How Did You Wind Up Here?

Written by Carol Barnier

Published with Permission

“Carol,” my friend quizzically began, “what are you and your kids painting on the wall of your garage?”

My children and I were throwing large orange brush strokes over the white drywall. “This is our re-creation of the Aurora Borealis in Alaska!” I gushed.

“Wow. That’s . . . big. Are you guys doing a unit study on Alaska?”

“No. Actually we’re in a study about musicians from the Baroque period.”

“Then, why the wall?”

“Because the sea monkeys aren’t done breeding yet.”

“Come again?”

“Over in the corner. Our sea monkey population has to peak and wane before we can throw them out. That’s why we’ve started building a trebuchet in the backyard.”

“Um . . . and what does all this have to do with Baroque musicians?”

“Well,” I began with enthusiasm, “we started off with Vivaldi, who taught music in an orphanage, which someone said was right next to a bakery, which took us to a quick study on yeast, which we decided look remarkably like sea monkeys, which . . .”

“Stop right there.” My friend’s face seemed concerned. “I’m already exhausted. You’re not helping. I’m gonna go take a nap.”

“Alrighty then! We’ll see ya tonight at our octopus dissection!”

This is how learning sometimes seems to go in our house. I may be exaggerating just a bit in the above dialogue, but not by much. We do sometimes head down some rather interesting and unintended trails. I’ve grown so fond of it that I’ve not only learned to embrace it, but I’m even developing it into a whole new curriculum method. It’s called Rabbit Trail Education.

A study of one thing brings up an interesting question, which we track down, which might lead to another question, which we track down. (Rinse. Repeat.) And before you know it, a study on Gladys Alyward’s missionary work in China has us out in the local woods, scouting and classifying mushrooms.

Let’s start with a confession. I have a mind that loves distractions. There. I admit it. I delight in finding a new question that begs for an explanation. I love tracking down answers to questions that just pop up in the course of a typical study. Following a prearranged lesson plan to the letter, with no deviations, is almost painful for me. I used to despair at this truth about myself. I worried that this was going to damage my children’s education—that there would be huge gaps in their package of learning. But over the seventeen or so years I’ve been doing this, I’ve found good reasons to relax. In fact, I’ve even found there have been some benefits to this method of study.

Learning and information are exciting. My kids have absorbed an unintended lesson: learning is an adventure. This method has a sort of Indiana Jones feel to it. We’re exploring, mining truths and facts from the dull dry ground, retrieving a sparkling gem of interest. Anything that piques their curiosity is information ripe for the plucking. Lessons are not rote or drill or drudgery when they are propelled by a question that your kids want answered.

It sticks better when it’s relevant. You might have a child who asks what type of stone the pyramids were made of. You might even say to them: “That’s a great question, but we won’t be looking at Ancient Egypt till you’re in fifth grade. So let’s get back to Daniel Boone.” Okay. That’s not unreasonable. But if you answer questions when they arise, when the child has an expressed interest, when it’s tied to something that is meaningful to them, their retention of the final answer is greater. You can wait for two more years when the question appropriately fits into your lesson plans, but by then, your students may no longer have an interest in what the pyramids are made of. They’ll learn the answer long enough to fill in a blank on a test, but the spark of interest that made it intensely fascinating is now gone.

It’s active, not passive. Much learning comes in a rather passive package: read this, fill in the blanks, take a test. This is a method for learning. Don’t get me wrong. Many curriculum packages use this method and the students do indeed learn. But it is passive learning. Information is handed to them, prepackaged, ready for consumption.

It is a very different experience to have a question with no answer. That requires an active approach to learning and information. That not only makes learning more interesting, but it prepares kids for exactly the kind of approach and discipline needed by scientists, researchers, and analysts of any sort.

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