When my kids were younger I had many images of what homeschooling would look like in the later years. I bought into all the self-directed education stories of fantastic things being learned just because the child enjoyed it. That has not always panned out in real life. (As I write this it is evening and I can overhear my kids surfing on YouTube watching those stupid cartoons Llamas with Hats. Their schooled friends introduced them to these and they are a topic of conversation and they quote the cartoons and go around whining "Carl", and laugh hyterically about it when they are with their friends. They would watch that type of goofy twaddle all day, every day if I let them.)
This is our third year of participating in the Science Olympiad with a homeschool team. I have been thinking a lot about how to best prepare for the events. A whole variety of things has happened ranging from the kids learning at home with materials I provided, to taking a class taught by a professional teacher paid for by the parents to classes taught by homeschool moms (some with specific subject matter expertise from their former career field). There has been learning in groups under someone else's planning and there has been learning here in my home under my direction.
The bottom line here is that participaton in competitions has provided:
* a learning challenge
* stimulation for my sons to learn about something we might not have ever learned about under my guidance (in other words, left to our own devices)
* a deadline to learn it by, or a deadline to do that hands on building thing by, and
* a goal to strive for.
A couple of times I wondered if what we were doing is teaching to the test but put in other words were we teaching to try to win a competition? Even if we are the fact is that educational endeavors took place and learning has happened. Is that not a great thing?
Some homeschoolers I know put their noses in the air about academic competitions and say they are not interested in them for their children. We compete against schools and they are not interested in doing "school-ish" things or anything that "schools do", they are homeschooling to learn in a different way and they want to be kept completely separate from schools in every way, shape and form. Some of them say they have no interest in competitive events and they look down upon competitive events or anything with testing or ranking and rating kids. I say to each his own, I really don't care what they do with their kids, but I do wonder sometimes if they know they might be missing out on something that is better than they think it is.
My experience has been that great learning can take place with homeschooled kids who prepare for competitive events. Valuable learning can happen in the preparation process even if the students don't win. When the tasks are a stretch academically, it can provide a more rigorous goal than the child might have set for themselves or even more rigorous than the parent may have thought to try. Team events provide a unique experience for kids to learn in groups and to develop a team spirit around something academic. Teams are not just for sports or extra-curricular fun, kids can have fun learning something academic with other kids! Really, they can! Also, those competition deadlines, while stressful sometimes, help us get moving and get the job done, they help prevent procrastination.
Here is my older son the other day, he's in eighth grade, with his tower for Science Olympiad 2011. He stayed up 'til one in the morning the other day working on this, not something I liked, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to get the job done.