Modern education and culture, or, what did you think would happen?

I. Modern education and culture

Look at where we are in education and culture today. Let's catalog the main issues, shall we?

School children are often not taught to read properly, and too many fall behind and grow up functionally illiterate. Yet students are kept in schools practically all day and are made to do endless amounts of busywork, and then they have to do even more busywork at home. The efficiency of the work they do is appalling, as their textbooks and assignments are all too often ill-conceived, being repetitious, deadly dull, and designed without any consideration for what individual children already know (or don't know). Generally, they aren't taught classics (but more on that below). So despite all that work, despite graduating at rates as high as ever, the average child emerges into adulthood shockingly ignorant. The educational process is regimented; little humans have essentially become cogs in a giant, humorless, bureaucratic machine. The whole process is soul-killing.

Growing up in these bureaucratized intellectual ghettos, it's no wonder that rebellion has become de rigeur, that everyone calls himself an individualist although few really are. Popular culture with each passing generation is more dumbed-down, delivering entertainment that can be effortlessly consumed by maleducated conformist rebels, increasingly avoiding any scintilla of intellectualism, any uncool and boring reference to any of the roots of Western culture. On TV, popular music, and the Internet—the ubiquitous refuges of the young from the horrors of the educational machine that dominates their young lives—one can navigate content of all sorts without any exposure to the classics of literature and the arts, or the root ideas of Western religion and philosophy. If a few lucky students are exposed to these things at their more academic high schools, most are not, and the taste for "the best which has been thought and said" is ruined by the presentation in a system that "critiques" and renders dull as much as it celebrates and usefully explains. It's a wonder if any students emerge with any taste for the classics of Western literature, art, and thought at all.

A problem about Western culture, for the modern world, is that it is intensely critical and challenging. The classics are beautiful, but hard—both difficult to appreciate and presenting lessons that require us to take a hard, critical look at ourselves. Although the classics can be profoundly inspiring and sublime in beauty, they require time, attention, intelligence, seriousness, and sincerity to appreciate. In the context of today's soul-killing schools, students are too exhausted and overworked to meet these challenges. Many students are also too narcissistic—having been told by their parents and teachers that they are already brilliant, having been idolized by popular culture for their cool, attractiveness, and cutting-edge thinking about everything—so the classics require a kind of self-criticism that is wholly foreign to many of them. It is no wonder the classics simply do not "speak to" the youth of today.

Moreover, almost all of the classics were created by white Western men. Spending much time on them is politically regressive, or that is what school teachers are trained to believe. Instead, the left at universities have been building a new kind of more critical culture, at once holding up the grievances of historically marginalized groups as a new gospel, while actually revering popular culture. Teachers and administrators marinade in this left-wing culture of criticism at universities for six or more years, before they make the choices of what pieces of culture are worth exposing to children. So, again, it's a wonder if any students emerge with any taste for the classics.

At the college level, matters have become dire in other ways. Everyone is expected to go to college, and at the same time universities have become corporatized, so that the students are now treated as "customers" whose evaluations determine how professors should teach. So, naturally, grades have inflated—which would have been necessary to coddle the "self-esteem" or narcissism of youth—and the courses themselves have been dumbed down, at least in the humanities. But who needs the humanities? Degrees in the liberal arts generally are held to be a waste of money, especially since college has become so expensive, and fewer people are pursuing such degrees. Even if one believed the knowledge gained through liberal arts degrees to be valuable enough to warrant spending $60,000/year, one spends much of the time, in most of the humanities, marinading in that same left-wing critical culture that produces our schoolteachers—so one wouldn't be exposed to the classics in the way that would incline a student to sign up for one of these degrees in the first place. So it's no wonder if students and their parents are finding it increasingly plausible to skip college altogether. This is a sad mistake, considering that young adults today, navigating a rapidly-changing world, are more in need of the wisdom and intellectual skills inculcated by a liberal arts education than ever before. And most recently, the consequences of our failure to pass on two of the ideals essential to Western thought—free speech and freedom of inquiry—has led to thoroughly illiberal efforts to "shut it down," i.e., prevent politically unpopular ideas from getting a hearing on campus at all. This is all in the name of intersectionality, empowering the disempowered, tearing down bad old ideas, and protecting the sensitive feelings of coddled students.

II. The once-radical ideas that got us here

Our education is degraded, and we are falling away from Western civilization. So how did it come to this? I put it down to a perfect storm of terrible ideas.

(1) To be effective in a fast-changing society, we need up-to-date know-how, not theory. American society developed out of a frontier mentality that placed a premium on a "can-do" attitude, an ability to get things done, with theorizing and book-reading being a waste of time. That might be understandable for the pioneers and peasants of a frontier or pre-industrial society, it is a terrible idea for the complexities of industrial and post-industrial societies, in which wisdom, trained intelligence, and sensitivity to nuance are essentials. Nevertheless, American parents and teachers alike generally seem to agree that practical knowledge and know-how are more important than book-larnin'. You would think that this might have changed with more people than ever going to college. But it has not.

(2) Books are old-fashioned in the Internet age. When, in the 2000s, the Internet came into its own as the locus of modern life, we began to ask, "Is Google making us stupid?" and to "complain" that we lacked the ability to read extended texts (long articles were "tl;dr" and books boring, old, and irrelevant). I think many of us took this to heart. Educated people still do want their children to read, but the habits of adults are slowly dying; you can't expect the children to do better.

(3) Western civilization is evil. "Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western civ has got to go," chanted those Stanford students in 1988, which became a watershed moment in the development of Western culture. At the time, it might have seemed a bit of left-wing excess, and just one side of the complex Culture War. But, in fact, it proved to be a taste of things to come. Many Western civilization requirements are long gone. What was once the province of the newly-created Women's Studies and Black Studies departments, and a few left-wing professors, gradually become the dominant viewpoint in all of the humanities. Why study the classics when the classics simply represent the point of view of the oppressor?

(4) Social justice is the new religion. Hand-in-hand with criticism of Western civilization came an increasing respect (which is good), then celebration (which is fine), and finally a veneration (which is undeserved) of everything that has traditionally been set in opposition to Western civilization, especially the usual identity groups: women, races other than white, ethnicities other than Western, religion other than Christianity, sexual orientation other than straight, etc. At universities, making these identity groups equal to straight, white, male, Christian Europeans has become nearly the only thing—apart from environmentalism and a few other such causes—that is taken really seriously. For many academics, intersectionality has replaced both religion and any apolitical ethics to become an all-encompassing worldview.

(5) Psychology is more scientific, accurate, and credible than philosophy and religion, and self-esteem must be cultivated at all costs. The gospel of self-esteem came into being in the 1970s, right around the time when the self-help publishing industry became fashionable. With the collapse of traditional (especially Christian) belief systems, people cast about for general advice on how to live their lives, and psychology delivered. As self-esteem was a key element of much self-help psychology, it was only natural that the parents of Generations X and Y would pull out the stops to protect the feelings and sense of self-worth of their precious darlings.

We have changed. Despite their education, too many of our children cannot read well, and fewer and fewer of us read books. Whatever we do teach or read, it is rarely classical literature. Classics have become an unexplored country, dull and reviled, to many of us. Recent generations are the first in centuries in which the upper echelons of society are quite shockingly ignorant of their own Western heritage. And here I don't just mean books, I mean also basic Western principles, ideas, and values. For many young people, social justice, psychology, and especially popular culture have replaced religion and wisdom literature. Popular culture may be a crass wasteland, yet it guides our youth more than ever, as being the only kind of culture that most of them have preparation and taste for.

We have declined. In past generations, this analysis would have sounded like scaremongering. Today, the analysis has come true; it is a postmortem.

But—and here I speak to the older generation, especially educated old liberals—what did you think would happen? This is precisely what some people did predict in decades past, because society's leaders were teaching a certain set of ideas to the leaders of the next generation:

European civilization colonized and exploited the world; it is irredeemably racist and the main source of the suffering in the world today.

Inequalities are deeply unfair, and white men have the best of everything; so we should celebrate everyone else and take white men down a peg or two.

We must be avoid saying anything that might even be thought to be offensive to disadvantaged identity groups.

Christianity is completely irrational and doesn't deserve a role in public life.

Science, and psychology in particular, studies all we need to know to live and be happy; philosophy and religion are based on muddle-headed superstition.

The self-esteem and sensitivities of young people are precious and must be protected from the buffets that life threatens to give them.

Even today, some of these ideas might sound ridiculous to some of us. But if you've been paying attention, you can't deny that these once-radical ideas have become increasingly mainstream.

III. The radical ideas that might guide our future

The desperate state of education today is predictable, given former trends and earnestly-expressed convictions. It was called scaremongering to say that these ideas were hacking away the roots of Western civilization—and yet they did. So one wonders: What can we predict about the future, based on ideas now growing in popularity, ideas that it is quite reasonable to believe will guide the education and enculturation of the next generation?

Here are some controversial ideas that are in vogue at universities today:

Free speech is a dangerous idea, and it certainly doesn't include hate speech and harmful speech.

What determines whether speech is harmful is whether it causes its listeners to react with emotional pain.

But we can disregard the pain of "privileged" people—"male tears," "white tears," and all that.

Those who are really plugged in know that books aren't really what's important. Know-how is what's important. You can just look up things online that you need to know.

Popular culture is worth careful academic study, at least as much as "the classics" or "high culture."

Higher education isn't important except as a credential to become a corporate drone and in some fields.

Grave inequalities persist, and our very civilization is racist. We ought to tear down and malign all the productions of white men.

White society, and white people (whether they know it or not), are all racist, and all men (whether they know it or not) perpetuate a sexist patriarchy.

Religion isn't just irrational and wrong, it's evil, and we should take steps to stamp it out and perhaps prohibit it.

Reproducing does great harm to the world. Life is an evil. Babies are not to be celebrated. We should stop having them.

All of these ideas have plenty of adherents on campus today. They might well shape the next generation. If so, what might our brave new world look like? Let's listen in to the monologue from a typical, center-left future student, shall we?

"It's 2047. The way some people talk, you'd think it was, I don't know, 2017 or something. Check this out. I heard someone, and I don't care if she was a black woman, actually citing the Bible in class? That triggered a lot of people, and she was kicked out, of course. I doubt they'll let her back in. It just goes to show you how many people still believe that superstitious bullshit, even though it's revolting hate speech. But you know what, I was kind of impressed about what she was reading, before I realized what she was reading. It sounded like Old English. Who reads crap like that these days? Well, I guess she can. But it's still bullshit. You don't have to be able to read it to know that.

"It's not just superstitious bullshit, it's totally irrelevant. Books are so lame! My favorite professors don't teach books, they teach modern media. When I started this major, I swear, I had no idea pop music and movies were so deep. Seriously! So why do we require students to read so many books at all? Last year I was required to read three books for required Communications courses. Everyone knows that books aren't really what's important; knowledge is free for the taking online. Everything's there, instantly! Besides, the most influential thoughts of the last forty years are all in the form of briefer texts online. I'm thinking I might want to drop out. Half of my friends didn't even go to college and are just being trained by their employers. But you know, I think those tend to be the more conservative people, you know? So...

"Anyway, at the very least, it's time to stop requiring that we read any books written before 1970, or maybe 2000, especially if they were written by white men. I mean, of course white people and men are still welcome at our universities, it is perfectly fair that they wait their turn in classroom discussions. I hate it when some white man just starts talking first. You can hear some people hissing when they do. After all, everyone knows that less privileged people have more valid and relevant perspectives, and hearing white people and men—and on some issues, let's face it, hearing ignorant, insensitive white men at all—causes the marginalized great pain. We can't forget that white Western civilization persists even today, despite our best efforts. We renamed the state of Washington, but not the capital of our country—it continues to be named after the very embodiment of a white, slave-owning, breeding patriarch! That pisses me off so much!

"And speaking of breeders...don't get me started on the breeders. We had to fight tooth and nail against the misogynist, patriarchal society just to make it possible to license parents. But now we're allowing almost everyone to be licensed. What's the point? Surely we've got to prevent so many people from breeding. We don't let just anyone drive, right? We need to start imposing some restrictions. I know it's a little simplistic, but sometimes, simple is the best way: we could just, for a while, restrict the number of children white people could have. I know it sounds shocking, but look—everybody knows they use the most resources, they're the most racist, they create the most inequality. And they're still a plurality in this country. So it's really a no-brainer. It's 2047!"

Maybe that sounds over-the-top. But that's the point. There are cutting-edge activist types who would find all of this commendable or at least very plausible. And just think: the cutting-edge ideas of 1987, which would have sounded totally bizarre and radical back then, are totally up-to-date today, in 2017. I'm similarly extrapolating, from the "cutting-edge" ideas of today on the same topics to how those ideas might be evolve in another 30 years.

Also, of course, it could get much worse. Illiberal societies have been much worse at different times and places in history.

Am I predicting that the monologue is what awaits us? No, my crystal ball isn't that accurate and history never unfolds smoothly or predictably. What I'm saying is that it's a natural extrapolation from ideas about education and culture today. Is that what we want? If not, then what kind of thought world are we trying to build?


Independent study, a replacement for college

There are many things wrong with higher education today, as I've argued on this blog. It's way too expensive.  The amount of bureaucratic overhead is simply ridiculous. The focus on education as vocational training has deeply undercut appreciation and practice of the liberal arts. It has become too business-oriented, meaning that ratings by the customer—the students—count for far too much. The gospel of publish or perish has if anything become worse, and the quality of scholarship has suffered. Far too few faculty members are actually tenured or paid what they are worth.

But beyond all this, we have a special reason for concern. For anyone committed to the liberal arts in particular, the stories we hear coming out of academe are increasingly alarming. I won't make the case here, but it's not at all unreasonable to think that students, especially in the "soft sciences" and humanities, will simply be indoctrinated by their professors and bullied by their fellow students if they are not politically correct enough. There is a point at which the amount of intellectual dogma, dishonesty, and intolerance is so overwhelming that a college education (and especially a liberal arts degree) becomes more an exercise in indoctrination than training the rational mind. No doubt it depends on the institution, the major, and the professors. It's really the luck of the draw. But I would be concerned. I am concerned for my two children.

However that might be, I think we need another sort of option.

I've already argued that getting an education via tutors and a degree via examinations is a good way to pop the education bubble. What I want to do now is record a few thoughts on how a student might actually pursue college study independently. (This is not advice; or, follow it at your own risk!)


Move to a city with a lot of professors. Most big cities would do, and while Boston is maybe the most famous college town, other excellent ones in the U.S. would include Chicago, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City.

Find one or a few good academic advisers. If they aren't 100% committed to you, pay one who will be. This person will help you plan your course of study, give you advice on many things, receive regular reports from you on your work, and encourage you and kick your ass as needed. Obviously, you'll want to find someone fairly like-minded, especially in terms of your academic goals. It needn't be (and probably shouldn't be) someone who has the title "academic adviser." Many academics will do just fine.

With the help of your academic adviser, map out your course of study for a year. It doesn't have to be complete, but you should know a year in advance what you want to do.

I'd create a web page explaining what's going on. This way you just send people to that URL where they can learn what you're doing, what you've studied so far, read samples of your work, etc. This will make it easier for you to get professors interested in helping you.

Professors are not all created equal. Lots are brilliant, excellent teachers, and very fair-minded, even today. Some are just execrable. So here you'll have to do your research. Find professors who are inspiring, clear (or understandable to you, anyway), and make time for you (but they should be if you're paying them).

Pay professors by the hour. One hour a week ought to be enough. The main thing you'll be doing is reading and discussing what you have written about a subject the professor knows about. Maybe offer to take them to lunch.

If a professor sends you to a grad student, forget 'em, unless you're doing introductory work, or just getting tutoring for some standard course. For more advanced work, look elsewhere. Trust me, I was a grad student for eight years. They will be cheaper but they won't be as good. Of course, grad students can grade and tutor certain kind of work and that can be well worth it.

I'd want to live centrally so I can visit professors from various campuses. I'd also want to live with some other students who are doing what I'm doing, rather than with enrolled students. I think independent students living together would encourage each other to stick to it. You might even be able to get some sponsors that way; a group of you doing this is a good cause, well worth supporting.

You don't have to think about your studies in terms of discrete courses. You can, and it might be a good idea. But reading a series of books or article collections, however long it takes you, is also a good idea. Bear in mind that grad schools will still probably want you to quantify your work if you ever want to apply to one.

The bulk of your work, unless you're in one of the hard sciences, will take the form of reading and writing. You'll read books and other things, and write essays, and your professors will read your essays and give you detailed feedback. Then you'll revise. Of course, in science and math you'll have to do problem sets and pay to get those graded.

Consider auditing college courses if you like. Offer to pay the professor to read and mark up your writing and exams, if that's possible. If it's possible for you to sit in on discussion sections, as long as it doesn't cost too much, you might consider doing that.

There are lots of free courses online. You probably know that. They are a great resource; you could use them instead of attending boring lectures in big impersonal lecture halls. Live lectures can be great, but it's the luck of the draw again. In any case, lectures aren't good enough on their own. You will get a better college education if, in addition to watching lectures on video and reading books, you speak face-to-face in real time with an expert passionate about the subject and interested in you in particular. That's really essential.

Do a "senior thesis" or "senior project," i.e., an extended piece of writing or other significant professional accomplishment on a narrowly-focused topic that requires about a year to finish. This will be impressive to grad schools and be a reasonable basis (in part) on which experts can judge your level of accomplishment.

You probably have a few different options for securing a college degree. Suppose you have put all your work on a website. This includes papers, comments by professors, exam scores, the whole nine yards. (Of course, it can be password protected.) On the basis of that, I suspect some professors would be willing to sign their name on a statement (probably for money to compensate them for their time in making the evaluation honestly) to the effect that the amount of work that you have done is equivalent, or more, than the amount of work normally needed to secure a B.A. or B.S. in in their field at their institution, and that your level of scholarship is also commensurate with that of a college graduate in the field.

A GPA? Transcript? You might even finagle a GPA for yourself. Get professors to agree in advance to grade you on chunks of work. Have them edit a document that you write, stating what was accomplished, credit equivalent at their institution, when the studying was done, and the name, institutional affiliation, specializations, and contact information of the professor. They write the grade in and sign it. You make a PDF of this signed document and save the original and give them a copy. Do this for all the independent study courses you do with various professors at various institutions, and make all the PDFs available alongside the grade in your self-made "transcript." My guess is that that will work for many purposes.

Award yourself a "B.A. (or B.S.) by independent study, endorsed by..." On resumes, you can add a brief paragraph explaining how you got a bachelor's degree without having enrolled anywhere. For example, a philosophy graduate might on his resume (I'm totally making this up), "B.A. Philosophy by independent study, endorsed by Profs. Smith (Harvard), Jones (MIT), Kim (Boston University), and Wang (Boston College)." Then in a footnote you describe your program and, especially, you link to the endorsements by the professors who did your final assessment. Make sure these endorsements are uploaded correctly on LinkedIn or some other such website where people publicly endorse other people.

Be prepared to pay professors for endorsing your work and "awarding" you a degree. Especially if it is an independent professor, someone you didn't study with (or, not much), it's going to take them time to look at your portfolio and decide that you've done the work and have shown the knowledge that you need to show.

Will employers accept your "bachelor's degree"? I can't make any guarantees (the risk is all yours!)—but why don't you ask some? Speaking for myself, if I looked at your page and your statements checked out (e.g., I saw the PDFs, got confirmation from the professor that the program was legit, and saw the LinkedIn endorsements), then I would. In fact I'd say, "Here's an entrepreneurial, independent-minded go-getter. This is the kind of person I'd like on my team!" Of course, boring conventional types might turn their noses up at this, but hiring decisions for good jobs are often not made by boring, conventional types.

This is going to be much cheaper and probably better education than you'd suffer through at most universities these days.

Finally, if you do this—or have done it—then email me with your story at yo.larrysanger@gmail.com. I'd love to hear about it.


Why study higher mathematics and other stuff most people don't use in everyday life?

This video was posted in a Facebook group of mine here:

I find it ironic that some of the most listened-to speakers about education explain that the cure to our educational ills is to point out that education is unnecessary. I call this educational anti-intellectualism. Here's another representative sample and another.

It is possible to make the argument, "X isn't going to be necessary for most students in life, therefore X should not be taught," for almost everything that is taught beyond the sixth grade or so. After that, we should be taught "critical thinking" and vague "analytical abilities" and "reading comprehension" and other such claptrap; that seems to be the natural consequence of this commentator's thinking, and sadly, he is not alone.

The fact that educated people like this teacher, and all the people who approve of this stuff, cannot answer the question is very disappointing. It's not surprising, perhaps, because it's philosophy and philosophy is very hard. Moreover, there are a variety of sort-of-right answers that subtly get things wrong and might end up doing more damage than good.

In the latter category I might want to place E.D. Hirsch, Jr., one of the most prominent education traditionalists alive. (He just published a book I got today called Why Knowledge Matters, and he might have updated his views on this; I'll find out soon.) Hirsch's argument is that we ought to learn classics and, essentially, get a liberal arts education, because this is the knowledge we use to interact with other educated adults in our culture. It is "cultural literacy" and "cultural capital" and this is something we desperately need to thrive as individuals and as a civilization.

That's all true, I think. If Hirsch made the argument as, essentially a defense of Western (or just advanced) civilization—that we need to educate people in Western civilization if we are to perpetuate it—then I'd be fully on board. But Hirsch as I understand him appeals particularly to our individual desire to be a part of the elite, to get ahead, to be able to lord it over our less-educated citizens. This is a very bad argument that won't convince many people. If Hirsch or anyone makes it, I would put it in the category of arguing for the right conclusion for the wrong reason.

The argument I'd give to this math teacher is the same I'd give to someone who says we shouldn't memorize history facts or read boring, classic literature or learn the details of science or what have you. Of course you don't need that stuff to get through life. Most people are as dumb as a box of rocks when it comes to academic stuff (yes, in all countries; some are worse than others).

The reason you get an education, and study stuff like higher math, is more along the following lines. Education trains the mind and thereby liberates us from natural prejudice and stupidity. This is the proper work for human beings because we are rational creatures. We are honing the tool that comes more naturally to us than to any other animal. One must realize, as people like this educated fool and so many others seem not to, that education, such as math education, is not merely a tool in the sense of "abilities." The content, or what is known, is a deeply important part of the tool; in fact, as Hirsch does argue correctly and convincingly, any "analytical abilities" brought to a text will be very poor without relevant subject knowledge. If you want an analogy, it is a poor one to say that a course in logic sharpens your wit, to say you want to have sharp wits, and therefore you should study "critical thinking"; the heft or substance of your wit's ax is all the rest of the knowledge behind the cutting edge. Getting an A in a logic class (a course I taught many times) without knowledge of math, science, history, literature, etc., gives you about as much heft and effectiveness as a sharp-edged piece of paper: capable of paper-cuts.

The core of the argument for knowledge is that academic knowledge forms a sort of deeply interconnected system, and the more deeply and broadly that we understand this system, the more capable we are in every bit of life. This is true of us as individuals and also as a society or civilization. It is completely and literally true that the fantastic structure of modern civilization as we know it, all of the historically unprecedented developments we have seen, is a direct outgrowth of the deep commitment of our society's leaders—since the Enlightenment—to education in this system.

The system I refer to is deeply connected, but that doesn't mean it isn't also loosely connected in the sense that one can learn bits here and there and benefit somewhat. That's absolutely true. This is why it's possible for the math teacher to say, "Well, you don't really need to know higher math in order to live life." Some people are geniuses about literature but don't remember anything about any math they learned beyond the sixth grade.

But as everybody with higher education knows, in fact it is absolutely necessary to learn higher math if you are going to learn higher science—both the hard sciences and the social sciences, both of which require heavy calculation—and deal intelligently with statistics and probabilities, as is necessary in politics, or the financial part of business, or some of programming, etc.

This is because the "deep structure" of reality is mathematical. To declare that "you don't really need to know it" is to declare that you don't need to know the deep structure of reality. Sure, of course you don't. The birds of the air and the fish of the sea don't. But do you want our children to be more like them or more like fully rational, aware, human creatures?


Teaching reading — two suggestions

America’s literacy problems could be solved if parents, preschool teachers, and daycare workers did just two simple things. One is obvious. One is not.

First, we should read a lot more to our babies, toddlers, and preschoolers — say, at least an hour per day. That means picking up a good old-fashioned book, putting a kid in your lap or sitting up close in a small group, and reading the book to the kid. And do voices! Kids love voices.

To turbo-charge your little reader’s skills, simply point at the words as you read them. You’d be amazed at how much this helps them. Retirees can help by volunteering to read to kids at a local preschool or daycare.

That’s all common-sense advice, right?

My second piece of advice is less obvious: We should start teaching our little ones to read before kindergarten, at home and in our preschools and daycares.

Ten years ago, this would have just sounded crazy. Then we started hearing about “baby reading” and how little Emma or Aidan started reading at age one. You probably think their parents must have pushed their kids, and you don’t want to be one of “those parents.”

I am one of those parents, but I didn’t push my boys. They both started reading at age one. How?

I didn’t use workbooks, software, or other systems designed for five- or six-year-olds — that’s a terrible idea. Instead, in addition to all the reading I did to my oldest son, I showed him a lot of flashcards, when he was a baby. He seemed to get a kick out of them. If he didn’t, we stopped immediately.

When he was about two years old, in 2008, I started making him a new kind of card, with words put in phonetic groupings. We started with simple CVC (consonant-vowel-consonant) words, like “dog,” with a picture on the back, and gradually we worked our way to harder words. Lots of other parents used my flashcards (free online) and praised them highly. At the same time, we started using some “teach your baby to read” programs.

All together we didn’t spend much time on all that sort of training — no more than a half-hour a day — but we did keep reading to him a lot, maybe one or two hours per day. Of course he spent most of the day playing like any other kid.

The result? At age three, he was reading at the 3rd to 4th grade level. You can find a video I made of him on YouTube:

My second son was born in 2010, shortly after I bought the first iPad. We did lots of flashcard apps, which show big words and colorful pictures. I strongly recommend using whatever flashcard apps your baby likes the most. There are a lot.

At that time, I was working on WatchKnowLearn.org, funded by an anonymous Memphis-area philanthropist. He saw the video of my son and said, “Why don’t you make a reading program of your own?” The result was ReadingBear.org— I based it on those old phonics flashcards I made, but it’s a lot more than just words and pictures. The words, all 1,200 of them, are pronounced at four speeds, they’re used in a sentence, and a picture and a video illustrate them. Thanks to that Memphis philanthropist, the website is 100% free, ad-free, and nonprofit.

My second son was just as good a reader as my first by the age of three:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wmlOkiOo08

Users tell me that regular use of Reading Bear leads to spectacular results. But you’re not limited to that. Lots of other free or cheap tools — apps and websites — are available, too.

Now, here’s the point: Reading Bear and those other tools need not take much time. They aren’t terribly challenging. Just find the tool a child likes — there’s so much to choose from, you’ll find something. It doesn’t require pushing or forcing. Just 15 minutes a day, and within months, children as young as two can be reading out loud, as two boys did.

Why isn’t every Head Start preschool in the country making use of these freely-available tools? We know they work, and they can solve our illiteracy problems. So why aren’t we using them?

Just two things, and so many problems connected to poor education will disappear: read to very young children religiously for an hour per day, and start teaching them with these 21st century reading tools that they like.

If we do these two things, we’ll see our country’s reading problems disappear.

Larry Sanger (yo.larrysanger@gmail.com) is co-founder of Wikipedia and has helped developed many other educational websites, including ReadingBear.org. Sanger has posted a free book on his experience teaching his son, How and Why I Taught My Toddler to Read. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy in 2000 from Ohio State University.


Against language arts and social studies textbooks

Here's a little argument against language arts and social studies (e.g., history and geography) textbooks. We need to get rid of them. Period.

Prima facie, we don't need textbooks to teach a subject. Other pedagogical methods include chapter (trade, library) books, short readings, computer software, videos, lectures, worksheets, projects, etc. So what are textbooks for?

Well, consider what they are: Textbooks are systematic, book-length presentations of information for purposes of introducing students to a subject, systematically covering every aspect at some level. All information that is needed is presented. Modern texts include supplementary media, not just photos and charts but also, for example, videos and interactive widgets. Texts often have accompanying exercises and workbooks. In short, a modern textbook system is an end-to-end multimedia introduction to a subject at a certain level.

Textbooks make perfect sense for certain subjects, including—especially—math, science, foreign language, grammar, and programming. These subjects are suitable for textbook presentations because it is deeply important, first, that students of those subjects learn certain topics adequately before moving on to other topics and, second, that all the basic topics be covered in adequate depth. The textbook method is lends itself very nicely to both requirements. First, textbook readings, accompanying media, and exercises all structure information in a logical fashion so that the more fundamental information is mastered before moving on to the more derivative information. Second, textbooks marshal all the relevant information within chapters, and can cover the whole subject by simply making the book longer.

Most textbooks are so darned meaty and substantial-looking, it seems hard to argue against them, especially if you are someone—like me—who believes that absorbing a lot of knowledge is what school is primarily about. But actually, it's easier than it might look. You see, there are excellent reasons why certain subjects lend themselves to textbook presentation, while others do not.

There are a couple of very good reasons why math, science, foreign language, grammar, and programming lend themselves to textbook presentation. It is because the information in these fields lends itself to a logical, bottom-up structuring. You cannot learn certain things about math—and upper division science, and foreign language, and advanced grammar, and programming—before you have mastered certain other things. You'd better not tackle the subjunctive in Latin before mastering the indicative, or division before multiplication, or subordinate clauses in English grammar before adjectives and prepositions. Moreover, at a given level of mastery, we can agree that certain topics must be included, or the method is simply incomplete. If you have learned Latin noun declensions but not verb conjugations, you haven't learned Latin. If you have learned about processing loops but not about data storage, you haven't learned programming. If you haven't learned the Circle of Fifths, crack open that music theory book again. Textbooks seem necessary because they help guide the student (and the teacher!) so that the information is presented in the right order, and all of it (at a certain level) is presented.

Assuming there's a real phenomenon here, we may for shorthand refer to math, science, foreign language, grammar, and programming as structured subjects. (A couple other structured subjects are music theory and economics.) And we may also for shorthand refer to the logical dependency of one topic on another, within structured subjects, their foundational structure, while the tendency of certain topics to be needed for a complete presentation of a subject, the subject's completeness.

In short, then, my proposal is that textbooks are particularly useful for structured subjects, because such subjects exhibit a foundational structure and completeness (within a level of mastery), and the textbook approach can (if well executed) elegantly mirror the foundational structure and completeness of those subjects. All well and good. You don't have to use just a textbook, but I won't argue with you much if you do.

I now come to my point:

Subjects that do not exhibit foundational structure or completeness are very bad candidates for textbooks (dammit!).

Such subjects include:

Science at the elementary level. It manifestly does not matter what order you teach little kids science in or how much of each subject they learn (as long as they learn certain basics before they get to more advanced science).

Reading and writing. There is nothing less structured than literature. There is nothing less foundational or complete than writing. These are not bodies of knowledge to master. Literature is made up of narratives and great language to come to grips with, not logical structures. And reading and writing are both skills to practice, not to study in the systematic way one studies math or foreign language. Literature does not exhibit completeness. It does not matter whether you read certain books, although I think a good education will be heavy on the classics. "Reading comprehension," spelling and vocabulary exercises, integrated grammar, directed writing, and all the other claptrap that makes up a modern "English Language Arts" textbook-based program—it all positively obscures the beauty and appreciation of actual literature. It is decidedly not required. The only thing that is really required, I think, is copious reading and writing. All that textbook drivel is much more effectively and efficiently learned simply by reading and occasionally discussing great books, and writing copiously about anything that strikes your fancy (and sometimes about what you read) and getting occasional feedback on your work.

History. Now, it is true that history exhibits a kind of completeness; to be fully educated you have to have some exposure to, say, Roman history and the Renaissance and (in this country) the War of Independence. But it does not—not really—have any foundational structure. It doesn't matter what order you go in, or in what depth you cover various subjects. Again, I think that the more of it you cover in considerable depth, the better—but history is, in short, pretty much the opposite of a structured subject.

Geography. Same analysis as history. You'll want to cover certain basic topics for sure, but what order you go in, how much depth you go into, etc., it's all arbitrary.

Many other subjects also are not structured subjects, either, including the rest of the topics that go under the heading "social studies" in U.S. schools, art history, art and music appreciation, general computer literacy, etc.

Textbooks and textbook programs are, at best, necessary evils. Why? Because, especially for children, they are boring, unmotivating, and therefore less efficient than reading real books and other methods of teaching. Why? Let's see:

A single source. You read all year from one source, who or (worse!) which has one style, however brilliant, one point of view or bias, etc. That gets old before too long.

Human brains, while capable of great rationality, enjoy randomness. I am one of the biggest rationalists (depending on the sense of "rationalism" you mean) you'll find. But learning minds, especially young ones, love to leap from topic to topic. If you want to keep a student's motivation up, you have to change things up.

Texts are totalitarian. Of course I'm being facetious, but I do have a point. By being careful, orderly, and complete, students are forced to study certain things in a certain order. This is necessary (to some extent) for structured subjects, especially as one gets into higher and more technical aspects of subjects. It is decidedly not necessary for unstructured subjects.

Texts are often badly written, by committee. Enough people have complained about this that I don't have to.

Various educational practices delight or irritate me to various extents, but a special place in my personal hell is reserved for the practice of inflicting lame language arts texts on students through the eighth grade. In addition to turning off generations of school kids to reading and leaving them poorly prepared in their own language, the worst thing about such textbooks is the opportunity cost. Ironically, too much time is spent about reading about the reading, doing busywork exercises, and studying for and taking exams the point of which is to make sure one has understood everything taught so far. That all seriously cuts into the time spent actually, you know, reading something worthwhile.

I wish I could hear back from some language arts teacher or curriculum designer. Explain this to me, please. Let's suppose your poor students spend, in and out of class, 100 hours reading your groan-inducing textbook (sorry, but that really is how I feel) in a school year. At an average of, let's say, 6 hours per book (faster readers might finish them faster), those students could read about 17 great children's books. So, do you really think reading your  textbook all year long will teach and engage your students better than 17 shorter, more interesting chapter books?

The problem with history texts is different. History becomes seriously interesting only when one studies the narratives that make it up in some depth. Textbooks consist of, basically, a series of Cliffs Notes versions of historical narratives, cut so short as to be incomprehensible. Students should be reading chapter books and long meaty history books—not textbooks—in order really to appreciate and get something out of history. The whole idea, after all, is supposed to be to understand how human nature and society operates through the study of examples. If you don't study the examples closely enough, if you're just memorizing names and dates willy-nilly, you'll both forget them and fail to appreciate the purpose of the subject.

 


All my presentations zipped together

I finally took a few hours and prepped all my educational preK-4 presentations for easy download. Here they are in one ginormous 862MB zip file.

If you want to download them individually, here's the link.


Update about the boys, March 2016

I have given a report about H. last Jan. 2, and now I have a little time to write about what's going on with E., who is now 5, and not quite old enough to be in Kindergarten this year.

First of all, E's Mama is homeschooling him, which means I know what's going on with him mostly second hand, although I see some of it since I work at home. Anyway, here goes.

The big change with E. is that since his fifth birthday, last fall, he has slowly transitioned to being actually homeschooled. Theoretically he's supposed to have at least 30 minutes' reading, 15 minutes math, and 15 minutes writing. But a typical day looks very different from that.

We're still not doing SuperMemo, because E. just doesn't like it much. H. didn't start until he was 6, so...

Reading/literature. Since the last report, and after his birthday, for his reading we let him read whatever he wanted, and he went through dozens and dozens of Berenstain Bears books, because they were on hand (left over from H.) and he likes them. He did read a few other things, occasionally science. He also read a pile of classic picture books, which I picked out for him. After going through all those picture books, I think he was bored, but not quite ready to tackle so many chapter books. Mind you, he can read them just fine (this is two years ago), but he hasn't been motivated and we're not going to push him. He did read Roald Dahl's The Witches (more about Dahl below). He doesn't read enough to my taste, probably not 30 minutes a day on average, but some days he reads for a few hours.

After his Mama insisted that he start something, a week or two ago, he did pick a chapter book and is now reading his hardest self-read book yet, The Lemonade War by Jacqueline Davies, which he says he likes quite a bit. I remember H. read that book at about the same age.

Meanwhile, at mealtimes, I'm still reading to him most breakfasts and lunches. I finished reading the entire Harry Potter series to him—he rarely wanted to read anything else, and it took over a year to read them all, I think. Then we went through various other books, including Black Ships Before Troy, the fantastic prose adaptation of The Iliad, which was quite advanced. In fact, I started reading it to H., although H. is perfectly capable of reading it to himself. H. lost interest (often leaving the meal table before anyone else to run to his computer to work on his latest programming project), but E. was hooked, and asked me to keep reading, even though I thought it was too advanced. I did have to explain quite a lot of the words.

The same thing happened again more recently. I thought I'd try reading The Odyssey to H., the awesome, poetic, and relatively accessible Fitzgerald translation, knowing that E. would get a little out of it (he always surprises me in how well he pays attention when I'm reading to H.). So H. quickly lost interest and said he'd rather read it to himself (which I'll have him do after he's finished with A Midsummer Night's Dream). But again, E. was hooked. I said it's beyond him but he insisted that I continue, and for several weeks I always said we didn't have to read this, we could read something else, and he keeps asking for the Odyssey.

How do I read the Odyssey to a 5-year-old, you ask? (Sure, a precocious 5-year-old, but come on.) Basically, what I always do: as I read a sentence, I read the written words and immediately, parenthetically, insert glosses for the words that are easy to gloss. As to the more important, interesting, or hard-to-gloss words, we look those up in the handy on-screen dictionary (we read it on the iPad which makes this easy). When a whole sentence or phrase seems difficult, I retell the point in my own words. I'm rather proud of how much I seem to remember from my slender study of classics, lo, over 25 years ago. For pronunciation of names, it helps that H. and I have started studying ancient Greek at night (using Athenaze). I also do voices. The result is that the book (as glossed by me) still has E's attention, and we're up to Book 9 of 24. The cyclops part. Very exciting and gory. Perfect for E.

It helps a lot, and I mean it has been absolutely essential, that we read Tales from the Odyssey before, listened to it in the car as well, read a zillion other Greek myths books, etc. The gods and goddesses, Odysseus himself, and his story are all pretty familiar at this point. He can explain what's going on. A few times Mama has asked for clarification of some point, and E. will answer before I do.

Speaking of advanced stuff, on Sunday evenings I read The Pilgrim's Progress (this slightly modernized but gorgeously illustrated edition...I didn't know that it was actually modernized when I bought it, but I think that's actually not a bad thing in this case) to H. But E. as usual is paying close attention and so I try to bring this already somewhat simplified version down to his level in my glosses. Reading only once a week a half-hour at a time, we've gone through quite slowly but are now past the halfway mark.

But back down to earth: E. still likes reading easy stuff. I often catch him with my iPad looking at old Disney story apps, which he read when he was one and two, and the preschool-level Beginner's Bible. (Probably because of readings from Pilgrim's Progress.) Whereas H. said at that age that he was an atheist (pretty sure he still takes that position), E. says he believes in God. Go figure. E. is of a more magical and romantic cast of mind.

Math. He worked on 1st grade math (Splash Math) intermittently for over a year, I think, and after trying IXL for a bit, he started working on that instead, in 2nd grade. He's been playing Tower Math (the iPad app) lately which helps a bit with his math facts, but he's still counting on his fingers or quickly in his head, having memorized only a few. I think Mama has started using flash cards with him as well as LacerLinks, as I did with H. at that age, and maybe we'll get him going in Two Plus Two Is not Five, which seemed to help H. Anyway, although he seems talented at math—it comes to him pretty easily—he's not very motivated to do it, and again we don't insist too much at this point.

Writing. He's gone mostly through the Kumon Writing Words book, and his handwriting is getting reasonably good. Mama has taught him very well how to hold the pencil and write neatly. I encourage them to copy sentences, but they haven't really started that yet—sometimes. So he's not particularly advanced at writing yet. He's also rather less confident than H. was at this age as far as spelling goes. He is demotivated to write because he needs to know exactly how things are spelled and doesn't seem to believe us that he'll pick it up automatically by random practice. E.g. earlier today he wrote a couple sentences as part of a little Scratch program. So who knows, maybe we'll go through some sort of systematic speller with him, even if we didn't do that with H.

He also types, and has practiced typing rather well. He types more confidently than he writes, and he gets in all sorts of typing practice when he does Google searches, e.g., for funny cats, and other such occasions. We started him on different typing software but nothing seems to be working out (bugs and/or poor design). That's a problem I'm assigned to solve soon.

Latin and Russian. As with H., we started our Latin study with Rosetta Stone when he was three or four, but that didn't last long; unlike H., E. just wasn't that into Rosetta Stone. Then last year I discovered the easy children's Latin curriculum Minimus, a British production, and we fairly carefully went through all but the last couple chapters of book 1. It was great on the iPad, as audio and cartoons are built in, making it all a very gentle introduction. Anyway, for some reason toward the end of that book he started refusing to go on, so we gave that up. Not long after I decided we could start with one of the easiest public domain Latin readers, Mima Maxey's New Latin Primer. But we got several pages into that when the grammar started piling up, so to speak, and I figured it would be easier to just go through Getting Started with Latin, which I had used with H. when he was 8—it was very easy for him then. This book is somewhat challenging, but he's still OK with it, if not always enthusiastic, and he does seem to get a kick out of the progressive knowledge he's building up. This book is a great confidence-builder for kids, I highly recommend it. We're around Lesson 25 now (of 144). We'll see how it goes! My guess is that the next thing won't be D'Ooge or Lingua Latina, because those are both too hard for him now and require grammar he hasn't got under his belt yet. Instead, we'll probably go through another elementary curriculum.

As to the time Getting Started with Latin takes, we do it typically during lunchtime, once a day but usually skipping a few days a week. Still, we're making good forward progress. At this rate he'll be at big brother's level or beyond when he is that age.

E's Mama also reads stories, sings, and teaches him to read in her language daily. She also speaks to them in her language, and while they respond back in English, they do understand quite a bit, and E. can read simple stuff. Recently, after H. discovered Duolingo, E. decided to get into it in Mama's language. He's been (with my and Mama's help) starting to learn how to type/spell words, and this of course helps his English as well.

History. Mama is reading The Story of the World, Vol. 1, to E., and discussing it, as I did with H. around the same age. I think they're several chapters in. They started only a couple of months ago. I have read him a few history books at mealtimes; in the last few months, I remember one about Lincoln and a few about the ancient world. Also, E. watches a lot of videos about history (and other subjects) on BrainPop. He did BrainPop Jr. for a long time, which wasn't very interesting for H., so I decided to switch our subscription for a while to...

BrainPop. In other words, Tim and Moby. Turns out that E. likes these at least as much as BrainPop Jr. and for many months he was watching them religiously every morning as H. and I were doing Latin, something like 30 minutes a day or more. Then we sometimes watch one at the beginning of a meal. Similarly as H. absorbed loads of random facts from the Horrible Science series, then spewed the facts out at random intervals afterward, so E. watches dozens upon dozens of these middle school-level videos and later reports them back to me, often at inconvenient times, like when I'm trying to work. His favorite subject in BrainPop is...

Science, and in particular the human body and health. Often some quite advanced stuff. He paid fairly close attention as I read to H. about chemistry, and definitely picked some advanced topics up for a 4 or 5 year old. Also, since we switched to biology last fall, I started by reading H. What's Biology All About? by Usborne. This is for H. a very easy book (he is doing high school biology), but H. enjoys the review and I generally leave the book choice up to him. It helps E. that this is a book closer to his level, especially after all those BrainPop videos, so I sort of read it to E. as well. We read it 1-2 times a week at dinner. E. has been saying for over a year now that he wants to be a scientist when he grows up. Mama has been doing occasional experiments with him, which is a good thing because she used to shoo us out of the kitchen and bathrooms when H. and I tried to use them for experiments, and now she has no excuse as she is responsible for the mess. Another sciencey thing we do is Thursdays, we read from William J. Long, Secrets of the Woods, a book of the nature writing genre that I hadn't been exposed to since...maybe high school. Unusually and unexpectedly good book; the people on Goodreads who called it "wordy" are probably just in need of education themselves. The book is part of the Yesterday's Classics series we bought and which I highly recommend, if you can transfer the books to your tablet. It was just the first plausible of their "Nature" books that I found in our collection. E. has also taken to watching some cool science videos in the Kurzgesagt series, which must be over his head, but what the hell, he found them and he wants to watch them. He has watched an awful lot of Magic School Bus videos (and I read a few of the books, some while back, at the table to him), and Bill Nye. We went all the way through the Brain Games series on Netflix, and recently started How We Got to Now, also on Netflix, both very cool. Also, as of last week, MacGyver. That's science!

Art & Music & Poetry. Wednesday dinnertime is poetry; I read this ostensibly to H. but E. is often tuning in. Both seem to like poetry, and E. on occasion will request poetry during his (i.e., breakfast and lunch) reading times. Friday evenings is art and music, and again while I chose the books and media for H., E. tunes in closely and definitely learns quite a bit there too.

Bedtime reading. As much as he likes science, E. is totally into anything magical (like Harry Potter) and heroic (like The Odyssey). So at night, I've read him a series of Roald Dahl books, including Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, Danny the Champion of the World, and The BFG. (Did you know there's a British cartoon BFG on YouTube that as of this writing hasn't been taken down?) H. was never so much into these, but he has listened in on the last three. E. really likes Dahl. At the moment we are starting in on W.B. Yeats' Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland, beautifully told. I'm pretty sure we've read some others at night as well. We're almost done with The Tower Treasure, the first Hardy Boys book.


Fund me to make 50 educational videos for kids!

I have a Kickstarter project that will close in two days! Unless I get a bunch of pledges in that time, I won't raise the money. I haven't tried very hard (actually, almost not at all)—been busy with other things.

Some salient points:

• I’ve made 26 educational videos for kids in my spare time (put on YouTube).

• As a homeschooling dad, Ph.D. philosopher, and reader of vast quantities of children’s literature, I am the perfect person to write these videos. I like making them, too.

• My videos are popular with and praised by students, parents, and teachers.

• My videos each average 52 views per day, or 18,834 per year.

• My videos on high-demand topics average 92 views per day, or 33,580 per year, about 4 years after being uploaded.

• Working full time, I can make 2-3 of these educational videos per day.

• So I can make 500 educational videos in a year.

• I can limit myself to high-demand topics.

• This would work out to over 30 million views per year (on high-demand topics), 4 years after being uploaded. That’s a lot!

• The videos don’t get stale. The amount of traffic my videos get has been growing year over year.

• I am seeking funding just for myself to make these videos.

It would become a K-4 version of Khan Academy (which is mostly focused on high school and college level material).
The videos would supply background knowledge about everything needed to be a proficient reader.
The selling points:

• Massive traffic, based on years of clear, consistent data.

• Inexpensive: I make them quickly, by myself.

• High quality educational content.

This is a proven, massively beneficial project. What I really want is somebody to fund me to full-time until I get tired of making these things. In the meantime, funding 50 of these things would be grand, and I'll show yez what I can do.

Wake up, people! Minecraft sucks as an educational tool.

<rant>

You don't have to cite studies to me. I already know that various kinds of video games can have some positive educational effects. As somebody who has wasted way too many hours on video games since 1977 or so, this isn't surprising to me. The notions that it might help train kids to think ahead, improve reaction time and some processing abilities, or even occasionally (very occasionally) teach some actual subject matter fall into the "duh" category for me. I have watched my sons get hooked on Minecraft (I never, never should have installed it last summer! I rue the day!), and I freely admit that they have learned a little about getting themselves organized, planning ahead, and of course a little about such things as mining and building.

So why am I not on the "let's let kids play Minecraft for hours in class" train? It's one thing mainly. There is one argument that some educators and parents for some bizarre reason are constantly ignoring:

Opportunity cost.

Yes, boys and girls, opportunity cost. You know what? If there were a multi-billion dollar industry behind any number of other activities—cooking, say, or board games or television-watching—you'd find zillions of new studies showing that those activities are delightfully educational as well. Why do I say so? Because almost everything has some measurable educational impact. You must be doing something pretty goddamned mind-dulling, like watching Growing Up Kardashian, if you don't emerge just a little smarter.

So it's not terribly surprising that playing video games, and Minecraft in particular—yes the time-sucking bane of the young lives of so many boys, and some girls too—has some educational benefit.

The question is whether it's a wise use of time for educational purposes. And that is a matter of comparative educational benefit. You know what has more educational benefits than video games? Pretty friggin' much everything on the curriculum. It's all about efficiency, and qua efficient educational experience, most video games absolutely suck for most educational purposes—compared to the traditional alternatives.

Now, don't get me wrong. I think reading textbooks and doing worksheets and taking way too many quizzes and tests is pretty inefficient. This is why we homeschool. Reading a lot more meaningful books and keeping the busywork to a minimum is more the thing (that's what we try to do). My point is not that ordinary school curricula are wonderful, but only that adding heavy doses of Minecraft to it simply exacerbates an already appalling problem.

I can imagine a response: "But Minecraft is really inspiring to my kids! I can get them to write about their worlds, and we have worked in a lot of creative Minecraft lessons that the kids love!" I'm sure that's all true. If it stopped at a few lessons now and then, then heck, maybe we'd be doing it. But Minecraft is like crack for kids. They don't play for a half an hour. They play for hours and hours, until you drag them, kicking and screaming, from the computer. And I reiterate my point: There are all sorts of extremely fun stuff that we could be doing, which have some educational benefit. But we don't do them during study time, and why? Because we have better things to do.

If you want your kids to be well-educated, you'll think harder about educational efficiency and opportunity cost.

</rant>


Report about the boys, January 2016

I'll dive right into H's schooling. He's now age 9.

The new tasklist orientation. This past year the biggest problem has been motivating him to study enough. Until November, it was a struggle. Although Mama's helping quite a bit more, especially with E., H. still requires management and I still have to work full-time. While he can do quite a bit without being closely advised, if he's not monitored, he'll just do whatever he wants.

To get help with keeping him on track, we went through the long process of enrolling H. in Ohio Connections Academy. After testing he was admitted in the 8th grade in most subjects and 7th grade in math. So he was at OCA for one week in, I guess it was, November. I thought he'd be able to proceed through the curriculum at his own pace, but he really couldn't, i.e., they aren't flexible that way. OCA's advertising and protestations to the contrary are spurious. The tasks are not really a la carte, either. H. ended up saying that he could learn a lot more doing "Papa's curriculum," and I had to agree.

Digression about OCA and public school curriculum

An aside—public school curriculum as represented by OCA's Pearson texts (Connections Academy is owned by Pearson) looks very "meaty." Kids are constantly doing things that certainly look educational and they're hard to fault. The problem is that putting all that crap together amounts to a lot of busywork. A lot of assignments are basically repetitive or drilling what ought to be obvious or to be picked up on the fly. It's more efficient (it has been for us) to stick mainly to reading high-quality books and do straight writing, math, and language study; much of the extra crap kids are drilled on ancillary to the main curriculum is incredibly annoying.

Language Arts texts, ugh, don't get me started. H. was going to have to read just two chapter books for the semester. But on those books he was going to have to answer questions, take quizzes, do vocabulary sets, etc., etc., meaning he spent at least as much time with ancillary busywork as actually reading the book. Why not just answer some questions at the end the book, have him look up words he doesn't know, then read another book in the same time? Worse than that—much worse—are the textbooks. Here we have short stories, nonfiction essays, poems, etc., which altogether looks great (although nonfiction should be studied in history and science). The trouble is that there is two or three times as much material padding all the readings. It's appalling.

The history text was similarly ugh-inspiring. Don't get me wrong, it seemed to be fairly well-written and comprehensive. The problem was that there were a zillion sidebars, too many pictures and other bells and whistles, and the text itself was a compilation of facts rather than anything resembling a narrative. This is not how to teach history.

The math and science curriculum was a bit better, but also suffered from the padding problem, albeit less so. H. likes the CK-12 biology set-up we have going much more, though, and Khan+IXL for math is hard to beat, for H. anyway.

There was also way, way, way too much testing/checking/quizzes over everything. That takes time, time that could be spent actually learning. I'm not referring to standardized tests. I'm referring to everyday quizzes and exams. Just way, way too much.

But we did bring from our failed experiment the excellent technique of breaking down the school day's tasks into small chunks and getting them checked off (by me...hopefully to be passed on to Mama soon) regularly. The checklist discipline clarifies to H. exactly what we've decided he'll work on. He can decide in what order he does things in, but he has to complete a whole "day's" work before he moves on to the next "day." Generally speaking a "day" requires anywhere from one to two days, maybe 1.5 days on average. The checklist discipline also helps me to decide how long to allot to H. for a task, and how long to set a timer after which I check in with him. For example, this was a recent checklist:

  • Divisibility Rules (review)
    • IXL Math 7.A.4. (15)
  • Greatest Common Factor
    • Watch this Khan video and  this one and this one. (You can skip one of these if it seems too obvious (20)
    • IXL Math 6.E.7. (15)
    • IXL Math 7.A.5 (to 30*). (5)
  • Pick a new novel to read. (10)
  • Start reading it. (at least 20)
  • Read Look-It-Up Book of Presidents, next 4-6 pages. (20)
  • Make ~2 questions per three pages read about the presidents. (10)
  • Do 30-45 minutes of CK-12 biology quizzes (up to but not past  “Other Cell Organelles”). (30-45)
  • Answer the questions about The Hunger Games. (30)
  • Review to 100. (15)
  • Review to 50. (15)
  • Do next 15 minutes of Think Java. (15)

So far, so good: he's done more work on an average day in the last six weeks or so than he has at any time in the last few years.

Math. H. is now working concurrently on IXL.com's 6th and 7th grade math. So, this is kind of weird. In my high school back in the early 1980s, most kids did pre-algebra in 8th grade, algebra in 9th grade, etc. If you were in honors classes, though, you'd do pre-algebra in the 7th grade, algebra in the 8th grade, and geometry in the 9th. So here's the thing: IXL's sixth grade is on the advanced track. Then they have two years, the 7th and 8th grades, doing pre-algebra. Algebra is supposed to be a 9th grade activity. (IXL doesn't teach Calculus yet.)

As a result, and since the 7th grade stuff looked very doable, we decided to combine IXL's 6th and 7th grade. If the 7th grade stuff is just a review of their 6th grade stuff, as it often is, I just make him get his IXL score for the 7th grade version up to 30, and if he does so without any mistakes, he can skip the rest. Anyway, that's working out. The idea is that he'll do this for the next six or nine months and then tackle IXL 8th grade, which does introduce quite a few new topics.

Khan Academy's free videos at this level are finally quite good, so I just assign him to watch those before the topic comes up and lo and behold, he usually doesn't need much help from me. That's all we do for math now. Maybe when we get to algebra we'll switch to a textbook. But at this point, we've tried Saxon and Singapore and a few others, and this seems to be most simpatico to H. I wish he liked a more substantive curriculum, but motivation is key, and with Khan, he does seem to be learning the concepts pretty well.

Writing. It's been a long time since I had H. do anything like a systematic writing program, but I decided he needs systematic training in certain kinds of writing, even if he is able to put together decent sentences and paragraphs. So in November we started working on Writing with Skill. We're going through it very slowly, maybe too slowly, because I still let him do "own choice" writing every other day, and I give him special assignments like poetry or, as recently, a speech (his speech is about why you should have a pet dog). Another "break" we took was to get feedback from Fiverr on a long story he wrote, then rewrite the story incorporating the feedback. That was fun. Anyway, I'd say his writing is progressing nicely.

He's also occasionally been doing his own choice of IXL Language Arts topics and got hooked, for a little while anyway, on Vocabulary.com. He is still working in Cursive Writing Words (!) and I'm threatening to make him write some essays in cursive as soon as he's done with that. He can type pretty quickly...up to 50 wpm or so.

Literature. As to literature, for a long time I was having him do an hour a day, except that for most of this year, he rarely did that. He did maybe an hour a day three times a week. So instead, after the Ohio Connections Academy experiment, I decided to make the assignments more reasonable: I'm having him do half-hour of reading actually daily. This works out much better than requiring an hour, and he's made more consistent progress in his reading, with fewer of the "breaks" of many days that he used to take. Recently he finished The Hunger Games and The Lord of the Flies, and he's almost done with The Wind in the Willows. I'm not sure I could tell you what else he's read this year...definitely a fair few. E.g., he did read The Hobbit, and he read the first three chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring but decided that it was boring (as a Tolkien fan, I was scandalized by this but I let it go; he'll get the appeal later). I got him The Hunger Games after he read and enjoyed a few other dystopian novels, Anthem, Animal Farm, and The Giver.

Another thing we did (are still doing, too) was to compile an anthology of poetry. I'm not sure how we got into this. This was mostly his idea, and he's still quite gung-ho about it. The dream is to co-author and eventually publish a poetry anthology for young people (ages 8 to 15 or so). We were doing this for about 30 minutes per evening, most evenings, last fall; but then we decided we needed to get back into the evening reading (e.g., we still haven't finished Oliver Twist, which I started reading to him a long time ago). But we still work on it every so often and our intention going forward is to spend a couple of hours working on it on Saturday or Sunday afternoons. We work together at the same time on this Google doc. Of course, I work more efficiently than he does, so I guess most of what you see there is my work, but H. does make a lot of contributions to every aspect of the production. We've also worked on transferring this document to a better-formatted MS Word version, but the text so far is pretty much the same.

This inspired some interesting poems from H. recently, the first doubtless inspired by "A Swing Song":

The Sky
Sky, sky,
Up high,
No animal but
The bird is sly
Enough to venture
Into the sky.

Low, low,
Down below,
Where any foe
Would love to go
Who cannot fly high
Up into the sky.

=============

The Frog
There once was a frog,
Who loved to sit
On a particular log.
He liked it as no other,
And he didn’t even bother
To sit on any other.

There once was a frog,
Who loved to bathe
In a particular bog.
He liked it as no other,
And he didn’t even bother
To bathe in any other.

History. This is a subject that we started very well on, with the first 1.5 books of The Story of the World read alongside three other history books. Then we started slowing down and since then it's been pretty hit and miss. Under the new checkbox scheme, H. is finally making excellent forward progress in The Story of the World vol. 3 (done as of early January; soon to start vol. 4), as well as The Landmark History of the American People and Look-It-Up Book of Presidents, and occasionally something else. He also has to add questions to SuperMemo, which is one big reason why he's made relatively slow progress; but he does remember some history as a result.

Science. Last summer or so we finally finished our study of chemistry. This included What's Chemistry All About? as well as the two long sections about chemistry in the Usborne Science Encyclopedia (quite good). He read a big long book about the elements as well as How to Make a Universe with 92 Ingredients and some other things. Then we switched to biology last fall. This was quite cool, because his fairly in-depth exposure to chemistry prepared him to dive past middle school level biology and go straight to this free CK-12 Biology text. For the first time ever he's doing most of his science study without me, which is great. I still have been reading What's Biology All About? at the dinner table, which is very easy, but he still enjoys it. In addition to just reading the CK-12 text, I make him answer half of the comprehension questions, do all of the corresponding quizzes in the (stunningly good) CK-12 app, and add questions to SuperMemo.

Geography, etc. In an earlier version of this post I neglected to say anything about his geography study. Well, this has been a problem. We're still working on U.S. geography, and I don't think we're even halfway through the states. In our evening reading, among several other things, we were working our way through the National Geographic U.S. Atlas for kids, and our progress was steady, but quite slow. Then last fall we dropped all of that for the poetry anthology and, though H. did read a few short "True Books" about U.S. regions, for the most part geography was dropped. More recently I started him reading the atlas by himself, and making SuperMemo questions, and I think he did that for 2-3 states. But he complained that it was boring, so for Christmas I gave H. a geography workbook with map-labeling and fact-drilling work. He seems to like this better. Anyway, I do hope with the checklist method we'll get through U.S. geography this year.

H. has continued to do drawing and other art projects, mostly with Mama, at home—when given specific instructions, he has retained some of the ability he gained in his art classes, which he no longer takes (they were getting repetitive). He has also been practicing piano, but not very much; he's basically been treading water for the last year, although he has learned to play with two hands and it getting more confident anyway. But he declares he doesn't like it and we haven't insisted very often.

Java/programming. For a long time I've been telling my programming-crazy son that he really must go all the way through a programming tutorial. Well, I said to myself, if he isn't going to do it all on his own, I'll just "make" him. It turns out that he's very happy to be "made" to do this; he enjoys having the time (only 15 minutes per day) to do it. He goes through the text quickly—he started a few weeks ago and is around the end of chapter three of Think Java, which is written for high school preparing for the AP exam. He seems to be highly motivated and enjoying himself greatly, and so far isn't complaining about any problems. On his own he has thoroughly learned Scratch, and has made some inroads into Visual Basic, and bits of other languages. He wants to be a programmer when he grows up.

Latin and Greek. Don't ask me how, but in the nine months since my last update, we have gone through only pp. 39-63 in Benjamin D’Ooge’s Elements of Latin. We have also made more progress in  Maud Reed’s Juliaas well as Mima Maxey's Cornelia. In the last week or two, though, we put these down and started in on Orberg's Lingua Latina, mostly because H. says D'Ooge is boring. I exhaustively compared the programs, and I have to admit that LL might be better for us at this stage. Although it seems we have done only a little work on Latin, we have not really been shirking too much. We have actually gone over several things repeatedly, done a hell of a lot of review (we spend half of our 30-45 minutes each morning on Latin in SuperMemo review). The stuff that we've learned, we've learned to death, and that includes the stuff in Julia and Cornelia. We have mastered a lot more vocabulary than what appears in D'Ooge.

As of just a few days ago, we decided to let H. finish by himself the books we've started reading together at night. Instead, we've started studying (for 20-30 minutes per night) ancient (Attic) Greek out of the same textbook I used in college, Athenaze. We're still learning the alphabet...I'll let you know how it goes. I'm motivated and so is H. He thinks the alphabet is pretty cool and he infers (he realizes this is an invalid inference, however correct the conclusion is) that the language must be pretty cool too.

Supermemo. Here's one of our great success stories. At some point in November, I told H. he can finish 100 SuperMemo review questions in 30 minutes (why not?). I check after 15 minutes if he has finished 50, then after another 15 minutes I check if he has finished 50 more. A lot of the time I don't really have to check at all—he almost always does it without getting distracted. He writes down the number he has left to do after each three minutes on a snazzy spreadsheet, which automatically calculates his rate of review (instant feedback is very handy), and so I hardly have to monitor him at all. He actually chooses to do Supermemo first thing in the day sometimes, which he never used to do.

Dinner reading. I still do reading to H. at dinnertime. This includes Help Your Kids with Language Arts on Mondays (now mostly done), What's Biology All About? Tuesdays and Thursdays, poetry on Wednesdays, art and music on Fridays (shared between both boys), logic workbooks on Saturday (almost done with Orbiting with Logic, thus completing the Prufrock series—again, both boys are doing logic now), and, lately, a slightly modernized version of Pilgrim's Progress on Sundays. The amazing thing is that E. at age 4 and 5 absorbed quite a bit of the chemistry and biology I've been reading to H., and as a result he's doing very well on science; he wants to be a scientist when he grows up.

Anyway, that's all I have time to write up, for now...I'll add some info about E., now age 5 and addicted to "BrainPop," soonish.