Saturday, February 25, 2017

Mystery Science, fossil bonanza, & a teachable moment

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Sometimes I fear I'm not schooly enough for this unschooling thing to work. This is a common worry among homeschooling types — am I doing enough? Are my kids learning the right things? Would school be doing much better for them?

I see myself as a Type B personality, so I'm naturally laissez-faire. While I think Type A unschoolers have to push themselves to relax, I feel I need occasional nudges into scheduling and activities to make sure we do something.

And so it was I finally cracked open Mystery Science.

(This post is not at all sponsored, by the way. I signed up for the free trial but then let it lapse, because I'm awesome like that. I'm just talking about the single lesson's worth of use I've gotten out of it so far, and this isn't meant as a straight-up review.)

Mystery Science is a science curriculum geared toward classrooms but adaptable to homeschooling. It gives video overviews and hands-on activities as it walks you and your students through each lesson. It also tells you upfront what supplies and preparation are needed for each lesson, and both are generally minimal, meaning you don't need a full-on science lab to use the lessons.

I like the idea of it a lot, so I hunkered down with Mikko to try out the first lesson in "Animals Through Time."

Mikko's 9 and ostensibly in third grade. I have a hard time guessing his grade level in subjects like science, which are a little less obvious than how well he can read (not great) or do math (really well). I do know he's very enthusiastic about science and seems to know a lot. "Animals Through Time" was suggested for ages 7-10, grades 2-4, so I figured we were on point.

The lesson required no prep for me at all beyond printing out a worksheet, which I was far too lazy to do, so: No prep! Woot. We started it off, and an introductory video played about how landscapes aren't always what they seem.

For instance, a grassland might once have been an ocean. An arctic region might once have been a jungle. An ocean might once have been forest. The clues are in the fossil evidence.

I thought this was an interesting topic, and Mikko agreed, but he did wonder why the video was kind of belaboring the point.

Then it was time to start the worksheet. Since I hadn't printed it out for my one student, we just went through each question online together.

It was around here that things began to go off the rails, schoolmarm-wise. Mikko was breezing through the questions and grew visibly irritated that they kept coming at him when it was apparent he already knew all the answers.

He knew how to pronounce all the dinosaurs that came our way (such as the above specimen) and kept interrupting the lesson with facts about the fossils mentioned. He'd have me hare off to another window to open an image search so he could point out details the lesson wasn't mentioning about one animal's jaws or another one's eating habits.

I kept bringing Mikko back into the lesson, and he gamely continued through the structure with me.

Despite his interruptions, we were done in record time, without ever really delving deeply into the subject at hand, I felt. There were some optional extras, but I didn't think they were the additional study material we were looking for.

Fortunately, Mikko corrected that.

He brought me back to Google image search and had me look up one fossil after another, including many that weren't mentioned in the lesson. He told me what he knew of the prehistoric creatures, and then over the next few days, we played umpteen games of Twenty Questions where he stumped me most every time by choosing some obscure extinct organism. I need to emphasize that I had never "taught" him fossils. We've gone to natural history museums and bought fossil kits, but he had gathered most of this information through his own sources, including from (gasp!) video games and YouTubers, resources not as well respected as a pedagogical exercise but apparently just as much if not more in depth!

In the title, I referred to "a teachable moment." The moment was mine, and the teacher was my child. I'm ever learning that he knows what he needs to know, and he pursues learning the way any curious human will.

I'm not writing off structured activities and lessons, and I'm not pooping on Mystery Science here — I think it's a worthy tool of easy-prep science units for people who could use assistance in guiding a child through some scientific concepts. I think I will, however, bump Mikko up a couple grade levels next time to see if that challenges him more.

But what I am doing is reminding myself that structured lessons are more for my own benefit than my children's, that they reassure me that Education Is Happening. Learning, on the other hand, happens all on its own, without my distractions or direction.

(P.S. If you are interested in Mystery Science, see if there's a free yearlong trial. Failing that, you can preview the first lesson of any unit for free. Then you can wait around for a homeschool sale, which I've heard will happen in the summer. Regular price is $69 a year if you're flush. Suggested age range is 6-13.)


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