Thursday, June 19, 2008

Education is a Life

Except for a couple intermittent years, and my most recent degree at the John Paul II Institute, I am (academically) the product of public education, from elementary school through my undergrad days at UVA. I must admit that much of the rote memorization, fill-in-the-blanks type learning that Charlotte Mason, a turn-of-the-century English educator, seems most concerned about seemed to have fallen out of style, at least when I was in school. Perhaps with the heavy emphasis on standardized testing (coming back just as I was leaving for college) there has been a renewed interest in memorization? In any case, in both my elementary and high school experiences, there was a heavy emphasis on creative writing, group projects, problem-solving, skits, and role-playing, as well as hands-on experimentation. I remember my parents even expressing concern about the fact that we were not forced to drill much of what we learned into our minds through rote memorization. By the time middle school rolled around I used a calculator for all of my math classes, so the necessity of recalling even basic math was for the most part eliminated. Yet there were still plenty of history, vocabulary, and grammar textbooks with bold-faced words and questions at the end of the book that told you “what you needed to know”; I became an expert at attacking tests armed with this somewhat formulaic knowledge.

Emotional Connection
I have been skimming through Karen Andreola’s A Charlotte Mason Companion in company with Education Is.... She points out that a key element in making education truly a “life” for a child (or adult) is forging an emotional connection to the subject matter. She quotes Charlotte Mason as she describes successful education as that which kindles a “touch of emotion” in the child with regard to a particular subject matter. Certainly this rings true with common sense– anyone dedicates themselves more diligently to that which they care about, rather than to that which they are bound only by duty or the pressure of evaluation.

I tried to ponder what has stuck with me most in my educational life. Literature, history, and language classes were always fascinating to me and received my primary attention; math, science, and any technical or computer classes elicited a “who cares?” feeling from me. I did the work out of duty; I always got “good grades,” but what I perceived as a lack of “human interest” in these classes made me feel that they were irrelevant to my life. Even now I am somewhat at loss to figure out how to present such subjects, particularly at higher, post-elementary levels, to someone without a natural affinity for them, in a way that they might care about them.

Recently my interest has been peaked by different environmental issues; I realize how much science of all kinds (biology, chemistry, statistics, etc.) goes into identifying and creating approaches for solving different environmental problems. Perhaps if my chemistry class had begun with a “big picture” such as the environment, describing how changes in the environment impact us and others directly, then moving from this to the necessity to understand the hidden chemical workings behind it, I might have been more inclined to care about it than I was when we began with the abstract “little picture” of the elements, their atoms, etc.

Gender differences?
One question I have regarding this particular topic (the important of emotional connection) has come to me because so much of what I have read about Charlotte Mason has been from the female point of view. In much of my studies of late, (interesting books like What Could He Be Thinking? by Michael Gurian, The Essential Difference by Simon Baron-Cohen, and Taking Sex Differences Seriously by Steven E. Rhodes) I have found a lot about the differences in the male and female brain and the best ways that, on average, males and females learn and engage in the world. From what Baron-Cohen writes, I think it may be more important for the feminine brain to forge emotional connections with subject matter than for the masculine brain. Why is this? Baron-Cohen describes the typical female brain as one with neural connections built more strongly for empathizing. What is empathy? He describes it as “the drive to identify another person’s emotions and thoughts, and to respond to them with an appropriate emotion” in order to understand, connect, or resonate with another person emotionally. On the other hand, the typical male brain is built with neural connections that promote a higher degree of systematizing–analysis, exploration, and construction of systems, in order to predict the behavior of the system or to invent a new one. Systematizing requires a degree of detachment, whereas empathizing requires a degree of attachment. There is much more that could be said–his book is a fascinating read–but I think the short conclusion I’d like to draw here is that my above inference about females vs. males and emotional connection to subject matter is probably true to a certain extent.

My husband is my “common sense” case study for this: he enjoys figuring out problems (physics, chess and other similar games, math equations, etc.) just for the pure joy of solving problems. This baffles me, as it is so different from my own natural inclinations. Yet his insistence that this is why he enjoys solving problems proves to me that there is another way of being, learning, and acquiring knowledge out there that is very different from my own. (My husband is not a purely “technical” guy by any means–his main pursuit is teaching and learning music; he is a singer, an excellent artist, and a not-too-shabby writer as well.) In addition to my own little “case study”, I recall that most of the more enthusiastic members of my computer classes and physics classes in high school were male. Certainly there were many women at my school who also excelled in these classes (I went to a science and math-based high school; that’s another story for another time!), so these male and female brain differences are not a hard and fast rule.

In light of all of this would be quite interested to hear about CM-style education from the perspective of a male educator, or from those who have educated males through the high school level in this fashion, given that I may be in the position of guiding the education of my son, who quite possibly has a mind that will work and learn in ways very different from my own.


Elizabeth Foss said...

I used the CM methods quite extensively with my first child, all the way through high school. I think the one exception in his education would be that CM was not all that fond of competitive athletics and he is a Division I athlete in college. He has written fondly of his education on his own blog and he recently recounted to me an exchange with a professor who, upon complimenting him as "the best writer she's ever had," asked where he went to school. She was literally speechless when she heard he'd been homeschooled. She had a sterotypical image of homescholers as narrow-minded and narrowly educated and he did not fit that image at all.When he applied to colleges, he was accepted every where he considered (including some highly competitive schools) with one exception. And that exception was a school that wanted only class rank and test scores and would not read his portfolio or recommendations. His education really couldn't be fit in that box.He finished his first year of college with straight As.That said, he has little interest in math and no interest in physics :-). He is decidedly verbal and he is a double major in journalism and art. I do believe he's "well-rounded." He can think for himself; he manages his time exceedingly well; he cares about his coursework. You've got me thinking about "male" education. Honestly, I have little interest in math, either; so is it nature or nurture? I do love science and I especially have loved continuing my science education well beyond what I soaked in in Gilmore Hall (I think there's a new biology building now so I'm dating myself). Nature study has only enhanced what I learned in textbooks and through almost always stellar lectures. I only wish I'd had the benefit of nature study as a child.
I think that you had a public education in the "sweet spot" for innovation. What I saw was really chaos over what and how to teach.But I also went to fourteen different public schools before ending up at UVa. There was a huge disparity in quality geographically. But that chaos and disparity was echoed at UVa in the education school. The professors there were all seemingly in disagreement over both content and method. As students, we spent long nights in discussion with each other, scratching our heads in confusion, all the while acing the tests.
It was in my fourth year at UVa, while working on an independent study project, that I first began to consider educating my children at home. If nothing else, they have a consistency that I saw lacking in my own education.
I'm very much enjoying your posts. Thanks for chiming into the discussion!

Carla said...

Thanks for sharing about your son, Elizabeth! It is reassuring to hear from someone who has traveled the path already.