Learning Is Like a Chain Link Fence

A bit of homeschooling philosophy: Learning is like a chain link fence.  

Not a crummy, dusty fence in a barren lot, but a fence with bends and dips and muscadine grape vines interlacing it.  Every time we learn some small fact, we add a link.  We build a fence of knowledge and wrap it around our minds.  As we add more links, the fence gets bigger and so does our mind.  It’s not a fence that blocks out anything….no no…It doesn’t block anything out unless we stop adding links to it.  It’s more of a container with wild grasses, ideas, questions, fruit and nectar growing inside and overflowing…

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I don’t purport to say that this is an original concept.  Not at all.  I’m only reporting on what I’ve been witnessing with my child, and in addition, I am a writer, so I like to think in metaphors.

I’ve been thinking about this as my child asks me questions…

  • What did the Native Americans do?
  • What is inside Jupiter?
  • What is inside our body?
  • Can we plant pumpkin seeds?
  • Did he die?
  • What is God?

…and I endeavor to answer.

For the Native American question, I was prepared.  Last year I bought a really cool book titled The Very First Americans.  It introduces many of the Native American tribes.  It’s general but full of good information for that first question.  It’s the first link in my son’s understanding of Native Americans.

The question, “What is inside Jupiter?” came as a result of our study of the solar system.  My son has told me that Jupiter is his favorite planet.  To answer that question, we looked online, and once I said “gas,” that was enough for my son.  But…but…but… I was tempted to add on to that, read more of the website or at least explain what “gas” is.  But he didn’t want to know all that.  He just wanted to know what was inside Jupiter.  It’s another link in his knowledge of the “The Solar System.”

“What is inside our body?”  He has asked this question in many ways over a long period of time, so I know that it’s something that truly interests him.  When we went to the toy store to pick out his birthday presents, he picked (all by himself) a human anatomy model.  He loves it, and we’ve dissected it several times. He also requested a book on the human body, which I got for him, and he’s even watched a long National Geographic documentary on the human body.  So I haven’t had to answer that question.  He’s been finding out for himself.  He’s got a lot of links on his knowledge of the human body.

My son loves plants and planting.  This summer I was going to keep gardening at a minimum since I’m so busy with the kids, but my son delighted me by becoming the gardener.  He helped me plant some tomatoes, and then at his request we’ve planted pumpkins, beans and lettuce.  I’ll talk more about his study of plants and seeds in another post, but suffice it to say, he has many links on plant knowledge too.

“Did he die?”  It might be a strange question for a five-year-old to ask, but I don’t think so.  As we begin to tell him about history and time, it’s inevitable that he must learn about death.  So this question pops up a lot when we’re reading books or watching T.V. with people he’s never seen before.  It must be his way of figuring out many things all at once, including time and life and what those mean.

“What is God?”  I have talked about God before, but the first time my son asked me about it, I got very excited.  There’s so much I want to teach him and share with him. My beliefs.  The beliefs of others.  I want to hear what he thinks too.  But I remembered the Jupiter question, so I treaded softly.  I told him in as simple of terms as I could muster, and then I read the book I’ve been saving, In God’s Name by Sandy Eisenberg Sasso.  I think by the end of the book, he was bored with the subject.

I pondered that for a few days.  I wasn’t satisfied with how I answered him, and I thought of other ways I might approach the subject.  How can I be more prepared next time?  But that is when I realized that learning is like a chain-link fence.  At first I thought “learning is like a chain with links,” but no, that wasn’t good enough.  We take our knowledge in many directions.  We make decisions.  One by one, we add a little knowledge.  We build on it.  The more we study, the longer it gets.

I thought, that was his first link in the God question.

Remember: It’s not a fence that blocks out anything unless we stop adding links to it.

I don’t expect my son to remember all the details he’s learning.  I certainly had to brush up on my knowledge of the solar system before I taught it to him.  But I do know that learning something over time, repeatedly, especially if it’s something we’re interested in, will help us in mastering that subject.  Students are told by their professors to start studying right away and not wait until the last minute! A cram session the night before an exam does little for long-term retention.

I’m writing this as a reminder to myself more than anything.  If I fear I haven’t answered a question well, I shouldn’t worry too much.  My son is building a fence of knowledge that he’ll piece together over time.  By mostly following his lead, I hope that if we don’t master long-term retention, we’ll at least foster a love of learning, and we’ll find some surprises along the way…


What is your metaphor for learning?

10 thoughts on “Learning Is Like a Chain Link Fence

  1. I went to university at a very small university, and their library was included a maze stretching down some stairs and around through different rooms. One metaphor I have for learning is picturing a library similar to that one – a maze, dark and crowded with books – but I picture one that is dark and covered in cobwebs, and every bit of knowledge I gain is like dusting off a corner of the mental library and shining candlelight in it. Everything I learn leads me further and further down the maze, and opens up more and more ideas/possibilities/connections/books for me.

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    1. Oooh… I should add. To continue the metaphor of a mind like an abandoned old library… homeschooling my son right now, I’m helping him build the bookcases for his own winding maze of a mental library. The stuff he’s learning right now is just the basics on which so much other information can be laid down later.

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      1. Christy, I LOVE your metaphor for learning! Oh I could wander around in that old library for a long time! I like how you relate it to homeschooling your son too. Thanks so much!

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