Fifty years makes no difference in the susceptibility to parody of elementary mathematics education in America.
My apologies: I can't get the embedding to work on this Stephen Colbert video, but you can click on the link above.
My go-to example of what young people can accomplish has always been David Farragut, midshipman in the U.S. Navy at age nine, given charge of a prize ship at 12, later the Navy's first admiral. But the Occasional CEO has provided some other examples for my list:
In 1792, the trading ship Benjamin departed Salem, Massachusetts, loaded with hops, saddlery, window glass, mahogany boards, tobacco and Madeira wine. The ship and crew would be gone for 19 months, traveling to the Cape of Good Hope and Il de France. All the while they bargained hard from port to port, flipping their freight several times “amid embargoes and revolutions,” naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison wrote, “slipping their cables at Capetown after dark in a gale of wind to escape a British frigate; drifting out of Bourbon with ebb tide to elude a French brig-o’-war.” In 1794, the Benjamin returned to Salem with a cargo that brought 500% profit to its owners.
The ship just happened to be captained by Nathaniel Silsbee, 19 years old when he took command. His first mate was 20 and his clerk 18.
I know we expect a different sort of education for our young people today, but surely we can do a better job of helping them get it more efficiently. No wonder today's teens are restive!
Mallard Fillmore, from yesterday:
From what little I've read about the changes, there are some positive ones as well. Still, the move to make the test more aligned with what students are actually learning, and to what they will likely encounter in general life, is part of a disturbing trend. To my mind, the Scholastic Aptitude Test is only useful if it measures what is not taught in school, nor in "test-prep" courses. Otherwise, it's just another achievement test. A mastery of so-called arcane vocabulary is an indicator of the extent and quality of a student's outside reading. Success in the analogy section, which to my chagrin was dropped long ago, was an indicator of a certain kind of mental agility. A widely-read, mentally agile person is more likely to be successful in college, hence the putative value of the test.
Granted, an exam based so strongly on the English language puts foreign students, and those from difficult backgrounds, at a disadvantage, but that's only an argument for why the SAT should be but one part of many criteria for college acceptance, not for altering the test itself.
Except for a short lesson in proper test-taking strategies and the specific structure of the exam, I'm of the opinion that test-prep courses simply undermine the purpose of the test. Sorry for pulling the "old" card, but in my day we went into the SAT cold, knowing that the best preparation was years of good habits. In fact, we were told that it was impossible to study for such an exam! Easier all around....
It's still worrisome that our president does not consider directing the education of one's own children to be a fundamental human right, but today I'm offering thanks and respect for the Department of Homeland Security's decision to allow the Romeike family to stay in the U.S. "indefinitely." (Previous posts here and here.) That decision is not as satisfying for legal precedent as a positive court decision overturning the administration's efforts to deport the family—on the grounds that Germany's heavy-handed anti-homeschooling laws are not sufficient reason to grant asylum—but the Supreme Court refused to review the case. The TSA's decision, while still leaving the Romeikes in a somewhat tenuous position, at least also leaves them safe in their Tennessee home.
My sister-in-law's "books read in 2013" post has me itching to work on my own, but re-entry chores after our vacation are taking priority (with difficulty). In the meantime, enjoy this post from the Occasional CEO.
In high school I studied the Civil War. A few weeks later, we tackled World War I. Those two wars seemed to me ages apart, in entirely different eons. In one, ancient soldiers rode horses and wore funny hats. In the other, ancient soldiers drove tanks and wore funny helmets. The distance in time between the two events was, to me, like that between the Punic and Vietnam Wars.
As I arise on this snowy morning in the new 2014, I am reminded that the death of the Archduke is only six months away and the guns of August eight. I realize too that I was in third grade when the Civil War ended. Said another way, my living memory has now spanned the period between the Civil War and WWI, and it turns out they were not fought in different eons at all but in a very short, very connected period. Brad Pitt was born the same year as Gettysburg. We saw Google launch when the USS Maine sunk in Havana and we declared war on Spain. Americans lost President Garfield to an assassin when Raiders of the Lost Ark premiered, and President McKinley when Apple introduced its first iPod.
Porter is always placing historical events in this kind of chronological context, which may explain why he has such a good sense of history.
There is a sense I now have of historical "connectedness" that I did not when I was young, or even when I was studying history in college. It is something, I suppose, that truly gifted historians can create in their writing. Sometimes it comes upon us abruptly ... as it did for me last year when I watched the video of a man who witnessed Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theater appearing on TV's I've Got a Secret. More often than not, though, this sense of connectedness probably just comes with age.
That it comes with age makes sense—how can a ten-year-old really grasp a time span of more than a few years? Yet it seems worth the effort, given that apparently the graduates of 13 years or more of (mostly) compulsory education are even more ignorant of history than they are of geography. I'm not mocking the younger generations: almost all of my own historical and geographical knowledge was gained after I graduated from college.
(On the geography side, it didn't help that what I did learn in school went rapidly out of date. Once I could identify all the countries on a map of Africa. I can today—but few of them are the same countries. Learning must never cease, and knowledge always be refreshed.)
How to help young learners develop a sense of history? Timelines, certainly. I don't mean just memorizing dates, but a clear visual representation of the relationships between events. Perhaps something like Hillyer's Staircase of Time, or the huge timeline my sister-in-law created that took up most of their front hall. Not hidden away in a book, but a part of the home or school landscape that confronts us daily. Something frequently referenced, though, so it doesn't fade into the background.
It might be possible, also, to develop Porter's self-taught habit of translating bare historical dates into personal events, e.g. "When I was your age, we were fighting in Vietnam," or "Grandpa was born exactly 18 years after the Wright Brothers made their first flight at Kitty Hawk."
What other ideas can you think of? If you are one of those blessed with a sense of history, do you know how you developed it?
Aargh. I thought I could get a quick post by just putting up a link to someone else's. Apparently I'm incapable of not adding my own two cents. Especially since my refusal to set up a Google + profile keeps me from being able to comment on the Occasional CEO itself.
Back to post-vacation chores. (I did say it was "with difficulty.")
The process whereby a child learns to read continues to fascinate me. Three months ago, Noah, who had just turned seven, demonstrated great progress in learning to read. But he was not yet a reader. Back then, he did a good job of making his way through his simplified, beginning readers. But just now he read to me Curious George Gets a Medal, with its much more advanced vocabulary and structure, and he read fluently, nearly effortlessly, and with great expression.
Similarly, in the time between two years, four months and two years, seven months, Joy's language abilities have exploded. In that time she has made the transition from two-word phrases to full, mostly clear communication, including correct use of pronouns. Amazing.
There are advantages and disadvantages to large families, but surely one of the greatest is the example of older siblings. I'm certain Joy has no idea that her youth should hinder her keeping up with her big brothers and sister. Her size, maybe: Jonathan executed a neat vault over the porch railing, and Joy announced that she was not going to follow suit because she would get hurt. Quite fearless, as a rule, she knows the difference between courage and foolishness.
Quote of the Day, from Noah: "Grandma, I think you're old enough to wear tie shoes now." To which I responded, "I'm old enough now to choose to wear Velcro shoes because I like them better."
Bedtime. It's been a long but fun day.
Better Than School by Nancy Wallace (Larson Publications, 1983)
Child's Work: Taking Children's Choices Seriously by Nancy Wallace (Holt Associates, 1990)
These stories of the education of Ishmael and Vita Wallace have been high on my list of favorite books since our own homeschooling days. Recently I re-read them both, confirming my suspicions that the Wallaces—flying by the seat of their pants in an era when homeschooling was almost unheard of, and often illegal—discovered many of the principles now refined in Project-Based Homeschooling.
The last time I read about the Wallaces' struggles with onerous regulations and imperious school boards, I noted how blessedly out of date it was, for although there are still those in the United States who would make homeschooling illegal again if they could, for the most part homeschoolers here can rest in the knowledge that the right to direct the education of our own children is recognized in all fifty states. This time, however, I read those parts of the books with renewed interest, since Switzerland, while much more advanced than the U.S. in some areas, is woefully behind us in this. Some of the Wallaces' experiences and arguments may turn out to be relevant, or at least to give inspiration.
Don't you just hate it when you read an inspiring story from the past and have no idea what happened to the characters in subsequent years? With Vita and Ishmael, at least, that question can be answered by visiting their Orpheo Duo website.
Here are a few, somewhat random, quotations. You really need to read the books to get a good sense of the story, however.
Walking into the meeting knowing that we had a majority [of the school board] on our side was a lot better than not knowing what to expect, but I guess I really wanted more than that. I wanted the whole board to admit that we were doing a terrific job with our kids and to be interested in our approach to education. After all, there was a lot the public schools could have learned from us. What disturbed me the most was that not only were two of the board members completely uninterested in what we were doing but they seemed to want the kids to go to school no matter what. When I wrote about this to John Holt, he responded with some very insightful remarks that I'll never forget. "One of the saddest things I've learned in my life," he said, "one of the things I least wanted to believe and resisted believing for as long as I could, was that people in chains don't want to get them off, but want to get them on everyone else. 'Where are your chains?' they want to know. 'How come you're not wearing chains? Do you think you are too good to wear them? What makes you think you're so special?'" (BTS, 114-115)
Project-Based Homeschooling: Mentoring Self-Directed Learners by Lori Pickert (independently published at CreateSpace, 2012)
Janet's enthusiasm over Project-Based Homeschooling led me to be sure I read the book while I had access to it in Switzerland. I had to get over some misconceptions, and I found the ideas intimidating, but I agree: it's a must-read for homeschoolers, and in truth important for all parents. Maybe for everybody.
The Misconception Way back when, in our homeschooling days, a popular approach was called Unit Studies. Here's an essay on unit studies as they relate to what's now called Classical Education; it give a pretty good idea of what they are about. Basically, you pick a topic you hope your child will be interested in, and integrate the teaching of all subjects into a study of that topic. At the time, I found the method too structured, too school-at-home, and too much work. I assumed project-based homeschooling was a re-working of unit studies.
I was wrong. There are similarities: a child working on a project is integrating many disciplines and skills together. But project-based homeschooling is an excellent example of why unschooling, well done, is absolutely not the "let the kid play video games all day" approach its detractors think it is.
Projects of this sort are the child's idea and the child's responsibility. That doesn't mean, however, that the parents are off the hook. It seems to me that the work involved in observing and coaching a project is much harder than following a curriculum. Which leads me to ...
The Intimidation I love the ideas. I really do. But even as a do-it-yourself, lone wolf kind of homeschooler, this is out-of-my-comfort-zone thinking. Probably because if Earth is my comfort zone, art projects are somewhere around Neptune, and so much of the examples here involve using art materials. The author seems to think it natural to work through one's ideas by making a painting or modelling in clay. I don't believe I've ever in my life even thought about doing that—and I've live a lot of years—so the idea of coaching a child to do so leaves me queasy. Fortunately, Lori Pickert was kind enough to explain, in a comment on Janet's review, that "if drawing and painting make you nervous, there’s still building, writing, designing t-shirts and websites, putting on skits, making brochures and posters, etc. etc. etc.—it’s more about helping kids figure out a way to help others learn and along the way that reinforces what they know/don’t know and how you collaborate, share, etc."
Also, she's careful to give the neophyte a break:
Surprisingly often, people will champion self-directed learning for children but not allow those children's parents the same freedom and respect. It's their way or the highway, and you had better start doing it the right way (their way) right away. Your kids should learn at their own pace, follow their interests, and you should trust that they'll eventually learn everything they need to know. You, on the other hand, should get with the program, right now, 100%, or else. You don't need to have your own opinions or ideas; ours will suffice. There's no time to experiment and see if these ideas work for you; take it on faith or you're part of the problem.
If your child deserves to learn at his own pace and have his own ideas, so do you. Whatever you champion for your child, make sure you also give to yourself: the right to follow your own path, work at your own pace, follow your own interests, make mistakes, and try again. Whatever you want for your children, you are far more likely to help them achieve it if you live it yourself.
It's hard to do justice to the project-based homeschooling concept without taking a lot more time and effort than I'm willing to put forth at the moment—not to mention that I'd need the book, which presently is some 4500 miles away. However, I do have some excerpts, which I copied down before relinquishing the book. (More)
While I've been here for Daniel's birth, I've had the privilege of joining the family for their noontime and evening family times. They begin with a general picking up of toys, followed by the meal. Family devotions, based on those in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, come immediately after lunch, and again in the evening after bedtime preparations and some play time (if the former haven't taken too long).
Two of the most amazing parts of the procedure are individual prayers with the children—Joseph spontaneously started praying for Daniel as he is prayed for by the adults—and singing time. The latter has been a growth opportunity for me despite all my choir training, because it's done a cappella. Normally I don't find singing the alto line of hymns to be difficult, but singing without accompaniment is much more of a challenge. Nonetheless, it's been awesome. Even our three-part harmony is lovely, and it was really great when Porter was here to add the tenor part to our soprano, alto, and bass. The kids don't sing with us—yet—but are taking it all in. Joseph has memorized several of the hymns and can occasionally be heard singing parts of them as he goes about his daily activities. (We have another grandson who sings or whistles a lot, too. Recently he was overheard moving seamlessly between Funniculi, Funnicula and Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.)
With all due respect to Sunday School/Children's Church, Vacation Bible School, and the many and varied children's music programs available, I think this integrated family prayer and singing time is an unbeatable foundation for a strong spiritual and musical education.
Not to mention a whole lot of fun.
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Vivienne's post is overdue, but it's long, and getting written in bits and snatches. So today I'll record a Joseph story before I forget it.
Early this morning, Joseph awoke and went into the bathroom to get dressed. He seemed to be spending an inordinate amount of time in there, so I peeked in (the door was open) to discover him sitting naked, counting the holes in the laundry hamper. In French. I backed out and left him alone, though I made a point of listening. He counted 115 with no trouble, which was impressive, given how squirrelly French counting gets past 69.
But this hamper might have been designed just for Joseph, because the air vents are not just holes, but shaped into circles, triangles, and rectangles. After the first enumeration, Joseph began again, this time counting the triangles....
There's never a dull moment around here; it's time to write them up that's scarce.
The question of the day is, why have I been writing mundane book reviews when I could be telling more grandchild stories?
This one is again about Joseph. I wish I could have recorded the moment, but there's no more certain way to break a mood than to bring out a camera.
While Vivienne naps, Joseph takes a rest in which he doesn't need to sleep, but must play quietly by himself for two hours. This is a lovely, creative period for him and he has no trouble filling the time with activity. When quiet time is over, especially if Vivienne is still asleep, Janet usually goes in and they enjoy some one-on-one time together. Joseph particularly enjoys working on the blackboard that was his "gift from Vivienne" when she was born, and that's what they were doing when I walked in on them yesterday.
The room was (no surprise) a mess, and Janet was helping Joseph pick up. She would write on the blackboard, "Please bring me the sheep"; Joseph would read the sentence, go get the sheep and put it where it belonged, then wait for Janet to change the sentence: "...the other sheep" or "...the boy and the dog" or "...two hens." Not a very efficient way of picking up toys, but totally delightful to Joseph—and to Grandma, who never tires of watching this barely-three-year-old blow her socks off.
(All our grandchildren blow my socks off. This is why I am usually barefoot.)
The next time I came into the room they were writing numbers. Janet would write, say, 3,725,304 and Joseph would read the number. (He crowed with delight at 111,111.) Then it would be Joseph's turn to write. After a while, the game morphed into Roman numerals. At one point, Joseph wrote vii, and I explained that that was the lower case version, whereas VII was uppercase. But when Janet wrote VII, she drew the top and bottom lines all the way across, as I was taught in school. The game then transitioned into Greek letters, and Joseph wrote an alpha, added lines above and below, and announced it was an upper case alpha.
I did not overtly correct him, but exclaimed over his logical thought processes. Janet, however, noticed that he was quite aware from my reaction that he had done something "wrong." He didn't fuss about it (though sometimes he does when corrected), but grew quiet and tentative for a while as they continued writing the Greek alphabet. No wonder she and Stephan prefer not to correct him, but to let him adjust his own model of the world over time.
After the journey from reading to large numbers to Roman numerals to Greek letters, it was back to cleaning up, then playing with/fighting over the Brio train set with his sister. Which event is "normal"? Around here, both of them.
Oh, one more quiet time story. Joseph had been disobedient and surly over some issue, so Janet told him I would not be able to help him pick up after quiet time. When cleanup time came, he was distressed, and kept begging, "Count in French!" (When I'm helping, I count each piece of the train set, or the Legos, or puzzle, as he and Vivienne put them away. Depending on his mood and mine, I count in English, French, or High German. We all miss Dad-o, who would count in Dutch for them.) Finally, I took pity on him, and told him, "Joseph, I can't count in French for you today, because you disobeyed and had a bad attitude. But, you know, you can count in French." At which revelation he picked up all the toys, cheerfully counting past 50 in that language.
I'm not sure, now, whether Hooker and Company... is a favorite picture of Joseph's or just a favorite name. He seems to have a preference for long phrases, or at least he practices them more. During today's naptime I overheard him repeatedly reciting (while playing with trains) the Albert Anker title, Heinrich Pestalozzi and the Orphans in Stans.
One thing I forgot to mention in my previous post is how absolutely clear and distinct is Joseph's diction, which I find usual for someone just a month past his third birthday. It makes me feel guilty for my own sloppy speech!
I also catch myself using unnecessary "child speech"—not baby talk, but the simple way adults usually talk to beginning speakers, such as, "say 'please.'" Like any three-year-old, Joseph needs to be reminded to ask politely, but it appears to be just as easy for him to say, "Please, Grandma, may I have some more milk?" as simply, "please." And now that he has caught on to that, the reminder, "what do you say"—or a pause, or similar actions that parents use to get their children to say please—will often evoke the whole sentence, with "milk" swapped out for the appropriate word.
When did "different" come to require a diagnosis?
The child who once was an energetic boy now has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The shy kid who likes math and science more than his classmates do is "on the autism spectrum." We have conflated normal-defined-as-average with normal-defined-as-free-from-disease, and view with suspicion anyone who strays too far—in any direction—from the common herd. It's a very contemporary diagnosis, too: today's hyperactive child would likely have been an admired leader in Viking society.
We are learning, possibly too late, of the dangers of narrowing the once-vast diversity of life on our planet, especially in agriculture, where nearly every Thanksgiving dinner is dependent on a single breed of turkey—turkeys so stupid as to be unable to reproduce without human intervention—and where one variety-specific disease could wipe out nearly every existing banana plant. I believe we have a similar problem in the human population, where for all we talk about the importance of diversity, we are identifying more and more people as abnormal—people who would in an earlier day have been considered merely quirky, or even honored for their differences. We then attempt to "cure" them by squashing them into standardized boxes, the most common of which is school.
I officially gave up on the psychiatric profession's labels when I discovered hyperlexia: "the precocious ability to read words without prior training in learning to read typically before the age of five." If children aren't reading by the end of first grade, schools and parents begin to worry, and yet reading before kindergarten is a problem? What's with that?
The proximate inspiration for this post was observing grandson Joseph, age three, as he is learning to speak. His speech is much more echolalic than I am accustomed to, and because that is yet another psychiatric diagnosis, I was wondering if I should be concerned—though it's difficult even to think of a child who speaks two languages as being "behind" in speech.
Now that I'm where I can observe Joseph directly and interact with him I can laugh at any concerns, though I doubt that would stop the psychiatrists from labelling him. His speech is definitely different from that of the average child his age, and so is the way he is figuring out language patterns. But it's not bad; it's just different. And fascinating.
Instead of repeating words and short phrases that he hears from other people, then gradually putting them together into longer and longer verbalizations, Joseph remembers, and repeats, entire sentences and long passages, such as the name of one of one of his favorite Frederic Church paintings: Hooker and Company Journeying through the Wilderness from Plymouth to Hartford in 1636. Really. With such things as these as his basic language building blocks, it's not surprising that his approach to speech is unusual. Instead of creating phrases of increasing complexity by a more additive method, he starts with a long sentence, takes it apart, and puts it back together.
Recently he and I were watching the people walk up and down a main street in Zermatt; more precisely, we were observing their dogs. "Here comes a dog," I said, and Joseph repeated, "Here comes a dog." Then he expanded with, "Here comes a white dog." Later, he proclaimed, "Here comes another dog," and still later, "Here comes a little, white dog." Same pattern, expanded from the inside out.
It is my totally unverifiable theory that Joseph started out thinking in large chunks of language. For example, "put your shoes on" is associated, as an entire sentence, with the act of putting on his shoes. Thus, whether describing his actions or asking for help, "put your shoes on" has been the phrase of choice (sometimes modified to "no put your shoes on"). Gradually, however, he is dissecting these chunks and discovering the recombinant possibilities.
It's fascinating to observe. It's different. It's not normal-defined-as-average. But it's certainly not a disease.
This quotation from an interview with Anne Fine set me to thinking. (H/T Stephan)
[I] hate the way that we have weeded out the things that I remember made my heart lift in primary school, and were transforming in my secondary education. I mean, we did so much singing when I was at school – folk songs, hymns, we sang everything. But now that seems to have gone, along with the language of the Book of Common Prayer and so much classic poetry. And school days are horrifically long if pretty well everything you are doing lacks colour and style, just for the sake of 'relevance' and 'accessibility'".
Music was a big part of my own elementary school, though not being British we missed out on the BCP. Music lessons started in grade four (of six) for strings and in fifth for band instruments. Chorus started at about the same time, and in two of the three schools I experienced, we were singing three-part harmony. (Occasionally four, as in one school we had a set of older boy twins whose voices had mostly changed.) These musical activities were optional, but what stands out most in my mind in contrast to today is that nearly every classroom had a piano, and many of the teachers could play it. (So could some of the students, and we were allowed to use it some ourselves outside of class.) We sang patriotic songs, folk songs, hymns, Negro spirituals, and children's songs. And most of these we read out of music books. Not that we were specifically taught much in the way of reading music, but we were expected to absorb basic skills simply by observing the relationship between the printed notes and what we sang.
I should note that these were not "music magnet schools" but ordinary public elementary schools in a small village/rural school district in the late 1950's and early 60's.
Our own children had a fantastic music teacher in elementary school, there's no doubt about that, and their musical education outside of school was far greater than mine, with the availability of private music lessons, youth orchestras, and excellent church choirs. And being in the South, their high school chorus still sang the great Western choral music, which had already been all but banned in the schools we'd left behind in the North because it is largely church music. So I'm not complaining about that.
But something great has been lost in general education if there's no longer daily singing in the classroom, children graduate knowing nothing of the music of the past and without the most basic music-reading skills, and adults would rather attend a concert or plug into an iPod than raise their own voices in song.
I don't think, based on the interview, that I would like Anne Fine's books. But she's spot on in the quote. "Relevance" and "accessibility" are two of the dirtiest words in the educationist's vocabulary.
What were your musical experiences in the early school years? How have they affected your adult life?
Is College Worth It? by William J. Bennett and David Wilezol (Thomas Nelson, 2013)
It is the best of times and the worst of times for education. From preschool through higher education, there has been a steady decline in the quality of public education in at least the half-century I’ve been observing it. If my father is to be believed—and he was always a very reliable source—it’s been declining for a lot longer than that. He was frequently appalled at my generation’s ignorance of basic history, geography, and literature. (He’d have said the same thing about basic arithmetic, but he was surrounded by engineers.) It doesn’t take much observation to realize that today the average American’s grasp of those subjects makes me look brilliant.
At the same time—and my father would concur—in some fields, for some people, knowledge and ability has soared. As a science fair judge, he was blown away by the scope and quality of the research done by high school students. His own high school had offered no math beyond trigonometry, and it was rare among high schools to offer even that. My high school offered only one Advanced Placement course—and that for seniors—whereas our children had at least a dozen to choose from, beginning as freshmen. And yet only a few students were actually prepared to take advantage of the generous offerings: back in fifth grade, I would have said the expectations of their teachers were well below those of my own, and far below those of my father’s.
Despite the best efforts of educators to mush us all into a sameness at any level—better all low than some higher than others—there has always been an upper class and a lower class when it comes to education, and there always will be. What I’ve been noticing is that the highs are getting higher, the lows are getting lower, and the middle class is rapidly descending—much as is happening with economic measures.
I’m hoping the economic situation does not lead to revolution, but there’s a crisis and a revolution coming in education and I say, bring it on! (More)