Building Academic Confidence in Your Homeschool
Three Stages of Confidence Building for Homeschoolers
Have you ever watched someone who is genuinely confident in what they are doing? It’s an impressive thing to watch. There’s a grace and passion in their action that is intoxicating.
How Confidence Equals Success
I went to a Renaissance Festival this summer and watched an acrobat doing a tightrope performance. He began by doing routine tricks on the rope, like jumping and standing on one leg. Gradually, the tricks became increasingly elaborate, including balancing objects on his head and standing on top of a stool. For the grand finale, he sat a chair on top of the rope, then sat on a unicycle on top of the chair, all while balancing a pin on his head. Talk about confidence! Can you imagine the degree of trust you’d have to have in your own skill to do something like that? He not only did it, but he made it look effortless.
While most children won’t grow up to become tightrope walkers, the same confidence the acrobat required to execute his routine is what allows a child to excel in anything. Academically, confidence can make the difference between a child’s achievement or dejection. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that confidence is an indicator of mastery. A student has mastered a subject when he or she can confidently engage the material.
But what makes confidence? How is it acquired? It doesn’t materialize out of thin air. That acrobat was able to walk the tightrope merely because he believed in himself. His confidence was built over years of disciplined practice. That confidence was established by a multitude of small victories that gradually lifted him to a level of mastery.
Obviously, what constitutes mastery in a subject will vary across disciplines. However, we can break down the idea of confidence to better understand how it is grown.
1. The Competence Iceberg
Confidence starts with competence. What is competence? It is a form of knowing. But more than just knowing, it is a kind of “fullness of knowing.” It is not merely having knowledge but an abundance of knowledge, knowing something “inside and out.”
Competence is when knowledge is like an iceberg—what you see expressed is only the tip of a vast treasury of knowledge kept in reserve.
Think about teachers. A math teacher understands far more about math than what she displays to the class. A history teacher knows way more dates and details than he would ever tell his students. This “reserve” of knowledge is what makes them competent. It acts as a vast framework that allows them to understand their subject matter in an integrated manner that isn’t merely superficial.
Children build confidence the same way. You may never need to recite the Periodic Table of Elements or quote Homer in the workaday world. However, learning more than necessary builds a framework of confidence that supports the things you do “need” to know. You don’t need perfection, just excellence; teach for mastery!
The takeaway is that it’s okay to delve deeply into a subject, even if it’s wading through material your child may never use “in real life.” It all becomes part of the great garden of understanding from which confidence blooms.
2. Application: Changing the Recipe
We feel confident when we can exercise discretion and control over something. Think about a recipe. When you don’t truly understand the dish, you follow the recipe to the letter. It says 1/3 stick of cinnamon, and you put in exactly that much because you don’t understand how the cinnamon affects the overall recipe. But after you’ve made the dish several times, you start to exercise more discretion over the recipe. You start to say, “Yeah, I know it says 1/3 stick, but I think a whole stick will be more to my taste.” Now that you have attained a degree of independence about the recipe and feel confident, you can successfully amend or discard aspects of it at will.
A student needs to be able to exercise this kind of discretion with regard to a subject to feel confident. It’s the difference between asking a child to translate a Latin sentence and having them compose a Latin sentence from scratch or defining the Quadratic Equation versus being able to show you how it works with different values. A child thus needs to understand the subject matter to the degree that they can “change the recipe” and still understand how it all works—in other words, to apply the knowledge, not just regurgitate it. This is where you move from theory into practice, from explaining the concept to the child to having them work through it themselves to build the kind of comfort needed to feel in control of the subject matter.
3. Teaching Back
The term Teaching Back is when the child understands the content, can work with it, and is comfortable enough to explain it back to you in their own words. Teaching back applies the old maxim that the best way to learn is to teach!
If a child can explain or demonstrate a concept in his or her own words, it shows that the information has been internalized. This is the final step to building confidence in a subject. It is not strictly necessary, of course. However, it’s a tremendous confidence booster when a child feels strong enough about a concept to assume a teaching role. You can have your child demonstrate it to you or, better yet, to their younger siblings or homeschool co-op group.
Thinking of confidence in terms of moving through these three “stages” can help you assess where your child is academically with a given subject and where they may need further help to build their confidence, which is what we are really after. As homeschoolers, the achievement of confidence with a subject is what determines success—not a letter grade, not a credit, not whether a certain book is completed in a certain amount of time. Teach for mastery, not box-checking.
For more on this topic see: The Most Important Ingredient in Homeschooling.