“I like teaching, too,” said Gilbert. “It’s good training, for one thing. Why, Anne, I’ve learned more in the weeks I’ve been teaching the young the ideas of White Sands than I learned in all the years I went to school myself.”
— L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Avonlea
My real education began on our first day of homeschooling. All the years of high school and college and even graduate school amount to very little by comparison. I mean, yes, they count for something. And if they were all I had, I’d be grateful for the start they gave me. But teaching? It’s a whole new ballgame.
Listen to this post as a podcast:
Re-reading the Anne books by L.M. Montgomery has been thrilling. It’s long been my opinion that Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women books ought to be read at least three times in a woman’s life. First, when she is a girl. She will likely identify with Jo. Second, in her 20s (ish) when she is newly married. She will likely identify with Meg. Third, in her 30s or 40s when she has perhaps one teen in her brood. This time, she will identify with Marmee. It is only after this third reading that she will fully know Alcott’s powers — and fully learn the lessons Alcott can teach.
I’m starting to believe the same thing about the Anne books. It’s so different from when I read as a girl and identified with Anne and her friends instead of any of the adults.
We who homeschool experience something akin to what was once experienced by the original American teachers — those young adults (and often older teens) — who skillfully managed and taught the youth in tiny one-room school houses across the United States and in Canada as well. In their mid to late teens, Gilbert and Anne and Jane are all teaching the young well, and Gilbert and Anne are still finding time to perfect their Greek and Latin, reading snatches of Virgil (in the original language, I assume), when they can.
Now, I don’t want to overly romanticize the one-room school house. It’s not like it didn’t have its weaknesses. And we homeschool moms have a far more difficult time finding snatches of time to advance our educations because we are also responsible for the rearing of the children, the training in good habits, the discipline, the management of the house, and so on and so forth.
But still: captured in the quote above is homeschooling’s best kept secret:
I’ve learned more in the weeks I’ve been teaching the young the ideas of White Sands than I learned in all the years I went to school myself.
I’ve talked to many homeschooling moms over the years, and they all seem to feel this way, whether they have a Ph.D. or failed to finish high school! You see, homeschooling jumpstarts your own learning in so many ways. By the time you graduate your children, you will know and understand so much more than you would have under most other circumstances.
So why is this? What is it about teaching — especially teaching across all the ages and stages and grades and subject progressions — that is so powerful personally for the teacher?
This is how we all get sucked in, you know. We are initially happy in our adult lives, with our television shows and our music and our computers and our friends. We don’t read a serious book by choice after high school or college graduation.
And then it happens.
Our precious illiterate children ask us to read aloud. Again! they plead. Somewhere in the sleepy mists of early motherhood, reading aloud woos our souls, too. One book leads to another, and pretty soon we’ve fallen back in love with books (or, in love for the first time, as the case may be). We start to buy them. Then, we buy bookcases.
It’s all downhill from here.
There are a number of mis-attributed Einstein quotes out there, and one of them is that if you can’t explain it to a six-year old (another version is “if you can’t explain it simply”), you don’t really understand it. While it seems that Einstein didn’t say this, Richard Feynman said something quite close. In Six Easy Pieces he wrote:
You know, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don’t understand it.
We often forget the connection between understanding and communicating. We assume we understand something because it seems so clear to us in our own heads. But when we try to discuss it or explain it, our understanding (or lack thereof) is revealed.
I remember when one of my daughters was four. Her interest in all things theological and philosophical knew no bounds (this is still true). She would ask the deepest questions — she wanted to know about death and dying, about the world and how it worked, about the Trinity, the incarnation, and the atonement. I was confident I knew about these things … until I tried to explain them to a preschooler. I found it a truism: when I couldn’t explain it, I lacked understanding.
I never felt stupider than I did that long year of her philosophical beginnings.
We all have to pass through the stage where things go from being unclear to clear — where the things we’re thinking about begin to connect up in our brains. And we’ll have conversations where we fail to explain — and then find that the next conversation goes a little more smoothly because of the previous failure. But there is nothing like being hounded by a child to cause you to get a jump on this process.
Homeschooling stimulates understanding because explaining is a lot like narrating. We’ve talked about this before: narration isn’t a parroting of information — it’s a process in which the brain sorts everything out. Narration is the act of coming to know. As the brain goes back over everything, the details start to cohere, the important points rise to the surface, and understanding materializes — by putting together the jumbled pieces, the narrator starts to discover the picture on the box.
In many ways, teaching is like narration. A child asks a question, and we have to sort back through what we know — often using the book the child is reading along with whatever reserves we happen to have — to give a good answer. Whether the question is about what went wrong in a math problem, how to decline a Latin noun, or what exactly happened in that confusing history passage, the result is the same: Mom just rose to the occasion. Again.
I mean, yes, she might have had to walk away to think and possibly look it up, but the fact remains that when she returned to explain, her brain had grown a whole big bunch.
In the days of the one-room schoolhouse, the same teacher taught algebra and Euclid as taught phonics and addition, and in the same day at that! If you’re like me (meaning you have a big enough age spread), you’ve done this. And if you aren’t like me, that just means you’ll teach those subjects eventually, instead of in a single 24-hour period. Either way, homeschooling is the most intense refresher course you can imagine. You start with the basics and progress all the way to college level. I can’t think of another situation in which a mother would be able to banquet at such a widely spread table.
It used to be said that a well-educated prince ought to be able to talk with any of his subjects. This required a wide array of knowledge. By the time you’re done homeschooling, you’ll practically be royalty, at least in this respect. You’ll likely have touched on everything from world history in all the ages to all the math to grammar and literature and great books to gardening and really good books and poems and songs and music to science and art and and and… It’s an education fit for a king!
In other words, it’s not just the kids who benefit.
There is a belief out there that homeschooling is creating a highly educated populace. And it is. The misunderstanding is that this means the graduates. That, my friends, is only part of the equation. When parents educate their children, they don’t just create the educated populace — they become it.
That’s the real secret of homeschooling.
Get the (almost) weekly digest!
Weekly encouragement, direct to your inbox, (almost) every Saturday.