The Fallacy of a ‘Balanced’ Education

The other day I received a wonderful comment from a reader. And I have to say, it really, REALLY makes my day when I hear from people. I’m like a cat, folks, I need a good scratch behind the ears on a regular basis. Just knowing you are out there, that you are reading what I have written, is still quite a thrill for me – newbie blogger that I am. You don’t have to agree with me, or even particularly like me, but if I make you think, inspire you or engage you in any way, let me know. It helps, it really does.

So anyway, Vicki posted the following comment which I have edited down, check out the full comment here

…I also struggle with whether I am teaching the necessary topics and whether my children are achieving the expected level of competency.  I have been using my state’s standards as a guideline…What has been bothering me is that the list of topics is so disjointed and unrelated, with no clear or logical progression.  My youngest daughter is autistic and has learning difficulties.  The lack of pattern in her learning makes the concepts simply come and go, since they have nothing to relate (or ‘attach’) to.  Plus, sometimes I feel the lists are quite lofty.  My second daughter could handle them just fine (she is quite bright, just like your daughter!), but it seems like too many topics and too difficult of topics at times, for children that need to focus on really learning and remembering the basics.  What are your thoughts about the expected standards?

I forwarded her full comment to my dad, who wrote the following…

One thing she said made something pop into my mind. It may or may not be relevant, but I am just going to spit it out, not judge it.

I have had people get after me for “not eating a balanced meal.” My response is that balanced meals are irrelevant, unnatural and possibly bad for proper nutrition.

They are irrelevant as long as you eat a balanced DIET. If you eat one-course meals, all that is important is that over time, you are getting all your nutritional needs met.

It is unnatural, in that genetically, we are still hunter-gatherers.

(The invention of agriculture has made some inroads into that, but not much.) Hunter-gatherers ate meat when they killed something. Then they gorged on it. When berries or nuts were in season, they gorged on those.

Ditto for fish, tubers, leafy vegetables, etc. Overall, though, the generally ate a balanced diet. Though they were often under nourished, they weren’t usually MAL-nourished.

Finally, some foods block the absorption and utilization of other foods, when eaten together. This can be a problem for those low in a specific nutrient, if other foods are blocking that dietary requirement.

Okay, back on track. Kids need to have a balanced education, but they probably don’t need a balanced school day–or week. If Emily gets all excited about plant biology, maybe it would be a good idea to hold off on the language classes until her plant “fever” subsides. Reading and writing may overshadow math and so on. What do you think?

Well Dad, you summed it up beautifully. I wrote back to him…

The school mind (the one we were raised on) tells us that a good education must be balanced, that it must be a smidge of this, a smidge of that, all in perfectly segmented, 50 minute long doses. And while my ‘education mind’ may often recognize that it is absolute idiocy to do such a thing, it is still hard to walk away from and just throw myself into a whole new paradigm. The war between application and training, I guess.

I’m going to hazard a guess and say that most of my readers were educated in either public schools, or if you were lucky, in a private school. I spent four years in public schools (5th through 8th grade) and the rest in private schools that my dad really took some time and effort to find (thank you, Dad) as I clearly remember visiting several schools that just didn’t take. He put me in several before we found the best fit.

However, public school or private school, the basis remains the same – we had a ‘balanced’ education – language arts, science, social studies, mathematics, and the electives (foreign language, p.e. and more). They were typically presented to us in 50 minute doses, day in and day out. There was no option to lose yourself in a week of biology or reading the classics, there was certainly no month of history focus to the exclusion of other studies.

Do you learn like that today? Do you spend your day alternating at 50 minute intervals between checking the news (social studies), balancing your checkbook (mathematics), writing letters and checking email (language arts), or reading the backs of your vitamin bottles (science)?

No?

Did you learn in 50 minute segments before you went to school? Did you study how to walk, then neatly space it with social interaction with family members, practice eating with a spoon, and concentrate on your bowel movements all in equal parts?

No?

Okay, so yes, I’m being a little sarcastic here. But perhaps a little sarcasm is in order for us to recognize a ‘balanced education’ for what it really is…

A ‘balanced education’ is an artificial construct. It does not exist in the real world. I can want my child to study Spanish until I am blue in the face – but it doesn’t mean she will a) be willing, or b) do it for any length of specified time. [sigh] I can’t help but want it even still.

If I can get her to count to ten in Spanish and then tack on ‘once’ and ‘doce’ and have her know it means eleven and twelve, then I settle for a silent Hell, yes! and accept it when she says, “I’m tired of doing Spanish now, I’m going to stop.”

This is the basis for unschooling. And even if you are still unconvinced, still on the fence, I urge you to watch your child and see what subjects they gravitate towards, when they want to learn, how long they are willing to focus, and where their minds go when they are truly in the learning zone.

Now I can hear the arguments starting up – and they are fair, because I have them with myself constantly. What if she never shows an interest in reading? Or math? Or science?

And all I can say to that is…it works out. It…works…out. I know that isn’t the perfectly diagrammed map to success that you are looking for, but I know it because I’m living it. I’m watching her learn and tackle all of the little intricacies listed in the Kindergarten learning goals and accomplish them, without any particular rhyme or reason. As I wrote in a comment back to Vicki…

What I found as I was going through the ‘expected goals’ was nothing less than a growing delight. I realized that we have been touching on these things naturally, without any direction or intent on my side of things. And that struck me as absolutely monumental. I would best describe our learning style (and it is BOTH of us learning) as unschooling. Emily asks me a lot of questions, and often I answer them with a description that progresses to something else (the Yertle the Turtle post, for example). The trail of learning that we take is winding, and often disjointed, with no clear path or purpose other than curiosity and discovery. And yet, this…WORKS. Which leaves me even more mystified by learning and the education process than ever.

I personally avoid the guidelines as much as possible. I keep them in the back of my mind and focus instead on being open to the curiosity, being willing to stop whatever I am doing and focus on the learning path, and occasionally I go and check and see how we are doing by checking those guidelines. Then I address ‘learning gaps’ by choosing learning destinations – perhaps a science museum, homeschool p.e., encourage writing letters or stories (thank you cards, a letter to her older sister, a story all her own, or journaling – dictated, then signed by her) or enroll her in acting classes, or visit a historical monument – these things get the ball rolling and the questions flowing and we just go off on jaunts from there.

So, call it unit studies, call it unschooling, call it learning. There is nothing balanced about it…and honestly? That’s the new paradigm – now go and embrace it!

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