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Out of the Box and into the Carton: A Challenge to Categorizing Learning

Out of the Box and into the Carton?
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 definitely Math.

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 same.

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 the day”.

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 Dream.

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, such boxes.

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 her kids.

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