I was out on a mushroom hunt this morning with my mother, going to a place where we knew there would be chanterelles, but we took a wrong turn in the forest and weren’t sure we were on the right path.
So we tried three solutions: first, push on to see if we were mistaken that we were on the wrong trail (we weren’t); second, go up to the top of a hill to see if we could get a sense of which direction we were off by (we couldn’t); finally, start back at a new starting point where we knew we could find the right trail—success!
Result: Bucket full o’ lovely chanterelles!
I got to thinking that the mushrooming experience is a perfect metaphor for how I want my kids to approach their education. People in homeschooling groups have been discussing this article that ran in the New York Times a few days ago. In one group I’m in, someone pointed out something a professor posted in the comments:
“… By and large home-schooled kids tend to be bright, energetic, and with appalling focus issues – they are great at doing what immediately interests them, dreadful at doing “the boring stuff”. They also have remarkable amounts of detail about some topics and huge lacunae in other areas. …”
I actually agree with the professor that this is a danger that homeschoolers face: In allowing our kids to pursue their own educations, we sometimes don’t encourage them to develop the focus and grit that will help them be successful as college students and beyond.
In our house, we take a two-pronged approach to this problem. First, we let our younger kids follow their muse when it came to education. Certainly, we tried to expose them to a variety of things, but we didn’t force them to continue studying something they hated. We modeled perseverance, but we didn’t enforce it.
But now that we’re homeschooling a teen, we’ve altered that approach. While following your muse is great, sometimes when you pursue a goal you come upon obstacles. We feel it’s very important to help him learn to navigate the real world, in which not every class is interesting, not every teacher is a soulmate, and not every subject you study rocks your world. But, for example, if you want to be a computer scientist you are simply going to have to study algebra (sorry, kid).
So how do we foster perseverance and grit while also allowing for personal choice, inspiration, and dabbling—all important in their own right?
For us, it’s like my mushrooming trip:
First, simply deal with the fact that not every class you take is going to be fun, not every skill you learn will be easy to master, not every person you have to interact with will be a bosom buddy.
Second, be willing to push on and persevere if there still seems to be benefit in the path you’re taking.
And finally, know when to give up and try a better path.
Balance is the key here: But balance absolutely doesn’t mean that kids should be taught always to suck it up and continue with something that’s not working. That’s the school approach, one we have rejected.
In our house, we believe in following through with commitments. If our kids make a commitment and then one day say, ‘Oh, this is getting hard, I’m going to drop it,’ we don’t simply let them do it. We ask them to take stock of the situation, be clear about why they want to quit, and consider whether they’re quitting because of something important (the teacher is truly awful and they’re getting nothing from the experience) or something easily surmountable (this teacher’s style is not one they terribly like, but when they look at what they’ve done so far in the class, they’ve learned a lot in unexpected ways).
If they end up deciding to quit something, they are expected to take ownership of that decision. They can’t blame the teacher for not being a good teacher, for example. Instead, they can make a positive decision to use their time in a different way to achieve the goals of the class they were taking.
I hope this is teaching them that when working toward goals, they will almost always run across obstacles along the way.*
I hope that when they come up against “the boring stuff” that they have to do in order to succeed in their field, they see it as an obstacle that they can tackle in one way or another.
If not, perhaps they’ve started down the path that leads to amanitas instead of chanterelles.
* I hope that when they get to college, if they run into that professor, they’ll perhaps alter his opinion about homeschoolers a bit. However, anecdotal evidence shows that many people out in the wider world only notice homeschoolers when the homeschoolers do something to justify their low opinion of homeschoolers. So perhaps the professor won’t notice our kids at all, which would be a victory as well.