Knowledge Gaps and the Thirst for Knowledge

Part two in the four-part series: Is Homeschooling Unfair to Children?

This post is the second in a four-part series entitled Is Homeschooling Unfair to Children?

You can read the other posts in the series here:

Part 1: Introduction

Part 3: Socialization and missing out on important experiences

Part 4: The almighty 'career path': what career can a homeschooler hope to have?

Yes, homeschooling will result in knowledge gaps. Period. If you are a homeschooling parent running yourself ragged trying to ensure that your child has no knowledge gaps, you can stop right now and let that go. There will be knowledge gaps.

But guess what else leads to knowledge gaps. Everything.

Knowledge gaps are unavoidable

There is a vastly immeasurable quantity of knowledge to be gleaned in this world, and few of us will ever make even the tiniest dent in it. Isn’t that somewhat liberating? You don’t have to kill yourself trying to learn—or teach—everything, because it is impossible to do so.

Here’s what is important: cultivating a desire and thirst for knowledge and the ability to seek it out and acquire it. Children are naturally full of questions and curiosity, but too often we stifle these instincts by refusing to teach beyond the confines of a prescribed curriculum. One of the major problems I had with traditional school was that I always wanted to know more than was being taught, particularly in math.

My father supplemented my math education at home with numerous workbooks and activities (at my request—or rather, demand). I remember doing square roots with a family friend in first grade and being told at school that I’d have to wait six more years before we’d get to those in the classroom. I remember studying for the SATs and discovering new topics (such as matrices) that were not covered in the Canadian curriculum. When I approached my math teacher—keep in mind that I’d chosen this particular high school for its math career prep program—I was told that he could or would not help me with those topics because he was not required to do so by our curriculum.

My thirst for knowledge waned each time my pursuit of it was shut down. And it’s not that I blame the teachers themselves; it wasn’t their fault. They have to manage thirty-odd students and ensure that each one acquires a particular set of skills and knowledge within any given year. They do not have time for interruptions and tangents brought on by children like me.

But the best teacher I ever had? The one who stood out and made my two years in his fourth and fifth grade classroom the only positive memories I have of my pre-university years? He was the one who taught us subjects at our own pace, the one who presented the same material in multiple ways. He had a series of inventive math stations set up all over the room, and each child worked his or her way through them at their own pace.

When he saw how much I loved math, he gave me a textbook for an advanced grade and allowed me to work my way through it independently, answering my questions at recess and lunch because he’d identified and wanted to nurture my thirst for knowledge.

And yet, I still ended up with knowledge gaps. Many, many knowledge gaps.

Developing a thirst for knowledge

History—typically encompassed into the social studies curriculum here in Canada—was one area where I was particularly lacking knowledge upon graduation. I have very few memories of studying history in school. There was the feudal system in grade nine (all but forgotten by grade ten). Perhaps some coverage of the rebellions and Confederation in grade eleven, and an inexplicably lengthy study of the Boer war in grade twelve.

But a thirst for knowledge of these subjects wasn’t ignited in me until many years later, well after I completed my undergraduate degree. I don’t think it was until I had kids that I became interested in the past. But when the spark was ignited, I realized I was parched and sought to quench my desire for information in any way that I could. Books, websites, museums, movies. History came alive and I was finally able to make sense of all the different aspects of it that had been floating around in my head untethered for so long. Because I wanted the knowledge, it stuck.

I’m not saying this can’t happen in schools—certainly, it can. There are many excellent teachers who want to help students acquire this love of learning, and as our province (and others, I’m sure) moves towards an inquiry-based approach to teaching, I’m sure this will happen even more. 

What I have seen though is that this goal is at the heart of many homeschools. Homeschooling parents tend to be less worried about checking off a prescribed set of outcomes (though we do do this too) than in sparking a love of learning and a thirst for knowledge in their children.

In a homeschool, children have more freedom to pursue their passions and interests on a deeper level. If someone gets particularly absorbed in a science lesson, we don’t necessarily have to switch to math when the hour is up. We can seek out materials, resources, and experiences that further their inquiry into and understanding of that subject. We might—on a whim—watch some videos on the subject, take an extra trip to the library, or build a 3D model.

A traditional school setting doesn’t usually allow for this tangential exploration; there simply isn’t time. There is so much to get through and fewer hours each year in which to do it. And if kids get behind schedule, it is the teacher who is to blame. (Or so say the authorities who regulate the school districts and the funding of public education). 

Allowing space to pursue interests, while still valuing traditional topics

In homeschooling, there is flexibility. Just this morning, one of my more visual learners was having a hard time understanding the concept of faces, edges, and vertices in geometric solids as she tried to look at pictures in her textbook and visualize the shapes in her mind. So, we stopped the lesson, took out some materials, and built the various shapes. 

Instantly, she grasped the concepts, but it really slowed down the lesson. We only made it through a few questions.

But so what? It doesn’t really matter. Better that she understand the concepts than check off another page covered without comprehension. We move at her pace so that she can nurture her love and understanding of the subject, not be swept up in the pressure and stress of trying to ‘get through the curriculum.’

That being said, it is my personal belief that there are some topics that everyone should be exposed to, whether they show an interest in it or not. These would be your basics, of course: the reading, writing, and the fundamentals of math. These subjects are the underpinning of so many others, and without them, that desire for knowledge and the ability to seek it out and express it will be limited.

A child may not show an interest in learning to write an argumentative essay, take notes in shorthand, or learn multiplication, but without such basic skills, it may be difficult for them to be an effective lifelong learner. (As with anything, there are, of course, exceptions to this as well).

In fact, one of the many things that factored into our personal decision to homeschool was an article I read in the paper when my eldest children were preschool-aged, announcing that both handwriting and long division were being removed from the provincial curriculum due to obsolescence. Apparently, these skills were no longer deemed worthy of being taught, as computers and calculators can now take care of them for us.

I strongly disagreed. These were two knowledge gaps that I didn’t want my children to have.

But I’ve come to accept that there will, nonetheless, be many. The best that any of us can do is equip our children with the skills and tools they need to fill knowledge gaps as they arise.


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