A common error of school lessons, or, why I’m homeschooling

Larry Sanger

Here is one reason why I’m homeschooling, and why I would probably never send my children to a school–even most private schools.

I was looking over some instructional material recently (something I do often these days).  It was a sample curriculum for teachers, explaining how, in one lesson, they should teach Kindergartners the principle that we say aloud one word for each word we see written down.  Immediately I had the thought that this would be a pointless waste of time for most children.  Many children would have already gotten that lesson, and it would be boring to go over it; and if any child hadn’t gotten it, it seems unlikely that any amount of time trying to teach it would likely be wasted, because the principle in question is highly abstract.

Indeed, because the principle is so abstract, both categories of children–those who understood the principle implicitly, and those who hadn’t–would probably be puzzled by the attempt to explain something so abstract explicitly, and then during lesson time, they would instead focus on other aspects of the words and sentences discussed.  In other words, they would simply take what was supposed to be careful, by-the-hand explanation of some features of letters, words, and sentences, and instead use it as fodder for whatever random ruminations they have about letters, words, and sentences.  The result will be, on the one hand, a combination of dull head-nodding and robotic participation, and on the other hand, puzzlement about this or that aspect of the language on display which a student happens to notice, but is not explained.  The smarter (or luckier) students will learn much from the examples, regardless of what the ostensible lesson of the day is; the duller (or unluckier) students will not glean so much, and simply find the whole exercise boring.

Evidently, the curriculum designers had carefully analyzed, conceptually, the steps that a child must have gone through in order to learn how to read.  The idea is that each step is, then, to be explicitly taught to children.  “After all,” the designers must be reasoning to themselves, “what better way to guarantee that a child understands a principle than to try, creatively of course, to teach the principle?  Once a child has been exposed to all the different principles needed to learn language, they’ll be fluent readers!”  The designers even evidently prise out principles that are used, but probably never grasped explicitly, by children–such as that there is one spoken word for each written word–and attempt to teach those explicitly.

You might think that I am criticizing the curriculum designers because they are having the teachers teach explicitly, that they are being “instructivists” instead of “constructivists.”  But that would be wrong; my criticism has nothing to do with instructivism versus constructivism.  It has to do with the order in which things are taught and the folly of standardizing what can’t effectively be standardized.

There is a similar and well-discussed problem with the now-old movement called the “New Math,” in which very abstract principles of mathematics, some of which were heretofore not discussed until high school or college, are taught to children.  The suggestion was that it would make children deep thinkers by teaching them about set theory and variables and other extremely abstract stuff when they are in early elementary grades.  The geniuses behind this movement evidently looked at the mathematics curriculum, noticed that, conceptually, it can be analyzed as Russell and Whitehead did in Principia Mathematica, and then had the brilliant idea that by teaching such principles to young children, one would give them a deeper understanding of mathematics.  A more boneheaded pedagogical notion can scarcely be conceived.  The entire movement, like that reading exercise I saw, is based on a very simple-minded error:

It is most efficient to teach children according to the order in which we, abstract-thinking adults, break down and analyze things logically.  Doing so ensures that children understand the matter deeply and critically, as we adults do; they cannot fail to comprehend if simple but powerful principles are introduced explicitly.

That, I’m saying, is wrong, but a lot of educationists seem to believe it and design our children’s schooling based on it.

This is also what phonics workbooks and curricula often do–thereby giving phonics a bad name, when in fact as a method it is the best available.  You just don’t have to get children to learn the abstract theory of phonics, of course, nor do you have to expect every child to learn the same phonics rules at the same time.

Anyway, in the grip of this widespread error, curriculum designers proceed to lay out scripts, in textbooks, workbooks, and lesson plans, that teachers and their charges are supposed to follow.  Students thereby systematically absorb the knowledge that the designers have broken into convenient, bite-sized chunks, presented in creative, fun, engaging ways–or that’s how it’s supposed to work.  But it doesn’t work that way.  This kind of pedagogy obviously can work at the high school and college level, when the students are capable of abstract thought and gleaning abstract principles efficiently, but it obviously does not work for younger children.

As everyone (who has not been confused by college professors) knows perfectly well, children learn abstract principles gradually, by inferring from many instances.  Exactly when any given child happens to grasp a principle–when the light goes on–is completely unpredictable.  You simply cannot guarantee, for a classroom of students, that all of the lights will go on at once.  Now, I don’t doubt that this can happen, and probably has happened, but only occasionally and with a really brilliant teacher and under highly contrived circumstances.  But if I am correct and children do learn different abstract principles at different times and under different circumstances, mainly by reflecting on many instances, then attempting to lead a whole class through by the hand, getting them all to grasp the principles at the same time and in the same order, is a fool’s errand.

This is true not just of learning to read and mathematics, subjects which can be, after all, highly abstract.  Something similar is also quite true of more concrete subjects such as history and literature.  Different children fail to understand different pieces of vocabulary, all of which are essential to understanding a narrative.  Moreover, some children are ready to read a certain book, or are highly interested in it, while others aren’t prepared (they don’t have some basic concepts) or will never be interested in it.  What they need, of course, is individualized attention to the vocabulary of texts and individualized choices of texts.  The error (similar to the one identified above) seems to be:

We have a rough-and-ready idea of what children should read, and what topics they should study; we’ve got the book list and standards all mapped out.  The way to guarantee that students learn these texts and topics is quite simply to prescribe them and lead the children through them all at once, teaching the things they need to know.

Wrong.  As an advocate of liberal education, I of course agree that it’s important to read certain books; I have nothing against book lists or even standards, per se.  But when books are best to read, and when certain standards are addressed, is, like it or not, a highly individual affair.  I’m merely pointing out a fact about the minds of children: they are ready to absorb things at different times, and the best way to teach them those books and topics differs greatly because abilities and proclivities develop differently.

When you get down to it, the problem really lies in a system that attempts to prescribe, centralize, or standardize the development of the human mind, which is necessarily an individual affair.  This, ultimately, is why we’re homeschooling.  Most schools operate on the notion that the learning process can be scripted and applied to all equally, and that the script is best written by replicating some theoretician’s abstract analysis of subject matters and skills, and then requiring all students to build up their mental contents by following the script.  Homeschooling allows the parent and child to work together to determine what the next best thing to learn is, and what the best way to learn it is.  It is grounded in the reality of what an individual boy or girl understands and appreciates right now, and builds logically on that.  Indeed, as a philosopher, I am very much a fan of system-building and abstract analysis, and as my own son’s knowledge grows, I find myself thinking constantly about which part of the “edifice” should be constructed next.  In this way, a wholly individualized, ad hoc approach to education can still be fairly systematic.  But the thing that should be systematic is not the curriculum, but the child’s mental development.

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