- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 30, 2005

I have found as a home-schooling parent that it’s important to keep my own mind well-nourished. We constantly hear about maintaining a diet of healthy food, but our brains also need a diet of good, healthy nutrients.

Stocking the house with good books, whether purchased or borrowed, is a vital task. Varying the type of books allows us to expand our knowledge on a number of subjects, and we are able to add to our children’s learning in many ways.

I recently began reading “Chaos: Making a New Science,” by James Gleick. I must admit that the thrill of Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” for me was not the dinosaur story but the mathematician’s description of the theory of chaos, the fundamental uncontrollability of the consequences of seemingly small events, sometimes called “the butterfly effect.”

Mr. Gleick chronicles the story of how a number of scientists, economists and mathematicians discovered, by certain anomalies in their own fields, that real-life experiences cannot be explained by the linear laws sacred to each discipline. Whether Newton’s laws of motion, the principles of supply and demand, or population growth rates, the straight and simple rules do not explain the observed results.

Previously, researchers merely dismissed such unruly results as being caused by some sort of unexpected interference. With the advent of computers, however, they began to be able to look at the patterns of those actual events — and found strange similarities. What at first seemed to be a dizzying and random set of outcomes began to display certain similarities, and what’s more, those similarities existed from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic level.

Coining the term “fractal” to describe these deceptively random yet exponentially symmetric patterns, the researchers found examples of such phenomena throughout the natural world. The patterns of hurricanes, the shapes of mountain ranges, the distribution of blood vessels in a body and the development of branches on a tree are all real-life examples of these unpredictable yet recognizable structures.

All these traditionally separated fields of study suddenly were seen as linked to one another. After years of “specialization,” it was found that all these areas share common experiences and that the discoveries from one field were leading to unexpected realizations in another. It turned out that physics, mathematics, medicine, ecology, geology and astronomy share an enormous common base.

This book is interesting as a history of discovery, processed through the unique circumstances of diverse seekers, and it also provides an interesting starting point for reflection on the nature of education. The traditional division of subjects and the memorization of certain laws have long been felt to be inadequate. (How many people have questioned the applicability of such study: “When am I ever going to use the quadratic equation or the Avogadro number in real life?”)

I could not help but compare the discoveries of these scientists to the discoveries many of us have made in education. By taking a new approach to study, parents have found that there is not one tried-and-true curriculum or educational method, but rather that various natural patterns of learning emerge on each person’s distinct path. These may seem random at first, but in time, they create an overall pattern.

Humans learn through a wide variety of approaches because each of us is unique. Each approach, however, eventually reveals the same patterns and principles. Does this mean we should throw out the textbooks or ignore traditional learning? I don’t think so. However, by realizing that all knowledge connects and that the purpose is to enable us to understand how to live correctly and creatively, we can eliminate a lot of wasted energy.

By studying physics or climate or music, we are equipping our minds with yet another set of tools with which to perceive and act upon the world around us. The point is to “own” the knowledge, not merely digest it as a duty.

By seeing and appreciating the patterns in all of nature, we gain a mirror to the self. Helping our children experience that is our purpose as parents and educators.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a free-lance writer who lives in Maryland.

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