Recently I switched my seven-year-old from a regular elementary school first grade class to homeschooling. We are using a combination of online learning, textbooks, regular books, videos, and museum visits for course materials.

For now the main online material he is using is the math program ALEKS. My older children also use ALEKS and have for the last 3 years. It offers a fairly comprehensive set of K-12 math courses. Students are fed problems and given assessments at their own pace. Their ability to progress is entirely dependent on how well they perform. At times they have completed an entire year’s lesson in just a couple days. Other times, when the math level contained concepts they had not previously encountered, their progress slowed to covering one grade level over the course of a calendar year.

How a student approaches ALEKS gives some interesting insights into their comfort and ability with basic problem solving. Not math problem solving, life problem solving. What do you do when you don’t know the answer, when you aren’t even sure how to find the answer? Do you stare at it? Look for additional resources? Ask someone? Bang your head against a wall? Take notes and write down detailed steps? Quit?

When ALEKS introduces a new topic it starts by showing a problem. If the student knows the answer to the problem they have the ability to answer that problem, answer a few more similar problems correctly and then move on to the next topic. This prevents students from spending endless hours working problems within their current level of knowledge.

Where it gets interesting is if a student does not already understand a topic. They have the option of clicking ‘Explain’ which brings up a text and diagram description of the problem and its solution. Some students do not even want to click on ‘Explain’ because they don’t want to fail the problem or they are uncomfortable showing their ignorance, even to a computer. If they do click ‘Explain’ they may not understand the explanation. While sometime the explanation is confusing, other times it seems that the students are just not very good at walking themselves through the explanation, step-by-step.

Working with my young student today it became clear that he is not used to taking the time to work through explanations and untangle problems on his own. He doesn’t like to click ‘Explain’ and when he does, he has a tendency to skim read the explanation and then declare, “I don’t get it. I can’t do it.”

Thus far in his education he has had the luxury of having subjects and concepts clearly explained to him by his teachers. He has been given clear and detailed directions. He has been able to easily and correctly complete assignments by just going through the motions. He has not had to puzzle over concepts. He has been given problems with distinct answers: true/false, multiple choice, fill in the blanks from the above lists of words. If it became difficult or he didn’t understand he could always ask for help or just quit. His ability to easily understand teachers’ explanations combined with the “one right answer” syndrome has made him into a lazy learner. I don’t think he is alone in this. The current test mania environment within the public schools emphasizes knowing the right answer, not knowing how to think and problem solve. Hopefully homeschooling will help him become more comfortable in the space between knowing and not yet knowing. Especially in the 21st century, knowing how to find answers and all their nuances is at least as important as knowing today’s correct answer. Explain.


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