The decline and fall of the Roman Empire has led to my current crisis of confidence. In home schooling our son, I have to make a myriad of decisions about his education. Some of those decisions are made months in advance, such as what books we will use next year. Some of those decisions are made right in the middle of a lesson.
That is where I found myself this past week. In history we have been studying the Roman Empire. We are, obviously, at the tail end of it. I was teaching my son how to outline information he reads. While working on possible reasons for why the Roman Empire fell, I came to a realization. Our son “knew” the information. He could list the reasons and give some details. He could pass a test on it. But he didn’t understand it. He didn’t know why it was important. He couldn’t compare and contrast what happened in Rome in the fifth century to what is happening in the United States in the twenty-first century.
Now my head is BUZZING with questions and concerns:
· Is this too academically advanced for him to do?
Never miss a local story.
· Am I expecting too much?
· Does he just need to have a cursory knowledge of the time period?
· Do I take the extra time and effort to help him understand?
· Will we be able to cover all of the course material if I spend extra time on this?
· Does he need to learn lots of history facts or how to think?
· How do you teach an 8th grader to connect the dots?
I am still struggling with these questions. When I first began home schooling I worried about what material to cover in what grade. I made some decisions to cover information in a different order than the school system. For example, his twin sister did Ancient History last year in her middle school, and we are doing it this year. I am fairly comfortable with those decisions. He will cover the same subjects, just in a different order.
But now I am entertaining radical questions. Should I try to cover as much material as they do in school? Which is more important- knowledge in breadth or in depth? Ideally, students would gain a broad knowledge in K-12 that they would then explore in depth in college. But here is the thing; based on what I see in my kids, none of it seems to be sticking. Plus, with modern technology access to those facts has become very easy. Perhaps the bigger issue for students today is to be able to find facts, consider their sources, and understand their context and relevance. They need to be able to think for themselves.
Classroom teachers do not have choices on what they will cover in their classes. Even their decisions on how to cover material is limited by textbooks chosen for them and limited resources. As someone who now has the experience of trying to get a student through a course before the end of a school year, they have my sympathies. Sometimes I feel like I am going to hyperventilate when I realize that my son really needs a couple more days on a lesson. I find myself panicking. “It will throw us off schedule. We won’t be able to finish everything before the official end of school.” But then comes a quiet voice of reason, “But this is WHY you home school--- so he can learn at a pace that works for him.”
I am still not sure exactly how we will tackle classes in the fall. I am busy reading, thinking, and experimenting. Can we find a balance between the need for many facts and the need for in-depth understanding? Are there ways I can share these tools with my children who are in public schools? Time will tell. The fall of the Roman Empire brought new opportunities to the Vandals, Franks, and Visigoths. And 1,535 years later, it also brings new opportunities to this mom to re-think the best educational practices for her children.