On Junk Food and Education

Junk Food & Education 

 Earlier this month I had the opportunity to once again attend the Minnesota Catholic Home Education Conference**.  Going into the weekend, I was quite excited to see Jennifer MacKintosh of Wildflowers & Marbles speaking on Charlotte Mason education.  Non-traditional homeschoolers are quite under represented in Catholic homeschool circles.  I find people look at me like I've sprouted an extra head when I say anything about Montessori, Charlotte Mason, or *gasp* intentional unschooling/life schooling for certain subject areas.  The internet says we are out there, but finding us is a little more tricky than I would like!  I enjoyed Jen's wisdom every bit as much as I expected too, but overall I felt a little off-kilter this year at the conference (and not just because I missed the Blogger's Gathering for the first time in.....ever?).

As I was driving home I realized what it was.

Junk food is invading the homeschool community and it's been happening in the same way that junk has invaded our food supply- slowly and without anyone standing up to it.  This junk education has made it nearly impossible to know what is really in the products that you are spending your money on.


What do I mean by that?

People who know just enough to be dangerous are preying on the anxieties and insecurities of homeschool parents.  People who are really good at marketing are packaging things in pretty boxes and offering fast & easy fixes to slow problems.

People who know very little about education research are taking ideas and trying to standardize things that were never meant to be standardized.  In our rush to detach from the public education system, we have discounted the same people who are doing genuine education research on how people learn and made ourselves vulnerable to misrepresentation by those who are trying to implement it.

Here's an example.

In education research there is something called a STROOP task.  In its simplest form you read the printed color of a color word that is printed in different color (i.e. green - you say red).  They do things like time people, track mistakes, etc. to see how people process the visual information.    I only know anything about STROOP because Tim did a variation of it as one of his graduation research projects.

They learned a lot about how to help people do better on the STROOP task, but they found over and over again that those cognitive challenges don't transfer to other areas of cognition (fruits in the wrong color, name the fruit).  No matter how much you practice reading words in the wrong color, it doesn't actually improve your visual or mental acuity on other tests.  It's only good for itself.

Kind of like no matter how much math you do, it isn't going to actually make you a better reader.  You can be better at math, but you still have to do the work to learn to read.

Today, however, all of the research that says you can get better at the STROOP task is being highlighted in order to sell cognitive skills practice.  There are dozens of "brain power" apps, often aimed at helping people to "retain their memory" as they age.   If they even know, they skip the fact it won't help you get better at doing anything else.

A few years ago, a vendor at this same conference I was at this weekend had a big wheel with a variation of a STROOP task to sell the need for their "latest" brain-boosting product.  As an education researcher, Tim stopped to chat with them and ask about their study.

Only they weren't (and hadn't) run a study.

They had never heard the word STROOP.

Their "results" were that kids enjoyed their learning and had fun doing it.

They developed a curriculum based on "research" and they had no clue what he was talking about.

Homeschooling, has never been about an easy fix.  It has never been about fast results.  It has, at the end of the day, never been about having fun.  I mean, yes- I prefer when we are having fun too- but who cares if we are having fun in something contrived if we aren't actually learning anything that will help us be better at something real!

Homeschooling pioneers, particularly Catholic homeschoolers, had to do it themselves.  They had to do it the hard way- putting together their own book lists and communities.  Trying new things with their kids, watching to see how they responded, accepting feedback, and adjusting.  Real individualized, observation-based education was their only choice.

It's what we still claim to want, but its not what the majority of vendors are selling us.  We don't have to go to a homeschool conference to be vulnerable to this.  Much of what passes for "Montessori" in the online communities is everything Montessori isn't.  Vendors are selling us products based on the lies that we believe.

Lies that tell us that our children aren't as smart as that other homeschooler's kids.  Lies that tell us our special needs kids would be better off over in the school system...or at least with this specific program designed to help moms like us who can't possibly do it well enough alone.  Lies that plant seeds of doubt about college preparedness.  Lies that say we have to teach every subject every year.  Lies that tell us there is only one possible sequence for learning.  Lies that tell us that holes in any one area of education will be lynch pins in our child's future.   Lies that tell us early is better even in homeschool.

On that last one, let me tell you that a lot of research doesn't support early is better for much of anything academic- homeschooled or not- just so you know, but that's a different soap box.

I'm not proposing that we all hide in our houses and stop sharing our success stories and helpful secrets- including products.  I sell products.  I certainly buy products!  I AM asking that if we are going to buy a product based on "research"  make sure that we do our own and know what research we are really purchasing and what it really includes.  That if we trust the experts to know the subject, that they are really experts.  That we don't sacrifice our expertise of our own children to the expertise of the expert in the subject.

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We all need a short cut or a helping hand feeding our family at times.  Real food meals, for example, served up on paper plates in a hotel.  Most of us enjoy a candy bar or popsicle from time to time.  Just like with junk food, however, our kids brains will turn to mush on a diet of what more and more vendors are trying to sell us.

The best news, is that we really can stop believing all these lies that say we can't live without high fructose science.  God says we can, and not surprisingly the research agrees, so lets start with that!

**This post is not a reflection of the Minnesota Catholic Home Education or its organizers in any way.  In no way can they vet the educational validity of each vendor.  That's our job as mamas!  The speakers were fantastic as always.  This is more of a general observation about the mindset of parents who think they need one more thing that will fix their homeschool and the marketing people who have latched onto that insecurity.  In some cases it isn't even the product that's the problem, rather the way it is marketed.  I will definitely be back to the conference again and again and I think you should go too!
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