Monday, March 15, 2010

The Well-Trained Mind (education)





BLOG DESCRIPTION: Reflections on classical education, home schooling, and educational innovation from a college professor, writer and home school parent

MY REVIEW: If you're thinking of home-schooling your kids, this is an excellent blog, and I highly recommend it.

I've been doing some research on home schooling, because I'm writing some non-fiction work which I'd like to get into the home-school market. I hadn't realized that most home schoolers are Christian-based, and do it because they want their kids to be able to pray in school, as opposed to because home-schooled kids don't have to deal with bullies, and can advance at a faster pace if they are so intellecually inclined.

Althought the author of this blog is a Christian, she deals with education, not with religion. (At least, from the entries I've read.) She writes well, she writes informatively, she has had decades of experience at this.l

Here's a sample post:
Third graders, Saxon math, and elitism
by susan on March 3, 2010

I just got back from my first speaking engagement of 2010 (which is why I haven’t posted for a week or so–the first engagement of the year always requires me to pull out all of my notes, organize them, update them, redo my PowerPoint or Keynote slides, make sure I have all my frequent flyer codes, get my clothes from the dry cleaner…you get the idea).

At this conference, a high percentage of the parents had their children in classical schools, and I found myself having the same conversation multiple times–a conversation that follows, in a way, on the gap-year posts of the last few weeks. The conversation had multiple beginnings:

“My second grader is in Saxon 3. So he’s doing OK, right?”

“My third-grade student is really struggling with the five-page book reports he has to write. What kind of remedial work should I do with him?”

“My thirteen-year-old is failing algebra. Should I talk to the principal about the teacher?”

“My daughter’s not reading chapter books yet and she’s seven. What should I do?”

After this, it usually went the same way: I said, “You know, kids develop at different rates…”

It distresses me when classical schools achieve an appearance of rigor by pushing skills into lower and lower grades. Yes, home schooling parents do this too, but when a school does it, there’s an appearance of authority that’s very difficult for parents to challenge. In most cases they’ve got the kids in the school because they think the teachers will do a better job (in some way) than they can, and when those same teachers tell them that the second grader should be able to do third grade math, they believe it.

This pushing skills backwards (Saxon 3 for second graders, the Aeneid for all seventh grade students, algebra at age thirteen without fail) is nothing new. Back in the 1970s, the private Christian schools associated with A Beka in Pensacola, Florida, started teaching cursive writing in kindergarten. There’s one pedagogical advantage to this–it’s harder to reverse letters. But that’s balanced off by a disadvantage: many children need to print because they need the visual likeness between what they’re doing and what’s in the books they read. The A Beka approach to cursive was governed by a more general concern: it appeared more advanced to teach cursive in kindergarten than to wait for the traditional second/third grade window. Private Christian education was relatively new; now, Christian schools could boast that their students, trained in these untested, unfamiliar classrooms, were ahead of their counterparts elsewhere.

The push backwards was for boasting privileges.

Excuse me for quoting myself: you can read the interview (a few years old now) here.

One thing classical homeschoolers really need to guard against is a devastating level of elitism: “We are doing the best homeschooling because our young children are doing such advanced work.” This kind of elitism is non-Christian, it is unloving, and it is unproductive. I was recently asked, “What do you think of third-graders doing Saxon 5/4?” I said, “I can’t think of a single thing you would gain by that. Some of them will be able to do it, but a lot of them aren’t developmentally ready for it. You are going to finish advanced mathematics by the end of high school if you keep them on the normal schedule. What’s the rush?” What do you gain by asking a seventh-grader to read the Iliad if that seventh-grader hasn’t developed the maturity to understand and appreciate what he’s reading? Nothing at all. You gain nothing in the way of emotional and mental development by pushing difficult tasks down to earlier grades.

I am not talking about the lowering of academic standards. I don’t want them lowered; I am just talking about extending the time needed for children to meet those standards. Children move from grammar to logic stage thinking, and from logic to rhetoric stage thinking, at different times in different subjects. We should focus on this, rather than focusing on age or grade level. And I hope that classical schools will also begin to think seriously about what is being gained in the classroom if immature students are being asked to do work that continually frustrates them. Is our goal to educate as many students as possible, or to identify a small, advanced, elite core of classical scholars? I hope it’s the first, and not the second. I think there is a very high level of achievement that all children can reach, given the appropriate amount of time. Keep the standards high, but give each child the appropriate amount of time for those achievements.

I spent a lot of time over the weekend reassuring parents that taking a little extra time to reach a goal is not the same as lowering standards. It may make you feel better if your kid is a year ahead of his cousins in math; it’s pointless if the child is not developmentally ready to do the work.

I should clarify that I’m not here addressing those kids who are ready to do more advanced work. Of course they should be allowed to progress forward as quickly as they want. But that’s much more easily done in a homeschool setting than in a classroom; classroom teachers in particular (and their principals) need to be very, very wary of announcing that all second graders should be doing third grade math.

And yet…too many schools do. And too many parents believe it, rather than carefully and thoughtfully assessing the developmental rate of their own child.

-An invitation (requesting guest posts)
-Third graders, Saxon math, and elitism
-Quick photo update on son's gap year trip
-The gap year, Part IV: resources for gap year projects
-The gap year, Part III: our personal experience so far
-The gap year, Part II: my own thoughts

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