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Saturday, July 26, 2014

An Exploration Into an Interest-Driven Curriculum and How It Helps Learning (Or How We Went Spider-Crazy)

Education is the "science of relations", says Charlotte Mason, a revolutionary British educator at the turn of the twentieth century, whose methods are perhaps more relevant than ever today. In her book Towards a Philosophy of Education, she says,

"Education is the Science of Relations'; that is, a child has natural relations with a vast number of things and thoughts: so we train him upon physical exercises, nature lore, handicrafts, science and art, and upon many living books, for we know that our business is not to teach him all about anything, but to help him to make valid as many as may be of––"

I have been dwelling on this idea for some time, even as I try to introduce Z to as many new ideas as possible in our homeschooling through books and new experiences. Our little boy is someone who appreciates a consistency in routine and finds comfort in the familiar. (Don't we all?) But when we have heard about the Singapore Flyer for the thirtieth time, or helped him scan a dusty bush for spider webs for the who-knows-how-many-eth time, it has been difficult to be patient and not hurry him along.

I came to the conclusion that I had to either use his passions in these subjects to their full advantage by taking the bull by its horns, or continue pausing on every walk to search for those elusive spider webs. Hence, we started our new term with a unit on Spiders.

His love for all things arachnid strangely began in Osaka, Japan, with his first encounter with a superhero. Our almost-3-year-old stood mesmerised, watching Spidey crouch on a fake brick wall in various spidery-poses as fans waited to take pictures with him. He had never watched the show, but somehow the whole idea appealed to him. He has since been trying to hunt for spiders and their webs in Singapore, but to no avail. Where have all the spiders gone?

Our recent trip to Northern Thailand cemented his interest. On our first evening stroll on the sprawling grounds of the beautiful Le Meridien Chiang Rai Resort, we found a very industrious spider spinning his web beneath one of the two majestic century-old rain trees which the hotel is known for. The sight was an unforgettable one. We stood entranced as we saw the tiny spider do its dance as the delicate strands of silk were spun in the moonlight, the lacy framework perfect in its form and sheen. The four of us must have been a sight to behold, squatting beneath the overarching branches.

A delicate dance in the moonlight.
We launched into the lesson on the first day of the new term. The boys took to it immediately. I had the feeling Z could not really believe we were studying something he was so interested in. I was amazed at the progress I could see in him. His attention span doubled - he can now do seat work for up to an hour, quite a long time for a not-yet-four-year-old. My little boy, who used to only be able to read one picture book at the most at a time, sits poring through the spider books we have borrowed from the library and asks me to read them to him at bedtime. His eyes widened when we said we would build our own spiderweb. He can rattle off the parts of a spider (abdomen, head, spinnerets, fangs) and tell you how many legs and eyes it has.  
Learning all about spiders.
It's amazing to watch how interested Z is in spiders and the tenacity with
which he devours books.
It is amazing what interest can do to a child's learning. What a contrast to my own experiences in school, where I remember often questioning my poor parents about what was the use of my studying things that I simply could not find a use for in my everyday life, such as the periodic table or algebra. (My inclinations were clearly not in these areas!) I was unfortunately a picture of a disinterested student for most of my early school years, lacking initiative and motivation to learn.
Making a "spider web" out of twine.
Our homemade spider with its eight legs and eight eyes, fashioned from
green play dough and chenille stems.
This is, of course, not saying that we should only study things which interest us. There is  good rationale in broadening a child's scope of ideas which he is introduced to when he is young, as you never know where his interests may lie, be they in astrophysics or the culinary arts. I think there needs to be a balance. The role of us as parents is to introduce a regular supply of ideas to our children, through good books, conversations, field trips and excursions, and to watch and see which take root, which compel and excite them. At the last homeschooling fair, we met a mother who intentionally placed different coffee table books out in her home and observed which topics most interested her children. As Charlotte Mason says,

"To excite this relationship or appetite toward things lovely, honest, and of good report is the earliest and most important ministry of the educator." (The Original Homeschooling Series)

However, readers of our blog may ask, how is this relevant to those of us whose children who spend most of their day in school, and who still want to find a way to grow their interests and passions? Here are some possible ideas:

1. Surround your children with a variety of information on topics they are either interested in, or new ones you think might interest them. One mother said she placed different coffee table books out in the living room and observed which caught her children's attention - one of them took to Nanospace, and the other to Medicine and Human Anatomy.

2. Find information on the subject. The library is a great source, and so is Pinterest! Google "unit study" or "lap book" together with your topic, and you will find a treasure trove of worksheets and hands-on activities you can do with your kids. I find the best books are those that Charlotte Mason called "Living Books", written by a person who has a passion for the subject but in narrative or conversational style.

3. Accompany newly-acquired knowledge with a hands-on activity. Our unit culminated in the creation of a spider web and the model of a spider.

4. Reinforce with a field trip/ excursion, if possible. Our younger son loves butterflies, and I intend to take him to one of the butterfly gardens when we explore the topic next.

5. Learn along with your child. Pick up a book or two for yourself on the subject! It is such an affirmation to him that you are interested in what he is interested too. Besides, a bit more learning never hurt anyone!

You never know which of your child's passions may lead to his future career and life aspiration - but more than that, by letting him grow his passions, you are affirming his sense of self and giving him the space and time to do what he loves best.

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