Finding Success

Originally Published: January/February 2006

The one-size-fits-all approach to education emphasizes method. For a student to be successful, he must prove again and again that he can do assignments as they are set before him. Typically, that means plenty of handwriting—copying, taking notes, showing work in math, writing compositions, and so on. It means following oral and written directions, taking timed tests, and memorizing what is heard and read. Anyone that has difficulty with the method must just keep trying.

What if, instead, we believed it was more important to help a child develop a specific skill or understand a specific concept? What if we cared more about that then following tradition? How many “troublemakers” or “failures” would develop a love of learning and a recognition of their worth?

Of course, before that change can take place, teachers must recognize that children may not think or learn the way they do. Since those who become teachers are generally successful using the traditional approach, “the method” probably “feels” right. And for those who struggle, well, they probably came to the same conclusion that I did in sixth grade. I had read and reread my social studies text in order to prepare for the next day’s test. Diligently I tried to apply my short term memory since I really didn’t comprehend anything I read. Nothing seemed meaningful and I just couldn’t seem to picture real people. So, in spite of hours of nervous preparation, I failed the test. My conclusion? It was my fault. I just hadn’t tried hard enough.

Those experiences can leave us, as adults, eager to help kids try harder to read texts and pass tests, to succeed where we failed. Emotionally, we agree with those who succeeded, that the method was right and we were wrong. That’s why when someone suggests a different approach, we may either panic, or dismiss it with a sense of superiority.

For example, the comprehension of good literature is an educational goal. The traditional method is to assign a reading and have students respond to questions meant to teach them about literary elements, since this knowledge will aid understanding and, hopefully, enhance their enjoyment. My anecdote dealt with a social studies text, but there were stories equally difficult for me to imagine unless I could draw on an experience or look at pictures.

Now, it may seem odd to suggest that movies can be used to help students comprehend literature since no reading is involved, but movies are stories and do include literary elements. Therefore, this nontraditional method can be used to help achieve the same goal—and much more successfully for students who either have difficulty reading or can’t visualize a story because of its unfamiliar setting. The added benefit is that the development of greater awareness and enjoyment can then spill over into stories they hear or read on their own. Nevertheless, I have seen the nervous, ”I’ll be sure to make them read the book, too,” overreaction, and the prejudiced “I intend for my children to love to read, I would never use movies,” along with the “finally, something that works” relief voiced by parents and teachers whose struggling students have lost all motivation to keep on trying.

So, if we truly want our children to find their niche—to have confidence in their ability to succeed, we need to abandon our prejudices and remind ourselves of a few fundamental principles:

  1. We are able to think more clearly and are encouraged to attempt challenging tasks in a calm, loving, and joyful atmosphere. If we are distracted by noise or clutter, in fear of criticism or humiliating consequences, or hurried by impatient or angry teachers, thinking becomes almost impossible. All our instincts tell us to run away from such a place.
  2. We all have strengths and weaknesses. When we learn through our strengths, we succeed more readily. The key is to recognize a student’s strengths instead of becoming frustrated by his weaknesses. Weaknesses will rarely become strengths, but we can help our children find ways to compensate for those weaknesses.
  3. Small successes build confidence and are an essential part of motivating a person to persevere. This is why it’s important to begin a lesson with something that you know the student can do and then move toward more difficult tasks. This is also why big challenges need to be broken down into smaller tasks.
  4. The goal, not the method, must be the point of focus. This allows you to try a variety of approaches in every subject area. Look for resources that will help you understand how your student thinks and learns. Encourage him to tell you what seems helpful and what is not so that he will actively consider ways to succeed instead of feeling like a victim whenever he has difficulty.
  5. When working in a weak area, look at the big picture. Consider the students talents and abilities and the possibilities they might lead to in his future. Then ask yourself what will ultimately be of value to the student. Will he need to show how he solves a math problem (the weakness), or just need to find the right answer? Will he have to write book reports (the weakness) or can he simply share a well-supported opinion on something he’s read? Will he need to write smaller and more neatly (the weakness) or would time be better spent learning to type with speed and accuracy? In other words, your choices should be made with the student’s real future in mind, instead of holding onto an image of him completing a traditional curriculum no matter how long it takes.

As Christian homeschoolers we should not be thinking of education as reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic. Rather, we are to recognize God’s love for each of us and endeavor to shape our children in such a way that they can return that love, enjoying a personal relationship with Christ that leaves them eager to fulfill the purpose for which they were created. Maybe we want that, but have been spending so much time trying to get them through lessons that there hasn’t been any time for devotions. Maybe our determination to use traditional methods has been “provoking our children to wrath”—making them depressed, or determined to avoid whatever we’ve assigned. We serve a God eager to guide us. He wants us to succeed as parents and teachers as much as he wants our children to succeed. We just have to recognize His meaning of success.