Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Inverse Proportionality and the Death of Curiosity

"Curiosity killed the cat..." goes the old saying. I suppose that was coined by an overwhelmed parent trying to keep their children's exploring and questioning from getting them in trouble. I like the addendum to the saying better, though, even if it is a false rhyme: "...but satisfaction brought it back!" Curiosity is one of our greatest gifts, at the very heart of exploring, learning, and inventing. People are born curious, and the loss of that curiosity over time is a great human tragedy. Sadly, many children who go to kindergarten bursting with an inquisitive nature gradually lose that love of learning until, just a few years later, teachers struggle to gain their interest in even the most fascinating subjects. As a one-time high school teacher, I know that frustration well. As an unschooling parent, however, I now know that this tragic loss of curiosity can be prevented! First, we have to know how it happens.

That is where the law of inverse proportionality comes in. Simply put, it means that two things are "related so that as one becomes larger, the other becomes smaller." (Merriam Webster Learner's Dictionary) Not long ago we were enjoying an explanation of this principle on Khan Academy, when I recognized that the explanation was clear and useful, but fairly abstract. I wanted a real-world example we could relate to, so I used something I probably learned at the Northeast Unschooling Conference. I'm calling it "The Law of The Wall" (bragging rights to whoever gets the musical reference in the name first): "A child's curiosity is inversely proportional to the amount of information adults are trying to force on them." Trying to make children learn is like brushing their teeth with sugar - you're promoting the very decay you hope to prevent.

I can hear the objections coming..."If I don't make my child do their schoolwork, they'll just sit around and [insert fun activity here]." Of course they would, wouldn't you if you had the choice? Or maybe not, because as parents, we've been out of school long enough to start regaining our curiosity. No one is forcing learning on us, and over time we begin to rediscover our natural wonder about the world. Then we naturally wonder what's wrong with our kids, who don't share our fascination with geography, astronomy, or the infinite wonders of global economics. Could it be inverse proportionality? The more enthusiastically we shove information at them, with subtle or overt coercion, the less they are interested.

What is the answer then, for the frazzled and anxious parent watching a child play Donkey Kong instead of directing his or her first Shakespeare production? First of all, recognize that we are learning always and everywhere, even, in some mysterious way beyond my ability to comprehend at the moment, when we are playing Donkey Kong or catapulting colorful but ill-tempered birds at hapless virtual pigs. So relax; the kids will learn what they need to know.

Second, if you have regained your wonder and curiosity, follow it! Forget for the moment about what your child may or may not be learning, and start exploring for yourself. Your own example as a motivated life-long learner is very powerful! My goal is to nurture in my children a lifelong love of learning, and I want to lead the way by my example.

Third, become a resource rather than a pain in the neck. Our job is to provide access to the world, not to force-feed it to our children. As we saw above, that is counter-productive. You can, however, strew your world with a variety of fascinating resources. I don't mean stacking your child's shelves with boring textbooks about what you or someone else supposes he ought to be learning at this age. Let your life be filled with genuinely interesting treasures - well-written, colorful books, movies, events, fascinating friends, travel, community service, discussions, music, magazines, internet resources, clubs, and so on. Have a rich and stimulating (but not overwhelming!) life, and create an environment that nurtures curiosity. Then, as they show signs of curiosity, avoid the tempatation to jump all over it and accidentally stomp out those first few sparks. Give them the freedom and room for their curiosity to grow!

If your child has been in a coercive school setting, or if your method of home education has involved force-feeding, it will take time for their natural curiosity to return. The more you push them, the longer you delay the return of their natural desire to learn - that desire that is innate in all of us. Ask yourself which is more important - today's busy work and the false appearance of a sound education, or becoming a person motivate to learn and capable of doing it on your own? To see the cat once again enjoying its own natural curiosity is enough satisfaction for me!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Curious about Our World

A few years ago, Aunt Hannah rescued a giant laminated wall map of the world from the neighbor's trash and gave it to us. We put it up on the wall opposite our breakfast room, where, at the time, many of our learning activities occurred. The map had an immediate and unexpected impact on the kids. They gathered excitedly around it and began to ask questions about the places we found. They stood in rapt attention as I told them what little I knew about each country, and then begged for more.

Honestly, this is not a homeschool parent's fantasy. They loved that big map, and referenced it frequently. Since then the breakfast room has become a bedroom, and the map came down. Now they've asked me repeatedly to put it back up again.

I'm so grateful for their curiosity about our world and fascination with that map. Sadly, I lost my own connection with that curiosity somewhere along the way. Maybe it had something to do with being coerced into memorizing states and capitals. Places to which I've never been and about which I have little curiosity are still taking up much-needed storage capacity - though I admit to having forgotten most of them (Boise, oddly, remains, unsure whether it belongs to Idaho or Iowa). These studies belonged to the discipline we called Geography, and if you approached this territory, you needed to have a sharp memory for place names and the shape of things.

If I wanted to suggest ways to memorize the names of things and their shapes - particularly states and countries - I would certainly suggest puzzles. I would also encourage that you do the puzzle face-down (the puzzle, not you, although you would have to be facing down to do the puzzle). I'm no expert on mnemonic devices, though, and I've discovered that we don't have much trouble remembering the things - even reams of things - we're really motivated about and happy to learn. One of my sons knows dozens of the episodes of the Doctor Who series by name and air date, and what happened in history the week those shows aired. Another can tell you an enormous amount of information about Japanese pop culture and the films of Hayao Miyazaki. My daughter can receive what is to me an unintelligible barrage of commands in French from her ballet teacher, and then execute them in sequence without hesitation. They did not need puzzles or mnemonic devices to learn these things, and most of them they did not learn face down.

So what about Geography? I believe we are all naturally curious about the world, until those who are trying to help us unintentionally demotivate us by formalizing it, making it difficult and boring. If we simply provide children with access to the tools through which they can discover our amazing world - pictures, books, videos, maps, and especially travel - they will learn quite naturally. If the adults in their lives are curious about the world, that will make a difference, as well.

Will they have gaps, you may ask? Probably. They may grow up not knowing whether Boise is the capital of Iowa or Idaho. If they ever need to know, however, they'll Google it.

Speaking of Google, if you need inspiration to regain your curiosity about the world, discover Google Maps. You can see the whole world from space, and then zoom in with detailed satellite images of everywhere from your own street to Zimbabwe. Or Boise, Idaho, for that matter. Now that is cool!

Friday, February 17, 2012

Learning English with Elvis

I have a friend who learned English by listening to records, especially Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. Admittedly, his English was a little different, with expressions the rest of us wouldn't think to use. He learned, though, because he was motivated. As a musician, he wanted to sing in English and speak with Americans. That is, I believe, the first and most important factor in learning a language - a desire to use it.

If you are motivated to learn a language, there are two more factors vital to your success: context and spaced repetition. For my friend abroad, records were the only context he had, but it was enough for him to learn conversational English. When I learned Arabic, living among Arabs who spoke almost no English provided a context where I could effectively learn and practice that language. I find that workbooks and classrooms, however, are a limited and relatively poor context for language learning; they provide lots of repetition, but not much motivation and little meaningful context. My friend's records gave him an ideal blend of motivation, context, and spaced repetition.

How could you use these factors to make learning your target language fun and easy? (Well, easier!) We're currently learning a song in Spanish that we have sung at our church in English. It's called "I Can Only Imagine," or, in Spanish, "Puedo Imaginarme." We've downloaded the Spanish version from iTunes and found the corresponding lyrics online. Our goal is to perform the song in church in English and Spanish - and maybe French, too!

Whatever language you're learning, I encourage you to explore new avenues - like music, films, audiobooks, etc. - where you can experience the language in a fun and motivating context.

Dios te bendiga,

Pastor Kevin