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

Monday, October 21, 2013

There's Not Much To Learn In The Early Grades -- And That's Okay

One of the areas in which my thinking has developed in directions that I would not have expected, going from being a homeschooled student (in grades 6-12) to a homeschooling parent (with our oldest in grade 6) is coming to the realization that there's not actually that much that you learn in school, especially in the earlier grades.

Looking back with the perspective of an adult, there's very little content matter which I learned as a grade schooler that I now look back on and think, "That was important." Indeed, on the topics that I read about in depth as an adult, one of the main things that strikes me about most books written for young children is that they tend to be either wrong or so simplified as to be very close to wrong. History has become one of my main hobbies, but as you get deeper and deeper into a period the kind of storybook explanations of historical events that make for good children's history become hader and harder to make with any sense of honesty.

The things I learned as a student which stay with me are not knowledge, but skills, and they're the basics: Reading. Writing. Math. The instinct to "go look it up" if I don't know something.

The other thing I think stuck from that early period is an appreciation for good books -- though in the earlier grades when I was in parochial school this came much more from my family than from school. My dad, a lecturer by trade, was incredibly good at reading aloud. His narration was expressive and he provided characters with voices that remain memorable to me to this day. At any given time would have a book that he was reading aloud to us in installments at night. Some of these were classic sorts of things to read aloud to children: Treasure Island, The Hobbit, Journey to the Center of the Earth, A Christmas Carol Others were more unusual: He read us the books of Samuel and Kings from the Old Testament, which had the sort of blood-thirsty adventure which we enjoyed as kids. Other selections included Njal's Saga, Xenophon's Anabasis and Gregory of Tour's History of the Franks. Yet others were less arcane, but were not traditional children's literature. Dad was a big Trollope fan, and I remember him reading The Warden and Barchester Towers to us. In addition to all this reading aloud we were in general a very reading-centered family, and so I developed my own habits and preferences for reading as part of growing up in the environment.

Even there, though, what I gained from all that was more skills and affections, not "knowledge" in the sense of information gained. I recall incidents and impressions from the books that were read to me 20+ years ago, but mostly I remember the enjoyment of listening to my dad read to us.

As we've muddled through what works and what doesn't while homeschooling our own children, I've found this useful and comforting to recall. It would be claiming a little too much credit to say that we made a conscious decision to focus on the basics. It's more that, as various pressures have made it hard to get through everything, the things that get done are: math, reading, writing, religion, and read alouds. Yes, there's history and science and other topics, but it's more sporadic and project oriented. That will probably shift for the older kids in the next year or two, as they get old enough to start to handle something approaching real subject matter. But although nearly every conversation MrsDarwin and I have about homeschooling seems to circle back to, "Sheesh, are we doing enough? We should be doing more," I think that in the end getting the basics down is what matters.

Sure, they could be memorizing that elements or the kings of England or some such, and I'm sure that somewhere there's a Classical Homeschooling superhero of a parent who's pulling that off. But in the early grades I'm increasingly convinces that covering those basics and building in your children a love of knowledge and reading is really about all you really have to do.


August said...

I don't remember actually learning very much from grade school. I learned to read at such an early age that I can't remember not reading, and I just read everything. The grade school library was helpful, but the classes mostly just seemed to get in the way.
I like all the stuff I see online about unschooling, though my friends with the non-reader sort of children always suggest it would only work for readers and not their children. Maybe they are right, or maybe it would be better for non-readers to do non-reader things; learn via tinkering, for instance.
All I know for sure is that if I ever do have children, I'd prefer them to have a better childhood than what can be found in public school. It is even worse than what I went through now because of all this lunacy with lockdowns and other ridiculous reactions to school shootings. It seems like these administrators are hell bent on making it easier for evil people to shoot children. I have been saying school=prison for quite a while now, and every new development seems to increase the prison-like atmosphere.

bearing said...

Kids who *do* want knowledge as well as skills are easily fed. One of my kids was addicted to "nature movies" from age 2 through 5. One of my best educational investments was a set of David Attenborough BBC nature films on DVD -- probably fifteen or sixteen discs -- and he practically memorized them.

Another kid of mine (much like myself as a child) loved the genre that I like to call the "BIG BOOK OF FACTS." Sure, it's all disconnected and taken out of context, but all those million little pieces find connections somewhere, and sometimes slot into place years later during a history or science lesson.

Right now our house is Minecraft Central, but I have no doubt they're getting something out of that too.

Jenny said...

I agree. The most important part of early childhood and elementary education is honing the skills necessary to later learn "real subject matter." Basic skills like reading, writing, math. The guilty secret is that learning these skills don't take vast swaths of time in a healthy, functioning environment. It is a good age for some rote memorization, fine motor skill development, and basic cognition, but not necessarily deep knowledge.

This is why I am vehemently opposed to pre-K. I loathe full day Kindergarten and have not figured out why we have 1st and 2nd grade. The schools have children for hours and hours a day to do what, exactly? The real learning takes an hour or two.

To make an analogy, almost every higher level math course I have taken begins with the professor making some type comment about the difference between arithmetic and mathematics. I think elementary education is much like arithmetic. It gives important, necessary skills, but just serves as a starting point not the goal.

Dorian Speed said...

A lot of the David Attenborough videos are on Hulu now.

mrsdarwin said...

Things I remember from grade school:

-- being the narrator in the kindergarten play (The Ugly Duckling)

-- nap time

-- Social Studies (not the content, just the event)

-- long division

-- spelling tests

-- trying to record a book report on a malfunctioning tape player

-- recess: kickball, foursquare, swinging, jump rope rhymes

-- kids joking about sex on the playground

--my third-grade teacher reading aloud Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

-- playing Around the World with the twos table up to 2x12 in second grade (I remember because I was almost around the world and missed that problem)

-- Playing the triangle in music class

-- hanging out with the other kids who were neither popular nor pariahs

--watching Voltron and Thundercats while waiting for the schoolbus

--Columbus, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and the first Thanksgiving

-- watching The Fox and the Hound on the last day of school.

-- ice cream, hot lunches, and the Scholastic book catalog, if you could afford those things

Yeah, that's about it.

Jenny said...

I ruled at foursquare!

I never could jump rope.

The Opinionated Homeschooler said...

I heartily agreed with this sentiment until Wee Girl, whose neurological disability, combined with the surprising discovery of her considerable musical talent, has changed our daily "basics" into

1. Speech therapy
2. Physical therapy
3. Cello
(Distant) 4. Math reading writing.

But the theory is the same. You focus on what will enable an unhampered future.

Melanie Bettinelli said...

I'm not even all that convinced that first and second graders need to be taught all that much in the way of reading, writing and arithmetic unless they are really ready for them. My second grader is simply not ready to read yet and I don't see what it hurts in letting her take her time with it. I'm absolutely positive she's going to get there eventually. She loves books and loves being read to. And I read that article that argued that if you delay math instruction until kids are older they can pick up arithmetic in pretty short order. It doesn't actually take years to teach it all, you just have to go really slowly because most of them aren't developmentally ready to learn most of it in first or second grade.

I mean I don't neglect them completely, but neither do I feel very guilty when weeks go by without us really doing much math and reading.

We spend most of our time on history mainly because that's what Bella likes, but it's mostly cultural history: what was life like in Ancient Rome? What kind of buildings did they build? What kind of art did they produce, what kind of stories did they tell? What gods did they believe in? Where did they live? That plus the broadest outlines of history seems just about right.