“How do we keep kids from burning out? How do we keep their motivation for schoolwork high?” These are certainly relevant questions, as a short visit to almost any public school illustrates.
Deliberately torn clothes, rings through ears and noses (and worse), painted faces and hair, booming primitive “music,” and general demeanor that belongs in the anthropology section of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC are immediately noticeable. Look deeper by listening to the actual conversations and studying seriously the behavior patterns of these very unfortunate children, and only a deliberate act of mental charity prevents one from seriously comparing this to a zoo.
These are not, however, animals. These are children whose fundamental hopes and dreams, whose rights to temporal and spiritual opportunities, and whose mental abilities and productive potential are the same as those of any other children. Why has their motivation been so terribly crushed that they look for fulfillment in demeaning ways?
This is also a crucial question for homeschool families. Without the peer examples and pressures of the public schools, homeschool children don’t ordinarily deteriorate so obviously as public school children. This is, of course, one of the facts that often motivates parents to begin a homeschool. The same general deterioration can, however, take place in a homeschool—a drifting away from academic, mental activity, and positive development and the substitution of other pursuits that undermine the purposes of the school and diminish the children’s prospects in adult life.
A fundamental cycle is present in most remarkably successful personal activities: An individual likes to do the things at which he excels—and he excels at the things he likes to do—and he draws more motivation from the fact that he excels. If he ceases to excel, he ceases to like the activity, and he seeks motivation elsewhere; this diminishes his efforts in the primary activity and lowers still further the quality of his performance. Both of these cycles are self-amplifying. The first leads to outstanding performance and maximum skills. The second spirals downward to failure. A successful home school must assure that students reside in the first cycle, and remain there.
The key to success is to focus upon the essence of the first cycle—excellence and motivation built upon truly individual and independent performance of important work. The most common error is to focus upon pleasure without demanding excellence.
Ability is the Key
You cannot fool children for long. If they are being given busywork, games, or watered-down “educational” work created to respond to the lowest common denominators in the marketplace, they will eventually realize this. If they are unable to learn without lots of colored pictures and entertaining crutches and continual handholding and compliments from a teacher, they will realize this, too. If, however, a child knows that six days a week his first activity will be to read a challenging math lesson and correctly solve the problems given with that lesson without any help whatever, he will begin to take great pride in his ability and to enjoy this activity. The satisfaction of having this ability will become its own reward. Also, he will easily understand the essence of his work—which depends upon the quality of the text and problems and has nothing to do with colored pictures, dancing teaching aids, and other marketing frills.
In this example, it is the mathematics that is fun. It is not fun, however, the first day. For children entering this real learning activity from a poorer background, it may not even be fun for the first few months. For those who are coddled, it will probably never be fun. In many cases, only when the child realizes that he is entirely on his own with the math book and that there is no way out through asking for help or complaining or refusing to complete each day’s lesson (even if he sits at that desk the entire day) will he apply himself.
Children, of course, vary in ability. It doesn’t really matter how quickly they learn as long as they learn each subject thoroughly and completely. The parent must therefore, provide a study environment responsive to each child’s ability. For children who learn more slowly, it is especially important to eliminate all but the most essential work: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Schools organized so that each child progresses at his own rate, and so no child is required to learn materials unnecessary to progress in fundamental thought, are especially valuable to students regardless of their abilities.
Children who have been correctly taught prefer to work alone without help, and they do not like disturbances and interruptions—especially interruptions that interfere with their school work. They are caught up in their own cycles of excellence and dislike intrusions. It is toward this attitude that each homeschool should be directed.
The Blending of Work and Play
Success in this ultimately answers the question of work vs. play because the two activities should become identical in a successful adult. I recall vividly my thoughts when, after graduate school, I obtained a permanent position at the university involving primarily laboratory research. I loved laboratory work which had long been a cycle of excellence for me. My thoughts were, “This is wonderful, I’m going to get to play all of my life, and people are actually going to pay me for it. I’ll never have to work.”
Adults love to play as much as do children. The trick is to be so skilled at work that it becomes play—and for that play to be so effective that it becomes a foundation for correctly placed motivation and self-confidence.
This article is Copyright 1994 Home Life Inc. Used by permission. Originally published in Practical Homeschooling magazine. PO Box 1190 Fenton, MO 63026, 1-800-346-6322, fax 636-225-0743, email: [email protected], website: http://www.home-school.com. Prices are $19.95 / 6 bimonthly issues or $35 / 2 years. This publication should be read by every homeschool family.