Back when we were using curriculum in our homeschool, it was easy to point to the “evidence” that showed that my children were learning. As we made our way through history, science and maths materials, they would fill in the gaps in worksheets “notebook pages” or assemble pre-fabricated lapbooks, and at the end of the term I collated their “learning” into neatly labelled volumes ready to wave at imaginary doubters – “See! I did teach my children science!”
But now that we’ve moved to a more interest-led homeschooling style, what do I have to show for their learning? If my daughter engages in an activity but doesn’t have anything tangible to show at the end of it, does that mean she hasn’t learned anything? Of course not. But that doesn’t mean that tangible outcomes don’t contribute to learning. As Lori Pickert puts it,
“Your child represents his learning by making, and he learns while making.”
There seem to be good and bad reasons for wanting our children to produce “something to show” for learning. Representations created for good reasons deepen learning. Bad reasons, on the other hand, may not have anything to do with our children’s learning, but instead stem from some extraneous factor like our own anxiety.
(Note that I am not talking here about compliance with homeschool reporting laws, which we’re lucky enough not to be subject to.)
5 Good Reasons to Have Something to Show for Learning
1. Creating deepens understanding
There are different levels of learning, all appropriate at different times. For example, I read lots of books about homeschooling, but I don’t engage with them all in the same way. I might adopt a couple of ideas from one book and then put it back on the shelf. I might talk about another with my husband or homeschooling friends. If I’m really inspired by a book, I might take notes from it or write a review. Each of those actions represents a different level of engagement with the subject matter, and in general the more I have to “show” for what I’ve learned, the better I understand it. But that doesn’t mean I should review every book I read – some ideas inspire me more than others.
When C(8) was doing a project on electricity, she learned about Benjamin Franklin, lightening, circuits and electromotors. Of all the things I might have expected her to create, perhaps the least likely was an illustrated essay about electrons. She chose to create the piece as a way of consolidating her understanding and to share what she’d learned. Like me, she learns best when she’s free to choose how deeply to engage with each subject.
2. As a by-product of learning a process
When we’re learning to write, we might produce stories and poems. When we’re learning to paint, we create artwork. But when we get hung up on the form of these “products”, we interfere with the learning. Sometimes it’s about the process, not the end result.
“Children need time to master materials before they can work purposefully.”
Young children experiment with paints and paper because it’s fun. Most adults never touch art or craft materials. They’ve become so focused on the idea of the perfect product that they’ve forgotten how to play. They never write for pleasure because when they try, they discover their writing sucks compared with what they enjoy reading. Of course it does – to improve our writing skills, we need to spend time engaging with words without the pressure to produce the perfect novel.
Children need time and space to learn how to use materials without being required to produce defined outcomes. Then when they have something authentic to share, they’ll have the skills to produce representations that are pleasing to them.
3. Sharing what we know
Making representions teaches children to share what they’ve learned – a skill they’ll call on throughout their lives. Whatever work our children choose to do as adults, it will involve sharing their knowledge and skills with others. They might share orally or in written form, using video or pictures or some other art form, and sharing might be live in person or asynchronously. As children, they need opportunities to practise different types of sharing, to build confidence and help them discover what they enjoy.
C(9) recently decided to post some of her paintings on her blog. She’s learning the communication and technical skills involved compiling and publishing blog posts, as well as sharing her art. J(7) saw what C(9) was doing and wanted to start his own blog. He writes (dictates) about his favourite computer games. Both children were intrinsically motivated to represent their learning in a form they could share with other people.
3. To create a learning trail for a specific subject
When we recently studied Japanese history, I got out the lapbooks my children made when we looked at modern Japan last year. The lapbooks were wonderful visual reminders of what they had learned before. Connections were made at a faster rate; they were more quickly engaged.
It was great that in that instance we were able to look back on material made by the children. But that’s not a reason to insist that they create something in relation to everything they learn. Sometimes, as their mentor, I need to find other ways to remind them what came before. (More about this in part 2.)
4. To create a general learning trail
There’s value in being able to look back over past learning. We get a sense of satisfaction, fun is re-lived, and learning is reviewed. While I think this is an authentic reason for wanting to have “something to show” for learning, of all the reasons I find this one the most susceptible to misappropriation.
If I look around my home and notice a lack of neatly handwritten notebooks on our shelf, anxiety can creep in about whether I’m fulfilling my responsibilities. If I’m not careful, this is when I’m prone to jump in and interfere with my children’s natural learning process by insisting they write something of my choosing.
I guard against this tendency by taking plenty of photos and keeping a learning journal. Yes, I want my children to have something to look back on to remind them of all the things they’ve learned, but in my experience the more intrinsically motivated a child has been to create a piece of work, the more likely it is to be treasured and reviewed.
What if they aren’t producing enough?
In part 2, I’ll share some strategies I use when I get to worrying that I’m not seeing enough homeschooling “results”.
I also emphasise by way of disclaimer that this is an ongoing enquiry for me: I don’t have all the answers, I’m just sharing what’s working for us at the moment. And I most definitely welcome your thoughts and experiences on the subject – I need all the help I can get!