Friday, October 20, 2017

"Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." - William Butler Yeats

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. - William Butler Yeats

Are there some things that you really must know in order to be well-educated, well-rounded or at least functional in our world? This "filling of a pail" is wildly popular in the homeschool as well as the schooling community. Just think of the popularity of the core-curriculum ideas and the hottest selling homeschool book series ever; "What your Kindergartner (1st grader, etc.) Needs to Know." I once owned the whole series, but soon sold them all on ebay and made enough money to invest in a year's subscription to Home Education Magazine, my favorite periodical resource. I did keep the first one, only because it contains the story of The Velveteen Rabbit.

Back to my question. Of course there are some things that are good to know, a lot of them really; hitting is not the way to get your doll back, do you need to take a boat to go from China to Russia, how to hang up a picture frame, change your socks every day, but if you think about it, they are clearly too numerous for one teacher to ever get around to teaching to even one pupil, much less thirty. 

Isn't it better to "light the fire", spark the curiosity and love of learning in a child and let it lead him where it will? A lifelong learner is someone who never grows old, who continues to hold the joy of discovery and novelty in their hearts. 

Does this mean we give up teaching anything at all, and just let children "go for it?" Just go about your business, as John Holt once suggested, and let children see your own passion for what you love. Even Steiner said, repeatedly, that it was not what the children are learning, but how it is being presented. He also prescribed subjects to be taught to each developmental stage. These subjects answer to the soul's needs at each stage and prepare the children for a multi-cultural world in which living in peace with their fellow humans is the ultimate goal. The answer lies somewhere between Steiner and Holt, with a good dose of Yeats in between.

Parents: choose your battles, pick your subjects, the ones you believe in, the ones that speak to your child; her developmental readiness, his interests, and delve into them with all you've got. Let them have your time and energy and enthusiasm for this present moment, this present topic. Let them find their own passion with your help. Go ahead, read the fairy tales, the botany lesson, but give it all you've got. This is what is meant by blocks in Waldorf education, this is what is meant by unit study and by child-led learning. Depth, focus, fire.


  1. It's funny that you chose that quote. When I did my training to become a certified teacher, that quote was one of the ones everyone came back to. You've hit on a huge reason for homeschooling and I agree with you. My problem is letting the other things go. Knowing that my in-laws are watching and comparing my home "schooled" children to their same age public school counterparts. I know what I'm doing will pay off in the long run, but it's a little harder to see right now, when they "should" be doing rote worksheets and not creating art. Thanks for the nice reminder this morning.

  2. I love this viewpoint.
    When I think about my school memories and take out all the negatives, looking for my positive memories, it would be that fire that I had when learning about subjects I loved. Sooo... maybe I don't use my knowledge of astronomy in my day to day life but the self-confidence I gained by first having to convince the teacher to even let me take the class (because I did not have the prerequisites) and then having to bust my butt completing extra credit assignments (that I loved doing!) just so that I could keep a B average and not lose my honor roll status, to ending up being the teacher's favorite student because I was the only one there that truly loved the subject... unlike the seniors that were there for the "easy A". I may not have been as math-smart as my classmates, but the teacher told me that I was the only student he ever had that fought so hard to learn, and succeeded. It was only because I had a fire lit for it.

    I had other similar teachers. 30 years ago we had the standardized tests but they weren't the make-or-break obstacle they are now. I still had teachers that loved teaching, loved lighting the fire.

    I have teacher friends now who WANT to light fires, but are working so hard, so many hours, just to barely keep up with the test requirements and no-child-left-behind crap. They are buried in it. If they protest, they are marked as troublemakers.

    hmm, sorry about my grammer. ;) Anyway, it's my goal that my son is on fire to enjoy learning. :)

  3. It's great to hear that creative you struggles with the same question, Michelle. The comparing will either stop or the in-laws will finally realize that your children are so above the average in different ways (or the same ways) as kids in school that you will forget you ever had doubts...or rather that they did! Keep up the inspired work you do.

  4. Michele,
    I had the same experience with astronomy class as a freshman! That B+ or A-, whatever, was the hardest one I ever earned!

    I know some fantastic teachers as well, I have nothing against school per se, but the testing and the many mini-micromanagements must be hard for teachers, they have all of my sympathy. They too, need to feel free to ignite those fires...and tend them in the long damp spells of the hallowed halls of ps.

    We can only do what we firmly believe we must believe and do!


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