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Living and Learning While Learning by Living


With the bad winter weather that’s overtaken much of the country the last few weeks, I’ve heard it from multiple sources:

“Kids need to get back to school to get ready for their tests.  They’re never going to pass with all these days off” said one mother, quoted in a Washington Post article.

“My daughter never comes home with very much homework, I worry that she’s not learning enough.  When she comes home from school, all she wants to do is play with her dog” said the dental hygienist, as we waited for the dentist to get started.

And my personal favorite, as seen on Facebook:

“After all these days off from the snow, it’s time for the kids to get back to school and start learning again!”

When did we arrive at the conclusion that facts and figures and tests and scores are the same as learning?

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t discount academics.  But I’m in favor of academics that support learning, not recall and metrics.

And that’s what makes real learning so hard for schools to achieve, since it’s not measured by standardized tests, multiple choice, or scanned answer sheets.  Genuine learning comes in the form of practical challenges, problem solving, innovation, and self-awareness and it’s not realistic to expect schools, with their current educational model and standards, to be able to provide that. And how is the average overextended teacher supposed to assess such qualitative results for 40 or more students?

Schools are equipped to impart knowledge – facts, figures, formulas – while life at large imparts learning and wisdom.

Which is why all those days off from school are such a gift for kids (childcare issues for working mothers aside – this isn’t a post about the  piss-poor job most American companies do to support working parents).  Just one day off is usually best spent catching up on sleep or goofing off, which is totally okay - there’s great value in breaking up daily routine with fun and frivolity, especially when it comes unexpectedly.

But as one day off turns into two or three or more, there are plenty of lessons to learn around the house that might in fact serve your kids better in the long run than memorizing Marco Polo’s trade routes or the Pythagorean Theorem or how to diagram a sentence.

Instead, how about:

  • Learning life science by having kids plan a nutritionally balanced dinner for the family?  What’s nutritionally balanced, they may ask?  Well that’s up to them to decide.  How sound is the Paleo diet?  What are the benefits and risks of a vegan diet?  What's the optimum protein to carbohydrate ration? What foods on the menu should be organic (and why – what are the risks of the alternative) and what can you comfortably go conventional on?  How much would the meal cost to prepare for your family? How does that compare to going out for dinner?
  • Sending your kids on a digital adventure.  Give them a camera (I’m a big fan of keeping a cheap digital camera around, one I can send my kids out with and not hyperventilate because it’s my good DSLR and it’s not my cell phone either) and give them some guidelines.  One option is an alphabet scavenger hunt where they have to take a picture of something starting with each letter of the alphabet (in order, if you want to make it harder).  Another option is to pick a Harry Potter book and have them strike a pose from each chapter in the book, captured with a photo.  Double points if they figure out how to use the self-timer on the camera and hop into the photos themselves!  Or how about building Lego scenes of favorite nursery rhymes and “publishing” them with photos?
  • Teaching your pet a trick. If you’ve had the chance to do this before, you know how fun and rewarding it is.  The process of teaching is as much a learning opportunity for the teacher as much as the student, and pets are no exception.  If you and your kids don’t have experience with training an animal, all the better – spend some time researching methods appropriate to your pet and put it into practice.  The conversations about motivation, communication, performance and rewards, not to mention frustration (!!!) are worth their weight in gold and translate more than you’d think to human behavior.  Be sure to celebrate everyone’s success at the end, even if success means calling it a day and trying again another time - knowing when to cut your losses is a  learned skill!
  • Have your kids actually cook a meal on their own for the family. Bonus points if it’s the nutritionally balanced meal they dreamed up earlier, but even if it’s the usual chicken-potatoes-mixed vegetables on the menu, the process of planning, sequencing, staging, and getting a meal in its entirety on the table is quite an exercise in multi-tasking.  Talk about a real-world skill!
  • Last but not least, try the classic snow day pastime, building a snow fort.  It will take up a good portion of the day, it’s great exercise and will tire your kids out, and if worse comes to worst, you’ll have a place to escape to when all that togetherness wears a bit thin late in the day.

Live and learn!


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