Friday, May 7, 2010

About Those Dreaded Gaps

I’ve heard it in person, I’ve seen it on message boards. Homeschooling parents are terrified that one way or another they will fail their children by leaving gaps in their education. Gaps in history, gaps in grammar, gaps in math. Something or another will be forgotten unless a rigorous curriculum published by an expert company is used exactly as laid out.

To this I say “phooey”.

Of course there will be gaps! Thousands of years of world history and literature, music and art, not to mention language and math, and you expect your child to have covered it all, and remember it all, by the time they are 18? Nonsense! Why waste your time in worrying about gaps when gaps are inevitable?

But parents are still stuck with the worry. What should a homeschool parent be doing if it isn’t cramming facts into their children on a regular basis? What is learning if it isn’t reading, answering comprehension questions, then memorizing those key points for the chapter test?

Here’s what I think. Education isn’t about memorizing dates, names, formulas and facts, especially these days with the internet at our fingertips. It is about mastering the skills you need to continue learning: reading, writing, being able to analyze the worth of the sources you use, being able to gauge the soundness of the logic in the arguments you hear. It is about learning to listen, to take the time to think, and it is about the joy of discovery. It is about building a knowledge of the world around you so you have a context into which to fit new information. The context comes from travel, from reading historical fiction, from reading biographies of scientists or explorers or through a pure study of history, but the context is best built through an exploration of something of interest.

What does it look like in real life homeschooling?

It starts with lots of books. Books about math, mathematicians, and numbers. Fiction and non-fiction books about anything -- airplanes, dinosaurs, theater, sports. Mythology, poetry and silly verse, classic literature and the much maligned twaddle that sometimes is the only material kids want to read.

Reading alone isn’t enough. Books should be shared and enjoyed together. Read together or read the same books separately and talk about the books. Read books you don’t want to read, but read them anyway because your child is passionate about them. Talk about the characters, talk about what you think is interesting and WHY you found it interesting. Point out facts that you never knew before and share your excitement in learning something new. Ask questions, then look up the answer on the internet and share what you found out. Learn about the author. Pull out a globe or atlas and look at the place where the book takes place. Use Google Earth.

Get the newspaper or good magazines. Muse is a great one for older kids and young teens.

Get out of the house and visit area zoos, parks and museums, and visit the same ones repeatedly. Kids will take something new from the same exhibits as they get older. Look at the book section in the museum gift shop to see if there is anything that relates to something that interests them. Attend lectures at the museum. Take your kids to classes at the museum and let them ask questions, but teach them good manner to not dominate a conversation, or not show off their knowledge. We think our kids are fabulous, but others are at these classes to see the teacher, not to hear your child enumerate all the facts she has picked up.

Talk about what you see at the museum or at the zoo, and make connections between what you’ve seen and what you’ve read.

Play games. Mad Libs, monopoly, scrabble, chess, poker or other card games. Let your kids teach you how to play Pokemon or Magic or other of the more recent card games. Do craft projects and science kits, let them build with legos, let them make movies or picture books with actual photos.

If you travel, make a point of visiting area museums or go on tours of national parks. If you don’t have the opportunity to travel, watch travel documentaries on places you’d love to visit. Pull out the atlas and Google Earth again and look for the Acropolis or look at the streets of St. Petersburg.

Listen to music, try new food, snicker at the silly clothes people are wearing in paintings from the 1700s.

ALL of this is part of learning, and by conversing about what you see and read and do, your children WILL be making connections between all those disparate pieces of information. Keep a small reference library at home -- a good atlas, a history and science encyclopedia. Plan your outings and readings around topics you’d like to cover, but be ready to follow your kids down random rabbit trails.

Be persistent in working on the three Rs, but remember the rabbit in the Aesop’s Fable -- slow and steady wins the race. Grammar one day, some dication the next, spelling the next. A bit of math practice each day. Oral narrations with younger children, adding in written narrations as they get older and essays in the teen years. Tackle a foreign language and tackle logic, but the centerpiece of your lives is the exploration of interests, and finding interesting ways of exploring those boring subjects.

So what about gaps? Doesn’t this approach mean that some critical period in history will be skipped? Some key literary concept overlooked? Some fundamental science facts missed? Maybe, maybe not. I’m simply not worried about it. My kids have a lifetime for filling those gaps, just as I continue to fill in my own gaps, and they have the skills and desire to continue learning.

I think an educated person is well aware of his gaps and is constantly learning and filling in those gaps. An educated person has a context into which he can place new information, and will have opinions on how important that information is, or on what significance it holds. An educated person is fascinated by the world and feels a lifetime isn’t enough for learning everything. My job as a homeschooling parent -- my quest, my goal -- is to produce young people with exactly that kind of education -- one with gaps but the ability and desire to fill those gaps.


  1. You gave me some wise advice at TWTM about my oldest child. I'm enjoying your blog!

    Homeschooling is amazing. I'm so blessed to get all this time with my children.

  2. This is one of the most inspirational post about homeschooling that I've read in a long time. No education will ever be complete, but learning how to learn, being interested in life, exploring history, science, the arts, and figuring out how to ask and answer questions, knowing how to argue well these are things worth aspiring to when homeschooling. Awesome blog!

  3. Wow! I know this is an old post, but it contains a timeless message. Thank you for the reminder to breathe.


  4. So happy I found this today. Inspiring.

  5. I needed to read this today, thank you