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Mind The Gap

Watching For "Holes" in Your Child's Education

By Diane Flynn Keith

Mind The Gap: Watching For 'Holes' in Your Child's Education by Diane Flynn Keith

London Underground, Bank station. (Licensed under Creative Commons)

A few years ago my family took a field trip to England. I didn't say "vacation." We didn't take a single vacation in all the years we homeschooled — but we took lots of "educational field trips." Calling it that helped to justify the cost.

One thing my sons found particularly amusing in London was the sign "Mind The Gap." It is somewhat synonymous with "Watch Your Step" in the U.S. You see it most often in subway stations when you must step from the train onto the station platform. You have to step across a gap or a divide, a hole or a space — hence, "Mind The Gap." Not only is the warning posted, you hear it in recorded messages announced through loudspeakers inside the trains and the station, "Mind The Gap."

The slogan has inspired those who see and hear it. Songs and video games contain references to "Mind the Gap." T-shirts are imprinted with "Mind the Gap" — and it's not just the tourists who wear them. There was a movie made called "Mind The Gap" in 2004. I've never seen it, but the Internet Movie Data Base describes it this way, "Five seemingly unrelated people decide to take huge risks in their personal lives in an effort to find happiness." Hey! That description could apply to just about any group of homeschoolers I know.

Yet, happiness is elusive, and taking risks by rejecting conventional schooling can make one fearful. How many times have you heard homeschool parents, who have recently decided to step off the linear school train, anxiously say with a straight face, "I want to make sure there aren't any gaps in my child's education?"

National Standards

Fear of gaps causes them to slavishly and unhappily adhere to a school model, scope-and-sequence curriculum that satisfies "national standards." They think it will ensure their children won't have any "holes" in their education. Or, they sign up with a charter school home study program believing that reporting to a teacher-facilitator every 20 days or so will guarantee their child has a "complete" education. They may have begun to get off the school train, but they are trapped in suspension over the gap, too fearful to land firmly at the homeschool station where educational freedom awaits.

Can following a curriculum guarantee there won't be gaps in a child's schooling? Is a transcript from a public charter school proof that there aren't any cracks in a child's education?

No! And if you think so, you're delusional! No one has a complete education. No one ever has, and no one ever will. You can learn some of the curriculum all of the time, and all of the curriculum some of the time, but you can't learn all of the curriculum all of the time! You can't learn everything there is to know. And I certainly don't mean to imply that any "curriculum" is even worth knowing. As Albert Einstein said, "Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school."

I've noticed that the parents who are fixated on minding the gap in their child's education are usually relatively new to homeschooling. Those that have been around a while seem reconciled to the fact that there are gaps in everyone's education. Compare your own education to anyone else's and you'll see that it's true.

Building a Sugar Cube History

Did you know that if you went to school in one state and your spouse went to school in another state, you didn't have the same history lessons? One of you has a "gap" in their education. It's true! I was conducting a workshop on homeschool resources at a Link Homeschool Conference and mentioned that fourth graders in California public schools study California history. Students learn about the California missions and, for some reason, build sugar-cube facsimiles.

One mom interrupted and said, "I'm from Pennsylvania, and we studied Pennsylvania history and built sugar-cube steel mills." A dad spoke up, "I'm from Alaska and we built sugar-cube igloos." Someone else said, "We didn't study missions either, we studied Egypt and made sugar-cube pyramids."

As you can see, it isn't studying history that matters, it's building something with sugar cubes that seems to be of universal importance across national curriculum standards for fourth graders.

If you keep thinking along these lines, you can see that the gaps in education from one person to the next are a social engineer's nightmare. If the majority of the population isn't indoctrinated with the same agenda and curriculum, it is difficult to predict and manage their behavior.

Standardized Curriculum

Let's imagine, for a moment, that a presidential proclamation decreed that every student must build a mission out of sugar-cubes in the 4th grade. Now let's suppose those fourth-graders are all grown up. If you were to hand those adults a box of sugar cubes and ask them what they could do with it, what do you suppose would be their first answer? Duh, build a mission? Would any of them first suggest adding a few drops of methyl salicylate to the cube and then hammering it in a darkened room to demonstrate triboluminescence? Heck, would any of them suggest using a sugar cube to sweeten their coffee or tea?

The point of standardized curriculum is to standardize people. They are much easier to manage and control if they think and act alike.

We hear a lot from politicians about closing educational achievement gaps. Depending on which special interest group they are addressing, you'll hear rhetoric about closing the gender gap, racial gap, economic gap, and opportunity gap as they all (we are told) negatively impact the goal of public education. Lately, the government tells us that closing all of those gaps begins with preschool.

Our government isn't the first to suggest it. Political regimes (the Nazis and Communists, for example), have come and gone knowing the meaning of Proverbs 22:6: "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it." The absorbent minds of young children are highly susceptible to government control. Indoctrinate babies with the state pablum of social and political philosophy wrapped up in standardized curriculum and they will be loyal to their Government Nanny forever.

So, why are you minding the gap? What is it exactly that you are afraid your child will miss? Reading? Writing? Arithmetic? Building missions with sugar cubes? Face your fear. Give it a name. Make a list. Then really look at that list and determine what is most important in order to give your child the educational foundation that will allow him or her to become an autonomous, self-directed learner. If that is your goal, following a curriculum and agenda created by the state (or anyone else) is counter-intuitive.

Learning to Read

We'd probably all agree that learning to read is important. John Taylor Gatto, the author of "Dumbing Us Down," who taught in New York schools for 30 years, reports that it only takes 100 contact hours to teach a child to read. If that's true, is it necessary to have "reading" as a required subject for an hour a day, for 180 school days each year, for fourteen years, from preschool through high school? If not, why would you insist upon it in your homeschool?

In a consumer culture it's interesting that we don't think kids need lessons in how to spend money. It's mystifying (and oh-so-telling) that we don't give them lessons in how to manage money either.

We'd also concur that writing is an important skill to learn. In our society you must have the skill to communicate your thoughts legibly to someone else, in writing. The debate rages about what to teach first — printing or cursive. In 2003, I contacted Dr. Steve Graham of the University of Maryland, who has conducted research studies on handwriting, and he said there isn't any conclusive evidence that shows one style is preferable over the other, in terms of legibility and speed. If that's true, why do some homeschoolers -- who can opt out of school agenda -- insist on teaching both? Rather than learning two ways to write, it may be more productive to learn one way to write along with typing. Keyboarding will be a more useful secondary skill, overall. Your child is more likely to learn it quickly if you don't turn the activity into drudgery with compulsory, schoolish lessons.

In fact, take a page from Nicholas Negroponte's book. A former director of the MIT Media Library, he founded the non-profit organization, One Laptop Per Child. Their goal is to provide every child in the third world with the XO Laptop computer for free. Acknowledging that traditional schooling is too slow and ineffective, their mission statement includes this:

"Any nation's most precious natural resource is its children. We believe the emerging world must leverage this resource by tapping into the children's innate capacities to learn, share, and create on their own. Our answer to that challenge is the XO laptop, a children's machine designed for 'learning learning.'"

In a recent interview on the 20/20 television program, Negroponte reported that children in emerging nations learn to use the computer with very little instruction. They aren't required to take endless lessons in computer classes. They are simply provided with a computer (the XO Laptop) and intuitively figure it out, or are mentored by friends who quickly show them how to use it. Negroponte claims it opens their world to unlimited knowledge while expanding their creative and problem-solving potential. The reporter who interviewed him double-checked with a professor who insisted hours of instruction and supervision should be given. I guess he's afraid of the potential this project has for informational gaps among the laptop learners.

Nevertheless, Negroponte says that children in the most remote regions of the world are being "given the opportunity to tap into their own potential, to be exposed to a whole world of ideas, and to contribute to a more productive and saner world community." If this free-style method of learning works so well for third-world children, perhaps more homeschoolers should try it. Abandon the school model. Quit worrying about gaps and get on with the joy and adventure of learning.

Learning Math

As for arithmetic, the majority of people need to understand enough consumer math not to be cheated, fooled, or kept perpetually impoverished in a credit-card world. In a consumer culture it's interesting that we don't think kids need lessons in how to spend money. It's mystifying (and oh-so-telling) that we don't give them lessons in how to manage money either.

Once your child understands elementary math processes, then teach your kids to review and balance bank statements. Show them how to decipher financial statements. Learn to calculate compounded interest on credit card balances and loans. Show them how to invest their money. Take Robert Kiyosaki's advice. He's the author of "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" and encourages parents to give their children a financial education. Help them understand that it is far better to have your money work for you, than to have to work forever for money.

Next up, what would happen if your son or daughter never built a sugar-cube mission or anything at all from sugar cubes? Would their lives and ability to learn be stunted? Of course not, that's ridiculous. Let go of your fear and quit minding the gap.

Homeschoolers have embraced the idea that school is not the only place where one can learn socialization skills. Perhaps more should question whether following schoolish curriculum is the only way to get a "complete" education.

As you disembark the linear school train, don't spend all of your time minding the gap. You may miss the wonderful sights, sounds, and learning opportunities that abound in the liberated and abundant landscape of your homeschool destination.

About Diane Flynn Keith ...

Diane Flynn Keith is a veteran homeschool parent and an internationally recognized voice in education outside the traditional classroom walls.

Diane coaches and encourages thousands of homeschool families through her website, Homefires.com and through her popular speaking engagements. She has contributed to 5 books on homeschooling and is the author of the best-selling book, "Carschooling: Over 350 Entertaining Games & Activities To Turn Travel Time Into Learning Time."

Originally published in The Link Homeschool Newspaper. Reprinted with permission.

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