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The 15-minute learning window

I was at the river the other day with hordes of other homeschoolers, splashing around and having fun while our public-school brethren are going full-swing into homework and test preparation. A mom who is starting her homeschooling life this year with her 8-year-old daughter asked a very good question: What with all these fun activities, when do you have time to homeschool?

Our whiteboard

Our whiteboard gets used for math, to do lists, and other pursuits!

There are lots of answers to that question – as many answers as there are homeschooling families. But I gave her the answer that helped me a lot when I was new to all this: All you need is 15 minutes.

In school, time is taken up by a variety of things: organizational activities like getting from one room to another, preparation activities like finding the right books and making sure everyone has a pencil, parts of a lesson that have nothing to do with 80% of the kids in the room, like when a few kids are having trouble learning a concept, discipline problems when the teacher’s focus is taken off everyone in the class but one child. School children spend about 6 hours in school per day. Very structured homeschoolers figure they cover the same material in less than 3 hours per day.

Then there’s the rest of us.

I love structure. The homeschooler I want to be stands in front of her kids and imparts wisdom. Her kids sit with happy, upturned faces and drink in her observations and ideas. They open workbooks, start on page 1, and continue until the workbook is finished later in the school year. They homeschool every morning, starting at 9, and are done by noon. Then we’re off to do fun activities in our community.

Then there’s the homeschooler I am: I have a general idea of what we are going to do when we’re not out of the house. Those ideas have something to do with making sure that my kids learn the 3 R’s along with their creative explorations. I make plans, and my plans have an effect on our homeschooling, but they are not carried out with any regularity or structure. I seldom “teach” my kids things—we explore and go off on tangents. My best-laid plans are the ones that never go anywhere.

The homeschooler I am has been very influenced by the idea that there are “teachable moments” in kids’ lives, and that good teachers recognize those moments and go with them. When you have two kids instead of a classroom, teachable moments are more likely to go on weird tangents, and that’s fine. But no matter whether you are teaching a class of 30 or a single child at home, teachable moments seldom last that long. The rule of thumb I got was you should figure you only have 15 minutes.

There are two different ways in our house that those 15 minutes play out. One way is the “schoolish” way: You know your child needs to go the next step in fractions, and you want to get to it sometime this week. In homeschooling, you don’t have to schedule it at any particular time, so you watch and wait. On Monday, you go out and do a big art project with friends and when you get home, your kid just wants to read alone, and that’s fine. On Tuesday, you have all sorts of little things you need to take care of, and your friend has an appointment and asked you to take her three kids, so you write off the whole day. That’s fine.

But then on Wednesday, things seem calmer. Your child has finished a book, and then you talk about what you’re making for dinner, and then you say, “Hey, let’s look a little bit more at fractions.” Or, in my case, I usually present it as, “This is something I think is so totally cool about the way numbers work.” We recently got a whiteboard and I’m wondering why I resisted for so long – my daughter loves to do interactive math explorations on it. (And she also doodles horses, which I’m OK with, too.) I may get her to do some problems on paper, or more often I leave that for another 15 minutes. And then we’re done.

That’s all? A kid can really learn all she needs to know about, say, common denominators in one 15-minute session? Of course not, and that’s where 15-minute rule #2 comes into play. If we have talked about a math topic, we’ll almost always have a chance to talk about the same topic when we’re walking in the woods or measuring a piece of wood. This is when we actually use the theory on the whiteboard. 15-minute rule #2 is the non-structured side of learning, and it’s when the stuff she learned really starts to stick.

Like all things in homeschooling, this is not the answer to all your problems or even the right way for all families to do things. But it is a suggestion I got years ago that seems to work in our house. Maybe it’ll work in yours, too.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling.


8 Responses

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  1. Mary Ellen says

    Very interesting stuff. It’s obvious I’m not a home-schooler; it had never occurred to me that the attention of the teacher on any one student would be so dilute that you can do a comparable (probably better) job in a fraction of the time. And the horse picture is great!

  2. Sheri says

    This is a lot like how we operate, and I love your description of how a week might go. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one.:)

  3. Suki says

    You’re probably one of many!

  4. Barbara says

    I found this so helpful that I recommended it to a friend. I also thought that as adults, our “window” isn’t much longer–TED talks are limited to 19 minutes!

  5. Suki says

    I’m glad to be of help! Yes, if you really want to keep someone’s attention with broad ideas, 15 minutes is probably as much as you should do unless you’re a really entertaining speaker. Of course, people have a much longer attention span for things they are interested in and already know background information for, so homeschoolers see that although the 15 minute sessions work well for something the kid isn’t really into, they’ll see their kids focusing for hours on something they really love. My daughter has been doing a horse study curriculum for the last half an hour as I type this, and she’s still going strong! And there’s another blog entry I should write…

    • Sandra Radovic says

      It’s wonderful to read your blog and read of your insights, findings and positive reinforcement of what the homeschooling world has to offer I am a fairly new member of Marin Homeschoolers Meetup Group, and I am so grateful for all of the wonderful tidbits of information and resources that our wonderful bay area has to offer. I started homeschooling my daughter last Sept., after 2 years in a private school. Although Alex had a great experience at school, our new adventure of homeschooling has become quite extraordinary. More often than not, I feel that I am the one who’s eyes are being opened, watching my daughter’s fascination in finding new discoveries and exploring the outside world through play and observation in nature. What a blessing, that my family is in a position that I can spend my days with my daughter in the wonderful world of learning and discovery. A big thank you Suki, for all of your wonderful insights, theories, and discussions in finding positive resolutions to the queries in our wonderful, but sometime choatic world of homeschooing. Thank you Suki – you are so very much appreciated.

      • Suki says

        Thanks! I’m glad my blog has been helpful. Homeschooling is a process of constant adjustment and creativity. I love being part of the conversation. Suki

Continuing the Discussion

  1. The all-day learning window – Avant Parenting linked to this post on September 30, 2012

    […] all-day learning window Recently I wrote about “the 15-minute learning window,” a way that homeschoolers have learned to tap into “teachable moments” and […]



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