’ and by the doing we learn. There is another crucial component to successfully integrated learning – the learning needs to be in ‘context’ for the learner. A subject matter described as being in ‘context’ are those subjects which pique the learner’s interest. I had reassured myself that we were ‘doing’ the experiments, unfortunately the lessons being explored lacked ‘context’ for the children. The random experiments, grouped approximately together under themes, held no meaning in the children’s lives. One of our lessons involved an experiment that demonstrated ice melting at a different rate when salt was applied to it, an interesting fact, but how does that fit in with our lives here in Africa? In Canada this experiment would have a higher probability of being in context, particularly during winter time when driveways need to be cleared of snow with minimum effort.
Formal teaching typically approaches learning in reverse, initially teaching a ‘concept’ which is then followed by applying the ‘doing’ and the ‘context’ is relegated to last position and often thoroughly neglected. There is a hornets’ nest of problems associated with this unnatural approach to learning. The largest issue being that often the lessons taught have little relevance to the children’s lives, resulting in detachment from the subject matter and ultimately boredom. By reversing the learning experience where the children get to choose what they want to learn, they are inspired and motivated. With context firmly in place it is more likely that integrated learning is the end consequence.
When initially presented with a new learning experience we naturally look for prior hooks that we may have in place, we ask the question’s ‘Have I tried to do this, or something similar, before?’ ‘What was the experience like?’ ‘How successful was I?’ ‘Where did I fail? ‘What did I learn?’ John Holt, in How Children Fail, believes that we learn by doing and the prerequisite to that is to be able to imagine ourselves doing the doing. We have to picture ourselves swimming, skiing, playing a particular song on the piano, and prior to the taking of our first step when learning to walk. This leads to a trying it out period of learning, doing it, learning from our mistakes and trying again. At this point we may need some instructions from someone who has mastered this experience before, it makes sense for us to watch her doing what we were trying to do, and then we can try the doing ourselves. It is important that it is the learner, not the teacher, who drives the learning course of action at the speed that best fits him, whilst this is in place then context remains king.
My daughter, at 5 years old, was concerned that she would be leaving behind her toys, and bed, when we explained that we were moving to a new house. With no hook for her to attach this unchartered experience, she was left with feelings of confusion and worry. Prior to her first hook of ‘the meaning of moving’ was in place, if we had described to her the recondite act of moving house, it is highly likely that she would have little interest in this out of context experience. Unfortunately this is what a schooled setting applies regularly, teaching subjects that have little context in a child’s life. We may have been able to capture our daughter’s interest by giving her an account of someone moving house in story form. Possibly by identifying with the person in the story she may have become more engaged. Although I would argue that this is a whisper of the real experience. Successful resolution of ‘what it method to move house’ would include a complete understanding, in the child, of what it feels like and what it physically method to move house. It is by the actual experience of moving, the doing of moving in context, which truly engages the integrated learner in the child, providing the complete meaning behind what it method to move. It was this ‘doing of moving in context’ which settled once and for all the questions that my daughter had regarding her bed and her toys accompanying her when she moved to a different house.
“When you teach a child something you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.” Jean Piaget
Learning doesn’t always have to include being there physically. I’ve been reading aloud Harry Potter to my nine year old. Those of you who have read the books will be aware of the character Sirius, Harry Potter’s godfather, who changes into a large dog at will. In a separate discussion with my daughter, I relayed to her that there is a Star in the sky that is called Sirius and it can be found in a constellation referred to as The Great Dog. It was a typical integrated learning moment when she made the connection, for herself, between what we had been reading about in Harry Potter and the information she had just gleaned. Taking it one step further she commented on the cleverness of J.K. Rowling basing a character on the name of a star and connecting this character, by its actions in the book, to the name of its constellation. additionally she has produced an additional hook to build onto in the future – what it method to create and name characters when planning to write a story.
The learning course of action is holy to the individual, at any rate their age. Hijacking an individual’s natural learning approach is tantamount to theft and something we should guard against at all costs. When this occurs learners are left with boredom as their only line of defence. In a learning setting where boredom is common, used as a barometer, it will red flag that somewhere in the learning approach something has gone awry. When we entrust the learning course of action to the learner ‘context’ is a given, the learner naturally selects that which holds meaning for her and the poisonous trickle of disconnected boredom is deleted.