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Just Desserts: My Son Teaches Me How to Teach

I got my just desserts, my comeuppance…all courtesy of my pre-teen son!

That day—way back in my second year of homeschooling—it came as a stunning newsflash that my son wasn’t nearly as impressed as I with my teaching of history…

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Back then, you see, I would dutifully prepare by pre-reading the teacher notes in my curriculum, and gathering my listeners, I would then “wax eloquent,” informing the boys of the historical content at length, and with gusto. My obedient sons would nod every now and then, and I would take that as confirmation of my “excellent” teaching as I downloaded data. Ah, what a sense of satisfaction I enjoyed. I was effectively blessing my guys with wisdom! Or so I thought…

But, a vague concern began bubbling up in my heart as I studied and sought the Lord for direction in our homeschool. I soon sensed that while my grandiose speeches offered me the joy of thinking, they perhaps denied my sons that same crucial opportunity to think and ponder! Was I actually preventing them from deep engagement, where the most important biblical principles would build up in their hearts and minds? Was I only droning, not delivering? Was I merely building passivity, not wisdom? It was hard to face that thought, since I cared so much about my sons and their homeschooling. But an excitement came right after the pang of regret…something better may lie ahead!

Energized by that idea, I dispensed what I thought was an astounding proclamation! “Sons, my teaching has lulled you into passivity. I have confused listening with learning. I do believe that I am the only one thinking.” I shone with the thrill of my realization! Ah, but then it hit — my comeuppance…

“I wondered when you’d figure that out,” my eldest son casually announced. He was just 12, but plenty old enough to enjoy outsmarting me! And had he ever. “I knew all along, Mom,” he schmoozed, “that if we listened and nodded, you wouldn’t ask us to dig in and think. And you’d get through your to-do list faster, so we get out sooner to have fun.”

Gulp! Not only had I kept my sons from actively probing for truth, but I hadn’t even helped them discover that thinking is fun, a thrill which God meant for us to enjoy as creatures in His image! I had lived long enough to know that this did not bode well for the likelihood of them being self-motivated, lifelong learners on all levels. Blaise Pascal, of course, says it best:

“All men seek happiness. There are no exceptions. However different the means they employ, they all strive towards this goal. The reason why some go to war and some do not is the same desire in both, but interpreted in two different ways. The [human] will never takes the least step except to that end. This is the motive of every act of every man…”1

All the years of passive learning had led them to believe that education is something to be endured until “real life” can begin thereafter. They thought it was passive receipt of data, not the discovery of eternal, galaxy-shaping, powerful wisdom from our amazing God! For I knew that if my boys could see learning as their personal invitation from the King of Kings to enter into His realm, then they would see thinking and learning as an active adventure, a God-intended happiness in life. I needed to find ways to show them that education was not a punishment after the Fall but had been planned for our expansive joy from the beginning. How could I shape our homeschool around that thrilling calling? I wondered and prayed.

One thing became very clear… I dare not simply reproduce the schooling which I had experienced in childhood, for I was not asked to think deeply, let alone to enjoy that thinking. Instead, in these secular institutions—with their very different view of the individual—we focused more on being receptacles for memorized facts and conclusions, without the idea that we were meant to analyze them for worthiness. Rather, to be a good student meant to simply accept and intake, without first pondering. We were drinking in worldview without realizing it. And we focused on calculation, not in its rightful place as a needful tool, but almost as if it were our highest human function…when God actually calls us all much higher: to know Him, to know all that He has made, and to be His strong-minded ambassadors.

Why, I had been merely reproducing my own passive, inert school experience unthinkingly! Of course! Just as I had been taught! Memorize and re-enact, but don’t think. I had learned it well. What a poor replacement, however, for God’s exciting mission for us to thinkingly serve/lead, to be courageous, self-governing, energetic knights of the realm, with hearts open to His deepest teaching. How else could we even detect the falsity of the world’s swaggering, but empty, claims?

God had a much, much higher view, in other words, of education than I did. So, He also had a much, much higher view of my sons as students, which hardly seemed possible! He was giving me the exciting task of preparing them for a higher calling than my schooling had ever done. Even if what I had been asking my boys to passively memorize was the truth, if they could do no more with ideas than to store them, not knead them, the world had an easier shot at overwriting their hearts with secular declarations.

All of us old enough to be aware of the Nuremburg Trials—where the Nazi war criminals claimed they weren’t guilty because they were only following orders—know of this human tendency to avoid thought if we don’t realize its joys and importance. (See: The Nuremburg Trials…and Homeschooling?! another of my articles, if desired.) No wonder Mr. John Gatto alerts us that German schools in those years specifically avoided student thinking in place of passively accepting data…as I was doing with my own sons before the day of my comeuppance!

Once I recovered from the shock of my son’s insight that day, I knew we would forever after be on a new path. The teacher’s guide was still on my lap. We were to cover the pros and cons of the Louisiana Purchase. It was time for my sons to wrestle which such decisions now, while in our home, where they could learn how to think, how to enjoy thinking, how to dredge for God’s principles on any topic, and how to apply them to any matter at hand. “Boys,” I restarted, “the offer from France to purchase the Louisiana Territory was a tough decision at the time, as you know. Why don’t you two act as the leading senators on each side of the debate and try to convince me—I will stand in as President Jefferson—that your ideas are best for this nation…”

It was as if my sons suddenly received CPR! Their eyes flashed awake, their body language went from silent suffering to energetic earnestness, their brains kicked on, and, most importantly, they began probing for relevant eternal truths which alone could safely build a nation. I was absolutely floored at what flowed out of my sons that day. They forged mere facts into great ideas, cautions, and plans. They were as “real men” making “real decisions” with “real impacts” on “real people.” That is education, for that is exactly what they are doing every day of their lives. They are grown and married now, with seven sons between them. And what they discovered—even about enjoying learning itself—is now flowing on to those young boys.

That day, homeschooling became a great joy. Thank the Lord for just desserts!

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Disclosure: This post is sponsored by Michelle of TruthQuest History.

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Michelle Miller is a veteran homeschooler, the founder/operator of a “living-books” library (over 20,000 volumes), a contributor/columnist for homeschooling magazines and websites, and a speaker on various education and historical topics, including two interviews on national Moody Radio.  She has written an award-winning, spiritually-oriented history curriculum used around the world:  TruthQuest History was born from her own yearning to teach deep truth through history to her children, and from her work with the many families who learn through her library.  It is a Cathy Duffy’s “Top Pick.”  Michelle also offers a customized book-recommendation service and access to her massive living-books database at Children’s Preservation Library: A Treasure Trove of Rare Living Books. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Alabama.  She and her husband of over thirty-five years have four children (two adult sons and two teens) and seven cute grandsons!

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    • Boy did I need this read this morning! I have been struggling with teaching my 3 VERY different learners.. preparing the same boring “school-like” lessons.. I am homeschooling for goodness sakes! I need to take advantage of helping my children achieve knowledge in the way they grasp it best!
      I also work part time and have found myself extremely tired fighting with celiac disease- I needed guidance, I thank the Lord I found your site!

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