Flinging Wide the Doors of Learning: Why I’m Forgetting About Results as I Teach My Kids

Flinging Wide the Doors of Learning: Why I’m Forgetting About Results as I Teach My Kids

Flinging wide the doors of learning: forgetting about results as I teach my kidsLast month I had  an aha! moment. It happened while reading Anne’s post on how she’s tackling this year’s goals. The short story? She’s forgetting results.

This makes sense in about a thousand ways. Results are outside of our circle of control, after all, and it makes so much more sense to focus on what we can do rather than on what we want to happen, as if meeting our goals is something that occurs because the stars align and everything falls into place.

The aha! moment occurred when I realized that this is exactly the fatal mistake homeschoolers make at the beginning of each school year. We set goals that are based on outcomes. We set goals that don’t match our ideals because they are all focused on the curriculum rather than on the actual child in front of us.

We set out in September, full of ambition and armed with our lesson plans and checklists. This year, we think, Johnny will complete the fourth grade math book, get halfway through the Spanish book, learn 300 spelling words, and be at the fifth grade reading level. He will read these books, check these boxes, complete these tasks. He will finish the fourth grade. (Whatever the heck that means.)

(No really. What does it mean?)

And then we wonder why by mid-winter we’re all tuckered out. Why burnout looms red hot, threatening us with thoughts of giving up the whole project because this is not what we signed up for. This is hard. This is not delightful or joyful or even remotely interesting. It’s drudgery.

Is it any wonder?

What if our goals for our kids looked more like Anne’s goals for herself? What if we focused on the process and  threw the results to the wind? We don’t want to become outcome-based educators after all- we’re after something far better than that. We’re after delight. Wisdom. Knowledge. Joy. We’re after capturing the spirit of a life well-lived, but we don’t get there by keeping our eyes fixed on the end of the math book.

Instead of focusing on the outcome–the completed curriculum, the number of facts or poems memorized, the quantity of assignments completed–what if we threw the spotlight on the process instead?

Rather than setting a goal to finish a particular math book, we might set a goal to work with numbers every day for 45 minutes. All of the sudden the book is not our master. We may use the book (and in fact are likely to), but we are still making progress on our goal if we take some extra time to make sure a lesson is really understood, or to fill a day or a week or a month with math games instead of bookwork.

Rather than listing books we need to get through (as if the “getting through” is any indication that the child has learned something), maybe we go broader. After all,  there isn’t any merit in getting through the book. The merit is in the thinking. The growing. The process.

My hunch is that by throwing the spotlight on the process of learning itself, most of us would far outpace the goals that are set in a typical grade-level curriculum. As parents, we have the ability to fling wide the doors of the whole wide world, after all. That’s so much more inspiring than setting our sights on the end of a set of written lessons.

Do you set goals for your kids based on outcomes or processes? What does this look like for you? I’d love to chat about it with you in the comments.

Sarah Mackenzie is a smitten wife, a homeschooling mama of six (including twins!) and a devoted reader of Modern Mrs. Darcy. She writes about a life drenched in books, babies, and grace at Amongst Lovely Things.

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  1. Amy Caroline says:

    I have wavered back and forth between these ideals and the truth is we learn far more and get more done by just going with it. I only plan the week and if we don’t get it done, it is all right, we just bump it. If we need to take a week off, it is all good, we take a week off. It has made life bearable and burnout not so big a deal. It does happen sometimes and that is why just taking a week off can refresh and long for days with a math book!

  2. Karlyne says:

    When we set goals for other people, we’re often, maybe always, disappointed. Even when they’re our adorable kids, we’re going to be disappointed. They are not us, but separate human beings with different mind sets, emotions, brains, you name it! We often talk about the separation anxiety that a baby feels when Mom goes out of the room, but too often we unwittingly feel the same way. We want them to “succeed” in fourth grade (whatever that means! and it doesn’t mean anything but an arbitrary standard, by the way), so that we will feel relieved, proud, successful ourselves. Yes, we love them and we want the best for them, but as they get older we’re going to realize that our ” best” is not necessarily what they want for themselves. And, we have to remember this one important fact – that’s OK!

    They are not extensions of ourselves, but girls and boys, men and women, that we share some traits, hair color, and body type with. The ultimate goal for them involves us, not them. That goal is to raise them with so much love that it will return to us and their Creator and the entire world. Every other goal pales in comparison.

    • Yep, I agree. “The goal is to raise them so much love that it will return to us and their Creator and the entire world. Every other goal pales in comparison.” We are to be faithful, not necessary successful! 🙂

  3. Tim says:

    Sarah, it sounds like you are a wonderful teacher in your home school! Results truly are beyond our control, especially when the results are actually dependent on the performance of others. How can we ensure our kids will do anything, let alone complete 300 vocab words by a certain date?

    Our two kids are grown, but now we’re involved in the world’s best homework club as we host a bunch of 7th graders from the school my wife works at. We can’t guarantee any results, and sometimes we can’t even get through the homework they’ve brought with them. But we achieve our goal of giving them a place to study, lots of guidance and encouragement, and we hope they are learning not only the school work but also the skills to study on their own eventually as well.


  4. Penny says:

    Lovely and good and inspiring. However… you can’t assign credit in high school without the time being put in and the assignments completed. Nor can you send a child off to college without some kind of goal setting skill set – whether it be to be able to use time wisely, stay safe, eat well, or complete those math problems assigned even if it takes more than 45 minutes etc. I guess I’m saying I think the younger the kid, the better this ideal of “process over product” can work. At some point though, product does indeed have to happen. Goal setting, completing work on time and well is a life skill if you want to stay in college, be independent, get a job, raise a family, etc. So maybe the ability to do that through teaching responsibility is my goal. Enjoying the process along the way – of course. Joyful responsibility can be a beautiful thing!

    • Penny says:

      I should also mention that it works best for us when the child sets the goals – it’s not like I’m being school dictator over here! It’s all about balance….

    • Yep, I can see how this will need to change and morph as kids grow and as the dynamics in the home change and fluctuate year to year. I guess my thought is that no matter how old they are or what needs to be done to jump through the proper loops for high school graduation and college, the principle remains: start with the person. Any course or book or curriculum, no matter how important it might be to “get through,” still ought never trump the dignity of the person. (And just because you get through it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re trumping the person to do so! I just happen to be a wee bit type A and need constant reminders.) 🙂

      We’re classical homeschoolers so there’s no shortage of rigor and industry around here ;), but I still think a good amount of homeschool angst could be sidestepped- at whatever age- by remembering that we are dealing first and foremost with a person, and second with the material we want them to learn.

    • Toni says:

      I agree, Penny. I see with my oldest two children (9th and 10th grade) that goal setting is paramount to accomplishing a reasonable amount of work. My 10th grader requires a large amount of time to master higher math and so we have deicided to keep her at a minimum as far as number of subjects to allow for more time. Even with goals, I think slow and steady wins the race and understanding the process (and how long the process takes) is critical for the older ones. Life is full of deadlines and extra work. I would imagine most of us prefer mastery over a “finish the book” outcome. We do get more done “by just doing it” (process), but as our children get older, practicing “getting it done” has much merit. Of course, we always have to be on the look out for “getting it done and who cares how good it is?” I have seen this a time or two! 🙂

  5. Faigie says:

    That’s why so many kids do so poorly in school. It starts with those ridiculous copy cat arts and crafts that all schools (and even Moms do). If we concentrated on the process more, learning is so much more enjoyable, fulfilling and successful

  6. Cate says:

    I love this! This is our first year homeschooling, and I finally came to this conclusion when February dropped like a hammer. All that bloom of multi-colored scheduling and rah-rah enthusiasm to keep math time “on track” had wilted. Now we are making it about joyful learning… at THEIR pace. I finally remembered that is exactly why we have chosen to homeschool, so we can tailor the entire experience to THEM, and not have them corralled into a box with the faceless masses where the whole is just to check off each standardized bullet point. Because my oldest is able to get so ahead, I tend to keep on pushing instead of letting her enjoy her successes. I’m trying to focus more on enjoying the experience and letting her set standards for herself, because they always impress me (and we have a LOT more fun) when I just loosen the reins!

  7. How I wish I’d had you looking over my shoulder in 1986 (our first year of home education)! Our children (12, 10, 7 & 5 at that time) would likely have appreciated you too because I might have been influenced (by you) to be less consumed with my goals orientation.

    Looking back, I think if I’d set one primary goal — to nurture in them a hunger as lifelong learners — we’d have been happier. Our adult children are today lifelong learners, but ah, amid so much early trial and error. Get that wisdom, knowledge and joy … but never forget the delight!

    • Karlyne says:

      We started in 1984, Renee, and I know what you’re talking about! No one (well, that I knew of) had ever done this in modern times, so it was a lot of trial and error. I was very lucky in my reading material, too, but the real break through came when I drove by my eldest son’s high school and had a flash of “No matter what I do I can’t do any worse than school!” It was very freeing, and I think that from then on, we just had fun in our educating. My kids still think that they had an enviable childhood. And I think I had an enviable job as their facilitator!

      My younger daughter had to go back to work full-time last year, so I am very grateful that I’m close enough to watch her three kidlets and “homeschool” them, too. The noise level drives me crazy occasionally, but we do have fun and I keep telling myself that they are learning, too! As you say, my job is to love them into being lifelong learners – and let that love rebound in all they do.

  8. One thing that has helped us is having a ongoing list posted on the wall titled “I want to know…” and then whenever I’m asked a question, I have my daughter write it on the list and we look it up together. I find that this makes the goal more centered on actually learning things she’s interested in and less on simply worksheets and curriculum.

  9. Molly says:

    I’m going to play devil’s advocate here are bit, but please don’t take this as a slam on homeschooling. As a classroom teacher I am just wondering how you are able to measure what has been learned and mastered so the reports can be sent in to the state? How do homeschooling parents ensure their children “pass the ___th grade” and it’s “arbitrary standards” (which have been determined by professionals in the field of education who have made childhood education, childhood psychology, and children in general their life’s passion) if you only focus on the process and not the product? I know there are many benefits of homeschooling including, and perhaps most impactfully, the individualization of the child’s education. But I have also seen a number of homeschooled children sent to a traditional school because the parents reached the level of no longer knowing (mitosis anyone?) and suddenly the child who was “quite successful” at home is sinking because they can’t manage the material being taught because they never got the rudimentary material mastered. I’m all for process and love teaching by discovery, but there has to be some set goals or how do you know if what they learned will be enough?

    • I am not Sarah, but I think the beauty is that my kids don’t have to “pass the ____th grade.” Instead they can continue to work until they have mastered the material. If it takes two years to learn third grade math, master it, and be able to do it well, then it takes two years. And in the meantime no one is called a failure or made to feel less for moving at their own pace. (I should note that I live in a state where we are not required to submit reports or meet standard — arbitrary or otherwise.)

      Honestly as a former “professional” educator what I have discovered is that true education — actually learning the material, mastering the material, digging deep, knowing things well, becoming a disciple of learning — takes a complete paradigm shift from the definition I had of education while in the classroom. We learn. We ignore grade levels. We ignore the speed we are “supposed” to go. We study. We master. We move forward on our own timetable. No one said anything about not mastering rudimentary material; we just talk about doing it on a timetable that fits the child — the individualization you praised.

    • In my state, homeschooled students are required to take a standardized test every spring. Homeschooled kids consistently test signficantly better than their peers (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/aug/30/home-schooling-outstanding-results-national-tests/), so the great news is that we don’t need to keep our eyes on the product. By focusing on the process and not teaching toward any test or measurable goal (the way outcome-based education does), we’re not just meeting grade level requirements- we’re surpassing them.

      We just constantly doubt ourselves, which is why I wrote the post. 🙂

      We participate in the product (the standardized testing required by the state), but the way I teach has no bearing on that. I don’t teach my children in a way that meets standards set by grade levels or year-end tests, but we surpass them nonetheless.

    • Meredith says:

      Hi Molly, I have been homeschooling for over 14 years now and am about to graduate our first (daughter). She carries a 4.0 G.P.A. and has been accepted to all 7 of the universities which she applied. They all gave her academic scholarships based on her ability to “pass all the ____ grade levels”, exceeding them in fact as she has six credits over and above our state requirements for graduation. We try not to put too much emphasis on teaching to the states level of attainment and really shoot for what the child can achieve based on their abilities and desires to learn and accomplish their goals. They have always been above and beyond what anyone else has laid out for “curriculum” according to government run institutions. It seems our goals definitely made the grade 😉 Just our perspective and what has worked for our little corner of the home educating world!

  10. Oh, Sarah, thanks for this. This is how it has always been my instinct to teach my kids. But yet I constantly stress over it and convince myself it is wrong and we are not doing enough. When I can step back and get some perspective, I think we are, but because it doesn’t easily measure up like finishing a book, passing an exit exam, etc…I get all freaked out. Reading your post I can take a deep breath. We are good. This is good. Thanks.

  11. I’m not sure if I’m missing your point, but we all gain clarity when we consider our end goal. Ultimately, my goal is salvation, for myself and my husband and children if I can help them along their way! But we use that as a tool in determining how we manage our time. How do I want to end the day? The week? The semester? The year? With so many distractions, it is absolutely necessary for me to have those end goals because the little pieces fall into place more easily and I have a fundamental path I can return to after bad days.

    • I completely agree. I guess I should have articulated that we just aren’t focusing on particular academic goals. My ultimate goal is to hear “Well done, good and faithful servant,” and for my children to hear that too. So if we homeschool with that goal at the forefront, it all looks very different than if we set “high scores on the SAT” or “finish x amount of math lessons” as the driving goal.

      I think? Right?

  12. Hannah says:

    So difficult to do! Especially if we’re driven ourselves. But I agree that there’s really no joy in being a Tiger Mom. I would guess there’s not a lot of joy in being a Tiger Kid either…I’m writing though some of these same issues these days.

  13. Ellen says:

    These are great thoughts, but I think we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s not an either/or, as in either product or process only focus. Process focus is good, but product is important also. For me personally if I was too “process focused,” I would be tempted to use this as an excuse to justify not accomplishing enough, instead of looking at my own bad habits of procrastination or spending time elsewhere than where it should be. But that’s just me. 🙂 I know if my children were told they only have to work on math for 45 minutes, they would do as few problems as possible to fill that time. 🙂 For our family, having a product goal helps keep us on track, with the understanding that if we don’t make it, that’s OK, but we need to be shooting for something. Which all goes back to Jennifer’s comment of it being a matter of works better for different personalities. 🙂

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