Out of the Box and into the
A Challenge to Categorizing Learning
By Anne Hodge
As families who choose to
educate our children outside of public or private school, we assume that
we are thinking “outside of the box.” If we were “in” the box, the view
would be limited to the four walls around us, to what we were presented
with. Inside the box, we are stifled, trapped, bored, unimaginative. It
is a passive learning environment.
To be outside conjures up
freedom, choice, diversity. It makes us think of lush green fields where
interesting opportunities crop up like daisies, and a far distant
horizon. But wait a minute…that horizon. Could it be that it’s just more
walls only farther away? Have we jumped out of a box and into a carton?!
When we categorize our learning
into the traditional subjects of schools, we have built walls using the
very same limiting materials. Despite the freedom to follow our
interests, if we try to fit those interests into subjects, we lose
something. Learning things, whether it is the three primary colors or
Mahatma Gandhi’s policy of non-violence, should add to our lives.
Categorizing these nuggets dilutes them and assumes that they only have
worth as part of a general concept.
This was not a view I was born
with and have followed merrily throughout my life. It was born of
frustration when I moved to a state where the regulations require the
filing of much paperwork: a plan or curriculum for each child, quarterly
reports on what’s been covered, end of year evaluations. I am required
by these regulations to cover a certain amount of English instruction,
Math, Science, Social Studies, and Physical Education.
I tried to follow these
directions because, despite my history of making unorthodox choices, I
don’t relish confrontation, and deep down I am still a product of my own
schooled upbringing where following directions featured prominently. So,
with the forms in front of me, I set about fitting things we had done
into the appropriate sections.
I began with our most recent
adventure; an hour-long program at the local nature center on the winter
survival skills of North American mammals. From this my children and I
had learned the difference between true hibernation and dormancy, the
importance of trees for animals’ food and shelter, and the impact of
humans on natural cycles. We discussed these revelations in the car on
the way home, as well as how animals adapt to their environment, but
humans adapt the environment itself.
Hmmmm. How to put this into the
report. Which boxes should I fill in? I knew it was basically Science
but that bit about human impact made it also part Social Studies. The
discussion of how terrain has changed since colonial times made it
History, and because we read trail signs, it was Reading, and
calculating how many inches of snowfall below the norm we were was
Breaking down into dry little
categories what had been a joyful day of discovery immediately seemed
bizarre. Like getting a tasty slice of chocolate fudge cake only to pick
it apart into unappetizing crumbs. Why was it necessary to put our
newfound knowledge into categories? The knowledge gained wouldn’t change
by doing that. Were traditional subjects another formalized school
convention I could do without like hall passes and cafeteria lunches?
Assuming that the purpose of
their early years is to prepare children to become productive members of
society, how does breaking things into subjects further this agenda? My
school district liaison would quickly tell me that it’s important to
cover all the bases, to have a broad, well-rounded education, yet I
doubt he would have seen all the “subjects” covered in our nature center
trip. Would he understand that everything is intertwined, that Life
itself is just one big Unit Study?
As adults, we are no longer
bound by the rules of schools. We don’t follow the limits imposed by
them, nor do we scramble to fill our minds with information to satisfy
any educational requirements. Have we stopped learning? Of course not.
We still spend every day trying to make sense of the world around us,
following our interests, and interacting with others who are doing the
As adults, we do not see the
world in categories. They have no meaning in our everyday lives. Why bog
down our children’s minds with them at all? If skills are worth learning
they are worth learning because they are valuable in some way, not
because they fall under a certain category. As adults, we have retained
those skills that we found most valuable, and we use them all the time
without even thinking.
You’re at the grocery store
buying food for the upcoming week, keeping a running tally in your head
of how much you’re spending because you need to save enough cash to buy
gas. You’re trying to remember how many nights you’ll all be home for
dinner, which nights you’ll have to grab a quick meal, was it this
Saturday that the Nelsons were planning to come over for spaghetti, and
wasn’t it this market that had orange juice on sale. You pay for the
items, pack them into the car and head off home. My guess is that you
did not once stop to say to yourself, “Oooh, I’ve sure done my Math for
You are at a touring ballet
company’s performance of Swan Lake. You marvel at the restoration of the
1800’s building, imagining what it would’ve looked like in the days of
gas lamps and long skirts. You gasp at the beauty of the backdrop and
how the lighting makes it look like the dancers are really on water. You
are amazed at the ability and grace of the dancers and how they evoke
emotions through their movement. Did you think of this as the dancers’
Physical Education? Did it occur to you that each measure of the music
was broken down into precise mathematical patterns and sequences? Did
you discuss three reasons electricity was better than gas lighting?
All day long adults, are
learning and using skills that can be compartmentalized into traditional
subjects and yet we don’t bother to do that because the act itself is
the important thing, not the name of the act. You are shoveling snow.
Are you conscious that this is Physics? You are washing dishes. Does the
reaction of soap and grease cause you to think Chemistry? You are
humming a tune. Are you aware that it’s Music?
Think of all the things your
children do in a day that you could categorize into school subjects,
things like brushing teeth, frying an egg, breaking a glass, walking,
feeding a pet, making tea, raking leaves, answering the phone, sending
e-mail, checking the weather, arguing, picking up toys, watering
houseplants, traveling in a car, checking out library books. You could
take the time to fit each of these activities into subjects, but would
that add meaning or value?
Many of us, at one time or
another, had to do just that to reassure ourselves or family members
that learning was indeed taking place. Had to justify hours of LEGO
building by telling ourselves the kids were mastering spatial
relationships and problem solving. Felt better to think the kids were
learning Botany and Agriculture as they planted and tended a garden.
Assured ourselves that they were developing an appreciation for
Literature as they sat through a performance of A Midsummer Night’s
How many of us still say that we
hate Math, or Art, or Gym? What we really mean is that Math class was
boring and the teacher was hard, that we felt we were graded unfairly
for our creativity in Art class, that we didn’t like the competitive
atmosphere of Gym class. It doesn’t mean that we don’t find value in
addition, pictures, or exercise. On the contrary, there is value in
understanding what Math is, what Science is. These areas of study can
help us make sense of the world around us. I see no value, however, in
trying to fit each pearl of wisdom or thought into such designations,
For many of us, there is comfort
in boundaries, and old thought patterns are hard to break. If it seems
too chaotic to do away with subject designations altogether, why not
rename them? My son decided that Math and Science, in essence, are both
Figuring Stuff Out. History is Figuring Out When and Why Stuff Happened.
Language Arts is How to Tell People About Stuff. Young people seem to
easily come up with such headings based on how information is learned or
for what purpose. It is only habit that keeps us using the old subject
names and allocating our day’s work into traditional compartments.
I no longer try to fit our lives
into boxes, but I still have to file all those reports to my district
office. I’ll admit it was a struggle to translate this new category-free
philosophy into something that would be acceptable to my liaison.
Quarter after quarter, I tooled and retooled them and finally hit upon a
format that works for both parties: I simply list the places we’ve been,
the movies we’ve watched, the activities I remember, and the discussions
they’ve generated, and let the school liaison figure out what subjects
they fall under. Voila!
I hope that by giving the things
we learn value simply because they are an addition to our life
experience, and not because they satisfy some vague subject on a
syllabus, my children will see their lives as rich and full, and see the
world as an unending trove of treasure to be discovered and savored. I
hope that when they look out across the horizon they don’t see the
remnants of the restrictive walls I’m still trying to dismantle but a
vast wonderland. I hope it never occurs to them that Figuring Stuff Out
isn’t a worthy pursuit, and that they continue to patiently teach me
what a truly educated mind is.
Anne Hodge lives in New York
State with her husband and three children. She has been a support group
organizer, workshop facilitator, speaker and writer on local and state
levels but is really just a mom having fun learning about the world with
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