Thursday, May 23, 2013

Learning by Chance

The turn-of-the-nineteenth-century novelist and educational theorist Maria Edgeworth co-wrote with her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth a manual for parents educating their children at home called Practical Education (1798).  Throughout this text, they advise parents to build on their children's chance encounters and impressions because these operate with more force on children's minds than irrelevant tasks or lectures.  The idea that children learn best when encountering an idea by chance (or seemingly by chance) is central to the Edgeworths' pedagogy and they advocate maximizing or even manipulating chance occurrences for educational ends.  In Practical Education, a father explains centrifugal motion after his children happen to see its effects; in Maria's novel Belinda (1801), when a group of children wonder whether their goldfish can hear, a learned family friend tells them the history of a scholarly dispute on this subject.  The title character in one of Maria's stories called "The Good French Governess" "knew how much of the art of instruction depends upon seizing the proper moments to introduce new ideas" (Moral Tales p. 305).

I was reminded of this aspect of the Edgeworths' pedagogy as I noticed a couple recent instances in our homeschool of Edgeworthian chance instructional moments.  A couple months ago I was reading aloud The Gammage Cup and its sequel The Whisper of Glocken by Carol Kendall (which N. loved!) and the words "warp" and "weft" came up.  I told N. what they meant and reminded him we'd seen a weaver making rag rugs on a large old loom at the fair several years in a row.  Like Edgeworth's Good French Governess, who stocks her school room with miniature printing presses, basket-weaving kits, radish-seed kits, magnifying glasses, etc. to be ready for whatever chance instructional opportunities arise, I had purchased a little weaving kit years ago; I dug it out and N. set about making a small rug.  He was thrilled to see a pattern emerge as he wove the colored yarn through the loom.

In another instance, a few weeks ago, N. asked me if I knew what a mail-order bride was.  He had learned about nineteenth-century mail-order brides going West in A History of US, the American history textbook he and Tim have been reading together.  Aha!  Not only did I know what a mail-order bride was, but I handed N. that wonderful book about a mail-order bride, Sarah, Plain and Tall, which I'd bought at the local used bookstore long ago in hopes N. would someday enjoy it.  He began to read it immediately and was utterly absorbed; he read the whole book more quickly than usual and wanted to get the sequel.

I was glad in each of these moments to have something on hand that extended N.'s learning.  I am not sure that he would ever have picked up the weaving kit or Sarah, Plain and Tall had his interest not already been piqued and had not the loom and the book been available at the very moment of its piquing.  Just as the Edgeworths knew (Maria helped educate many of her 22 siblings and half-siblings!), chance connections are compelling.

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