Saturday, 13 June 2015

Education - More Than Exams

In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis introduces us to the wonderful character of Eustace. Early on we discover that Eustace has a little book in which he records his marks:

 "He always had this notebook with him and kept a record of his marks in it, for though he didn't care much about any subject for its own sake, he cared a great deal about marks, and would even go to people and say, 'I got so much. What did you get?'"

What is so unattractive about Eustace is that he is more interested in comparing his scores to others than in what he is actually learning.

Sometimes it feels as though our education system, exam driven as it is, fosters this kind of attitude. The GCSE grades you achieve are more important than the books you have read. Memorizing the contents of the syllabus is the goal of your studies, rather than having a broad understanding of your subject. Furthermore, it is not only that grades are more important than knowledge, but that being better than everyone else is something to aspire to. I certainly feel that, though on paper I have a good education, the main skill I came out with is an ability to pass exams.
Surely a Christian view of education has to be different. As Christians, we aspire to knowledge- broad and deep- because we want to know more about the world made by our God, and because we want to see more of how God has worked throughout history. Surely we want to learn, not so that we can demonstrate that we are better than others, but so that we are better equipped to serve others.
This is what we want to cultivate in our children: a desire to study a subject, or to master as skill for its own sake, rather than in order to be the best, or to meet some exam criteria. I want them to know how to punctuate well so that they can write clearly and communicate effectively, not so that can reach a certain level in a SAT paper. I hope that studying science will not just lead to good grades and to a good career, but to a greater wonder at the God who made the world. I encourage them to read widely to enrich their understanding and fill their minds with great stories, not so that they get through a list of impressive books.
I have to work hard at doing this. Yes, my children will not be sitting exams any time soon. They also don't have many opportunities to compare their abilities to others of exactly the same age- their friends are a variety of ages, and they are more likely to talk about Minecraft than about how good they are at maths. However, our hearts are easily prone to the same weaknesses, even if we are not in the school environment. I can be more concerned about getting to the end of my curriculum before summer than about fostering a love of learning in my children. I can care more about ticking off my list than about taking time to really enjoy what we are talking about. It takes growth in maturity of faith, as well as in skill, for a child to learn how to serve, and how to be humble even when they are gifted in a particular area.
However, as home educators, we can prayerfully try to set the culture in our home. We can model an interest in the world, and an attitude of service (and apologise when we fail to do so!). 
We can set their work at an appropriate level. If it is too hard, it can be frustrating or tedious, and rob a child of any pleasure that they might have in studying that subject. If it is too easy, this can lead to complacency or boredom, or even pride. It doesn't matter if a child is "ahead" or "behind"- they probably won't even know that this is the case. Either way, they can be encouraged to work hard in order to please God, and not to meet some external measure.
One huge privilege we have as home educating parents is the freedom to be flexible in how we spend our time. If a child is finding maths easy and they want to go at double speed for a bit, we are free to allow them to do so. If we are having a good conversation about the Cuban Missile Crisis, we can extend our history session. Alternatively, if a child does not want to work hard (and not because I have over-estimated what is a reasonable task for them), then I can let them have the natural consequence of that- the task takes all day.

Our time together as a family also provides many opportunities for the children to serve each other. Sometimes the older boys read to the younger children. Often one of them will read out maths questions for my 6 year old, whose reading has been put on hold since he has significant speech problems. They will draw pictures for their little sister to colour, or help her strip her bed when it is bedroom cleaning day.

My eldest reading to his sister.
The goals we have for our children's education are big aims, big aims achieved a little at a time. Often I lose sight of what we are trying to do, many times I fail, but we trust that a deep understanding of the world that God has made is something worth working towards for our children.

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