Learning 101 -
About 10 days before Christmas, Portland, Oregon
was hit with the worst snowstorm in 40 years.
During a typical winter, it snows in the
mountains but very few flakes ever make it all
the way to the city. If they do, they are just
rare enough that people stop and point and say,
“Was that a snowflake?” and then shake their
heads and go on.
Not so this year. We had snow, then ice, then more snow. We had powerful wind
gusts. Highways shut down. Airports closed. Mail delivery stopped. (So much for
“neither snow, nor rain, nor gloom of night.”) Needless to say, schools closed.
Kids got a very long holiday vacation this time around.
I counted the days. I knew it was coming.
On the morning of the fourth day of no school, there it was, right on the front
page: an article about how much school kids were missing and how they would
either have to make it up by going an extra 30 or 60 minutes a day for months or
(shudder, shudder) an extra week or two in the summer. I skimmed the article
with a slightly smug smile, knowing this was at least one thing I didn’t have to
worry about (there are so many others waiting for me). I was watching for that
one comment I knew would be there, and I was not disappointed. In the last
paragraph, a genuinely concerned mother said, “My daughter has missed four days
of school. Four days. I am just so worried that now she is going to (go ahead
readers — say it with me) fall behind.”
Now, I don’t mean to downplay this parent’s concern. We all worry about
different things with our children and each worry stems from our deep love and
responsibility for that person. I am absolutely positive that she really is
concerned about her daughter’s education. At the same time, however, I want to
stand out in the middle of my snow-covered front yard and scream, “Fall behind
Can any parent honestly believe that five days out of the entire school year are
so important that missing them means this child will have an inferior education?
Perhaps fail their national tests, not get accepted into college, develop a
self-esteem problem, and end up on a street corner with a cardboard sign that
features both misspelled words and a dangling modifier?
If parents honestly think this, either they don’t remember what school was like
when they went there, or they have an idealized concept of what their children’s
schools are like. If you take the typical school day and subtract the time spent
walking up and down the hallways, going to lunch, stopping by lockers; and then
take off class time spent taking attendance, handing in homework, handing out
tests and other papers, and disciplining students, how many minutes are actually
spent on teaching? I’d wager a generous guess of two hours a day – tops. So four
days times two hours means eight hours lost because of the weather.
What could be taught in those eight hours that is so vital that if missed, a
child will fall behind?
Personally, I can’t think of anything. Whatever amazing, enlightening,
fascinating, mind-boggling information they would have learned in those hours
isn’t gone. It can still be included in a future class, assigned as homework,
condensed into a project, or any of another half dozen possibilities. It’s not
like the opportunity to learn that specific material was a once-in-a-lifetime
offer with a clear expiration date. It is still available for teachers to teach
and students to learn.
The key question when parents worry about their children falling behind is,
Not behind the other students because they all missed the same four days.
Behind the students in other schools? Not likely, because those schools were
Behind the national average? Hardly. Each school has its own standards and eight
hours is not enough to make a noticeable difference.
So, behind what, exactly? Who knows? I don’t think that most parents think this
one through. They just worry that time out of the classroom means wasted time,
non-educational time, time when their children’s minds are idle and — heaven
forbid — leaking knowledge at a frightening rate.
Most homeschoolers recognize the lunacy in this way of thinking. They know that
kids are learning any moment they are at least semi-conscious. They know that a
mere eight hours over the course of a lifetime of learning is less than that
proverbial drop in a bucket. It is completely irrelevant.
Most homeschooling parents know that the entire concept of “falling behind” is
an educationese idea; it implies that kids of any certain age must all know the
same material at the same time at the same level, an idea that doesn’t begin to
match the way human beings were designed to learn. If you buy into the idea that
kids were meant to know the exact same information at the same time at the same
level, it makes an odd kind of sense to be worried if a small chunk of
information is missed. But clearly, that is just not how children or any other
intellectual creature learns. We learn whatever material we need to learn and we
do it at our own individual pace, in our own individual style. The only person
we have to keep up with is ourselves and, so, there is no “falling behind.” We
don’t have to compete with a team, but just focus on improving our own personal
The days that we spent snowed in our house, unable to do the usual holiday
shopping, unable to make appointments, unable to run errands or visit anyone,
definitely could have made us “fall behind.” After all, we “lost” four days.
With that lost time, however, our whole family spent time hanging out on the
couch under thick blankets watching movies, reading books, listening to music
and talking. Sure, some things did not get done, but we caught up later when the
snow melted enough to get out of the driveway. In the meantime, we had wonderful
moments as a family that I will treasure far more than if we had somehow managed
to miss the winter weather and kept up with the usual daily routine.
Hopefully, those days won’t result in us standing on corners with cardboard
signs. You can bet if we do, though, I will make sure there aren’t any
misspelled words or dangling modifiers.
© 2009, Tamra Orr