An Easy Lesson

What we want is to see the child in pursuit of knowledge, and not knowledge in pursuit of the child.

- George Bernard Shaw

by Jay Ambrose

How do you spell "home-schooling"?  With respect.

The winner of this year's Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee is Sean Conley, a 13-year-old educated at home until he started private school this past year, just as last year's winner was also home-schooled.  Those facts would not say much about the value of home-schooling if there were no broad-based studies showing that children taught by their parents - usually the mother - are more academically accomplished on average than children taught by professional teachers in public schools.  There are.

Home-schooling, which used to be legal in just a few states, is now legal in all of them and is growing rapidly; it is the path being taken by more than 1 million students.  Parents, it is noted, are taking advantage of all kinds of resources - websites, special publications, libraries, community colleges, tutors for some subjects, various associations where their children can acquire social skills - and are doing so at a cost much more affordable than private schools.  The parents, it is also noted, are usually college-educated members of the middle class aiming above all to enrich their children's minds to a degree unlikely to occur in public schools.  Simultaneously, they are trying to afford those children the best protection they can from the worst of the popular culture.

Review articles on what has been happening and naturally enough you will find critics.  You will also find they are having to eat their words as these disciplined, self-sacrificing parents do what public schools could not do even if they shook off their bureaucratic fetters and resistance to change: tailor lessons to individual talents and enthusiasms, inculcate cherished values and strengthen family life.

Home-schooling has its drawbacks, it is not a success in every instance and it is not something all parents are suited for.  All of that should be obvious.  But it should also be obvious that certain self-interested parties should not be allowed to strangle it with too many regulations, as is reportedly being tried in some states, and it should be obvious that it is an educational option that is serving our society well.

Source: "Opinions" 3 June 2001 © Nando Media and Scripps Howard News Service

Why I Like Home School

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

- William Butler Yeats

by Wolf Hatch

Some parents send their kids to school because they want to get rid of them so they can have some time to themselves instead of teaching their kids at home.  My mom home schools me because she wants to spend her time with me.  That makes me feel good.

My mom also doesn't push me to do something too hard or too fast because she understands my feelings.  I don't like being pushed past the limit of what I want to do at that moment.  (But if she knows I can do something which I think I can't, she may push me a little.)

There are normally about 30 kids in a class and only one teacher so the teacher doesn't have spare time to spend with each and every one of the kids.  When one of kids does something wrong, the teacher may send the kid off to the principal instead of talking to him or her and trying to put things right.

Teachers are able to dish out homework and make the kids do it even if it's too hard or too much for them.  The teacher doesn't know each child well enough to know what is and what isn't too hard, but with home schoolers it is always their mom who gives them homework or assignments to do and what I think is that kids' mothers should know more about what is too hard or too much for their kids than teachers do.  I say "should know" because some parents don't really seem to know their own kids very well.  Well it's not surprising, since they may not see them very much!

I have heard some kids (especially boys) are given Ritalin to keep them calm in class because too many kids are hard for only one teacher to control.

Another good thing I like about home school is that I have good equipment at home: my own computer and educational software and musical instruments and other things like that.  These might be in school but if there were things like that in school, then the kids would probably have to take turns.  At my home, my brother and I don't have to fight over who goes first because we each have our own.  (I am not meaning to brag about the things my brother and I have.  It's just that if kids DO have their own stuff at home, it's better.)

At school the kids don't usually do chores.  I live on a boat.  On a boat, there are a lot of chores to do.  I get school credit for everything I learn, including how to do chores correctly.

In school the kids are controlled by a bell.  When the bell rings the kids have to stop whatever they are doing, whether they are finished or not, and run to the next class, hoping to be on time.  Kids usually go to school five days a week for up to six hours each day whereas I don't even spend six hours a week on schoolwork and I learn just as much as they do.  School wastes too much time!!

If I or my brother want to learn something that my parents don't feel qualified to teach us, then we get a private teacher to help out.  We have had music and art teachers come by our home and we have also gone out for karate, music, acting and ice skating lessons.

Source: from my files Sunday 16 June 1996, written when Wolf was 8½.

Wolf said he highly recommends The Learning Company's "The Princeton Review" software series.  Readers' recommendations would be gratefully welcomed.  Wolf is currently 19 and a graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, New Jersey.  He majored in Digital Media/Animation and received a 4.0 average.  His brother, also homeschooled, has an undergraduate degree from New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, with a major in Engineering Technology / Telecommunications.  He, too, had a 4.0 average.  He also has a MBA from the same institution with a specialty in Management of Technology.  Obviously homeschoolling has our vote.

Source: If you like online comics, this site is a treasure trove of opinionated art.

Also see:

bulletLearning to Fly - an article about Wolf's brother, Cody.
bulletControl Your Television - for an idea that's almost as good as homeschooling at fostering creative thinking.

Alternative Education: Your Right to Choose

by Gavin de Villiers

When parents are asked what they want for their children in the long term they would generally say that they want them to turn out to be happy, healthy, well-balanced and successful adults.  Some will add that they would like their children to be able to make moral and ethical choices and to contribute to society in some meaningful way.  Most of these outcomes are pushed aside, however, in any discussion of education.  Then, the discussion shifts to talk about standards (which are invariably seen to be falling), a lack of accountability (by school staff, education authorities and so on) and a call for a return to the basics.  Institutions offering courses which promise increases in results draw large numbers of children, providing extra assistance or enrichment in core areas such as reading and mathematics.  Few parents or teachers stop to notice the contradiction between the long-term outcomes they want for their children, and the methods being employed.

A clarification needs to be made at this point.  This is not another diatribe against Outcome Based Education.  Nor is it a criticism of already de-motivated but hard-working teachers.  Rather it is a critique of the institution of school per sé.

As far as curricula go, our new one is not too bad.  It looks for outcomes similar to those mentioned in the first paragraph.  The reason it cannot work to achieve those goals has nothing to do with it's contents or structure.  The problem is systemic embedded in the very structure and ethos of the institutions mandated to deliver it.  The public school as we know it was inherited almost unchanged from Prussia, where it was invented to serve two markets: the demand of industry for compliant workers who would be prepared to perform repetitive and mindless tasks on a production line; and the demands of the army for even more compliant soldiers.  As the Generals had discovered at the Battle of Jenna, soldiers who think for themselves tend to run away when the odds are against them.

This system was quickly adopted by Britain, and later transferred to its colonies, including South Africa.  This little tidbit of history is well-known.  What is less well understood is it is not the curriculum, the actual content of what is taught that makes the difference.  Rather, it is the way the day is broken up into short periods, the way in which children are denied control over their own bodily functions, the rigid hierarchy, the denial of personal choice and autonomy, quality control (in the form of regular, extrinsic assessments), the lack of meaningful representation, and the reliance on a crude behaviourialist system of control that make schools what they are.  Society has become so used to the institution of school that we find it difficult to conceive learning happening outside of a traditional classroom.  The facts, however, give a very different picture.  Schools as we know them are a relatively new invention, and the largest proportion of the population generally didn't attend school until well into the 20th century.

Neuroscientists and educationalists researching just exactly how learning takes place in the context of how the brain functions are now showing that most of what children learn, they learn when they are not in school because the very system is such that it discourages the cognitive functions necessary for learning to take place.  In order to learn more, children need less teaching, not more.  They need more movement, more hands-on activity, more interaction, and probably the most surprising, more play.

Source: East London, South Africa Thursday 6 March 2003

Source: Funny Times November 2001

Three Pigs Ad-Lib

A father liked to read his young son fairy tales at night.  Having a deep-rooted sense of humour, he often ad-libs parts of the stories for fun.  One day his son was sitting in his first grade class as the teacher was reading the story of the "Three Little Pigs."  She came to the part of the story where the first pig was trying to acquire building materials for his home.  She said, "And so the pig went up to the man with a wheel barrow full of straw and said 'Pardon me sir, but might I have some of that straw to build my house with?'"  The teacher then asks the class, "And what do you think that man said?"

My friend's son raised his hand and exclaimed, "I know!  I know! - 'Holy smokes!  A talking pig!'"

... the teacher was unable to teach for the next 10 minutes.

When reading the following article, bear in mind that, though middle class homes have members that use a wide variety of vocabulary words for children to absorb, the children may, in fact, be spending the largest portion (up to 10 hours) of their waking time each day with their caregiver, who may have a large vocabulary - but probably doesn't...

The Vocabulary Deficit

by Andrew Wolf

Why do poor children have so much trouble learning to read?  One of our nation’s great educational theorists, E D Hirsch Jr, and a number of other researchers, writing in the American Educator, the magazine of the American Federation of Teachers, have an answer.  They present a compelling argument that the primary reason these children fall behind is a huge vocabulary deficit.  This deficit puts them at an increasing disadvantage as they get older and the material they must read becomes more complex.  Mr Hirsch is the author of The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, the book I generously purchased for the schools chancellor, Joel Klein, when he assumed his job last summer.  Unfortunately, Mr Klein seems to have lost his copy.  None of the educational decisions he has made so far reflect an understanding of Mr Hirsch’s sound ideas.

According to Mr Hirsch, "A 12th grade student who scores well enough on the verbal portion of the SAT to get into a selective college knows between 60,000 and 100,000 words."  If we average this out to 80,000 words, and assume that the period of vocabulary acquisition of our high school senior is the 15 years between age 2 and 17, our student needs to learn an average of fifteen words a day.  This is not going to happen in school alone.  "Most vocabulary words," Mr Hirsch argues, result "incidentally, from massive immersion in the world of language and knowledge."

The shortfall in vocabulary is easy enough to explain.  A study by well-regarded researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley, which also appears in the American Educator, concludes that the number of words children hear addressed to them increases dramatically with family income.  A child of professionals is likely to hear as many as 50 million words by age 4.  The child of a welfare parent may be exposed to just a quarter of that number.

This is an oversimplification, though.  The situation is actually worse.  Children in higher-income homes hear words of higher quality, and many more of those words are designed to give encouragement.  By age 3, a child from a poor household can face a 30 million word gap compared to children from better-off homes.  This deficit severely hampers poor children’s potential for academic success.  Unfortunately, the reading programs in place and those being implemented later this year in New York City don’t address the issue of vocabulary.  So, what can be done to remedy the situation?  A number of strategies are discussed by Mr Hirsch and his colleagues, but the most promising is a return to content in the classroom.

In many American schools, two or more hours are devoted each day to "literacy."  Most of this time goes to waste.  Children are taught "reading strategies," such as "inferencing," predicting, classifying, and "looking for the main idea."  These are devices designed not to increase specific knowledge, but to increase test scores, independent of real knowledge.  Mr Hirsch advises that most of this period be devoted to activities that "foster vocabulary, domain knowledge and fluency."  He writes, "Such knowledge could be conveyed through read-alouds, well-conceived vocabulary instruction, and a variety of cumulative activities that immerse children in word and world knowledge."

"Domain knowledge" is the threshold level of knowledge needed to understand a topic.  Mr Hirsch uses the example of a newspaper article on baseball.  If you know nothing of the game, you can’t comprehend a sentence such as: "Jones sacrificed and knocked in a run."  The more domain knowledge acquired, the easier it becomes to read and understand a wider variety of material.  The central thesis of Mr Hirsch’s philosophy is that in today’s schools, the teaching of the kind of specific knowledge you need to become a fully literate individual is woefully inadequate.  The texts and literature used in most American elementary schools are, for the most part, of a trivial nature.  There is no shortage of material on topics like pets and sharing, but little on history, geography, and science.

One solution is to vastly increase the amount of non-fiction reading material available to children in our classrooms.  There is no reason why content knowledge can’t be integrated into the language-arts curriculum.  Putting content back into the classroom just might bring an end to the horror stories of children who can’t locate the Pacific Ocean on a map or identify the combatants in World War II.  Unfortunately, we have heard nothing from Mr Klein, the deputy chancellor for instruction, Diana Lam, the 10 regional superintendents, or anyone else in the new Tweed Ring, about restoring content-based curriculum.

It is significant that this dialogue is emanating from the AFT.  Exploring these issues is in the best tradition of the former head of the AFT, the late Albert Shanker, a union leader who took the task of advancing his profession as seriously as protecting the interests of his members. Mr Shanker was an enthusiastic supporter of Mr Hirsch, and served on the board of directors of Mr Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Foundation.  The current AFT president, Sandra Feldman, occupies that seat today.  Any organization that has room on its board for Ms Feldman and the astute educational historian Diane Ravitch must be on the right track.  That a teachers union is willing to challenge the progressive orthodoxy that currently drives instruction is a hopeful sign.  Those who view the unions as implacable defenders of the status quo ought to carefully study the contents of American Educator, which is available online, at the AFT’s Web site.  This could well be the middle ground on which to base the movement for real reform of our schools — from the classroom on up, rather than from the Tweed Courthouse on down.

Source: The New York Sun 2 May 2003 Editorial & Opinion section page 7

See also:

bulletIQ Is Inherited Suggests Twins Study (in the section on men) - and the article which follows that, "Moms' Poor Vocabulary Hurts Kids' Future" for more on this topic.

Easy Rider

Kassie and friend

Kassie Cattoor lives with her mom Sandy, her dad Troy, her brother Kash and her dog Puppy.  Although Everybody Has A Story's rules allow CBS News Correspondent Steve Hartman to focus on any family member he chooses, he opted for 4-year-old Kassie.

"She’s very tender hearted," says Sandy of her daughter.  "And that’s something that’s really important to her, is family."  In fact, Kassie's family has never really been out of her sight.  Since she was born, Sandy and Troy have taken her to work with them.  Cattoor Livestock Roundup works with the federal government to manage America's wild horse population.  The family patrols nine western states, and most of the year camps out wherever the horses are running.  "She's had the whole world at her fingertips out there and she just ate it up," says Sandy.

It really is hard to imagine a more idyllic setting to raise a child.  But this fall, Kassie's parents decided there was one place even better.  Kassie went to pre-school.  "When you can associate with other kids, you’re going to learn, not just the school and books, you’re going to learn how to function in life," says Troy.

And there's the rub.  For daughter and father, it has been a harsh transition.  Giving your kids what they need is always a lot tougher than giving them what they want.  And only when they're old enough to run free, do they fully appreciate the fences.

Source: Nephi, Utah 15 July 2002 © MMII CBS Worldwide Inc all rights reserved

First, I distrust someone who says in all seriousness "She... just ate it up" when she means her child versus the world.  Next, Kassie's father seems to think it is other 4-year-old children who teach one how to "...function in life."  Uh, okay.  Personally, I would've thought staying in the situation she was in - riding horses, being with her parents in the outdoors - would've been, oh, 1000% better.  But they seem to feel they know what it is she really needs - to be with someone else while they camp out while the horses are running.  Perhaps they're right.  Get used to it, kid.

For articles on education covering subjects taught, tests, costs, boredom, honour, rites of passage, rigid rules, cliques, thinking, learning, homeschooling, creating, brilliance, ongoing education and more, click the "Up" button below to take you to the Table of Contents for this section.

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