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.

It ties the world together. You might think that this Rabbit Trail Approach would lead to a disjointed view of the world of information, but I have found it to be exactly the opposite. At its core, this method is all about connections. The very reason that a question comes up in the mind of a child is because of something else that is connected to it. It doesn’t take very long to start seeing connections everywhere. Things that seem to have no relation whatsoever, in fact, if you look, are tied somehow to everything else. This is truer in the study of history perhaps than in any other subject. I don’t know about you, but when I left school, even college, I couldn’t tell you if Cleopatra was a contemporary of Shakespeare or if the Crusades happened before or after the fall of the Roman Empire. It was all a blur of memorized dates without connections. The Rabbit Trail Approach, over time, actually pulls more things together, recognizing the touch points that each person, place, or event has with other things.

It’s a family activity. This is perhaps my favorite of the benefits. Unlike many learning moments that have children sitting off by themselves, reading something or filling in a workbook, this method requires people to get up, get moving, and get going. It often requires Mom and Dad to lead the way, finding resources with answers. In other words, learning is a group activity. Your children could read about longitude and latitude from a textbook, or they could learn about coordinates from the family activity of geocaching (www.geocaching.com). Even if it’s simply something best answered by a trip to the Internet, you still tend to see Mom typing on the keyboard with all her children gathered round, excitedly watching as the answer unfolds. For me, this aspect of homeschooling has brought about one of the best gifts in the world of education. I finally get to have the great education that I wish I’d gotten in childhood.

I know this method is not for everyone. Some mothers would soon be overcome with the uncertainty and angst. Such academic flitting about would be almost frightening. If you’re happier with a clear, sequenced plan that is predictable and sure, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, many teachers successfully teach this way, and many students successfully learn. You guys already know you’re fine. But the moms who need this message are the ones who are more like me, who are delighted by new discoveries, who love the energy that accompanies a child’s desire to know more, who enjoy learning right alongside their kids.

If you’re a mom who would just love to follow the delight of the moment, I want to assure you that it’s all good. This is not a mistake. God can use the delight-driven learning method that comes naturally to you as well as He can use the more structured, traditional model.
You are now free to pursue learning that doesn’t take a linear path, that meanders, that finds joy in the unexpected. There are so many benefits to such learning that you can rest in the knowledge that you are still serving your kids well. You may have to check your lesson plan every now and then to make sure all the boxes have check marks in them by the end of the year, but don’t hesitate to go with the curiosity-driven lesson. The payoff will be a school that zings with possibilities and kids who will have a lifelong love of learning new things.

Carol Barnier, author of three books, is a popular conference speaker who is known for mixing serious topics with equally serious humor. Learn more at carolbarnier.com or www.sizzlebop.com.

Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the January 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

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