By Carolyn Forte
We are now more than 40 years into the modern homeschool movement, yet the difference between learning and schooling is less understood than ever. More and more researchers, psychologists, educators and physicians have entered the debate, explaining the profound difference between learning and the typical methods used in formal education.
Learning can be forced and regimented but such learning will be neither optimal nor easy. It is difficult to stop a child, created to be a veritable learning machine, from gathering and assimilating vast quantities of information, but modern methods of “education” have become very efficient in discouraging it. Many people actually believe that learning should be “hard” and that if it is easy or fun, it is not real or lasting. The researchers and professionals named below have proven that belief to be invalid. Optimal, long-term learning is often easy and even fun. In fact, research has shown that the more fun the learning, the more effective it is. They know the truth that when learning is hard it is much less efficient.
The problems with “schooling” involve content as well as methodology. One of the problems with content lies in the area of developmental readiness. From educators like Dr. Raymond Moore and Dr. Sandra Stotsky to psycologists like Leonard Sax, M.D., Ph.D. and David Elkind, Ph.D. to brain researchers like Jane Healy, Ph.D. , those who study the way education is delivered have been warning for decades against pushing developmentally inappropriate content on children when they are too young to understand it. Sadly, the mountain of research continues to be ignored by those in control of education policy in America and, in turn by nearly all producers of education material, both secular and Christian, including those who target the homeschool community.
Have you struggled to figure out and/or explain your child’s 4th grade math text? Does your 2nd grader still count on her fingers while you are trying to drill her with the multiplication tables? Are you frustrated by your 3rd grader’s inability to nail down adverbs and adjectives? What about that five-paragraph essay your 5th grader is supposed to write? None of these tasks or concepts were required of children this young in previous generations. The entire curriculum has been accelerated a minimum of two years and in some areas as much as eight years!
While children were introduced to multiplication in the 4th grade 60 years ago, it is now required of 2nd graders. Children once encountered the abstractions of Algebra in the 9th or 10th grades; today they struggle to use them from Kindergarten on!
Why do the education planners push inappropriate materials on our children? The easy answer is that testing drives the curriculum. Whatever is found on the standardized tests will be pushed by the curriculum developers regardless of whether it makes good pedagogical sense or not. Of course, that begs the question: why do the test makers put developmentally inappropriate items on the tests? If you wish, you can learn more about that from Samuel Blumenfeld’s recently published Crimes of the Educators, award-winning teacher John Taylor Gatto’s Underground History of American Education and Weapons of Mass Instruction and Charlotte Iserbyt’s Deliberate Dumbing Down of America. You may develop your own opinions as to the reasons, but the fact remains that most American schools, whether they be public, private or at home, are pushing inappropriate content on children who are too young to develop appropriate brain pathways and use the information efficiently in the long term.
In fact, as Dr. Jane Healy explains in Endangered Minds, this methodology actually prevents appropriate long-term learning. In studying learning in young children, Dr. Healy found that when children were expected to learn a task that was too difficult for their maturity level, they would try to find a way to accomplish the task anyway. However, it was found that these children developed inappropriate brain pathways that prevented more advanced use of the information later. We are seeing this concept played out on a massive scale with the wholesale failure of mathematical understanding in our schools.
I had an interesting encounter with an eighth grade teacher a few years ago. He came in trying to find something, anything to help his students learn to do algebra. He said they couldn’t accept the necessity to follow algebraic principles. They were locked into the incorrect techniques from seven previous years of doing the problems any which way. Algebraic principles and procedures are not taught in the lower grades, so the children were left to their own devices to develop ways to solve the problems. During his extended search in our store we had a very long conversation. He came to the conclusion that his students’ brains were locked in the rut of their old ways. At the time, I was not aware of Dr. Healy’s brain research but the genesis of his problem became clear once I learned about inappropriate brain pathways and how they can block future learning.
Thirty-five years ago, our schools began to teach abstract algebraic concepts from the first grade on. Young children are concrete thinkers and the ability to handle abstract concepts develops slowly. Many youth are not ready to handle abstract mathematics (algebra) until they are 15 or 16 years old. In the 1950s, educators understood this and students were not forced to take algebra at any particular time. In fact, until the 1990s, algebra was not even a requirement for high school graduation. Today, however, primary age children are required to master algebraic concepts that their grandparents didn’t wrestle with until at least 9th grade! (Remember that those grandparents sent astronauts to the moon with calculators less sophisticated than the one in your phone.) The result is massive confusion and inability to apply simple mathematical principles to everyday life.
The same applies to language arts. Thirty years ago, abstract concepts like metaphor and simile were introduced in high school. Today, they are drilled into 4th graders. As a result, children memorize definitions and patterns, but may be forever blocked from developing a deep understanding of these literary devices. Even worse, they may come to believe that they can’t learn and give up trying. Children’s brains gradually develop the capacity for abstraction after many, many experiences with concrete things. Trying to hurry the process will only lead to discouragement and failure.
There is another kind of inappropriate content –psychologically inappropriate material – that is also being forced on our young children. This content contains material that the child or youth is too immature to handle appropriately. Child Abuse in the Classroom, edited by Phyllis Schlafly is a classic on this topic which Samuel Blumenfeld has brought up to date in Crimes of the Educators. Child Abuse in the Classroom dealt mainly with a nation-wide experiment in “death education,” run by an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, which resulted in the suicides of children as young as eight! Crimes of the Educators covers a wide array of inappropriate content in public school texts.
Content can also be made nearly unlearnable by being compacted. History texts are notorious for this. Feeding a child too many facts in too much of a hurry without enough background information leads to bewilderment and boredom. Many of the problems our society faces today are a result of a populace that is almost totally ignorant of history. Without an understanding of the great issues in human history and how they have played out in the past, our society is set adrift without an anchor or a rudder.
Earning “A’s” in textbook-based history leaves a student as ignorant as one who never attempted to learn history. This is true because textbooks cover too much too fast. They only present salient points, seldom give multiple viewpoints, are usually poorly written (often by a committee with a politically correct manual to follow) and are uninspiring to say the least. No wonder most students (and adults) hate history! To truly learn a subject, it is necessary to read or otherwise explore it from many different viewpoints. This is not possible if a student’s time is monopolized with textbooks, worksheets and other busywork.
The methodology of schooling can also prevent learning. This is difficult to understand and accept because we have all been trained in, indoctrinated by, steeped in and surrounded by schools as they evolved in the 20th-21st centuries. No one alive remembers what school was like before 1880 and therefore we are trained to believe that what we see today is the “right“ way to learn. Before 1880 school was much shorter both in terms of school day and school year. There were few textbooks and yet they covered much more than the tomes that cause back problems for today’s students. Children had little homework and much free time as well as useful work to do. Today, children are either discouraged from or not allowed to do meaningful work in which they can apply their knowledge and acquire more.
Mathematics instruction provides an example. Math texts before 1900 had little practice with raw calculation. After the basics of a concept were explained, nearly every problem in the book was a word problem – beginning in the first book. The children were using math in practical ways and thus understood it. Therefore, they needed far less practice and no one asked, “When am I ever going to use this?” Moreover, the books were not graded. A student moved through the books at his own pace. Except with homeschoolers, the concept of teaching a student at his level of understanding has been totally lost today.
Our ancestors were also taught easy methods of mental calculation, which were dropped from the math books by around 1930. These methods are still taught in many countries around the world, but American children are deprived of them and encouraged to use calculators instead. You can find some of these methods and short-cuts in Ray’s Arithmetic and in Math-It.
The endless argument over the merits or evils of drill has led many astray. Dr. Karyn Purvis, Director of Texas Christian University’s Child Development Center stated recently that it takes approximately 400 repetitions to create a new synapse in the brain unless the learning is done with play, in which case it takes only ten to twenty repetitions! Drill will eventually bear fruit, but how inefficient! Much is known today about memory, how it works and how it can be developed, but little, if any of this knowledge is utilized by curriculum developers and the schools they serve. Most of what is memorized never makes it to long-term memory and thus is forgotten more quickly than it was “learned.” Think about tests you took in school; how much of that information do you retain today?
Some of the methods of today’s schooling could more appropriately be called “non-methods” as in the “teaching” of handwriting, both manuscript and cursive. Most often today, there is no teaching at all and if there is a copybook, the children are simply instructed to copy the letters or words without any direction as to the most easy and efficient way to learn to write with the English alphabet. Thus for many, writing is a laborious chore that is dreaded and avoided. Add to this the excessive written busywork that is required of today’s students in the name of “comprehension” and drill and you have a perfect storm leading to frustration, boredom and rebellion. We are asking children to write ten times as much today as children wrote at the same age sixty years ago. This does not accelerate education; it retards it.
Another method for discouraging or at least delaying learning that has been developed in the last 25 years is the “study guide” filled with “comprehension questions.” Few of these amount to anything more than busy work that discourages deeper thought by forcing the student to focus on small details to “prove” he read the text. Students soon learn to scan the text for the answers, ignoring the real meaning found in the book or passage. Moreover, the time wasted with the study guide could be better spent reading an additional book, absorbing its lessons and wisdom and discussing it with others!
As stated before, children are born to learn. They learn eagerly and efficiently when they are unfettered by rigid patterns of instruction. How do you suppose your toddler would react if you drilled him on word after word or told him to walk straighter or draw his picture over because it wasn’t done well enough? When “learning” becomes a chore, its effectiveness is diminished greatly. However, when a child loves to learn, he will work very hard to achieve his goals. If you don’t think this is true, just watch a baby work at crawling, standing or walking. The biggest problem with schooling is that everything has to be a “lesson” or it doesn’t count as “learning.” There is nothing really wrong with lessons as long as the child is interested and willing. If the student is bored, anxious, fearful, stressed or confused, learning will be minimized if it occurs at all. The most important pre-requisite for learning is a feeling of safety. Children cannot learn if they are anxious or otherwise stressed; the executive portion of the brain actually shuts down. A few math games played with joy can provide far more learning and memorized facts than a hundred drill sheets. The same goes for writing, vocabulary, grammar and much, much more. Many activities, crafts and projects can be just as effective as textbooks.
Cranking through a curriculum just to complete third grade may or may not result in efficient, meaningful learning. It all depends on the child’s attitude, stamina and learning style. The same child is likely to learn much, much more with materials and methods that closely match his interests, learning style and developmental stage rather than with a one-size-fits-all packaged curriculum. Learning is what happens when the brain is actively engaged. It is possible to learn while schooling but it is not guaranteed and not nearly as efficient as learning because you love it.
Help your child retain his love for learning by avoiding the over-use of texts and workbooks. Think more in terms of concepts grasped than pages covered. Above all, de-school yourself and reignite your own love for learning!