Documenting our children's learning entails more than making lists of books, unit studies, and field trips. Sure, copying the table of contents from the traditional text you used looks like a solid scope and sequence (or at least sequence, depending on the source), but it says very little about learning.
And what if your family chooses not to use traditional textbooks at all? Well, keeping a list of activities and excursions is a great start - like the textbook table of contents - but like our table of contents, it doesn't describe or demonstrate learning.
Enter, experiential learning.
Yes, we all have experiences every day. We don't necessarily learn from them, however. Experiential learning is widely used in business, mentoring, and hands-on learning in the classroom. Internships, apprenticeships, and service learning are all meant to be experiential learning paradigms, and many universities grant credit for experiential learning through reflective portfolio or independent learning initiatives.
Though authorities’ definitions and diagrams differ slightly, the same cycle, in which the learner engages in an experience, makes meaningful observations, abstracts those observations to larger concepts, and applies them in different situations for testing is at play.
Let's take a trip to my childhood and how I learned to read to illustrate the process. I learned phonics and sight words together well before I entered school and without any direct instruction.
My parents read to me from a very young age and, as parents do, they pointed to words and illustrations as they read. Because I enjoyed the stories and pictures and sitting with my mom or dad, I was engaged in the experience, actively looking at pictures, learning the stories. This was the active part of the learning, which could have ended with the book. Instead, I took something away from it.
Early on, what I took away (internalized) was that reading was an enjoyable experience. I would see books and magazines (conceptual “stories”) in places other than my home and bring them to the nearest grownup to read (applying/testing). Luckily, my grownups were all happy to read to me.
As we continued the cycle, I began to see words that were very common: "the", "an", "in", and so forth. Those patterns of letters always said the same things! (Making meaning) Before I learned what a vowel, consonant, or diphthong was, I began to understand that each of those letters was responsible for a sound in the word (abstract concept) and I began to apply the concept – sometimes successfully, sometimes not – to other collections of letters in order to figure out what words they made (testing the concepts in different contexts). Again, this cycle continued and I learned the basic rules of English pronunciation so that I could understand and learn new words, even if they were not part of my spoken vocabulary at the time. From there, I expanded to etymological patterns, relating words to one another, and so on.
Experiential learning is not always academic, however. Parents learn the subtle signs our children make in various situations and how best to respond to them. We learn about ourselves, our values, and our preferences through experience, reflection, and application of very abstract concepts to multiple situations, always fine-tuning our understanding.
How does this work in homeschooling? Well, the parent can facilitate each of the steps.
Provide a learning-rich environment that engages your child. It is one thing to schedule an activity for every hour of the day, but if your child is not willingly engaged in the activity, there is probably not a lot of learning going on; the experience fades into the past as you drive away.
Ask questions. Not the trite, contrived questions in that box of “dinnertime discussion starters” being hawked at the most recent homeschool convention or in the “education” area of the bookstore. And certainly not the quiz show variety unless you are offering a cash prize or new car. Instead, ask open-ended questions about what was observed, what it means, whether the observation has meaning and use outside of the activity.
Document it. Use a journal or electronic notebook or whatever suits your style and record the process. Have an older child journal his own observations, reflections, and ideas for application.
As I sit writing this, my thirteen-year-old has popped in and informed me of another parallel between Sherlock Holmes and House, M.D. She is an aficionado of Holmes, in all his iterations, from the original stories to Jeremy Brett’s classic portrayal and BBC radio dramas, to the modern BBC series. House is a new interest. What this tells me is that she has observed and understood the characterization of the archetypes and their interactions, abstracted them, and has applied them to the characters in a completely different setting, in which she continues to find parallels.
I think I’ll write that down.
For more information on experiential learning, you might want to start with the following:
Theory and Research
Practical Educational Application