Update about the boys, part 1 – June 2012
I’m due to give you an update about H.’s education. (I guess E. will be in a separate post, as before.) He has turned six. I’m looking forward to his being in the first grade (or that age), so I don’t have to defend or make excuses about the amount of educational stuff I do with him. He still plays more every day than he studies. (Against critics, I’ll only have to defend the level of material I present.) I’m also curious about the whole Ohio homeschooling registration process, and we’ll be learning about that in a few months.
Anyway, there are big changes in our approach to many subjects, so here we go!
Our new review methods. About four months ago–I had been thinking vaguely about this for a lot longer–I decided that I wanted us finally to start reviewing what we had learned, somehow, so that H. would remember more. It’s all very well to read a bunch of books, but if you don’t remember what you read, you’re mainly just going to pick up vague impressions, vocabulary, and random factoids. (This is, of course, how a lot of bright, educated people are.) One option, I figured, was the traditional review-and-examination method. I didn’t give that much thought, because it seemed silly. What’s the point of examination when the main thing you learn from is the review? Of course, I wasn’t yet aware of the research that said that answering questions actually teaches things better than things like re-reading books, notes, etc. But on reflection that certainly made sense to me: actively recalling information will solidify memories better than simply passively reviewing it.
Anyway, I talked to Dr. Miles Jones one day about four months ago, and he said the general way to remember anything is to repeat it after you’ve learned it a minute, an hour, a day, a week, a month, and a year afterward. This sounded intriguing. Dr. Jones said very plausibly that it works, and people who follow this sort of method faithfully find their heads stuffed full of facts that most of us would normally forget. I saw that this was not just Dr. Jones’ idea, but that it was well-supported by research in cognitive science. So I started making recordings, typically 1-3 minutes long, summarizing whatever I read to him. (Nobody summarized the stuff he read to himself.) There were on average 3-4 of these recordings produced per day, and after a month, we were spending 20-30 minutes every day listening to recordings from a day, a week, and a month earlier.
This had a few different effects. First, I really do get the sense that H. and I both remember what we read more keenly. I’m not sure how ready-to-mind specific answers about that material might be, but certainly the familiarity of the information seems to be greatly increased. Second, H. actually liked listening to recordings most of the time. I thought he’d quickly get tired of them, but he didn’t. Occasionally he said he didn’t want to listen, but not too often. He liked being reminded of what he knew. Why not? But, third, the only time in our schedule remaining to do such review was after dinner, and so ended up cutting into the time we spent on bedtime reading, which I find very annoying. (More details here.)
Then, about a couple weeks ago, I finally decided to try something that I have been exposed to mainly but not only through the wonderful BrillKids.com community (see this thread). Thinking that it would save time, I decided instead of recording summaries, to record questions and then use software to test us on the answers, flashcard-style. Inspired by this great article, I started in Mnemosyne, then quickly switched to SuperMemo because I saw no easy way in Mnemosyne to reuse questions with baby E. when he gets old enough to read the same books. SuperMemo is very powerful software, but only a clunkiness-tolerant geek could really love it. (Turns out, I knew the programmer from Wikipedia and we’re in contact.) Anyway, H. and I are sticking with Supermemo because it does the job we want done pretty well. It allows me to save the questions in an ever-expanding outline which greatly appeals to me. After recommendations I considered switching to Anki, but decided against it because it didn’t have the outline feature, so I couldn’t see how we could easily reuse the questions with E.
So the idea is that I write 3-6 questions-and-answers per reading (usually no more than four; very rarely more than six, if it’s a very long and important reading, with many things I think H. should remember). Actually the first step is to record the questions and answers. I get H. to think of the answer just a few minutes after we’ve finished the reading. This, I’ve discovered, is important; if we don’t do this, he simply draws a blank when we review the questions later in the day and doesn’t connect the fact to the reading. It’s like we’re learning the fact from the card rather than from our memory of the reading. Anyway, later, I type the recorded Q&A into Supermemo, and by the end of the day I have added 12-15 cards to the stack. The answers are ideally one word long, but more often a phrase, and occasionally a sentence. I’ve mostly given up asking for short paragraph answers–he can do it, but it takes a long time and it seems not worth the effort. (The Supermemo guy, Piotr Wozniak, recommends against it, too.)
We have two review sessions a day, a longer one in the morning for review of a wide assortment of questions, and a shorter one in the evening which the software calls “final review,” for questions added during the day and for questions insufficiently memorized in the morning session. (The questions are decided on automatically by the software’s excellent algorithm.) The sessions are usually short enough, 15 minutes or so, with a daily time investment of 30-40 minutes, I think. The questions are shown regularly in the first few days after they are added to the database, then less frequently as time goes on, depending on how difficult they were to answer. You grade how well you answer each time: anywhere from “null” for when he couldn’t remember anything on up through five levels to “bright” for quick, confident, detailed answers. H. scores “bright” for most questions that he has seen a couple times before, but the program’s algorithm does a great job of showing questions just when you’ll benefit most from the review. If you answer “bright” consistently, you’ll see the question very seldom. If you forget something you knew well earlier, then you’ll see the question more often until Supermemo is “satisfied” so to speak that you know it again–in which case it is shown less and less.
The result is quite interesting. We are exposed to information about history, geography, science, civics, and a few other subjects, all mixed together. H. and I can now remember things like the dates of James Buchanan’s presidency (what? you didn’t know that? 1857-61, of course!) or what Amerigo Vespucci is famous for (exploring the coast of South America and deciding that the Americas weren’t Asia after all). The impressive thing is that this “spaced repetition” algorithm promises to keep all this information–tens of thousands of cards, in some people’s databases–fresh in your brain at a 95% success rate for any given item. This has made a big impression on me.
I really love this method. But, indeed, it is not lost on me that many educationists decry precisely this sort of memorization. It is not properly called “rote” memorization, because it is based on readings that one presumably understands. It is also memorization of the much-maligned “mere facts.” And yet, it is not memorization of contextless facts, because the facts are learned originally in the reading. Indeed, as we work to remember our answers, we are constantly thinking back to the texts, which we usually understood when we read them.
As I see it, if we are reading non-fiction in order to acquaint ourselves with some facts, it behooves us to try to remember the more important facts among them. If it were somehow wrong to remember the facts, why would it be so right to read the books that highlight those facts (and report many more details, not remembered)?
Elementary teachers should require this daily “spaced repetition” work of all students for a good half hour a day. It could prove revolutionary, really. To experience the real benefits, I gather you have to do it for years, however, so it would have to be organized at the district or state level. Then it becomes a political matter and, well, forget that: we’d need a veritable revolution in pedagogy before it became feasible. But it’s very feasible indeed at homeschools and private schools.
The great thing about this system is that, if we stick with it as I think we will, we really will stay on top of material without traditional tests or homework, just reading and spaced repetition. There’s simply no point in that sort of busywork; spaced repetition is extremely high-grade, efficient learning. This way we can focus our writing and workbook work on more meaningful and gainful assignments.
What does H. think of this? He does complain and resist sometimes, but less and less now (he’s getting used to the routine now), and he evidently enjoys his growing knowledge. Also, after we get started, he evidently enjoys getting “bright” answers. It helps a lot that the method is designed so that most of his answers are “good” or “bright.”
We are, by the way, doing both questions and reviewing old recordings, because we don’t want to stop and lose the benefit of the reviews of recordings, which is not at all trivial. So I can sort of compare the two methods. But I can’t yet say definitely which I think is more valuable; all I know is that we really can reproduce key facts on demand under spaced repetition. Perhaps reviewing recordings would provide a deeper or broader sort of memory and understanding. But I’m inclined to think spaced repetition is better, on the whole, because it solidifies explicit memory instead of implicit memory. We’ve just recently reviewed the last of the recordings made “one month ago,” meaning that from now on we’re reviewing only three-month-old recordings. We’ll keep doing that for three months, or until we run out of recordings. Then I plan to review those same recordings, if I remember, after a year.
I am still recording two things, however, and not making questions on them: poetry (one of the nicer things to review a day, a week, a month, etc. later) and summaries of myths (Norse myths, until we finished). Making questions about the latter seemed to leave too much out of the narrative, and it is easier to pay attention to and benefit from a summary of a story than a summary of a non-fiction text.
Mathematics. First, a digression.
During the past six months I spent a lot of time the Well-Trained Mind forums, which seems to be one of the bigger homeschooling forums, not that I’ve hunted around a lot. I find this to be an interesting community. On the one hand, it’s fantastic that there is so much activity on the forum–I can almost always be sure to get some response to a question or comment. It’s also great that so many people are enthusiastically pro-homeschooling. On the other hand, it’s depressing just how many people on the forum are not actually very big fans of classical education a la The Well-Trained Mind. It’s even more depressing how cool, or even hostile, so many in the community are to academics and to abstract intellectual discussions of educational methods. These are classical homeschoolers, many of whom want their kids to do things like study Latin, and who understand the advantages of the liberal arts. And yet, among all those people, there are quite a few very vocal people who jump all over you if you raise questions like, “What is the purpose of education?”
Anyway, over on the WTM forums, I observed enthusiastic discussions of MEP (short for “Mathematics Enhancement Programme”), a free math curriculum. Free is good. I looked at it and thought, “Hey, this looks very meaty, and yet, not too hard. Actually, wait, some of these things are new to H., like greater than or less than. Maybe it’s moderately difficult, but thought-provoking. Well, I’ll print out ten pages and see what he says.”
So two surprising things happened. First, I discovered I was wrong that it’s “not too hard”; it’s not even “moderately difficult,” it’s actually hard. He’s in first grade Singapore math, but H. often cannot do the Kindergarten level (Year 1) MEP stuff by himself (although he’s getting better at it). Partly this is because the questions don’t spell out clearly enough what they need, but partly it’s because there are new concepts and some of the questions require significant reasoning. The system, to my mind, beautifully teaches mathematical and logical thinking. But that kind of thinking is hard. It’s a good hard.
The second surprising thing is that H. loved it and took to it like a fish to water. As people following his progress know, he is a very geeky sort of kid (the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; just wait until I get to the part, below, about Scratch). He likes logic, so he likes MEP. He likes the challenge of the problems and never seems to find them tedious, as he sometimes does Primary Mathematics (Singapore math) and often did Two Plus Two Is Not Five.
So, I’m not sure when–about February, I think–we started doing MEP for a little bit before the rest of math. This expanded to 15 minutes or 30 minutes on MEP, more than originally planned. For several weeks, we were trying to do too much: MEP, then Primary Math, then 2+2≠5, every day. Craziness! But of all of these, we were most “behind” in MEP, farthest “ahead” in the other systems, so I decided we’d do MEP every day, and then switch off, Primary Math one day and 2+2≠5 the next.
How is this all working out? I’d say pretty well. He’s around p. 85 or 90 of MEP Year 1, halfway through. We’ve gone through it quite slowly, often less than a page a day, often doing things in the margins to explain the concepts even better. He’s learned about inequalities (not a typical Kindergarten topic), negative numbers (he impressed me several weeks ago when he stated, out of the blue, that 2-4=-2), and all the ins and outs of addition and subtraction with numbers up to 10. Sure, he’s had some of this information before (Singapore Kindergarten Math and 1A & 1B all covered some of the elements we’ve studied in MEP), but MEP gives it to him in a way that lets him “dig deep” and get the best understanding that he’s capable of at this stage.
As far as Primary Math 1B goes, he’s obviously going through it a lot slower now that he’s more focused on MEP, but he’s 1/2 way through, now actually doing multiplication and division. In that book he’s doing quite well; the material is less challenging than MEP. We could try zooming ahead in this and maybe supplement it with something easier (I don’t think Singapore Math text + workbook system offers enough practice alone) but I say: why? The aim is not to get through as quickly as possible but to get really substantial mastery. The more he has math down really solidly, the better his chances of not blundering through the mathematical parts of science and engineering–which I suspect are going to be increasingly important in my sons’ lifetimes, if a financial collapse or something doesn’t send Western civilization down the crapper–but instead really understanding what is going on, mathematically.
(If this deliberate approach surprises you, since I started H. out reading early, it shouldn’t. It’s always been about mastery. We went through the phonics rules long after he was able to sound out lots of words. But because of that his spelling ability is excellent and we don’t work on it separately. We also read a huge amount–again, with the aim of mastery of vocabulary and phonics, to say nothing of the facts contained in books. You’ll see this again when I talk about our method of studying physics.)
As to 2+2≠5, our addition and subtraction drill book, we slowed down a lot there, too. But he did finally finish the book and was proud to get the certificate that said he knew basic addition and subtraction facts. The final review was necessary to work out some final kinks. It’s also nice that the next book in the series, Five Times Five Is Not Ten, reviews addition and subtraction facts. We’re several pages into that now.
After the books, we frequently use the KidCalc app to review counting by 3s, 4s, and 6s (1s, 2s, 5s, and 10s are already down pat). This has made multiplication work in Primary Mathematics a snap. Our plan is to learn these series through 15 (not 10 or 12, simply because I remember wishing that I knew my times tables through 15 when I was a kid doing more advanced math and science, and I remember engineer types enjoying having the tables through 15 under their belt). It’s passive memorization, but effective and useful.
The last math-related bit of news is an important one in our household: Mama has mostly taken over math teaching. Since baby E.’s nap is usually in the morning, math has moved to the afternoon (it used to be the morning), and so we are now doing our 15 minutes of geography and the hour of H. reading chapter books to himself in the morning. Mama reports that H. is doing very well in math, and as far as I can tell while rarely standing over their shoulders for a little while, somewhat wistfully, she does a pretty good job teaching him–not that that is a surprise to me.
Writing. For most of the last last year, we did writing after we did math. H. practices writing almost every day, and he often does other writing just because he wants to, so he gets quite a bit of practice. We continued to practice “rhetorical modes” for a little while after the last report, but after that I guess I decided that H. could make good progress without me over his shoulder, and I needed to do more work. So I had him choose his own assignments more often, and he continued to write about the same amount. We did do more outlining, which was very good practice, but for a few months, it seemed he was more or less treading water. That didn’t worry me–with the development of every skill, there are always plateaus. I considered that he was making progress in his ability to write longer amounts, to put together complex sentences, and his handwriting was improving a bit. Where he wasn’t improving was in his ability to put together coherent stories, with a beginning, middle, and end. We discussed the concepts involved at great length, and practiced them.
We did quite a few different things. One of the more memorable was when we talked through a story about a lost dog (inspired by Beverly Cleary’s Ribsy), wrote it out in outline form, and then we sort of took turns writing it down (actually, typing it in–more on typing below). Sometimes I would start typing, recording what he said, and then I would go upstairs to work and he would do several more paragraphs. In the end, the co-written story was nice, mostly H., but definitely co-written.
Still, when I stopped and had him do whatever wanted, what he wrote was…well, I’ll give you an example. He enjoyed writing several stories about a gumshoe character he made up called Harry Willman. These required a lot of work. In one story, it seems Harry was walking by a house, when he noticed that $211 dollars had been stolen from it (as if he could glance and see this). After I stopped laughing (I couldn’t help myself that one time–it’s a good thing he’s a very self-confident guy) I asked how Harry knew $211 had been stolen. He said, well, the safe opened out onto the street and he could see that it was gone. So I had to explain that that, too, was unrealistic. I suggested that he have Harry talk to the owner of the house and have the person explain about the theft. In order to make that story make sense, I had to make quite a few such suggestions. Anyway, that’s just an example. But it seems clear to me now that that story was hard simply because he was trying to write a mystery story, and those are a lot more complex than some other kinds of stories.
I know some of you might be disappointed in me for trying to rein in H.’s delightful imagination. Well, he certainly does have that, and be assured that I do give him free rein in many assignments. But sometimes I go through things more carefully and this involves straightening out some bizarre stories.
Generally, I give him feedback on everything he writes, sometimes very detailed and sometimes just some oral comments if the story seems excellent on its own. Today, I just had him add paragraph marks to a quite good retelling of “The Gingerbread Man”; he rewrites only stuff that he has typed in, so that he can edit it on the computer.
At one point a few months ago I basically came to the conclusion that there is no substitute for me sitting down with him one-on-one for a half hour and our working through something together. But just in the last few weeks, H. has produced some narratively excellent work. I’ve simply been giving him a kind of assignment that is a lot easier to handle than the mystery stories he was trying to write. I’ve been having H. summarize fairy tales, and in the latter assignments he’s done very well. When the narrative is relatively simple, easy to follow, it is pretty easy. So he’s written very readable versions of “The Three Pigs” and “The Gingerbread Man,” for example. I think we’re going to do a lot more of that, paying attention to the importance of sticking to stories with a simpler, more comprehensible plot. I’m also going to have him tackle nonfiction reports soonish.
I haven’t yet come to the conclusion, if I ever will, that we need to use a canned writing program. We enjoy the freedom too much to do what we want, and H. is clearly learning plenty along the way, so why not? I don’t particularly see a need to study grammar or spelling yet, either. He picks up mechanics through my comments, and they are naturally rather good anyway. I can easily imagine we’ll switch to a more formal program, if I see something that really catches my eye, or if he seems to be in the doldrums and I don’t know what to do with him. He also obviously learns new sentence structures through imitation of what he reads.
When I take a long view and think about how much his writing has improved in the last year, I have nothing at all to complain about. He gone from learning his lowercase letters and just starting to learn to type, and doing three sentences for a writing assignment, to writing a page of text rather quickly (still not with wonderful handwriting–his Mama can’t abide it but I can read it) and typing fast enough to do most of his writing assignments on his Netbook.
Typing. I’ve decided to make typing a kind of writing assignment. We go through periods where, once a week, he’ll sit and work with the typing tutor. Then he’ll put the typing tutor down for a few months. He ends up doing more typing practice for his writing assignments, because he has decided he would rather type than use a pencil. He has definitely gotten faster at typing, the software times him around 15 words per minute. The trouble is that he is practicing some mistakes in hand position and goes back and forth between staying on the home row and hunting and pecking with a few fingers. I remind him, “Keep your fingers on the nubs!” but he doesn’t pay attention, most of the time. Anyway, we’ll keep this up and I’ll try to fix those bad habits. I think I have convinced him that it’s better to learn to type faster like Papa (that’s how these posts can be so long!) and stay on the home row, even if he doesn’t always do so.
By the way, in Typing Tutor there are some assignments where the kid simply copies text from public domain stories. Excellent practice all around.
I bought him a cursive writing book and we looked at it and decided the time wasn’t right yet.
Literature/Chapter Books. H. reads 60 minutes a day pretty religiously, now often more, and I continue to read chapter books to him almost every night. Lately he decided to re-read the Magic Tree House series, so in the space of a few weeks he read books 1-30 or so. Then I guess he got tired of them, because he hasn’t read any more.
He also read three easy retellings of Sherlock Holmes books, the Classic Starts one and two from Great Illustrated Classics (can’t praise this series enough). He got all excited about mysteries and crime-solving (hence the birth of Harry Willman). So I looked at the Hardy Boys and figured they weren’t too advanced, and indeed it turns out they are just right for him–he absolutely loves them and gets quite excited about them. He read #1 and #3 to himself while waiting for me to finish reading #2 to him, which I did earlier this evening. He wants #4 now. H. became very interested in crime-solving and forensics, by the way, so he read a few books about that.
In “series” news, he re-read all six of the Henry Huggins books and got halfway through the Ralph Mouse books too. He still carries a “Ribsy” stuffed dog and a “Mousie” stuffed mouse toy all over the place, although I guess I’ve seen less of those two lately. We finished Little House on the Prairie, loved it, and then read On the Banks of Plum Creek. We finished that as well, and I’ve been instructed to order By the Shores of Silver Lake. He also read the Spiderwick Chronicles series and #1 of Beyond the Spiderwick Chronicles and now threatens to read #3 if I don’t get him #2, as I haven’t yet.
I started reading The Cricket in Times Square to H. and he loved it, so he took it over and finished reading it to himself in a couple more days. This is getting to be a common practice with him–any good book he just reads to himself, because I’m too slow (just 10-20 pages an evening), so I miss out on the kid lit! But now we’re reading (i.e., I’m reading to him, as bedtime reading) Narnia #3, The Horse and His Boy, and we’re liking it quite a bit. I expect he’ll grab it and finish it soon…
Lately he’s taken a shining to Tintin, and has gone through three or four of those by himself. (This time last year I was reading them to him.) I’m a big fan of them myself. There are some great animated versions of Tintin on Netflix, I was delighted to find, so we’ve been watching those. They follow the books very closely. Still haven’t seen the big-screen movie.
On the more ambitious side I read the first 1/3 or more of Howard Pyle’s Adventures of Robin Hood to H., making copious use of the online dictionary (we used an ebook), but he tired of that–I can’t say I blame him, it is pretty repetitive, and it’s a huge book.
We don’t do much fiction at mealtime, but we did recently finally finish going through the D’Aulaire tome of Norse myths.
In the car (often to and from the YMCA) we listen to books as well. We are a good ways into The Once and Future King, and started re-listening to the wonderful Tales from the Odyssey.
He’s tackled quite a bit more than this, and I’ve read quite a bit more to him, since the last report, but I guess those are the highlights. Another thing he not infrequently does is “take a break” for a day or two from the chapter books and re-read easier, older books that he has by now forgotten, and sometimes history or science. Sometimes he does that before breakfast, as we go back to the “baby book” bookcases with baby E.
I imagine some educators might ask what we do regarding comprehension. I used to ask him questions about the books he’s read, but I confess I don’t do that much anymore–I do some. I’ve definitively determined that he cannot tell back a story that he’s read, if it’s a long and complex story. This is a learned ability, obviously, one that we’re working on by writing outlines. It also takes 10+ minutes and he doesn’t have patience for a difficult, organized, focused, self-regulated mental task of that length. Still, if you ask him nearly any question about what happened in the story, he’ll be able to answer it, often in great detail. You can also ask him reflective questions (“Why does so-and-so do such-and-such?”) and he usually gets it, at least if it’s not far beyond his age level. I occasionally read about how reading teachers spend a tremendous amount of time picking apart simple stories. My unprofessional analysis, based on my experience with H.? A waste of time. Better to use that 30 minutes of class time on 30 minutes more of reading, or 25, with 5 minutes of some Q&A.
I do believe that retelling the main points of a story is important. That’s why we’ve worked on this ability quite a bit in the last six months or so; it still doesn’t come naturally to him. His own made-up stories often make no sense except to the overactive imagination of a 5-year-old (now 6-year-old). For longer stories, I can of course draw a plot out of him with a series of questions, and I guess if I want to train him to retell a lengthy, complex narrative we’ll have to do a lot more of that. He also has enjoyed it when I gave a 2-3 sentence summary of a chapter we have just read, and recently when I did that for a Hardy Boys book I had him try to summarize, a light did seem to go on. I’ll certainly try that some more and get him to do the same.
History. This is one of H.’s biggest subjects. We’re continuing to do the same thing we’ve done for, I don’t know, a year or more: before bedtime chapter book reading, we spend 15 minutes or so reading one of The Story of the World (we’re now 80 pages from the end of Vol. 2), The Usborne Encyclopedia of World History, A Little History of the World, and the Kingfisher Atlas of World History. They match up well enough and it’s great to get the same (and sometimes rather different stuff) from the different sources.
Until about a month ago, we were extremely consistent in that we read 2-4 pages of history before we started chapter book reading, and although it wasn’t a lot, it really added up as we did that seven days a week. I feel bad that we’ve let the ball drop (so that we’ve been reading only half of the time lately–I feel confident we’ll get into more consistently soon).
It’s just as well that we “let the ball drop,” however, because we’ve been doing a lot of other history anyway. Somehow H. got it in his head that he wanted to study the presidents–now I remember, it was because he started playing “Presidents vs. Aliens” on the iPad. So I got a pair of books about the presidents, The Look-It-Up Book of Presidents, which I can strongly recommend as being very well-written and engaging, and the DK Presidents book, a typical DK Eyewitness Book. At mealtimes, as part of our rotation of (usually) seven books, we read about the president from one source and then the other; I suspect the DK book either used Look-It-Up Book as a source, or they both had the same source, because sometimes even the phrasing is the same. Anyway, they go together quite well and are very readable. We’re up to #19, Rutherford Hayes, not quite halfway done.
Before starting the Presidents, and even a little afterward, we have read other supplementary history stuff at mealtime and sometimes bedtime, especially the You Wouldn’t Want to Be books that H. likes so much. We’ve also read some Who Was books, like Who Was Elizabeth I? and Who Was Marco Polo? Right now we’re working on Who Was Ferdinand Magellan? They’re rather good books.
Finally, we’ve been exposed to some history when studying civics–see next bit.
Civics. So much of history and geography requires an understanding of law and political theory that I thought I would introduce H. to the basics. I started with the “True Books” about the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and we’re now just about finished with The U.S. Constitution and You, which goes into more detail about what the Constitution contains. We’ll probably read one or two more books along these lines, maybe one about different political systems, one introducing law and courts, and one about what the modern U.S. government system looks like. That ought to be enough to prepare him to study U.S. history and 19th and 20th century history, coming up in the next year or two.
I regard this as being the beginning of a very basic introduction to the social sciences, as distinguished from “social studies,” which usually in the elementary grades means history, geography, and civics. So after we get an introduction to law, government, and political theory, we’ll probably read the best sort of introduction to economics that we can find for this level, anthropology, sociology, etc.
Geography. Since I’ve been talking about different “social studies” I’ll say a little about how we’re doing with our geography program. We’ve continued more or less according to the same plan described last time: we read about 15 minutes a day, typically before he starts his hour of chapter book reading. Since then we’ve gone through Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina, and Chile, and now we’re halfway (or so) through a study of Brazil (for this, we’ve read the True Book, and now we’re well into the National Geographic Countries of the World book about Brazil–excellent as the others in the series we’ve tackled so far).
We also started going through a single-volume children’s non-fiction book, In the Land of the Jaguar, a chapter book just about South America, the only one like it I know of about any continent (not that I’ve looked much for meaty children’s books about other continents). At first I thought it looked great, but now I’m not sure I can recommend it. It has a wide assortment of fascinating facts and is well-written, and it tries to follow a sort of historical narrative (it is very history-heavy–so, another source of history!), but ultimately the facts it reports on are pretty disconnected. The author makes a real effort to rise above the usual dry geography book reportage, but still can’t solve the problem of weaving the enormous number of facts about a whole continent into a single coherent whole. It’s not bad, though, 3 out of 5 stars, if I’m going to be honest. Anyway, we’re halfway through and I’m sure we’ll finish it.
Since H. knows the next topic is Central America and the Caribbean, when we started using Supermemo he wanted to memorize the capitals of those countries (apart from the little island countries of the West Indies), so I plugged them in and lo, he has them memorized! He can also tell you the names of the countries of Central America in order from Belize through Panama.
Science. Another of our big changes was our method of approaching science. At our last update, I was operating on the premise that, at this stage, H. wouldn’t benefit much from careful study of branches of science, and he’d get more out of studying whatever we wanted. But I saw, as I read to him, that regardless of his initial enthusiasm level about a given book, or a subject, he had his focused days and his not-so-focused days. For example, he still loves trucks and how they work, and I read a couple of books explaining machines, but his level of engagement was pretty much the same as for anything else. So some months ago I concluded that, actually, when it comes to me reading to him, it doesn’t matter so much that we find books that I hope he’ll particularly love. I mean, yes, I still seek out his preferences and follow them, but I buy science books that I think he’ll like, and he’s almost always on board.
Next, I decided, after reading a Basher book or two about science topics that were rather challenging, that he probably would be able to understand and remember the material much better if we we did more on each topic, if simply read more books, did more experiments, and focused some more on a given topic before moving on. After all, I was seeing that the general method of focusing our studies and reading multiple sources was working very well for history and geography; I could see no reason why it wouldn’t work just as well in science. Finally, taking up the sciences one by one, systematically, is what The Well-Trained Mind suggests, and that counts for something, for me.
So I decided on a sequence of sciences, approximately like this: physics, astronomy, chemistry, earth science, paleontology, the rest of biology, probably the natural history of Ohio, health science, etc. Physics is taking a while. We’ve studied the Big Bang, motion, friction, and Newton’s three laws; right now we’re close to the end of a study of gravity; next comes pressure; after that I think it’s energy, electricity, space (I think we’ll save this for later), and history of physics (he’s already had some of that). There’s nothing about subatomic physics but I think at some point we’ll re-tackle the Basher Physics book on that; it seemed accessible to me. This is the structure we’re following as we go through the Usborne book What’s Physics All About?, which we’re using as our “spine.” As a spine it’s OK–it’s missing a lot of information, but it’s suitably lower-level and it’s not badly written. There just aren’t many good general physics books that are accessible at the 3rd-6th grade level, that aren’t textbooks (ugh!).
I pick and choose pages out of several other books to supplement this, which doesn’t take long to get through. We begin a new topic by reading either 2 or 4 pages from the Usborne book, then we spend several weeks reading other books or bits of books. Other of our texts include DK Force and Motion, DK Universe (for the Big Bang stuff) and several others. Generally as we approach another big topic I buy several shorter, accessible books (like this one). The whole idea is that we aim for mastery of the concepts. I explain everything, often explaining as much as or more than I read. We come back again and again to the same concepts, in different books, different words, different contexts, and different experiments, and gradually some pretty difficult concepts seem to sink in.
Coupled with spaced repetition my hope is that he’ll retain his relatively in-depth understanding of things like gravity, centripetal force, etc., even after a few years. When we circle back around to these topics, maybe when he’s 9 or 10, he’ll be at a point in math where he’ll be able to do actual (basic) problems. I think getting a solid nonmathematical grounding will help him grasp the harder stuff later on.
Programming. Until recently this wasn’t a subject of study for H., per se, or not insofar as I taught it formally to H. Anyway, first, some months ago (February, I guess) we downloaded the first chapter of a book called Hello World, a programming tutorial for kids using Python, and worked through that chapter. It was OK and doable, as long as I led him through it, but not terribly exciting for H., and I couldn’t see holding his hand through the whole book. So next we tried a free tutorial we found for SmallBasic. Sorry, I can’t be bothered to find info about it. It was better (as a first programming tutorial), and more interesting but still…it was a programming tutorial. H. wasn’t ready for that yet.
So then we downloaded Scratch, maybe back in March (?). Here was a free very kid-friendly programming system. It’s a limited sort of language, because it is highly graphical and involves dragging and clicking together different components and you can’t save data across sessions. But it really is a great introduction to programming. It involves programming how “sprites” (characters, vehicles, you name it) act on a “stage,” a smallish window. You can make them move, sense each other, make sounds, change appearance, etc. You can also control the logic of all this with the usual things like if-then statements and “forever” loops, and use variables (which are defined as belonging to the object or the whole program) that are either individual values or lists (a.k.a. arrays). Programmers will recognize these things as being many of the basic components of a programming language. Since all scripts associated with a Sprite project are attached to a particular sprite, or the stage they act on, it’s also a good intro to object-oriented programming. It even introduces kids to open source, because all scripts made with Sprite and uploaded to the website are open source. The only downsides from a programming point of view is that you’re limited to the stage as your arena of activity and the options for saving and accessing data across sessions are very limited. Also, you can’t edit the “source code” and there are no libraries or other extensions of the language as far as I know. You can only drag and drop (and edit text within) a limited number of Lego-like widget types.
Anyway, for purposes of introducing the basics of programming, it’s really great, especially considering that it’s free. So at first I showed H. the basics, which weren’t too hard for me to figure out as I’d already learned a couple programming languages, and he started figuring out more on his own. I have given him some assignments from time to time, but he has been so gung-ho about just making his own (mostly nonsense) programs that I usually just let him have at it. From me he probably learns the most when I sit down and make some program on his computer (I bought him his own cheap netbook a couple years ago so he could learn typing and other computer things–turns out to have been a good investment). I made a version of Asteroids, for example, complete with splitting-apart asteroids and an alien shooting randomly at your spaceship, and he sat and watched me with rapt attention as I wrote this. Then he made his own, simpler but still pretty impressive, version. (We don’t allow him to upload anything to the Internet yet, though he’s tried.) He’s also figured out quite a few things on his own.
Most of H.’s programs don’t really do anything, and are full of unnecessary but fun (usually noisy) junk, but I often comment and help fix up his productions (he loves when I do this) and he gleans a fair bit. So he understands a lot of the basics of the things he can do with Scratch. The problem is that he really needs to make and follow a plan for a program, and not just watch and imitate me.
So I bought a Scratch tutorial, and so far he’s gone through the first section by himself. (I bought one that came in an ebook version that he could read and switch back and forth from the reader screen to the Scratch program screen.) Not to brag, but I was proud that he could go through that book by himself. And he is making progress at designing useful, purposeful sorts of programs. A few days ago he made his own simple version of Typing Tutor; it would give the user some text to type, then determine if the input was identical to the text and report success or failure, and tally up to six points and then stop. I praised him highly and he was very excited, so I decided to show him how to generate random strings of characters of random length, and also random CVC (and more complex) words, and he again was very excited about all that.
We do let H. continue to fiddle around with Scratch at his leisure, although his mother is getting rather annoyed at how much time he’s spending on Scratch, and I’m wondering if he’s becoming a geek. It’s really taken the place of Legos–which we rarely get out anymore because they never get cleaned up!
I am not trying to get H. into any particular profession and will not be one of these parents who insists on a particular career for his kids. But I do think that programming is an extremely useful and mentally rewarding skill. Not only can you make money with programming, if you do it well enough, it helps you understand and use software in general, and of course it develops your logical, critical thinking abilities. But maybe more than this, I think it is a really good idea to understand computers, because if the last 30 years have been a “computer age,” I think the next 30 are going to be a computer age on steroids. Knowing computers is going to be advantageous for lots of reasons, as it already is. This is not to mention that it is actually an extremely useful skill to have if you go into any technical field, not just programming itself.
Other stuff. I won’t comment on foreign language, logic, piano, or P.E. much. He has finished Rosetta Stone Latin Level 1, before I did, and is now into Latin Level 2. He only does it 4 days a week, on average, 15 or so minutes a day, but he’s making good progress and earning his checkmarks. His mother is now teaching him to read in her language as well, just 10-15 minutes at bedtime. He’s picking it up very quickly. We’ve been doing Primarily Logic, once a week, and are now almost done. Everything other than the so-called “logic puzzles” at the end of the book are easy, and as a former logic teacher, I really like the book as a very gentle introduction. Not sure what we’ll do next; maybe take a break from logic for a few months. He’s practicing piano more regularly now, and he’s making excellent progress (he “officially” played his first chord a few days ago) and I’m finding I can teach him well enough myself for now. We tried a teacher a year ago and, well, that really didn’t work out. We’ll turn to a teacher when he’s a bit farther along. He figured out some simple melodies (“Alouette” and “Twinkle Twinkle”) and is now noodling/”improvising” in ways that are starting to make musical sense. He could be making better progress if I would teach him more often, frankly. He’s starting to practice even when I don’t give him lessons, though, so I guess that’s why I don’t bother. Still, I know I should sit down at the piano with him ten minutes a day or so, at least, or better, two or three five minute lessons. As to P.E., until recently he was going to the YMCA three days a week. We’ll get back into that. He also loves to run around with his little brother, and I occasionally get out there and try to teach him the basics of things like baseball and soccer. He does seem to get plenty of exercise. We’ve tried team sports a few times and, well, H. is completely noncompetitive when it comes to sports. For now, he just doesn’t get the point of chasing after a ball, and would rather stand around, observe, think, and socialize.
About the author
I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, and WatchKnowLearn.org, and ReadingBear.org. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.