Learning Curve

    When it came to educating her own children, one U of A alumna found it best for everyone to drop out

    By Theresa Shea, '97 PhD on January 24, 2011

    Skipping School—When it came to educating her own children, one U of A alumna found it best for everyone to drop out

    In 2003, when my eldest son turned school age, I realized I didn’t want to be separated from him, nor did I want his two younger siblings to spend half their day missing their big brother. So we decided to skip kindergarten. The following year, we decided to skip grade one. My children are now 12, 10 and eight, and we’re still skipping school.

    From the beginning, despite my initial nervousness, I felt like I was getting away with something big. How could I, with my various levels of traditional education, come to appreciate or even recognize that my own children could be educated differently? More importantly, how does this awareness affect my own ability to learn as well as my relationship to the rapidly-changing kinds of knowledge and skills that the contemporary world requires?

    The basic tenet of homeschooling is to trust that children will, through their own active engagement with the world, naturally discover their areas of interest, and, when they do, they will seek out and attain whatever level of education is required to work in their chosen field. Witnessing the daily wonder and enthusiasm with which my children tackled each day, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own schooled childhood where nothing occurred “naturally.” Reading was taught. Spelling was taught. Math was taught. Even physical education was taught. Nothing that I had “naturally” learned up until I attended school (like walking and talking, two enormous achievements) seemed to count. At school, other people (teachers) held the coveted knowledge, and it was their job to give it to me and my same-aged classmates, and we were all supposed to learn it at the exact same rate.

    "Reading was taught. Spelling was taught. Math was taught. Even physical education was taught. Nothing that I had “naturally” learned ... seemed to count."

    By contrast, my children, having been read to for years, naturally learned how to read between the ages of 8 and 10 without phonics instruction or spelling tests to measure their progress. Had they been in school, reading would have been forced on them earlier. Who knows, maybe one of them might even have been identified as “learning disabled.” By the time children are 13, however, you can’t tell the difference between a child who first read at age four and one who started to read at age 10. So what’s the big hurry? More importantly, how many children unnecessarily suffer and are made to feel inadequate if they’re not on the proper learning curve?

    In 1885, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus coined the term “learning curve.” He conducted research on memory and memorization and described his findings regarding both the learning curve, or rate at which knowledge is gained, and the forgetting curve, a related graph that measures how quickly memorized information is lost. His findings quickly led to the popular use of learning curves as a means of measuring progress.

    The forgetting curve, however, has been largely ignored, yet the ways in which we forget are highly instructive. Ebbinghaus’s research revealed that much of our forgetting occurs immediately after acquiring knowledge. My own early schooling was spent cramming information for tests and then subsequently forgetting it. This was not a behaviour unique to me. In Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense, best-selling author David Guterson recounts a classroom experiment he often practiced when he was a teacher. He’d prepare his students for a test on Friday, and then he’d spring the exact same test on them the following Monday. None of his students ever matched their initial test score.

    A student who has an interest in a particular subject will likely do well in that subject. Conversely, a student who is bored senseless in whatever is being taught will have to work very hard to make the information stick (at least until the test, after which the forgetting can take place).

    In my case, math was what finally defeated me. Although I enjoyed a functional math literacy, as soon as calculus and physics entered the mix, my brain, heavily invested by now in the forgetting curve, crashed. I went from being an honour student to having serious self-esteem issues.

    "The basic tenet of homeschooling is to trust that children will, through their own active engagement with the world, naturally discover their areas of interest ..."

    Yet all along I knew I wanted to be a writer! A prescribed school curriculum, however, didn’t allow me to focus on my strengths. Do all writers need to understand complicated mathematics? Similarly, do all aspiring mathematicians require the skills to write fiction or poetry? Shouldn’t gaining a functional literacy in both math and English suffice? Why not leave the advanced courses to the students whose interest in them accompanies their aptitude?

    When I was 16, I no longer believed in the usefulness of school. Working would be more preferable, I thought, so I became a dropout statistic. Eight years later, I applied and was accepted to McGill University as a mature student. I studied literature and I wrote. Finally I was using school for its proper purpose — to further my knowledge in something I was actually interested in. To this day, I do not have a high school diploma. I do, however, have a PhD.

    Naturally, when my children reached school age my own discomfort with compulsory education made me question sending them there. I knew first-hand that force-feeding information to children destroys their natural love of learning. Children love to learn, but they don’t necessarily love to be taught.

    Homeschooling is the most revolutionary decision I’ve made as a parent. Giving my children the freedom to chart their own educational paths didn’t come naturally to me, and certainly each day brings unique challenges. But I have learned over the years just how powerful a child’s own will to learn can be, and that lesson has also given me a sobering insight into what little faith we actually have as a society in our children’s creative and intellectual capabilities.

    Of course, I can’t pretend to know what information my children will need when they’re adults. However, by allowing them to pursue their own interests, I believe their natural, enthusiastic engagement with the world will be their best preparation for these rapidly-changing times in which we live.

    Theresa Shea, ’97 PhD, is an Edmonton-based freelance writer and homeschooling mother of three.