Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Functional Eduction

Last night we did a post-Easter catch up session with the older kids to see how well we were tracking towards finishing school work on time. In general, the answer is: better than we were at the last check-up a month and a half ago, but not as well as we parents would like.

Some people take being checked up on different from others, so this also triggered some sobbing and some recriminations about how hard various subjects were, how boring the textbooks, etc.

"Why is it so boring? Why do I have to memorize all these terms? Why do I have to know the steps of mitosis? It's so hard to remember anything from that. It's not like watching one of those nature specials. I remember stuff from those, but this is all just confusing words and diagrams."

I'm actually not crazy about the science book in question. It is kind of dry, and I think it focuses heavily on justifying its rigor by insisting on a lot of memorization. I'm tempted to say, "Look, just read the chapters, stop worrying about the workbook and quizzes, and get through the book." But I'm hesitant to concede curriculum planning to a gripe session, so for now the orders are to keep plugging away.

However, this does touch on one of my vulnerable points as a homeschooling parent, as the kids get older. On the one hand, they're now starting to learn things which I can explain to them crop up in my everyday life. In helping one of the kids through graphing some equations, I explained how I use similar graphs (though in Excel) in order to predict the changes in customer demand when we change price on a product. However, they're also starting to cover things that I've forgotten through disuse. When the younger kids read about the solar system or the classification of life forms, I know the material they're covering right off. When it comes to cell mitosis, I'll admit, while I recall the basic outlines of the process, and the diagrams in the science book look basically familiar, I'd forgotten both the terminology and the details. For most people, knowing that cell division happens is perhaps a good piece of general knowledge, but the details gradually fade away after we pass our last biology exam.

Thinking about that can lead me one of several different ways.

If most people only retain a certain amount of general knowledge, is getting just the general sense enough? If even most well educated people will remember that cells divide and copy genetic material in the process, but don't remember the terms and details, is getting the student to the point where she too will possess this piece of general knowledge enough? Why teach detail which will almost certainly be forgotten if it's not used?

Ah, but that's the key: if it's not used. To some people, however, these things are used a great deal, people who actually deal with biological science. One of the reasons why we might insist on children learning a moderate degree of detail about a broad range of subjects is so that some particular area can catch their interest, and they will then have sufficient grounding to learn more about that subject.

And yet, is a dry couple pages in a Life Sciences textbook, in which the student is told in a few pages about cell division and then instructed to memorize the names of the steps and redraw from memory the diagrams, really the sort of thing likely to create that spark of interest that draws a child into a job or interest in the field? To hear my child rant, all it does is enforce the idea that science is a miserable topic that is too hard for her and boring to boot.

"Why can't we watch science specials and read books about science that Mom checks out from the library?" was the wail.

And yet, to judge by the results, no one was deeply fascinated then either, and there was then also question as to whether people were getting the sort of broad (if shallow) familiarity which comes from... reading dry books and memorizing the stages of mitosis.


The ideal, of course, is that the kid develops a fascination with a topic and actively wants to learn and retail knowledge. And yet, there has to be a certain amount of forcing the issue or else people's areas of academic specialty with be The Avengers and The Great British Baking Show. What I keep trying to figure out is how much and what type of force feeding builds basic literacy and background knowledge of topics, and how much simply builds antipathy.


Rebekka said...

If they are at all interested in health sciences type stuff, it may be more interesting to perspectivize those things. For example, cell division can lead you to such interesting subjects as cancer, how PET scans work, and why chemotherapy can make you lose your hair.

Darren said...

Sounds like you have a direct pipeline into our family's homeschool :)

Unknown said...

Do you ever use mnemonics (making up a little ditty to memorize stuff)? My homeschool biology students loved to make up their own or I had several. For example, mitosis= IP-MAT= Interphase, Prophase, Metaphase, Anaphase, Telophase. Didn't even have to think about it. For classification of the animal kingdom, King Phillip Cried Out, "For Goodness Sake" = Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species. I learned most muscle groups this way also. It can be a fun way to learn.

My take on Biology was that it might be the only exposure they ever get of it if they have no interest in sciences so make it fun!

mandamum said...

We did "Kings Play Cards On Fuzzy Garden Steps" :) My planets have been messed up though, once Pluto was demoted - used to use "My Very Easy Method, Just Set Up Nine Planets"! (Still do, actually - too good to let go)

Another thing for bio and life sciences is coloring books. We did a lot of coloring for Human Biology (muscles, etc) - can help you see what all is there.

If this is one of your dramatic kids, perhaps challenge her to produce a one-act to help the younger siblings learn the topic (thinking about her comment about learning from a video or book). They say you learn it better when you have to teach it. But for lots of kids, the extra work would just be seen as busy work..... OR perhaps come to it from a history-of-science perspective? At some point, people figured out this mitosis/meiosis stuff, and they clearly thought it was tremendously exciting :)

My first, almost-high-schooler, is math-opposed. As my email has probably told you, it's a part of how I see myself. I have a higher degree in math (but not in math education). Hah. It's always pulling teeth, but it's also something I feel strongly about her having. There are amazingly fun, imaginative, surprising things you can do in math, but you also still have to nail down the basics. And if you DON'T have the basics, all those fun surprising things take too long to really be fun and are not understood enough to seem surprising. I don't know what the answer is - we do better when I check in with her A LOT and ask her to talk through her work with me, and ask questions that force her to think ABOUT the topic for deeper understanding instead of just plug-and-chugging. But we also sometimes do better if she doesn't have so much pencil work, so sometimes sitting and talking through it works better for her. We do a fair amount in the car, with her in the front passenger seat as we drive to yet another activity. My younger ones are much happier to do math, but we also do a lot of it verbally in a group.

Re-drawing from memory is a useful skill (and a useful way to teach yourself things YOU decide you want to know, down the road). Is it possible that she is feeling overwhelmed by how high that initial step is? Could some strategies for how to approach the memorization and the learning-the-diagram might make it more manageable?

--(math)Manda :)

Bernard Brandt said...

If I might offer a suggestion, I would suggest that you try

I have come to the conclusion that some things one must do alone. Math is one such thing. Science is another.

In math terms, before I met khanacademy, I was the equivalent of a 98 pound weakling, having sand kicked into my face by the math and science bullies.

In fact, when I started, last year, I was clocked by khan as having about 18 percent of the knowledge of first through eighth grade math. No more.

By their standards, I have achieved 100 percent of the skills of first through seventh grade math, and have, as of today, gone through 85 percent of the skills of eighth grade math. By their standards, I have gone through about 58 percent of the World of Math, which goes from basic arithmetic up to calculus, differential equations, and linear algebra. I don't plan on stopping until I have gone through everything they have.

And when I have done all that, I intend on going through their other courses, which include biology, chemistry, and physics, all the way up to Advanced Placement equivalents. They also have programming and Electronic Engineering up to similar levels.

If I were a homeschooling mom or dad, I would look into, especially since I could arrange it so that I was a tutor, and could look in on what my kids were doing.

Hell, I might also learn something more myself.

Darwin said...

Unknown and Mandamum,

Good point on memnonics. I've never used them much myself, so it hadn't occurred to me, but whether pushing memorization of these things is the right approach or not, it's a good technique to know and master.


Good point. Both Kahn Academy and Duolinguo are really amazing resources that we should probably figure out how to use more.

Finicky Cat said...

Ah, of the perennial joys of homeschooling.

No great thoughts to add here, Darwin. Despite repeated attempts at Doing All the Things, full of zeal and maternal heroism and rapid burnout, I inevitably fall back to just the 3R's and lots of free time for the kids to pursue the things that interest them. This has worked wonderfully well with the two oldest, now both in their teens and extremely competent in their fields, but much less well with the third, age 12, who is still struggling to find something worth putting forth any, you know,

Sheila said...

I loved biology in middle and high school. I just couldn't get enough of it. Maybe it helped that I had an interesting textbook (it was put out by Bob Jones University Press -- we had to do evolution separately but the rest of it was good). But I think it's just that I happened to be into it.

When I used to get all gripey about a subject, my mom would say, "If you can think of a different way to learn it and show you know it besides the quiz, propose it to me and you can do it." So that's how we ended up with Cellular Metabolism: The Board Game and a giant strand of DNA made out of sticky notes so you could "zip" and "unzip" it. In other subjects I wrote essays or gave presentations. You could challenge your child's creativity by saying that they can skip the busywork if they can only think of something equally educational they can do. Even a science-fair type display sticks in your head a lot better than cram-it-in, vomit-it-back learning.