Practicing Definition



At this point in her Challenge A journey, my middle daughter is drawing various body systems and defining the terms (or parts) of those systems.

But the definitions for the terms aren't provided for her in any textbook. 

In Challenge A, students are supposed to read a variety of sources and compile their own definitions for the parts of the body systems. 

When my first daughter went through Challenge A many moons ago, I remember that I really did not understand why the curriculum would not just give students (and parents) the right answers.

Why are they asking students compile definitions from various sources? 

Where is the textbook? 

This is so much more troublesome than just asking them to copy and memorize the correct definitions. 

Why not just provide one, singular, authoritative text or document with all the right definitions?


Why make students go to so much more trouble and effort to formulate their own definitions from various texts?

How am I supposed to know if the definitions are correct?

How inefficient! 

How frustrating! 

Isn't the point for students to learn the actual facts?!

Why make it so much harder?

Learning is hard enough!

Homeschooling is hard enough!

...These are just some of the thoughts and questions that went through my head when my first daughter was defining science terms in Challenge A. 

I had not been Classically educated myself, but I was attempting to give my daughters a Classical education. 

I have had an ongoing dialectic in my head and with other educators about how and why things are done they way they are done. 

Back at the beginning, I was frustrated at times that I did not have an official answer key that I could use to check my daughter's answers by, but I submitted to the process, understanding enough, and trusting where and when I did not fully understand. 

I still felt insecurity over her definitions. 

She felt insecurity, too. (But interestingly, maybe she was just picking up on my insecurities back then.) 

My oldest certainly did not feel competent to come up with her own definitions back then. 

Neither did I.

I was no expert in science. 

Are not the experts the only ones who can speak with authority?

What right did she or I have to come up with definitions for terms? 

It's been several years since these questions, and I've learned a lot more about Classical education since then. 

Now, my oldest daughter is in Challenge 4, so I can see where it's all leading and I can say with confidence, "Behold. It's very good." 

This time through Challenge A with my middle daughter, when I saw that stack of simple science books she had taken off the shelves and was using to find definitions to the parts of the body systems, I smiled to myself.

Now I have more understanding and answers for all those questions and concerns I had before. 

Now I am not at all frustrated over how the curriculum works. 

Now I see the beauty and potential in the exercise of creating definitions. 

By reading the books and finding the information there, my middle daughter usually defines most of the terms for each body system without much trouble. 

But there have been a few terms that weren't bolded, weren't explained within the text, weren't at all mentioned in the books that we have...

What to do then?

We have no textbook or answer key.

That's when I go over and read over her shoulder from the books and help in various ways: 

In the first case, I helped her see that a definition for the term she was looking for was actually there. 

It wasn't bolded, but it was explained within the text of the paragraph/s describing how that body system works.

I showed her how to write her own definition based on what she comprehended from the text. 

In another case, a term was totally absent from the text, not mentioned at all. 

In that case, we already knew something about the term, so I showed her how to use the definition exercise from her writing program, The Lost Tools of Writing, to think through her own definition for the term. 

In yet another case when we couldn't find any information about a term from the books we had and we didn't know enough to form our own definition from what we knew, we ended up going to Webster's dictionary. 

I showed her how to a dictionary's definition of the term for ideas and words to formulate a definition her own.   

Note: I told her not to use Webster's unless absolutely necessary, since she'd be shortcutting herself, not learning the thing she's really meant to be learning, which is how to define for herself from a variety of sources. 

A Challenge A student isn't just learning facts about the body systems and science facts related to them, though a student will learn those, too.  

That's not even the most important thing they are learning.

All the time and effort spent creating their own definitions is subtly teaching some critical things: 

Firstly, students are learning that there isn't just one official source where all the answers come from. 

I think that's a falsehood subtly (or not so subtly) implied by modern education with its textbooks and certifications and teachers who lecture and students who passively receive information and are never engaged in the process of truth-seeking. 

As if a human being made in God's image and filled with God's Spirit can't glean understanding for herself and she need experts to give her the right information about everything.

This is how I had been trained to think in school and college, and I am certain now it was partly why I struggled to understand why CC did things they way they did. 

This is the sort of thing I needed to unlearn as I taught my daughters at home. 

Secondly, aside from learning that there isn't just one place or person with all the information, students are learning the life skill of defining something for themselves from various sources available to them.  

This is something adults have to do all day everyday.  

We have to get information from a variety of different sources available to us: the news channels, articles, the Bible, spouses, friends, politicians, celebrities, pastors, podcasters, teachers... 

And it's not always obvious how a source of information is actually defining a term at first. 

Then once we do figure out how different sources define something, we have to determine who is the best authority on that subject, and how far their authority extends, and how correct their definition is.  

Thirdly, students learn how to weigh different authorities on a topic to come up with the best definition possible. 

Don't we adults have to do this all the time, too? 

There are a lot of "experts" out there, lots of people claiming authority, giving informed, semi-informed, or totally uninformed opinions, clamoring for attention and devotion, but we adults have to "divide the word of truth" for ourselves. 

We have to listen carefully, read, comprehend, pray, reason, wrestle, and formulate our thoughts for ourselves. 

There's no official answer key for all the decisions we have to make in life. 

Even the Bible, God's revelation, has to be righty interpreted, since it doesn't give specific instructions for every single situation we face, and interpreting the Bible takes dialectic skill.  

Fourthly, students are learning how to learn and how to teach themselves. 

Having them define terms is one powerful way to teach students how to learn for themselves. 

And the ability to learn for themselves is so much more valuable and lasting and useful than any singular fact or definition of a specific body system or even all the facts and definitions about a body system. 

And that's what a Classical education is all about. The program is for equipping parents to equip students for life and a future where they can learn for themselves and not have to be spoon fed by "experts." 

We want students to be able to decide what to think for themselves, so they can discern the truth and can follow God with their own two feet. 

We want to them be free. 

Students with this kind of Classical training in definition (and other skills) will have practice in how to think for themselves. 

Of course, Classical educators/ homeschool moms want kids to learn the facts about the body systems, too.  

But even more importantly, we really do want our students to be able to find the facts and define the terms for themselves. 

Interestingly, I have noticed that my middle daughter hasn't asked for an answer key. 

Of course, she did express concerns when those few definitions weren't there in the books we had on hand. 

But, remarkably, she hasn't asked for an official answer key.

She doesn't expect one. 

I am not even sure she knows such a thing is even supposed to exist.  

This is a sign to me that we are in a much different place as a learning family than we were when my oldest was in Challenge A. 

She may not have asked for a key simply because I have not expressed any desire for a key, because I have never implied to her that we need one. 

At this point, I am much more confident that she and I can figure it out ourselves. 

God has given us as humans the ability to reason and that's what students are actually meant to be practicing as they practice definition by defining science terms in Challenge A. 

Interestingly, too, my oldest daughter is in Challenge 4 now, and she is currently writing her Senior Thesis. 

Her topic is education and one of the first and most important things she has to do is formulate a definition of education for herself. 

What is education? 

You'd be surprised how many people have a definition for that term and just how various those definitions are. 

Or maybe you wouldn't be surprised at all, since you may be a homeschool mom like me, engaged in an intense dialectic about how to educate kids at home just like me. 

I can see now that what my oldest is capable of now as she writes her thesis goes all the way back to Challenge A when she was defining terms for the body systems for herself without any textbook. 

I'm glad I asked those tough questions back then, expressed my doubts, sought understanding, wrestled with the method, then trusted the process when it didn't feel totally comfortable.

To some extent, I was doing what my Challenge A students are doing now. 

I was gathering information, listening to all the authorities, weighing their words, and ultimately, coming up with my own definition and understanding of how to teach Classically. 

As you can see, my daughters are not the only ones getting an education here. 


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