The Goal of Learning is Ability


Deschooling kids is both the best and worst part of homeschooling. Taking kids who have internalized that the goal of school is doing well on tests and moving them to understanding that the goal of learning is, well, actually learning the material, is one of the greatest challenges we have had as parents. The longer they have been in formal school, the harder it is to break them out of this thinking. The process is even harder with gifted children, because they have been able to use the school system to their advantage.

Case in point: my son passed all of his addition, subtraction, and multiplication fact tests last school year. (For those of you who don’t recall this, these are tests where they have to complete 100 problems in 5 minutes for each set of facts.) Does he immediately recall this information when he needs it now? Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t. One of my daughters was the same way: she passed addition through division through the course of a year, but couldn’t immediately recall the information the next school year. Many folks would say this is just the human brain being human: we learn things, and then we forget some of it. Just have them re-learn the math facts, and re-take the tests, and eventually, it will stick.

The problem being, I can tell you how they both passed the tests in the first place. They didn’t actually learn all the math facts. To be fair, they already knew many of them, and some they learned along the way. Generally, though, what they did was to memorize the order of the answers so they could pass the tests. Since both kids have a strong visual memory, this strategy worked well for them in school. Memorize what you need to know, pass the tests: this was what they learned in school. Unfortunately, they learned it better than everything else.

This is where homeschooling changes everything.  They are now in a situation where the consequence of not learning, or internalizing, the material means something entirely different. There are no grades, and no other consequences of not learning it other than not knowing it. Seeing the light slowly come on in their heads that they cannot memorize their way through learning is interesting. As the years of formal schooling slip away, what they are left with is a more existential question.

What is the goal of learning?

We started our homeschooling day with a family discussion around this question. The kids certainly gave some good answers: to be educated, to go to college, to get a job and support yourself and your family. These are all valid answers to the question, and ones that many folks, especially educators, in our society would agree with. One of my answers was: the goal of learning is to learn. Wanting to know more about the world around us, how it works, and how we fit into it.

Out of all of the answers, though, I liked Dave’s the best. He definitely agreed with my answer above. But he took it many steps further. His belief is that internalizing the learning, then using the information to question, redesign, explore and create is the goal of learning. In short, the goal of learning is ability. Not our cultural and educational definition of ability: doing well on standardized tests, or getting good grades. Here, ability refers to the self-driven capability to truly understand and critically think about what we have learned, and then cross-link this information in order to create associations, ideas, and new solutions.

Whatever our kids learned in school, it was not actual ability. As we deschool our son, I have hope as I look towards our daughter, E, who has been homeschooling the longest of any of our kids. As I watch and listen to her now, I have personally internalized how nurturing and facilitating learning in gifted kids blossoms into true ability over time. I don’t care if she ever demonstrates it on a test.

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