Friday, January 08, 2010

When Science Experiments Fail

On Wednesday night we conducted a "Chinese Clock" experiment. We poked a small hole into a plastic plate, and set it in a big pan of water. We were timing how it would take the plate to sink to recreate a Chinese water clock. The time it took to sink would give us a unit of time we could use to time things. Initially it appeared to not be working. The plate just floated and didn't sink. The kids were a bit bummed that nothing dramatic happened and went off to play, coming by to check the pan every so often. "What are we going to do if it doesn't work?" I asked H. He shrugged and we both laughed nervously. Almost an hour later, I walked by the pan to see that the plate had indeed sunk. I called the kids who came running and recorded the end time excitedly. While this post isn't about science experiments failing, it is about how what can be seen as failures are often not failures at all.

We took off the two weeks H had for vacation. I hadn't planned on any kind of winter break because the whole concept of a break sounds rather superfluous when homeschooling. But we don't have H around like we did when we both were in school so it made sense to just relax with family. But I was determined to start off right when H went back to work. I sat down on Sunday, made lesson plans complete with times, etc. We were going to do school and we were going to do it at certain times, etc.

Sunday was hectic. The furnace had broken down Saturday night so we had to wait around for a repairman before we could grocery shopping. It was too cold to do so much so my plans to make up suppers for the week didn't really pan out. By the time we had heat, been shopping, and eaten dinner, I was beat. But the kids weren't, and C and U managed to wake me up three times in about an hour and a half period. I ended up awake until 4 when I fell into a fitful sleep. Of course this meant I didn't get up until ten totally blowing my schedule.

As I sat there drinking my coffee and eating chocolate chip pancakes with Umberto, I sort of gave up in my head. I thought "What's the point? We're already two hours behind my plans." And then Umberto came over with a bunch of books so I read to him and he read to me. When that was done I thought we might as well do writing and before lunch we had done most of the work I planned for the day. When Camille got up at her usual late hour, I did her stuff.

As we sat and ate lunch, made plans to go to the library with H when he got out of work, I realized that I had to let go of the schedule. The point of homeschooling for us was to get out of the system. I believe that schooling are manifestations of cultural expectations. I'm not a big fan of "natural" learning. All learning, I'd argue, takes place in a cultural motif of various kinds. But I do think that once we are aware of these motifs that we can begin to choice new motifs. I'm also aware that this is a position I come to through being educated and in some cases privileged (but that's really a whole different post). My point is that I realized that I had decide to home school because I hate the educational system--what it represents and what it does to children. I didn't want to recreate school in our home. I wanted something different.

And I know that my kids learn whether they are doing something formal or not. They learn when they play creatively, when they hang out with friends, when they sit and listen to H and I debate stuff. Learning is never ending if you are open to the experiences that are at hand. And while I do believe they need guidance (again I'm not here to debate the merits of unschooling vs. schooling or whatever), I think that guidance doesn't always have to be hammered in through rote routine. In fact, I am still a rather undisciplined person despite years in formal education.

Our new plan is that we make up a list of things we want to accomplish for the week, and then we do them. It doesn't matter when or where. This takes a lot of pressure of us. Instead of just giving up, we give in. We do science experiments at nine at night...

And we learn that sometimes even those failures teach us something.

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