Mrs. Sell's Blog of Household Management

The purpose of education

Recently on the Pioneer Woman Homeschooling website, there was a question: Are Print Dictionaries Obsolete?

(Full disclosure: I own the complete Oxford English Dictionary in 20 volumes. You can probably guess what my position is on this question.)

Given the demographic of homeschooling website readers, it was safe to assume that most commenters loved their print dictionaries and, in general, preferred them to electronic versions. Many people mentioned learning alphabetical order, and exposure to similar (and even dissimilar words) in the vicinity of the word they were looking up, as benefits of print dictionaries. About the only cons were that it’s slower (sometimes) and less portable than an on-line dictionary accessed through a smart phone.

But I had a question that led me to thinking about an even larger topic: why do we have to phrase the print vs. electronic as an either/or question? Why not learn BOTH? And that got me thinking about two different approaches to learning.

The first approach is what we see in institutionalized education. More and more, the goal of government education is to get the students to achieve certain scores on standardized tests. The teachers tasked with reaching these goals have limited resources and limited time to bring many children up to those standards. Whether or not the child is interested in a given subject at a given time is irrelevant; they are grouped by age and tested accordingly. Also irrelevant is the retention of the material after testing: if the student crams the info into his brain just long enough to regurgitate it on a test, then the school system has succeeded.

The second approach to learning doesn’t focus on test scores, but on lifelong enrichment. It is easier to use this learning style with homeschooled children, since their education is more easily tailored to the individual student, but can also be imbued by parents working with children who are in public schools.

Enrichment-based learning aims to give the student mental tools to improve his mind for the rest of his life. It isn’t bound by school schedules and test scores. Print dictionary skills may be too time-consuming to teach in a public school setting, but for the parent or teacher who wishes to impart more than high grades to their student, there is no reason not to teach both. It’s true that learning print dictionary skills, how to do long division by hand, and using a map instead of a GPS take longer to teach. But over a person’s life, getting into the habit of truly learning concepts from their very foundations will enrich and improve the life and the mind.

So often, we look for the quickest way to do things: calculators on our phones, GPS maps, and spell check, thinking that we are saving time for something else. (Although given how much junk TV Americans watch, the question is, for what?) Ironically, as we age and our mental faculties begin to deteriorate, doctors note that the people who are consistently learning new things and improving their minds are the ones who are happier, healthier, and stronger mentally. Is it possible that the person who learned the extra skills for fun (doing math on an abacus, for example) is better off in the long run?

I want my daughter to use a print dictionary for the sheer joy of the English language, and know how to use an online dictionary when she’s out and about and needs a definition. I want her to understand mathematical concepts for the fun of it, and be able to use a calculator when she needs a quick number. I want her to see learning as something that’s not a punishment or a chore, but as something that will make her life better every day.

The best metaphor I can think of is learning to swim. You could argue that swimming is irrelevant, that your child can wear a life jacket, or just avoid boats. You could make them learn to swim just enough to pass a swim test. Or, you could demonstrate how much fun swimming is, and how it will open their world to even more fun activities like scuba diving, surfing and water-skiing. In the lifelong scheme of things, which would you prefer for your child?

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