Unobvious concepts that are important, but rarely taught

To understand history, geography, fiction, and a whole lot else besides, it is fairly important that children be taught in considerable depth certain practical yet universal concepts about history that, I think, are rarely explained in much very depth:

Gathering (as in “hunting and gathering”)
Animal skins (and tanning)
Nomadic life
Shepherding, spinning, weaving, dyeing
Plowing, sowing, reaping/harvesting
Mining, smelting, smithing
Religion: how polytheist peoples thought of gods, why they turned to gods, and why religion became important to them
Lord or chieftain
City-states, small kingdoms and fiefdoms
What “empire” means, and what an empire was like (beyond lines on a map)
Trading and bartering
The marketplace (e.g., agora)
Ignorance: what life was like in the absence of geographical, historical, and scientific knowledge

I could go on. I could make similar lists for other subjects: science, geography, etc. I find a pattern here: these are abstract concepts. Explaining them to children might seem daunting. But of course many of them are no more difficult to explain than telling a story; it just requires a little creativity. I think the reason that schools avoid teaching such things in more depth to students is that–no offense, I hope–most educators are very concrete-bound themselves. They haven’t been well trained in thinking conceptually or abstractly, much less teaching their charges to think this way. So textbooks, and teachers using them, are often content merely to offer definitions, which are often themselves ill-understood, when what is needed is a long discussion.

H. and I have read a lot of history in the last year and I get the sense that only now is he starting to get a proper handle on such very basic, crucial concepts as trade and polytheism. If you don’t have a fairly firm grasp on what the above concepts really entail, by which I mean more than a poorly-understood definition, you simply won’t understand history, period. That is why it will be boring to you.

One of the main reasons we get “deeply” into certain subjects (lately, South America, as we begin our systematic study of geography) is that with each new book on the subject, more of such “basics” become clear. With the first few books, I spend quite a bit of time explaining what various words mean, and even taking breaks to show illustrative videos and such. After the third or fourth book on a subject, we suddenly find ourselves not only understanding much better but enjoying ourselves more and able to learn more quickly. Another example. If you can believe it, I’m reading Howard Pyle’s The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood to 5-year-old H.  Here is a sample:

Then he chose the stoutest bow among them all, next to Robin’s own, and a straight gray goose shaft, well-feathered and smooth, and stepping to the mark–while all the band, sitting or lying upon the greensward, watched to see him shoot–he drew the arrow to his cheek and loosed the shaft right deftly, sending it so straight down the path that it clove the mark in the very center. “Aha!” cried he, “mend thou that if thou canst”; while even the yeomen clapped their hands at so fair a shot.

“That is a keen shot indeed,” quoth Robin. “Mend it I cannot, but mar it I may, perhaps.”

As I re-read this, I think I must be crazy to try to read this to a 5-year-old.  But he has repeatedly declared he likes it, a lot, and has repeatedly requested it and has never said “no” to it.  (We started reading it when I went looking for a simple version of Robin Hood to download, after he had read two even simpler versions to himself; but I found only the Howard Pyle version.  So I said, “Listen to this,” and read a few paragraphs.  Then he urged me to go on.)  When we started reading it, I had to explain everything.  Now, a lot of this is a kind of cant and is not hard to interpret, when you understand the oft-repeated archaisms.  Stripped of archaisms, it wouldn’t be too hard.  So while in the first couple chapters I had to explain things like “thou canst” and “yeoman,” which are used all the time, by the time we got to chapter 5, I was left explaining mostly the things that are conceptually difficult, like “mend it I cannot, but mar it I may.”  I simply offer a quick gloss in such a case; I might say, “OK, ‘mend’ means ‘fix,’ and ‘mar’ means ‘hurt.’  So he means: ‘I cannot fix it–I cannot get a better shot with my arrow–but I can get close enough to hurt it–to hurt the arrow.’”  Then often I’ll read the original sentence again.  (By the way, it helps tremendously that we are reading this on the iPad, so we can look up words instantly, with a tap.  I’m not sure we’d have the patience for this without the iPad.)  H. might be a weird kid, but he rarely gets tired of these explanations.

By the way, if you were a zealot for “constructivist” theory, I imagine you might say, “Hey, you’re explaining everything to your child.  That’s direct instruction.  He won’t learn as much that way.”  Our experience shows this to be completely wrong.  He reads over an hour a day to himself–right now he’s on Harry Potter #2–well, I’ll explain more further down.

The point is that even supposedly “advanced” subjects, and texts like Robin Hood, are accessible after just a little explanation of the cant necessary to make sense of it.

This is one of the reasons I’m rather excited about putting the software behind Reading Bear to use creating explanations of the concepts necessary to understand, well, everything.  If I am right, a child who goes through my history concept primer from beginning to end will be able to pick up history books and really start to appreciate and make sense of them.  And again, I hope I’ll have time do this for many different subjects, not just history–but then, it’s not even quite a sure thing that I’ll start the project at all.

I’m also interested in what will happen when I start explaining abstract “philosophical” concepts to children, which I think will not be very difficult to do.  I think we may be very surprised by the increased sophistication of the thinking of children, when they are trained with the right materials.

One last topic in this rambling post.  I’m sure some people (who wouldn’t make it this far in the post, probably) would react to all this by saying, “What is the point? Suppose you can teach a child to be able to understand history at age five.  Why would you want to?  Why not wait until they are older and can understand the concepts more naturally, with less difficulty?  Don’t you think they’ll benefit from the training more then?”

I think about this sort of objection a fair bit, but I really don’t find it compelling, because it seems to be based on a confusion, or a false assumption.  The assumption is that the concepts in question are especially difficult, and for this reason it’s especially easier to teach them later on.  I deny this.  What’s hard about explaining what weaving, for example, is?  Can’t a three-year-old, when confronted with the materials and process of weaving, more or less understand what’s going on?  I’ve seen this over and over teaching H., and I am seeing it start again with E.–where a concept traditionally taught much later is introduced entertainingly and effectively early on, in an “age-appropriate” way, and as a result the child is able to understand things that are thought to be appropriate only for older children.

It’s not just because I want to get my boys learning sooner, so that they can learn more in the long run, although that’s definitely part of it.  It’s also because I remember, I really do, being frustrated with my teachers, thinking that they should just explain stuff more.  I thought I could have learned a lot more, and I still think so, if teachers and texts had simply taken more care to explain all the various little things that are unexplained.  In this age in which constructivist pedagogy reigns, there is even more of a notion that children should just figure things out for themselves–which sounds rather like they shouldn’t be taught.  The pedagogical notion, which back then I found frustrating, seemed to be that children learn best when they are left to figure things out for themselves, heroically.  But a lot of times, kids never do figure stuff out, not ever.  They just end up being ignorant, and increasingly frustrated because they never understood something that someone could have explained to them when they were five.  This is why most people hate history: they simply don’t get it.

A “constructivist” argument, as I understand it, would be that the motivation for learning and the quality of understanding are much greater if a child is left free to figure things out for himself.  Now, I do think a child should be asked open-ended questions, given experiments, and generally trained to think a problem through.  But the amount of knowledge there is to learn is massive.  (Knowing this, constructivists end up dismissing substantial learning as “mere memorization,” a tendency that causes me no end of frustration.)  If you want a sophisticated understanding of the world, it is a fool’s errand–literally–to try to construct it on your own, as if you could reproduce the entire history of thought by yourself, as a child.

Moreover, the more that concepts are simply and clearly explained to a student, the greater his toolset to let him figure things out on his own.  As I said, H. is now reading on his own over an hour a day, and he’s reading chapter books well above his grade level.  I regularly quiz him on these.  Not only his memory but his comprehension of what he reads always surprises me.  When I ask him “deeper” questions, regarding things like motivations and general explanations, he is also well above grade level.  The answers seem to come quite naturally to him.  He can also articulate his answers very well, using advanced vocabulary and complex grammatical structures.  I credit my tendency to explain everything to him, so that he has a very explicit understanding of nearly everything he has learned, and especially concepts.  If the constructivist objection to my schemes (at this point I am only imagining such an objection) carried any water, then one would expect to see H. unmotivated and frustrated in his lack of ability to understand what he reads with any sophistication.  But I have no complaints about his motivation level, and his ability to understand is great.  I think that when he’s ten or twelve, he’ll be reading and understanding philosophy and thinking more deeply than a lot of people.

Anyway, my great curiosity, which I hope to explore with a Reading Bear “concept encyclopedia for children,” is whether it is possible to impart “precocious” levels of understanding to very young children about all sorts of things, simply by systematically exploring concepts.  I think so, and I think it’s worth a try to see if such a resource is well-used and -liked by people.






Please do dive in (politely). I want your reactions!

3 responses to “Unobvious concepts that are important, but rarely taught”

  1. The author of the second article in this document convinced me that explicit vocabulary instruction is a powerful tool.

    Right now we’re looking at baby/preschool encyclopedias (mostly DK stuff from the 1990s) and naming the objects one-by-one. My 18-month-old loves it. He wants to know what everything is called.

    I’m also implementing this sticky-note scheme for storybook vocabulary.

    1. Great idea.

      I basically make it a point to explain briefly all possibly puzzling words we come across. This is very low-tech but possibly more effective than any other way of teaching vocabulary, because it is brief and in-context and therefore, I suspect, highly impactful. Of course, I know H. learned a lot from my vocabulary presentations.

  2. GPC

    I’ve never understood this idea that when you reach a certain age you will somehow understand things more easily. It’s common sense that what you already know determines what you can know. A 5 year old with a base of knowledge in a particular subject will have greater understanding than a 15 year old who doesn’t.

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