Monday, October 15, 2007

Mind the gaps

Someone was talking recently about unschooling her kids, but having to 'watch for gaps' in case the kids ever wanted to go to school. Whether one needs to watch for gaps, let alone fill them, is a whole other discussion, but that got me thinking about what we consider to be educational gaps. I'm pretty sure that when homeschooling parents worry about gaps, they're worrying about things like "what if he never learns about Roman numerals?" or "she might never learn long division" or "what if he gets to his first job interview and draws a blank when his prospective boss asks him for three adjectives to describe himself, because he doesn't know what an adjective is?"

I had a friend in medical school who was a bright guy, affable, good sense of humour and had led a pretty well-balanced life. He'd gone to a good high school and done very well, was involved in sports and music, had gone on to university and done even better academically, got into medical school and learned pretty well there too. In third year we started our full-time clinical rotations. Mike had a car, like most of my classmates, as we had rounds at insane hours of the morning before public transit was running, in hospitals in far corners of the city. For a couple of years Mike drove his car around. One day his engine seized. He had it towed to a garage. The mechanic asked him what he was doing when it stopped running, whether there had been any warning signs, when was the last time the oil had been checked and changed, that sort of thing.

Mike's response was a befuddled "You're supposed to check the oil?"

See, now that's a gap. While Mike was off at school all those years, his parents were dropping their cars off for oil changes. Mike was out of the mainstream of daily adult life, in school, and no one noticed he hadn't learned this critical fact of automobile ownership -- that you need to check the oil.

So that leads me to think what sorts of gaps schoolkids the ages of mine might have. I wonder if a typical 8- or 11-year-old would know these sorts of things:
  • how to change a diaper and participate with a baby in Elimination Communication
  • how to package parcels for risk-free shipping in ways that minimize cost
  • how to make Nanaimo bars that will make anyone want to be your friend for life
  • how to start with natural raw ingredients and end up with a loaf of whole-grain bread
  • how to grow a garden
  • safe food preservation and water-bath canning
  • the embryology of the hand
  • how to build and tend a bonfire
  • how to change a tire
  • what kind of supervision a 3-year-old needs in a playground, at the beach or in a parking lot
  • how to create a hyperlink in HTML
  • how to sight-sing and improvise a harmony line
  • how to check a circuit-breaker
  • how to trouble-shoot a malfunctioning networked printer
  • how to retrieve a comb from a toilet trap
  • how to hem jeans
  • why Schubert died so young
  • how to run a snowplough, lawn tractor and a snowblower
  • how to design and organize a kitchen renovation
  • spreadsheet use in the administration of a large buyers' co-op
  • accounting procedures for non-profit organizations
  • the name of the elements numbered 1-89 on the periodic table
  • how to write a grant application
  • how to shop for furniture and appliances
  • the name of every Norse, Greek and Egyptian god and goddess
We all have our gaps. What's more important, knowing what Roman numerals are all about, or that you need to check the oil?


  1. What if my kids never learn Roman numerals? Ack! Now you've given me something new to worry about!

    Just kidding. Good post, Miranda, although now you've made me curious to find out why Schubert died so young...

  2. We all have gaps. We can't ALL know EVERYTHING. Of course, if my children expose a gap to their grandparents, said grandparents will of course blame it on homeschooling!

  3. Amanda11:25 am

    Great post. I was just thinking about this yesterday. As Nicola says, we all have gaps.. and I think they stem from a lack of interest more than because someone forgot to teach the information. One of my son's gaps is that he can not name all the provinces and territories in Canada. Well, this was my first lesson when we started to homeschool. I spent three months quizzing him, getting him to label maps, playing computer games all to "teach" him the provinces. He just didn't care.. so he didn't retain any of the information. I assume at some point he will be planning a trip across Canada, reading a book or watching a show that will prompt him to be interested Canadian Geography.

    I think gaps are what make us individuals, and make the world go around. There is a mechanic out there somewhere who is thankful that your friend has very little knowledge about the workings of his car. That same mechanic is thankful that your friend knows about curing infection and bracing broken bones.

  4. I completely agree, Miranda! And the whole oil change thing? That was me as well, though luckily I only got as far as the check oil light coming and that was solved by a quick explanation from a pump attendant.

    Having moved extensively as a child, I had a huge number of gaps in my schooling. None so huge, however, as the gaps in life skills that I had. Having been involved in school and outside activities left little or no time for the everyday stuff. I didn't know how to do laundry until I was 18 (I kid you not) and Alex was the first infant I had ever held in my life.

    Yep, we all have gaps. I can't even remember the gaps that were so important to the school administration/teachers on the way up, but I do remember the steep learning curves I've encountered since.

  5. Two things this made me think of.
    1)When I was twelve (many years ago, lol), we were the first family on the block to own a personal computer. My accountant father felt it was extremely important that I learn to use a spreadsheet application. He also had me file taxes for my first job (a paper route). These are lessons they don't teach well in school.
    2)Even if we have gaps, chances are there is someone out there who knows the answers to fill them! Like my handy hubby; I sew and cook, he can fix just about anything. Do we really need to learn everything, or do we focus on the important realities in life? Long division, not so crucial. Research and reference skills, crucial.
    I think your list makes more sense than Roman Numerals!

  6. do you have a recipe we could share for the yummy sounding bars?

  7. Hi Jane, yes, the recipe Sophie uses is this one. Delicious, but totally decadent. Enjoy!

  8. cheers, thanks! we hope that graham crackers more or less equate to digestive biscuits.


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