Why is spaced repetition not better known?

Larry Sanger

Suppose a method let you remember things with a 95% success rate–in other words, whatever information you’ve put into a system, you’d have a 95% chance of recalling it–and this effect is permanent, as long you continue to use the method. That would be quite remarkable, wouldn’t it?

Well, there is such a method, called spaced repetition. This is the method used by such software as Supermemo, Anki, Mnemosyne, and Memrise.

The figure, 95%, is very impressive to me. I’ve been thinking about it lately, as I delve into the world (it is a whole world) of spaced repetition. Ordinarily, we require much less out of our metrics. 95% is practically a guarantee. With just 15 or 30 minutes a day, adding maybe 20 questions per day, you can virtually guarantee that you will remember the answers.

In particular, I am wondering why spaced repetition is not used more widely in education. Of course, I’m not the first to wonder why. The answer is fairly simple, I think.

The more I read from and interact with educationists and even homeschoolers, the more I am struck by the fact that many of them hold knowledge in contempt (q.v.). Of course, they will cry foul if you call them on this (q.v.), but that doesn’t change the fact (q.v.). So naturally I expect them to sneer at me when I express amazement at the 95% recall figure. I can hear the “arguments” already: this is “rote memorization” (not if you understand what you’re memorizing); education is not about amassing mere facts (not just that, no); it suffices that you can just look answers up (wrong); we should be teaching critical thinking, not mere memorization (why not both?).

I am not going to defend the value of declarative knowledge (again) here. I simply wanted to observe what teachers (including homeschooling parents) could do with spaced repetition, if they wanted to. They could spend a half hour (or less) every day adding questions to their students’ “stack” of questions; then assign them to review questions (both new and old) for a half hour.

Imagine that you did that, adding 20 questions per day, five days a week, 36 weeks per year (the usual U.S. school year), for six years. This is not impossible to manage, I gather, and would not take that long, per day. Yet by sixth grade, your students would have 21,600 facts in recall with about 95% accuracy. These would merely be the sorts of facts contained in regular textbooks.

Next, consider an exam that drills on a random selection of 100 of those facts. The students who used spaced repetition faithfully would probably get an A on the exam. That, I suspect, is much better than could be expected even from top students who used ordinary methods of study.

Would students who spent 30 minutes out of every class day on this sort of review benefit from it?

I think the answer is pretty obvious.

Memory method

Larry Sanger

(The following is edited and elaborated from my comments in this BrillKids Forum discussion. The BrillKids Forum is awesome. The method we follow is greatly updated in this post.)

I had an interesting conversation with Dr. Miles Jones, an accelerated learning and memorization expert. I asked him for his advice on how we might best remember the things that we are learning in our book-reading. After all, H. and I read an awful lot of books, and while I’m sure some of it does sink in, most of it becomes implicit memory (the sort of memory that makes you go, “Oh, yeah, I remember that,” when someone reminds you of a fact–but which you can’t articulate when someone asks you about the fact). This strikes me as a perennial problem for education, one that teachers seem to assume is solved by exams and finals. As homeschoolers, we don’t have to do exams, so I am free to explore other, possibly more efficient ways to solve the problem.

Now, apart from those exams, most of us go through our schooling with very little memory work, and we don’t think it’s pointless to read books just because we’ll forget most of them. If we didn’t read them, we’d be really ignorant. So if that’s how it has to be with my boys, I’m resigned to their fate. They’ll still be well-educated.

But what if there is a way to retain more of what we learn?  Obviously, always re-reading books after reading them once will help do the trick. But ultimately, you can’t read as much that way and it’s not clear that you would learn a lot more that way.

Anyway, Dr. Jones gave me an intriguing answer. He said that you’d review the information one hour, one day, one week, one month, and one year later. Seems this is something that people in the field often say. He recommended that I highlight the info I want H. to retain as we read, then read the highlighted portions into a recorder, then we simply listen to the recording a day, a week, a month, etc., later.

So, never one to pass up trying out some easily testable idea, and since I have a nice handheld recorder and am an unimaginably fantastic user of it (not really, but I know how to edit sound files and stuff), I decided to give it a try.

For a couple of days, I was doing 12 minutes of summaries per day. I quickly calculated that, while continuing on that way might seem admirably ambitious, it’s really just plain crazy.  I mean, it’s OK as long as you’re reviewing just one of these recordings per day. But suppose you limit the recordings to 10 minutes a day, and each day you are reviewing recordings from a day ago, a week ago, a month ago, a season ago, a year ago, and two years ago. That would be 60 minutes per day of listening to yourself summarize stuff that you read…that long ago.  Have you ever heard of anyone doing such a thing?

Now, H. expressed great enthusiasm after listening to our first recordings. We talked about it and he said basically that it was a lot of fun, because it reminded him of what he knows. His reaction surprised me. I thought it was pretty interesting, most of the time, but maybe not that exciting. I did see two great advantages aside from the long-term memory aspect. First, it immediately reinforces what we just read. That alone might make the practice worth doing. Second, H. (when he pays attention to my summary while I make it–he doesn’t always) gets a very lively idea of what a good summary “narration” looks like. I flatter myself that I am good at summarizing things I’ve just read quickly and accurately, and picking out the important points.

But I just can’t imagine that we’ll want to listen to a full hour of this stuff every day. Eventually, I saw reason, as I’ll explain further down.

Then I thought, suppose it were (somehow) practical. But is it really desirable? Well, there are several considerations here. The first is knowledge. Knowledge is good, and we want to maximize it. Second is love of knowledge, or motivation–a different thing. We don’t want to burn out kids (or parents) by requiring too much of anything or more than tolerable of what is tedious. Third is pleasure, we want life fun, especially life for children. Fourth is opportunity cost–even if it is in all a benefit to do, would the time we spend on this be better spent on something else (like reading more books)?

Would it be worthwhile in this sense? I tend to believe Dr. Jones. I’ve heard his advice before, I don’t know where, and it’s very plausible that jogging your memory according to that pattern would help you retain information that otherwise would be forgotten. Well, if so, it would be extremely valuable. It might even be worth some unpleasantness, or at least foregoing of more intense pleasures. After all, what we’re talking about is remembering a hell of a lot more stuff than you would remember otherwise. Suppose that someone could wave a magic wand and suddenly you’d remember, instead of 20% of what you learned in school, more like 60%. (I’m picking numbers out of the air, but you get the idea.) You know that, right now, you’d be a lot better-informed than you are. Having a handle on all that information would in turn enable you to draw connections and make insights that are unavailable to you because, well, you’ve forgotten so much. Reflecting on this makes me wonder if this is something that we should all be doing, even as adults. Should we be spending an hour each day simply reminding ourselves of what we have already learned? I don’t know. It sounds like a fascinating idea to consider, though. (I have since been informed that some people actually do this.)

Another consideration I’ve been thinking about, however, is that we might very well achieve a similar effect simply by reading increasingly difficult books on the same subjects that we’ve already studied. In this way, maybe we don’t have to review, and we get a similar effect. Perhaps–but I don’t think so. Even someone who revisits the same fact four times in his education, in increasingly difficult contexts, might still forget it because it never, on any of the passes, makes it into long-term memory. But the method Dr. Jones describes is designed specifically to get those facts into long-term memory. Reviewing info a day and a week later, in particular, seems important to getting it into long-term memory. My guess is the month and three-month reviews will set the neural pathways quite well. Then one will likely come across the information later in one’s education, and if one is still using the same memory technique, and one has forgotten it, then it will be revived all over again. Of course, that assumes that the technique would be used long-term…

So anyway, I was off and running. That was about five weeks ago. After about five days, H. was very excited about the memory method. He said twice that he was grateful to Dr. Jones for suggesting it. (H. is a very weird kid.) But after a week, H. started resisting, a little. Then he went back to being fully supportive, then resisting, and so forth. A couple times, I’ve started talking like maybe we’ll quit and he quickly backtracked and said he likes recordings, he learns a lot from them, and so forth. It effortful to listen to these recordings, but it’s a “good hurt.” He and I both are learning a lot.

A week in, I wrote, “I am 90% sure that within a week to a month, we’re going to either give up on this or completely change it.” Well, it’s been a month, and we’ve made only one significant change: I made a big effort to reduce the recording amount per day to no more than eight minutes. Rarely, it’s more and often it’s closer to five and sometimes three. Let me put this in terms of the length of time spent summarizing individual readings: instead of three minutes to summarize a reading that took 20 minutes, I summarize in 2 or 1.5. Shorter readings get just a minute or less. There are some books that are just really hard to summarize so quickly, and I indulge in longer summaries. Anyway, using shorter summaries makes the whole thing much more doable. This did require that I reduce the amount of information I put into recordings, but really that’s OK; the big important points are the ones we really want to remember anyway, of course.

I have tried to get H. to do summaries. I have tried to train him, give him examples, explain about the main idea, etc. We have been practicing outlining stories, and he’s not bad at doing that, with some help from me. But none of this training makes it feasible for him to do summaries on the tape recorder. Actually, there was one that he did that was actually a summary rather than a word-for-word reading with commentary, out of a half-dozen tries. So, if we want to do this memory method, then for now, I have to make the recordings. I expect I’ll continue to have to do them for at least another year or two. When he starts doing more reading to himself (when I start reading more to the baby at the table instead of him–which I suspect will be reasonably soon), either he won’t do summaries of those readings, or he’ll have to learn to do them quickly and accurately (seems like a non-starter right now), or we’ll have to figure out something else, I don’t know what.

In case someone is interested in technique/how-to, here are a few more notes.

I summarize only nonfiction and poetry, not fiction (except for myth–I treated Norse myth like nonfiction). We’ll read, say, 20 minutes during breakfast, and then I’ll wander away from the noisy family and take a few minutes to make the recording (often yelling to H. and others to be quiet). I don’t mark up the books, because it isn’t necessary. I keep a thumb on the Pause/Record button, and record only when I know what I want to say, and pause as soon as I run out of things to say. Whether I summarize or simply pull out interesting facts depends on the kind of nonfiction. For example, with the Usborne Encyclopedia of World History, there’s no summarizing it because it’s not a narrative, so I just record the most important facts. But with the Look-It-Up Book of Presidents, a summary usually hits the factual high points too. When we read poems (Piping Down the Valleys Wild, these days), we usually read from 5-10 poems, depending on how many we really try to analyze, and then what I do is simply ask H. which one he wants to record. If we read a famous poem, I will record that one in any case, which means that yesterday I recorded two poems; that’s OK, because kid poems are short and are nice to listen to in the recording. He often picks or goes along with a famous one. I find I have to speak with a very clear voice, i.e., not slurring and aspirating consonants, or the recording can be difficult to understand. Speaking too quickly is a mistake, but so is using lots of um’s and pauses. The most efficient way all around (to keep recording times down but also to make a listenable recording) is to speak clearly and deliberately, but without long pauses. Brief pauses are necessary for the listener to be able to mentally process the recording. It also helps for listenability if you keep the recording as dramatic or at least as interestingly worded as possible. It would be nice if the recordings word made by a professional voice person, but since that’s not possible, just try to sound clear, convincing, engaged, maybe excited, but definitely not bored.

I use a Sony Digital Voice Recorder, I think it cost me something like $200 back when I was recording music sessions. It comes with some pretty good software (“Digital Voice Editor”), which makes it easy to save recordings quickly, organize them, and convert recording formats if necessary. At first I was saving recordings to wav format, but this increased the file size so I decided to stick with Sony’s proprietary .msv format, which combines high quality with low file size. As long as I have the software, it’s easier to go with this than to convert to wav. I also used to combine the day’s recordings automatically (which the software makes it easy to do), but H. didn’t like that, and I also found it somehow satisfying (as opposed to annoying) to start each short recording individually.

As to how I organize the recordings: I have a “Recordings” folder. Each day gets its own new folder, where I put the day’s three to six recordings. It’s easy enough to find the recordings from a week ago. After we’ve listened to the 1-week recording, I transfer it to the “To review one month” folder. After we’ve listened to the recording made one month ago (I go with the same numbered day last month, resigning myself to some confusion as there are greater or fewer days at the end of months…it’ll all work out), I transfer that to a “To review three months” folder. It’s usually easy enough to find the recording to review–it’s the oldest one in any given folder (together with yesterday’s recording).

Sometimes we don’t get around to listening to yesterday’s recording after dinner (the reserved time) so we do it early the next day.

I have noticed that it takes a considerable amount of attention to stay focused throughout what is now 15-25 minutes of recordings to listen to. The recordings are, after all, nothing but information. The only reason we can stick with it is that it does, after all, remind us of something we read, and that usually has some interest for us. Sometimes I have to settle H. down…he is only five, after all…I’m not meaning to brag, but I am sure that most kids wouldn’t be able to do this. As hyper and independent as he can be, H. actually has a remarkably good attention span and he’s a very geeky kid. Just as I thought he would be. (To illustrate that further, we recently started learning/playing with Scratch, a programming language learning program from MIT, and he just plays with it endlessly as he would a game. I’m not sure if he’s learning much, but, well, he’s learning something…) Baby E. is very different, we can and do read him books, but not like I read to H. I simply can’t sit down with him anytime, the way I did with H., and read any number of books–even though I try pretty often. He has to be in the mood and it’s only one or two board books at a time. He’s also more extraverted and sociable. So if we can do this with baby E. when he is five, I’ll be very surprised.

As to the “success” of the memory method, I still haven’t tested H. on much since we first started the memory method a month ago. I am very sure that he does not remember 100% or even 80% of the facts, in the sense that I might ask a straightforward short answer question based on some statement made in the recordings, and he would give me a more or less complete and correct answer. My guess is that the number is closer to 50%. Still, I do have the distinct impression that he’s learning significantly more because of these recordings than if we had not used them.

I have had one confirming bit of evidence. We were going through the Story of the World (Vol. 2, we’re 2/3 of the way through this…along with the other 3+ history sources we’re covering at the same time) test book orally. We did some quizzes over material we read over a month ago, and some quizzes over material we covered in recordings. He didn’t get 100% on the latter (several of the questions weren’t even covered in the recordings) but he definitely did better.

I also had the impression that the questions he did best on (i.e., he was most confident on, or said the answer before the multiple choice options were given, or was confident of the answer and turned out to be correct when I wasn’t sure, etc.) were questions over information that appeared in multiple sources we’ve read. Whether this better performance is due to sheer repetition, or having the information embedded in different, complementary contexts, or something else, I do think it’s a good idea to use multiple sources when learning history, science, geography, and other such subjects. We find it indispensible to use multiple math systems concurrently as well, he simply wouldn’t understand math nearly as well if we weren’t using Singapore and MEP and 2+2 is not 5 (almost done with this).

Still, doing recordings definitely seems to be highly beneficial memory training, so far. We’ll see if we can keep it up for the “one season” and “one year” reviews–doesn’t seem likely, but it’s possible. Then we’ll really have a good idea of how beneficial this method is. One thing seems fairly sure to me already: it won’t give you perfect memory of everything you’ve read. It will simply improve your recall and ultimately deepen your understanding. While doing this, we started reading about physics in depth. We’ve read a lot about Newton’s three laws. The combination of reading about them in 4-5 different books (really! It’s amazing how many accessible, simple explanations of physics are out there!) and listening to summaries of all of these as well has really helped them to sink in. The proof will come in a year–we’ll see if H. (or I!) can remember them well enough to explain them then, long after we’ve moved on to chemistry.

The uses of Reading Bear

Larry Sanger

After reading some feedback from a recent survey I performed on the Reading Bear website, it strikes me that some people don’t understand how to use the site, despite the availability of help with this, including a help video.

I think I understand the trouble people are having. The trouble is that there are many different options and many ways through the same material. So what I think I need to do is to add a section to the help page explaining about use cases–in other words, advice to people in particular situations. Here’s a draft for your more immediate consumption, addressed to teachers, homeschoolers, and parents of very small children.

What path should I take through Reading Bear?

How you should use Reading Bear depends on your situation. Let’s address some cases.

As a classroom supplement for a phonics program. Suppose you’ve already got a rigorous phonics curriculum in your pre-K, Kindergarten, or First Grade class, and you don’t want to give up the curriculum, but Reading Bear looks great to you. In that case, you’d take a few minutes out to match, as best as you can, the scope and sequence of your program to the Reading Bear scope and sequence. Not all phonics programs follow the same methods or introduce the same rules, but there are often similarities or useful overlap. For maximum use in individual workstations, have your kids begin with “Sound It Out Slowly” and, if they find they don’t need that preliminary practice, tell them to switch to “Sound It Out Quickly.” If they don’t need words sounded out for them, then have them switch to “Let Me Sound It Out.” If they can already decode the words in a set, and you want to use Reading Bear for reinforcement, then they could use “Silent Flashcards,” the review presentations, and the quizzes for that. Note that the reviews and the quizzes are different (randomized) each time you open them. The sentences and videos in “Audio Sentences” can be used as a little reinforcing treat, if students like them. Finally, if the students are advanced and just want some fun practice, they can use “Silent Sentences.” While the sentences are not leveled, they are at a low (1st-3rd grade) reading level. If students get stuck on a word, they can simply click on it and the pronunciation dictionary both sounds out and blends the word.

As a classroom supplement for a whole language program. If your class has only limited exposure to phonics, and your focus is more on student reading of leveled texts and teacher read-alouds, then you might want to use Reading Bear–which is 100% free–as a quick, efficient introduction to systematic phonics. When we have finished creating our presentations (we’re hard at work, but it takes time!), the site will teach a complete set of phonics rules following a painless, yet effective and proven method (it is basically a digital version of Flesch’s method from Why Johnny Can’t Read). We recommend that you use the procedure outlined here (see “Steps to Follow”).  In individual work stations, let students understand that they should stay on a presentation only as long as they have to. If they have mastered a set of words, and are getting 14 or 15 out of 15 on the quiz for a presentation, then move on. We are confident that with just 10 minutes a day, your little readers could be recognizing words with renewed confidence.

As a resource for remedial work. A number of remedial reading educators have praised Reading Bear. It is well-known that what many poor readers need is to have the phonics rules of written English made extremely clear. They also often have trouble blending words. While Reading Bear is a brand new program and so no studies have yet been done, these problems are things that it seems we can help with. Reading Bear is, first and foremost, a systematic phonics site. Rule are simple, and typically illustrated with a few dozen examples. Our emphasis is on making phonics rules second nature. We also do something that no other free phonics program does–sound out every word that is introduced, at two speeds, and blend it slowly, before reading it at full speed. This teaches both the individual parts of words and how they come together as a whole. So we believe Reading Bear’s unique strength, along with its combination of phonics and vocabulary work, is in its power to teach blending. We are sure that remedial reading instructors are capable of determining how best to use the resources of Reading Bear, but we recommend that students be allowed to go through the program at their own pace, not moving forward until they have achieved mastery. “Mastery” here means reading words rapidly and accurately, without sounding them out, or sounding them out only “in the head.”

One last thing to teachers. A couple teachers have complained that Reading Bear moves too fast. In their classwork, some teachers can spend a long time on a single word, and they can’t get past the fact that Reading Bear, even in the “Sound It Out Slowly” setting, covers a single word in a half-minute at most. If there is a disagreement here, it is methodological. But first, we do assume that students have completely mastered the consonant sounds and do not have any trouble reproducing a sound immediately on seeing a letter. Once students are at that comfort level with the letters, the Reading Bear method can teach students a rule rather than teaching words. For purposes of teaching a rule, going through many examples quickly and explicitly, with the aim of making use of the rule automatic, is more effective than a slower, analytical pace. If a student has indeed mastered the consonant sounds and then learns the short /a/ sound from the Reading Bear presentation, she should have no trouble decoding the words. She will not have to memorize individual words.

As a homeschooling program for complete beginners. Reading Bear is perfect for one-on-one work. You work at your own pace. But we do not start at the very beginning. The first step to learning to read, using phonics, is to gain absolute mastery of the letter sounds–not just familiarity, but mastery. So if your students cannot reproduce the sounds of the consonants instantly (the vowels don’t matter so much, because they are highly variable and are taught in phonics), you could have them practice the consonants with books or with these videos. When they can instantly and reliably say the most common sounds (hard c, hard g) of any consonant upon being presented with it, they’re ready for Reading Bear. Once they’re ready, if they’re between 4 and 6, we recommend easing students into the program with “Sound It Out Slowly,” gradually switch to “Sound It Out Quickly” and “Let Me Sound It out,” and aim for mastery. They’ll pick up the rules automatically after they see many examples. Don’t go onto the next presentation until your student really understands the previous one and can read the words without pausing to sound them out. The rules are cumulative after the first five, so there are definite advantages to doing them in order. If you’re using Reading Bear as a supplement to your main phonics program, however, you might want to do them “out of order”–see above under “As a classroom supplement for a phonics program.”

As an early-education program for preschoolers, toddlers, and even babies. Reading Bear is highly visual and introduces its information explicitly and at a pace that can hold the interest of the very young–your mileage may vary, but we know of many small children who sit still for Reading Bear. Very young children are at a golden age in which they can absorb complex information effortlessly. This is how they learn to speak without any lessons–and even in multiple languages, or sign language. Writing is, after all, just another and rather clearer form of this very complex phenomenon we call language. If you think about it, there is no reason to suppose small children are incapable of decoding written language if they can pick up French, Spanish, or Mandarin, or sign language, along with spoken English. Moreover, this is the experience of a rapidly growing community of people who use methods like Glenn Doman’s and products like Your Baby Can Read.

While there is no hard-nosed research on methods of teaching babies to read (see this discussion), there is a lot of individual experience shared in books like Doman’s (and one by Timothy Kailing) and in the BrillKids.com Forums. Reading Bear can be used with some of these methods. Simply playing one part (i.e., the A, B, C, etc. parts under the title) of the “short a” presentation using the “Sound It Out Slowly” setting to a two-year-old, once per day, can be enough to let the child infer phonics rules and, eventually, learn to read. But by itself, Reading Bear is unlikely to have this effect. The child should be exposed to his ABCs and letter sounds and be read to daily, and in other ways benefit from a rich language environment. It also helps greatly to point to the words as you read them to your child, even a very small child who can’t read at all. Finally, don’t expect immediate, dramatic results, and don’t test your child–doing so tends to put small children off, and increase stress levels, we have found. Simply think of your early language development tasks–including use of Reading Bear–as just fun enrichment activities, and enjoy the journey.

Update about the boys, part 2 – February 2012

Larry Sanger

Since it’s been over a month since I updated you about H., it’s about time I updated you about baby E., who is now 16 months.

First, I’m happy to report that E. is able to read! He can read most words that he can say out loud (although he doesn’t say much–see below), and he can show that he recognizes several other words.  Here are some of the words he says, with a few associations:

“Ball” – he is often saying “ball” when we are downstairs near the family room, which is usually messy with toys.  I think he knows that “ball” means ball, but he sometimes seems to use it to mean “play,” because as soon as I get out a ball he says “no” and goes to a different toy.  In just the last couple weeks he has started saying “no” a lot.

“Moon” – for some reason he has a deep fascination with the Moon.  I think it made an impression on him when his Mama pointed it out to him a few months ago, on a few different occasions.  He often “requests” (well, he points and says “moon,” and I guess) my “Moon for Kids” video, which he usually watches partway before losing interest.  He seems to use “moon” to mean anything in space.  For a long time he was saying “moon” while pointing at either the sun or the moon, but now he seems to know that the sun, at least, is different from the moon.  He does call any picture of a planet or other moon a “moon,” and sometimes just a picture of a galaxy will elicit the word.

“Eye” – now this is a strange one.  Baby reads and pronounces it “eye-t” whether he sees “eye” or “eyes.” The weird thing is I could swear that H. also pronounced “eye” in exactly the same way when he was a baby.

“Mama” – when he was about six months old, he was using “Mama” and “Papa” discriminately.  (He used to slap or pat me in the morning while saying “Papa.”  I woke up quite a few times this way.)  Then he stopped using “Papa” and about four months ago or so we discovered that he was using “Mama” to refer to me. I can ask him, “Where is Papa?” and he will pat me.   But it seems easier for him to call me “Mama,” so he has been doing so.  He seems somewhat amused by my repeatedly insisting that I am Papa, and that person over there is Mama.  (Sigh.)  Actually, in the last week, he has started whispering “Papa” in reference to me, heavily aspirating the P’s, which I think means he doesn’t understand how to put aspirated P’s together with the voiced “ah” sound in “Papa.”

His name – he can say it and read it.  Often when he reads the word, he doesn’t say his name (he’s only said his name 3-4 times that I recall), he just pats his chest.

“Nose” – he sniffs upon when reading it, or points at his nose.

“Lips” – he moves his lips, a little like giving a kiss.

“Dog” – he pants like a dog.  (This is very cute.)

“Cat” – he meows like a cat.  (This is also very cute.)

A – lately, he has liked identifying the letter A whenever he has seen it.  “A,” which he sometimes pronounces “eye,” also seems to be his abbreviated way of saying or asking for the ABCs, like ABC videos we watch.

There are quite a few others, familiar to users of Your Baby Can Read, that he has read, but he also has indicated that he knows some other short vowel words from ReadingBear.org, like “fan,” “tap,” and “egg.”

I don’t think he is reading phonetically yet.  While he can pick out many more words than I have listed here, he often refuses to play or gets it wrong when I give him several non-obvious, not-totally-familiar words to choose from.

Like his big brother at the same age, he still doesn’t use very many words and rarely speaks in sentences.  He does occasionally come out with sentences, usually “I want” or “Mama go” or something like that.  His performance from last September, “I get the ball,” was unusual.  He did use several other sentences, usually “I get” or “I want” something, for a long time, then he stopped using sentences for several months.  It’s as if he were trying harder to talk when he was 10 or 12 months, but since then, he has gotten a bit lazy–maybe he proved to himself that he could talk and now he just isn’t so interested in developing the ability.

In terms of comprehension or vocabulary, he has shown that he knows a lot more words than he can say.  I play simple word games with him often, asking him to pick words or point to objects either in books or lying on the floor, and he clearly does know a lot of what he sees in baby books.  For example, he could identify red (the color), the numeral 4, lots of animals, etc.

Along the same lines, he seems to know at least most of the letters of the alphabet so far.  In the last few weeks I have had him identify letters on H’s old LeapFrog Alphabet Bus, just one at a time (his attention span is very short), and he was able to identify the A, E, and X.  (I said, “Press A” and he pressed the A.)

As to how he’s learned these things, I’ll cover that below.  I haven’t tested him systematically–it’s play, not scientific testing, and only as long as baby wants to participate.  I really don’t know how far his abilities extend, and I am not so eager to find out that I would subject him to a lot of testing.

Now a little about other abilities and personality.  Except when a longer attention span is needed, he is a pretty cooperative and tractable little guy, unlike H. at that age.  Whereas H. wasn’t very interested in building towers of blocks, and just wanted to knock mine over, E. quickly started imitating me in building some, and was able to build a tower of five blocks on his own, before we stopped.  We haven’t really practiced that either.  I guess that’s pretty good, for this age.  He also follows instructions.  I have told him to get down off a chair and he will.  H. often would not do that.  At the time, I thought he wasn’t understanding; I now suspect that he understood, and decided he didn’t want to.  But H. was also much more independent, and would play for hours at a time by poring through his baby and toddler books at age 16 months, whereas E. hangs quite a bit on Mama (which of course tires her out) and, to my disappointment, is not very interested in books.  But he does pick up books from time to time, on his own, and flips through them.

As with H., his mother speaks her native tongue exclusively to him while H. and I speak English almost exclusively.  Mama and I mostly speak English to each other.  H. does use a few words in his mother’s language, and clearly understands her, but most of the words he comes up with are English.  This is not surprising, because H. displayed the same pattern, although I think he used less of his “mother tongue” than baby has been using.  H., by the way, can understand and translate his mother’s language very well (much better than me), and can even read some in it, but has trouble speaking/answering in it.

H. and E. get along quite well.  I won’t get into all the details, but they seem to have a very healthy, normal relationship.

Quite apart from these “intellectual” skills, E. is definitely a bright little guy–quick on the uptake with his motor skills, quick to imitate, etc. He’s also a happy and funny baby.

Well, so much for what you might notice through interacting with him.  Now let me discuss what we’ve been doing with him, education-wise.

When we get up in the morning, while still in bed, I spend probably a half hour reading books and playing on the iPad with him.  Baby’s word for the iPad is “bop.”  It’s always “bop bop bop” whenever the iPad comes into view.  He loves the bop.  He strongly prefers the bop over books–which makes me wonder if having it around might have soured him somewhat on books.  When H. was 16 months, the iPad did not yet exist.

Now, for many months on the iPad, I was able to show him a variety of flashcard programs, videos, counting apps, and so forth.  But in the last two or three months or so, he’s been insufferable in how he opens one app (which…of course…he has learned to do) only to close it five seconds later, then open another, then close that and open the first, etc.  It’s very difficult to get him to concentrate on any one.  Once again it was rather different with H., who had a longer attention span for both books and videos.  As soon as he shows that he’s just bouncing around apps, I put the bop away.  I don’t want him getting into such bad habits; I also want to reward him for sticking with a task.  Occasionally he does stick with an app or a video for a few minutes, and then of course I let him.  And sometimes, he does get tired of the bop, and I can read a book to him, sometimes two or more books.

Here is a list of apps that he does stick with for a minute or two, if he’s sticking with any:

WatchKnow (selected videos, especially Elmo and India Arie singing the ABC song, counting songs (especially this one which he listens to over and over and over), and Peter Weatherall videos–thanks so much Peter, you’re a kind of genius! Did you know he’s a philosopher like me? Figures!)

Solar Walk – I said he’s very much into the Moon–well, this is one reason why.  He’ll sit and stare while I talk about different planets and moons, orbits, rotation, etc.  His main comment while watching all this is “Moon,” but I think he’s having slightly more complex thoughts than that.

Counting (iTot Apps) – Simple but effective, teaches both counting and names of common objects.  We’ve used this app maybe longer and more consistently than any other (for many months, every day for a few minutes day).  While he has lately become a bit tired of it, so we don’t look at it daily anymore, we still open it up regularly and he can now touch the items himself, even into the teens.

Various Kindergarten.com flashcard apps. These inspired the Reading Bear “interludes.”

SpongeWords – Simple but very well designed and often holds his attention when others won’t. (Still can’t figure out the speaker’s accent…)

Little Reader – Since he likes the LR software, it wasn’t at all surprising to me that he likes the LR app–again, even when others won’t hold his attention.

“Alphabets in the Zoo” (Googly) – E. was addicted to this alphabet video/app for many months but has gotten tired of it in the last couple months.

KidCalc (a really fantastic math app, by the way, even still for H.) – He likes the Counting Cards.

Apps that I thought he’d love, but really kind of doesn’t: Starfall ABCs (!?), various cute and well-designed animal apps, and Smart Baby Apps’ “First 1,000 Words” (damn it, if he liked this, we’d be set for content for a long time!).  We did use “DomanCards Mathematics” until one day he decided he didn’t like it anymore and that was the end of that.

As to books, his tolerance for them comes and goes.  He really has to be in the mood.  He tends to like the small Priddy board books, and he particularly liked the Tomie dePaola Little Mother Goose board book, The Hungry Caterpillar, The Three Bears by Byron Barton–all board books–and others from time to time.  The only regular paper book he seems to have time for is Go Dog Go. I try out a book on him every day, and some days he just isn’t interested.  I strongly suspect his interest will increase, however.  H. wasn’t interested in reading so much in the few months after he really started walking, too.

When H. was E.’s age, I read to him while his Mama fed him.  I’m still reading to H. at mealtime (and explaining things), and E. frequently is paying attention to us, more or less.  When H. gets up from the table, E. climbs into big brother’s seat.  He wants to do everything big brother does, of course.  Occasionally I do read to baby E. instead of H. at mealtime, but usually he doesn’t have patience for it, so I just go back to reading to H.  I do think I’ll start reading more at mealtime with baby–as soon as he is more tolerant of it.

After his daily nap, and often at other times when Mama needs a break, I find baby in my lap, saying, “Beah! Beah!”  That means Reading Bear.  He’s my biggest fan, I think.  When he doesn’t want to look at anything else, he still has time–and an extended attention span–for Reading Bear.  While we usually look at just 4-6 minutes or so, sometimes he’ll sit there for a full 15 minutes and we’ll look at one from beginning to end.  We use the “Sound It Out Slowly,” and with interludes turned on, the video voice-over turned on (he loves Melissa and for a while was waving when he saw her picture), and the “Can you read this?”-prompts turned off.  So it’s like a video.  I often talk about things that come up (as I do whenever we’re reading or watching anything).  So does E.  If he sees a picture of a cat, he will meow.  If he sees anything like the Moon, he says, “Moon.”

For a long time we were doing the Little Reader curriculum daily, and we still do that once a week or so.  I like it and E. often stays still for it.  I guess we stopped watching so often when he started asking for “Bear” so insistently whenever he saw the computer.  But we do plan to continue on to the end of the curriculum, which I think is excellent.  Doesn’t take long, either, something like three minutes.

By the way, a lot of critics of “baby reading” and very early education fail to realize or accept that, apart from reading books which they generally approve of, it doesn’t take long at all.  It is not done all day long, to the exclusion of play.  It is just a supplement.  Believe me, baby still has lots and lots of time to do baby stuff.  H., too, has lots of time to do little kid stuff.

As to videos, every day he still watches parts of a Your Baby Can Read video, a Brainy Baby video (especially ABCs), or a Baby Einstein video (for a while it was all On the Go all the time).  His habits of watching these are different from the habits H. followed–probably because I am not there.  The time I would have had to sit with him and narrate the videos is now spent, I guess, homeschooling H., and while baby’s Mama does narrate them a bit (in her language), it’s really not enough.  But he doesn’t watch them very much, and his attention for the videos is limited–after five or ten minutes, he’s wandering off.  He prefers to be riding around on his sit-on truck or throwing the ball or following H. around or bothering Mama.  My guess is that he doesn’t spend more than 15 minutes a day actually looking at the television set.  (Of course, he gets other screen time when looking at Reading Bear and the bop.)

In short, things are looking well for baby E.  He’s started actually reading and seems to know lots of baby-accessible stuff, from one source or another, even if he isn’t so keen on books right now.

Efficiency as a basic educational principle

Larry Sanger

It occurred to me that there is a simple pedagogical principle that explains the appeal of very early learning, homeschooling, and certain (not all) traditional methods of education, as well as why certain other methods of education strike me as a waste of time.

I hereby dub the following the principle of individual efficiency:

Seize every opportunity to help the individual student to learn efficiently–which occurs when the student is interested in something not yet learned but is capable of learning it, and especially when learning it makes it easier to learn more later.

In other words, when an individual student is capable of learning efficiently, seize the opportunity.  If students spend too much idle time when they could be learning, if they are learning only a little, if they are not interested in what is being taught, if they have already learned it, or if they will not understand it, then they aren’t learning efficiently.  When a certain approach ceases to conduce to efficient learning, try something else.

Why insert the word “individual” here?  Because “efficiency” in education has entailed, historically, the “industrial model” of education.  It might be an efficient use of resources for the state to pay teachers teach 35 students the same thing at once, but this is decidedly not the most efficient way for the individual student to learn.  More on this below.

So far, the principle is unremarkable.  But see how I apply the principle to a variety of educational issues.

1. Very early learning, by certain methods, is efficient learning. Under-fives, and even babies, are capable of learning much more than most people give them credit for.  Just for example, they are capable of learning to read.  Maybe more importantly, the use of books above all–but also flashcards, powerpoint presentations, videos, and iPad apps–can efficiently teach very young children vocabulary and basic concepts and skills that historically were not introduced until some years later.  A lot of old dogmas about “developmental appropriateness” are going by the wayside as parents discover ways to teach their tiny tots much earlier, but in a fun, engaging way.  Just bear in mind, I do not think that pressuring small children to learn is efficient.  That makes them lose interest–which is inefficient–and not just in the “pressured” subject, but in all learning.  Indeed, it is usually best to avoid pressure, whenever possible, regardless of age, which leads me to the next point…

2. Homeschooling’s main advantage is its higher potential for efficiency. In a homeschool (not a radical unschooling situation), parents can choose exactly the right books and other materials to match the student, both her interests and her capacities.  (I am by no means saying that most homeschoolers actually do this, though.  Just that they are free to.)  Endless sifting for exactly the right educational materials and methods is extremely important if you want to keep your student’s attention and interest, and to keep challenging her.  Done right, a homeschool involves constantly challenging the student, with no unnecessary review.  (But beneficial review, yes.)  Teaching my five-year-old homeschool student, I have developed a sense for what learning “feels like”: it seems challenging indeed, but not so difficult as to be boring or impossible; and it lasts for a limited length of time, about the length of my son’s attention span.  We rarely spend too much time on a subject, but when we study, we tend to  learn efficiently.  In my own schooling, in good public schools, learning was rarely so efficient.  As a result, my son is far better educated than I was at age five.

3. Unschooling, or at least “radical” unschooling, is often inefficient. Unschooling in its purest form entails allowing the child to choose both the subjects and the methods of study–and even whether to study at all.  The parent does, of course, support and foster the child’s pursuits.  It would be wonderful if it always worked.  Unschooling does hold some appeal to me, because I think it is extremely important that students enjoy learning–efficient learning can’t happen if it isn’t motivated learning.  Insofar as unschooling emphasizes listening to the student and getting heavy student input, I’m a fan.  But unschooling in its purer forms permits students to avoid learning subjects when they, and their future learning, could benefit hugely.  However much fun it might be for the student, however well it might prepare them for a particular trade, this is inefficient as a method of getting a liberal education.

4. Memorizing some facts is efficient. The reason students should memorize, for example, basic arithmetic facts is efficiency.  While I agree that they should be fully exposed to mathematical concepts and multiple methods of attack (understanding math is paramount), memorization of math facts is important because it makes it much easier to do higher math and science later.  Use of calculators in elementary math is sometimes defended on grounds that adults use calculators, too, and learning how to use them is efficient.  That may be, but it is far faster, and more efficient, to be able to do basic arithmetic without a calculator.  This is only an example.  Another example, which I’m going to choose just to annoy people, is history dates.  Consider this list of important dates in history, which looks pretty good to me.  If you’re a well-educated person, you should know some such list of dates.  Such dates are the backbone needed to contextualize the historical order and length of other historical events.  If you don’t have quite a few of those dates under your belt, you can’t really make much sense of other dates that you might come across in reading history–which means you won’t learn history properly, and you won’t want to learn history because it will be a puzzle.  So it is necessary to commit a fair number of dates to memory simply to make later history more comprehensible and interesting.

5. Reading many carefully-chosen, well-written books is an efficient way to learn. Why is book-reading so efficient?  A well-written book, when chosen to match the student’s interest and comprehension level, is designed to teach information in as efficient and attractive a way as possible.  That, after all, is why we say certain books are well-written.  Videos can achieve the same thing, but most videos cannot teach vocabulary and language skills as well as books.  While it is not so popular for educationists to come out against books, they talk up a lot of other methods that do not require book-reading, and–well, there’s only so much time.  My approach is different.  Our homeschool is completely “book-centered.”  We have six bookcases filled to overflowing (we need another one now) with children’s books, both nonfiction and fiction.  I am absolutely convinced that my son is reading and learning far above grade level not because he has a high IQ but simply because I’ve read a zillion books to him, explaining everything in them that I thought he might not understand.  I truly believe that, of the various general methods of learning, this is the most efficient way to gain knowledge.  It even makes certain “skills development” unnecessary.  Because we have read so much, we have not needed to study vocabulary, spelling, or even basic grammar as separate subjects (see below).

6. Incorporating illustrative multimedia to supplement reading is efficient. Book-reading is great, but you can make it even better by having an iPad on hand to instantly look up pictures, videos, maps, and encyclopedia articles to help clarify what it is difficult for you to explain in words.  Sometimes a picture or video is absolutely invaluable in explaining some subject.  I find this to be especially true in geography, and to a slightly lesser extent history and science.  For science reading, I frequently do “mini-experiments” with whatever is on hand, using videos viewed on the iPad as a fallback.

7. Learning the texts of Western civilization is efficient. The more of the ancient Greek and Roman classics that students learn, the better they will be able to understand why our society thinks, judges, and works the way it does.  This goes just as well for the most important works of literature, philosophy, religion, and art throughout the ages.  Studying these texts is efficient because someone with a great foundation in the liberal arts finds it much easier to read and learn from all sorts of other texts.  I suppose the same would also go for students of other great, ancient civilizations like China and India, but I don’t have any experience with that.  Anyway, it is profoundly inefficient to expect students to be able to think or say anything interesting, or to learn much, about the big policy questions that are frequently the subject of “bull sessions,” without prior exposure to “the best that has been thought and said” about history, philosophy, or political theory.  The same can be said for the discussion of classic literature taken out of context.  A student who is mostly ignorant of history and other classics simply can’t appreciate, or say much that is not banal or simply incorrect, about a work of classic literature.  This is why reading of the classics has declined: if you do it halfway, these books are just going to seem confusing and boring.  If you go at it whole hog, you’ll actually enjoy them and learn a lot from reading them.

8. Grounded in enough reading, it is much more efficient to write a lot than to do “language arts” workbooks. Elementary school students spend hours and hours doing workbook exercises about grammar, vocabulary, and spelling.  Some such work is, I agree, beneficial.  But a lot of such work is unnecessary busywork if one has read and written a lot.  The best way to get to an 800 verbal score on the GRE is not by studying vocabulary as a subject but by reading a lot of books and being introduced to vocabulary in context, and then looking up words that are puzzling.  If, through reading, one is extremely familiar and comfortable with correct English, reproducing it in written form is much easier, and some of the time spent on grammar, vocabulary, and spelling becomes unimportant.  Far more efficient is to do a lot of writing daily, to get copious feedback from a very literate person, and to revise.  All that said, I am inclined to think that students should go through a full, systematic course of grammar a few times in their academic careers, and some supplementary work on spelling and vocabulary is a good idea.  It’s also important to teach children how to use and appreciate reference books as they write.  If a student enjoys browsing style guides, you’ve done something right.

9. Ed tech’s main appeal is its efficiency.  When inefficient, it sucks. Educational technology–I think of websites like WatchKnowLearn, Reading Bear, and educational apps on the iPad–can greatly increase the efficiency of learning.  At its best, ed tech increases student interest and attention span while delivering information or skills practice in a way that fosters understanding and memory.  It doesn’t always work that way, though.  Some educational software and Web tools and communities are decidedly less efficient than more traditional methods.  We avoid it in our homeschool.  Sometimes, though–as with the “Presidents vs. Aliens” app–I’ll let my son have a little “inefficient” fun if it means he’s going to know presidential facts backwards and forwards.  Besides, sometimes having fun in this way makes something that otherwise might seem boring, like a thick volume about presidential history, suddenly more interesting.

10. The project method is inefficient. Now let me explain why I have it in for the project method.  I have loathed this method since it was inflicted upon me back in the 1970s and early 1980s.  It never fails to amazing me that teachers and education professors apparently can’t see–or worse, don’t care–that making models, playing dress up, putting on lame plays, and doing endless navel-gazing projects about themselves, and so forth, are an amazingly inefficient use of time.  It is true that students can learn a few things very well from such projects.  But in the same 20 hours that it takes to do some elaborate history project, a student could have read ten related or increasingly difficult books all on the same subject, written a serious report, and emerged a little expert.  True, he wouldn’t be able to point proudly to a model of the pyramids or a mud hut village.  But he would actually know something about ancient Egypt or African village life, something that he would remember.  Moreover, if the books are carefully chosen to fit the student and for quality, and the student can choose the report topic and gets enough help with it, the student can actually like the reading and writing, as much as if not more than yet-another-art-project.

11. Many textbooks are inefficient. Textbooks are written to satisfy textbook adoption committees which are devoted to requirements that often make textbooks deadly boring, especially in the earlier grades.  Going through a textbook might guarantee that you cover the “scope and sequence” of educational standards, but if students are bored, if they find some parts too easy and other parts insufficiently detailed, if textbooks insert unnecessary bias or instead render them so vanilla as to lack any personality, the result won’t inspire anyone.  As a result, students don’t learn what they should from textbooks, which is just to say that textbooks are inefficient.  We find that replacing one big textbook with many shorter books, chosen for maximum student interest due to excellent writing and accessibility, we learn far more than we would by studying a textbook. That said, I believe there are still some subjects, at some levels, that are best approached with a textbook–math is an example.

(Added later.) 12. Spaced repetition is efficient. The spaced repetition method, well known to psychologists but shockingly poorly known among actual educators, has the student review refresh information in memory, via active (quiz) review, just before it is forgotten. Free software (such as Supermemo, Mnemosyne, and Anki) makes such review easy. Most students can achieve a 95% recall rate for information put into such a system, as long as a daily review (which needn’t be very long or arduous) is done. The same cannot be said for worksheets, cramming for exams, or passive review of information.


I’m sure I could go on, but I think I’ve demonstrated that the principle of individual efficiency does pretty deeply explain my stands on various educational issues.  Well, at least I find that interesting; I seem to have put my finger on a system.

For the philosophers out there, if you want a further argument for the principle itself, I think it follows from a traditionalist goal for education, together with a basic principle of rationality.  Given that the goal of education is the development of academic knowledge and skills (to include a broad and deep comprehension of Western civilization and science a.k.a. liberal arts), the next big question in philosophy of education is how to describe the most rational means to this end.  The principle of individual efficiency is my stab at that.

I wonder–would progressive educators in their many contemporary forms disagree with the principle, or would they instead disagree that the principle supports my conclusions?  I’m guessing it would be the latter.  But I think it is ultimately the principle itself that they are bound to reject.  Ultimately, progressive education is not about individual efficiency in education at all.  Maybe I’ll say what I think it’s really about later.

Some people will inevitably read the title and first few paragraphs of this post, skim the rest, and come to a major misinterpretation.  Misinterpretation #1. Some might assume that I am defending the “factory model,” merely because the word “efficiency” is associated with that in the field of education.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I reject the factory model and instead embrace homeschooling precisely because the factory model is so inefficient.   Misinterpretation #2. Some might suppose that I am defending “tiger moms” who constantly pressure students to learn and achieve.  Well, no.  Efficiency is about quality, not quantity.  It requires some discipline, but not harsh discipline.  I think education is most efficient when the student is sincerely interested and motivated.  That requires plenty of breaks and plenty of student input.

Excelsior College announces “Bachelor’s Degree for Under $10,000” program

Larry Sanger

Excelsior College, formerly known as Regents College, is a fully accredited New York state private institution that grants degrees based on exam scores and portfolio evaluation.  As such, it is a natural fit to students who want to study using free online resources and who cannot afford to attend college (or more precisely, who can’t afford to pay back the loans they’d have to get).  I’ve been mentioning them on this blog, and have been following them since touting a Tutorial Manifesto back in 1995.  There are a couple of other established state degree-by-examination institutions as well, including Thomas Edison State College and Charter Oak State College.

A vice president at Excelsior e-mailed me to point my attention to Excelsior’s new “10K Degree Program.”  If I were a high school junior or senior, I’d definitely give it a serious look.  My favorite argument for such degrees, quite apart from the arguments about cost and the abundant free college-level content online, is that one-on-one education by the tutorial method is more pedagogically sound than the lecture, text, and exam method used at many universities.  The advantages are similar to the substantial advantages of homeschooling—only at the college level.  Such a system, expanded and found in all 50 states and around the world, is a key component of my notion of how higher education might be revitalized in light of the Internet revolution.

Whenever I think about Mozilla’s Open Badges project, I can’t help but think that Excelsior’s program is a bird in hand.  I’ll be surprised if the badges idea ever goes anywhere, mainly for the following argument: a badge is a credential; to have any appreciable practical use, a credential has to have credibility; credibility can be conferred only by careful evaluation by experts of examinations or work; and experts don’t work for free.  This requires something similar to an accredited degree-by-examination program–like Excelsior’s.  To be sure, there is a need for a cheap, widely-accepted, credible credentialing process that is beyond traditional degrees.  But that is already available, it seems.  The market just needs to be expanded and, perhaps, updated.

The Open Badges program promises “a simple framework that’s open to all.”  But they sometimes write as if Open Badges is mainly about letting people define their own badges, which they then claim on their own say-so.  “What’s wrong with that?” my fellow free knowledge advocates say.  Well, it’s great to trust others when it comes to letting them participate in a wiki or a software project.  That’s a little risky, but it often works.  It is a completely different kettle of fish to trust others uncritically when they make claims about their own qualifications.  That’s just naive–just look at the false claims people already make about their skills on their resumes.

Insofar as Open Badges wants badges conferred by objective third parties, based on real quantifiable achievements–MIT might be one of them–then we’re back to talking about things like accreditation and solid credential-granting bodies.  But as long as the open badges system has reliable checks in place that establish that badges can’t be claimed when they haven’t been earned, I’ll be a supporter of open badges, too.  But I think that the more anarchistic free culture types aren’t going to like such a result, and, as happened with Wikipedia, their influence is bound to spoil the Open Badges project.  We’ll see.

Excelsior, at least, has already solved the credibility problem.  They may not be an Ivy League institution, but an Excelsior degree is a real and valuable degree–and a very inexpensive one, too. 

(I have no relationship whatsoever to Excelsior and am commenting only out of a long-standing personal interest in distance and alternative education.)

Update about the boys, part 1 – January 2012

Larry Sanger

It’s been a long time since I gave an update about what I’m doing with the boys, who are now 5.5 years (H.) and 15 months (E.).

I guess the biggest news about H. is that he’s now writing regularly and doing quite well with that, but we’ve made progress and made minor adjustments with nearly everything.

Mathematics.  We’ve finished the Singapore Primary Mathematics 1A, and recently started 1B. I’m very happy with the Singapore system.  The more we’ve studied math, the more I’ve come to understand some of the methodological issues.  I now believe even more strongly that it’s a good idea to expose a child to many different ways of solving a problem.  Math isn’t about coming up with a working heuristic to solve a problem, it is about understanding the relationships between various very abstract numerical concepts.  This understanding, rather than the mere ability to work through a problem, is the goal.  The Singapore method (or at least, if that’s what’s in these textbooks & workbooks) is built on this insight.  We discover that we didn’t really understand a certain concept until we try to tackle similar problems in a new way–and the more ways we have of tackling a problem, the more we really understand what’s going on.  Yesterday (as it happens), H. said that he likes his Singapore books precisely because they give him different ways of doing, or thinking about, the same problems.

At the same time, I also believe it is crucial to memorize certain basic facts in different subjects.  We haven’t started memorizing much yet, but we have started memorizing addition and subtraction facts.  For this we’re still chugging through Two Plus Two Is Not Five, which I can recommend highly–or at least, it’s worked very well for us so far. We spend half our time on the Singapore books and half (or so) on Two Plus Two. H. is now well into Tier 5, which means he’s in the home stretch (there are six tiers).  There are very few simple addition and subtraction facts he doesn’t have memorized now.  But, before you sneer that this is rote memorization–which, of course, it is–you should bear in mind that he has also had an in-depth introduction into different ways of thinking about these same sorts of problems.  So he has both memorized and understands most of his basic sums and differences (I think, or hope).

We also “take a break” once every few weeks by doing a chapter from Life of Fred: Apples. This could be safely skipped, but it’s “enrichment,” and H. likes it.  He also fairly regularly does iPad math apps, just because he likes it.  I also got in touch with Dr. Miles Jones of Jones Geniuses and should be trying out his curriculum sometime soonish.

I’d say math is one of his favorite subjects just now.  He rarely resists or wants to do something other than what I say we’re going to do on a given day.

Writing.  There’s a lot to report here.  First, a little about penmanship.  In the last report (August 2011), I said we were still doing penmanship.  For another month or two, I guess, we were switching off between having him write one sentence with very careful penmanship, and writing three sentences without paying (much) attention to penmanship.  But for the past 4-5 months have worked almost exclusively on writing.  I still do (even recently) make him practice his penmanship from time to time, but not too often.  Mostly I simply make him rewrite certain letters, or practice them over and over if they’re a chronic problem.  (This is the sort of one-on-one attention that homeschooling allows for.)  Simple practice, without trying too hard, has improved his penmanship quite a bit.  He’s faster and a little neater than he was six months ago.

Until recently, we were doing just a couple of different writing assignments.  In one variety, we would agree on some sort of theme (what you’d do with a million dollars, your trip to the park, a story, whatever), I would give him some instruction or advice, and let him go.  In the beginning I hovered over him and helped him (and this was useful).  Soon I found it was fine for me to just go up and work and let him write by himself, although sometimes I’d have to go back and advise him on various things.  In the other variety, I would simply say, “Write at least three sentences” (or sometimes “at least four” or “at least five”), and he would go and come up with all sorts of stuff.  He got into the habit of asking for blank “books,” which were 3-5 pages of printer paper folded over and stapled on the “spine.”  He would end up writing a lot more than five sentences on these, illustrated.  These were usually about things he was interested in, or related to studies.  A couple of times he made a History of the World.  Once, an Atlas.  Frequently, they were story books.  A lot of times these sorts of compositions, stories, and “books” don’t make a lot of sense in terms of choice of topic and relationship among sentences.

Then about a month ago I posted a question on the Well-Trained Minds Forums, and was inspired to rethink how I’m teaching writing.  It occurred to me that H. could benefit from beings systematically exposed, maybe not to grammar at this point, but to rhetorical modes, in a certain way.  So at first I introduced “historical narratives,” because that was (for whatever mysterious reason) what H. picked from a  list I gave him.  Then “dialogues,” and right now we’re doing “character introductions/descriptions.”  In each case, each day, I find three examples that are “pure” examples of the rhetorical “mode,” so to speak, we’re focused on.  So the historical narratives had little or no dialogue or description, etc.–just the recounting of a sequence of events from history.  I would read and discuss each example, explaining their main features.  Then I had H. copy one.  He didn’t like copying much, but it wasn’t too much of a struggle to get him to do this.  After doing that for three days (up to half a page of RediSpace notebook paper per day–which isn’t too much, I think), then we’d switch gears for three more days.  We’d begin the same way, by looking at a few examples of the text type (sitting in the big chair together).  Then we’d pick one, and read it two or three times, discussing its main features.  Then, H. went and rewrote it from memory.  He usually did an excellent job of this.  After the rewriting phase, we’d begin an “original work” phase, in which (at least in the case of dialogue and description) he would make up his own.  He has also dictated a number of original compositions, which I typed in; these could be longer.  In fact, today, we did a 200-word dictation that specifically combined description, then narration, then dialogue.  Here it is (this was heavily guided by questions and corrections from me, but it’s 90% his language and story):

My Mousie

My mousie is white all over, and he has a tail.  He is pretty big, for a mouse.  He is a puppet.  He has a place for your finger to fit in.  His name is Mousie.  I like pretending to feed him some food–especially pretzels.

One day, Mousie went out.  He got into his car, which I made specially for him, and drove to the family room.  I pushed him along.  From there, he drove over to the study table, which is where I study.  Then he saw our math books and our RediSpace notebook.  He bumped into me accidentally because it was time for me to study.

“Excuse me,” I said.

Mousie replied, “You’re fine.  I regret that I need to study.”

“Get the pencil sharpener,” I said.

Mousie climbed up and stood next to the pencil sharpener, and he said, “I need help carrying this.”

He let me move the pencil sharpener down.  I sharpened a pencil quickly and started doing math.

I gave Mousie his own pencil, and he started math too.

The End

Is this “rhetorical modes” work improving his writing?  I don’t know.  I imagine so, but I’m going to let him take regular breaks from this sort of systematic training to write whatever he wants, maybe encouraging him to write some more of his “books.”  (He childishly boasts that he is the best writer in Ohio, and he yesterday said that writing is his favorite subject.  So this shouldn’t be a tall order.)

However the systematic “rhetorical modes” training will work out, in the last six months or so, I’ve noticed a marked improvement in all aspects of writing–penmanship, spelling, grammar, focus of text, etc.  I’ve been frankly amazed at how much progress he made without any systematic training in spelling, grammar, style, or rhetorical modes, before we started the more planned-out work a month ago.  I suspect that what matters more than anything is, quite simply, a good quantity of writing daily.

I do correct his spelling, but in fact I rarely have to make many corrections, and almost always the corrections are of quite hard words.  I am sure that his early systematic phonics training has helped him to pay attention to just how words are constructed, so he knows when a word is misspelled, and so can often figure out the right spelling himself.  So far, I haven’t had any particular desire to train him in spelling–I haven’t seen a need, beyond correcting his spelling and occasionally making remarks like “the <shun> sound at the end of words is often written t-i-o-n.”  I’ve looked at spelling programs and they look extremely basic and dull.  I guess we could try some more advanced ones.  Maybe we will after another while.

It’s the same way with grammar.  I rarely have had to explain agreement or even contractions–for whatever reason, he just writes grammatically excellent sentences.  Occasionally they are complex, too, although usually they’re pretty simple.  I did have to change “did’nt” to “didn’t” the other day, and for the first time explained that the apostrophe meant that a letter was omitted, which is why it’s between the “n” and the “t”.  For this reason we haven’t yet tackled a systematic grammar.  We did read two Basher grammar books, Punctuation and Grammar, and I explained as much as I read (if not more).  He’s asked for another Basher grammar book, but I’m not sure there is one.  Maybe that’s my cue to just break down and get him a grammar book.  I think they did help a bit, and H. liked them both a lot–specifically requesting them for dinner table reading.  So far, I don’t see a lot of need to introduce him to grammar, when he’s introducing himself so well.  Of course, he does make grammatical mistakes from time to time, and I do correct and explain them.  He also have been going through a 3rd grade vocabulary enrichment book, which is kind of fun, and that allows me to explain the difference between nouns, verbs, and adjectives repeatedly.

There’s one other thing to report here.  Lately I have been writing a lot (mostly just to work things out for myself) about how to teach writing, and so I’ve given serious thought to the classical and Charlotte Mason notion of writing “narrations.”  A narration is basically a writing exercise in which the student summarizes, or at least writes what he or she remembers, from a text read once, carefully.  I started a thread about this to solicit help.  Suffice it to say that we’ve done around ten narrations in the last few weeks.  We’ve approached them in a number of different ways. He has done fine with these, although of course it will take time and practice before he is able to do them well without any prompts. I also don’t think we have time to do them multiple times per day, as some other homeschoolers, with older children, say they do.

Drawing and art.  I’ll talk a little about drawing and art here because we sometimes do that accompanying writing or after writing.  About 90% of the time, when he does drawing or art, he does it without much direction from me.  The other 10% of the time, I try to take him step-by-step through some project, almost always a drawing project.  Obviously, when we do the step-by-step thing, he does much better.  His drawing and art is not better than the average kindergartner’s, I’m sure, and might be a little worse.  I’d like to work more systematically, maybe a couple times a month, on drawing, but I haven’t yet found a good program to follow.  Here I really need a good program because I’m no great artist myself.  We did have a weekly art class at the YMCA, which was great.  We’ll be going back for more of that.  This has taught him about a bunch of art media that I never would have taken the time to touch myself.

Science.  We’ve been reading Basher science books (Periodic Table, Chemistry, Rocks and Minerals, Physics–he greatly enjoys these, though of course he doesn’t grasp all of the concepts yet), and a variety of others, over the meal table.  Since we don’t get science much at any other time, about 40% of mealtime, I’d say, has been devoted to science lately.  Still, it occupies less time than we spend on other subjects, I’m afraid.  In fact, I think I’m probably falling down on the job a little bit on science, especially because we’ve stopped doing experiments and Electronic Snap Kits nearly so much–we’re down to just about one experiment per month or so.  At times in the past, we often did 2-3 per week.  I guess I haven’t had time myself (these are very time-consuming to get ready), and I really want to start going through science more systematically.  I guess I can see some benefit from doing so, and H. doesn’t really seem to care what we read when it comes to choice of science topics.  The main reason we have put science relatively on the back burner is that I’ve wanted to get math and writing off to a solid start in 2011–and that we really did.  Besides, it’s not as though we’re entirely neglecting science, and we have read a lot of science books.

Geography.  After lunch, we spend around 15-20 minutes per day reading 2-4 pages of a geography book and looking at related pictures and videos, as well as the globe, maps, and atlas.  Sometimes he does more than this (rarely tracing maps, for example).  I read this to him, so we’re really learning quite a bit of geography together.  Most of it is new to me, too–at least, at the in-depth level we’re pursuing our geography study.  As to the method itself, I’ll quote something I put in on welltrainedmind.com a couple days ago:

The books mostly introduce different countries, organized by continent.  [Currently, South America.]  Our favorite series are True Books and National Geographic Countries of the World. We’ve done Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, and now we’re almost done with Colombia. Chile and Argentina next, to finish our study of Andes Mountains countries, and then we’ll wrap up with Venezuela and Brazil. We’ll skip the small countries (the Guyanas, Uruguay, and Paraguay) and didn’t spend so long on Bolivia. (I wouldn’t recommend doing them in the precise order we’ve tackled them–we did because we started by using a “spine,” and Peru was the first South American country in the “spine.” In fact, we have a couple of spines (children’s atlases that feature a significant amount of text about the countries), and while we still use these, they have become practically irrelevant once we’ve reading whole books. We toss off the sections about the area of South American we’re studying in a day or two, and basically just use it for reinforcement/review. We have also read a couple books about South America in general.

As we read the books, we very frequently look things up, either on maps in the book itself (especially when using the superlative National Geographic books), or on a 16″ floor globe we have (for less-detailed things), or a ginormous atlas we have (for more-detailed things). When there is not a picture of a place or thing in the text, we usually look for one on the iPad. Using iPad to search Google Images is one of the best ways to supplement and make things “visual”–we also do this with history study. We also frequently look for videos to illustrate things like music, ethnic groups, and more about what things looks like in general. The iPad also has a couple of good apps, Google Maps, Google Earth, and a couple National Geographic map apps. I’ve also had him trace simple, line political maps of South America and Colombia using tracing paper. But I’d say 75% of our work is reading the books about countries.

I’ve never seriously considered using a canned geography curriculum. It’s simply not detailed enough and frequently involves what seems to be busywork, which I would like to avoid.

My argument for using books, and not doing so much map copying, projects, or worksheets, is simple: it’s more efficient and I think he’ll learn and retain more in the long run. Of course, it’s impossible for him to retain all, or even half, of the information he’s exposed to–but he’s exposed to so much more, and such a richer and richly interconnected variety of information, that he comes to “live in” a continent. Factual information such as a country’s capital is becomes second nature, because it’s mentioned many times in different contexts: several times in the text, in our study of the globe, atlas, and map apps, pictures, videos, etc. Because of the rich variety of media, our focus on only the best geography books, and our daily (albeit fairly brief) exposure, we have come to enjoy the time learning about different countries. The other day, my son had another 10 minutes of reading to do in his daily hour of reading, so he read six pages of the National Geographic Colombia book–which bothered me, because now I’m not going to be able to read it! We are as it were slowly travelling around South America. Because we’ve learned so much, things that might seem dull, like the varieties of Indian groups or different geographical areas (e.g., “Los Llanos” grasslands in Colombia and Venezuela, or the Guajira Desert which I hadn’t heard about before), become genuinely interesting. It really, really helps–in fact, is absolutely essential–that we look at pictures and videos of things we’re unfamiliar with, or things which we think might be impressive to look at. Combining a reasonably detailed text with lots of visuals makes all the difference.

I happen to think that study of geography is at least as important as modern language study. If a large part of the reason for studying a modern language is to be able to get around in that country and to understand the culture, how much more important is it to study the country itself, head on? Geography is necessary is you want to travel, to understand international news, and to formulate opinions on foreign policy. It also helps a child to understand the wider variety of current human experience, history, landscapes, etc. It makes a child more worldly and less provincial–and hence capable of understanding many things he might not otherwise be able to understand (or, not so easily) when it comes to subjects that really demand an open yet critical mind, such as philosophy, history, and world literature.

“Reading” and chapter books.  H. has continued to read for an hour a day every day after geography.  Last time I mentioned that H. liked to read out loud.  Well, after a while he started reading silently all the time and I’ve never heard a peep from him since.  As a result, he has gone through a fair number of books.  He’s also become much more comfortable doing his hour of reading now–while when we started it was often a struggle, now I usually say, “It’s time to read,” and he’ll just get to it.  I am not going to prepare a list of all the books he’s read recently, but he has read quite a few chapter books.  The highlights included Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of the World, Vol. 1 (314 pages–entirely his idea to tackle this), Beverly Cleary’s three Ralph Mouse books (starting with The Mouse and the Motorcycle), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (I read Harry Potter #1 to him, he read the second to himself, and got halfway through #3 before he called it quits for now), a couple of Secrets of Droon books, six Flat Stanley books, a couple King Arthur books, and others.  I’d say it’s been about 70% fiction, 20% history, 10% science and transportation.  I encourage chapter books.  But when he tells me, as he occasionally does, that he is tired of chapter books and he wants to read easier books, I let him.  His favs there include “Let’s Read and Find Out” science books, various books about cars and trucks and construction, and the giant Richard Scarry books.  More generally, he picks out his reading material himself–although from a bookcase stocked with things I think he’ll like.

I gave him an incentive (something I have done, just occasionally, when it seemed helpful) to finish the Ralph Mouse books: I said we could get him some related toy if he finished Runaway Ralph. So we went online and found a great mouse puppet.  H. has never ever been attached to stuffed animals to the extent that he is to this mouse.  For the first time he is sleeping with it, carrying it around, etc.  “Mousie” sits overlooking math and writing homework, piano, meals, etc.  For Christmas he asked for a motorcycle for the mouse.  So he got one, and though it was not the most expensive present, it was definitely his favorite.

We were reading something from the absolutely wonderful Children Just Like Me where some kid said that he liked math but didn’t like reading, and H. piped up to say that he liked reading.  That was great to hear.  Not only is he now quite resigned to his hour of reading to himself, he really seems to enjoy it.  In fact, I am seeing him more and more picking up books on his own again.

At bedtime I read chapter books to H. for 20-40 minutes.  These are almost always a little higher-level than the books he chooses for himself.  We’ve read quite a few–again, I won’t list them here, but they include The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Magician’s Nephew (more engaging than LWW itself), Little House on the Prairie, a mid-level edition of “Aladdin” and stories from the Arabian Nights, Stuart Little (this was the first chapter book I read to H. after Winnie-the-Pooh–he liked it at the time and loved it again recently), and quite a few others.  We’re actually only 1/3 of the way into Little House now.  We read Little House in the Woods when he was 3 or 4, and half of Farmer Boy. He liked those at the time, but he just loves Little House now, and I don’t blame him–it’s just such a wonderful book.  We also read literature at mealtime, intermixed with other stuff.  This has included D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths and The Aesop for Children, The Golden Children’s Bible (an excellent version which I had as a child myself, but which he nixed halfway through–I’m sure we’ll come back to it–he declares forthrightly that he does not believe in God, whenever the subject comes up, and I tell him that he is too young to have made up his mind), about 1/3 of the entire fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson (that was a lot of reading)…and no doubt a few other things.  We’ve done a lot of fantasy-oriented reading lately, as you can see.  I was impressed by the appeal of fairy tales to H. now–in the original versions.  We tried the original versions when he was 2 or 3, and (of course) they were too advanced.  Now he rather likes them.  This is an excellent way to get him used to more archaic language, which he really must if he is going to be really comfortable with classic literature.

History.  History has been another favorite, although lately sometimes not so interesting to H.–he has suggested that we skip history a few times in the last few weeks, for example.  Anyway, we did finish Bauer’s Story of the World, Vol. 1–in fact, as I said above, this is one H. read to himself, but I also read it to him.  We also finished the quiz book about that.  In addition, I read him the matching section of Gombrich’s Little History of the World, and he read some of this to himself, too.  We also listened to the whole thing, all the way to the end, in the car.  We finished the ancient world sections of the Kingfisher Atlas of World History and of the Usborne Encyclopedia of World History. Anyway, as of a few months ago we’ve moved on to medieval history in all four sources (we’re on Volume 2 of Bauer).  We’ve also read a couple books about Vikings and medieval life; he likes the stuff about castles and Vikings pretty well, so we took some detours from our main reading to dip into that.  Apart from the Usborne Cleopatra book and a few others, I don’t think we read as much history at mealtimes, so history too has been somewhat downplayed in recent months, again mostly in favor of “the basics” of math and writing.  We’ve also been reading lots of You Wouldn’t Want to Be series books, which are just great.

Latin.  H. has been doing Latin on average about 3-4 times a week, I’d say, although it’s supposed to be daily.  Latin time is always before breakfast–it doesn’t take long, about 10 minutes or so.  Still we (I’m doing it too–but lagging behind him, always threatening to “catch up”) are making progress.  We’re on Rosetta Stone Latin, Level 1, almost done with Unit 3 out of 4.  He goes in phases when he likes it and does it without complaint, and also when he says he doesn’t want to do it at all–sometimes I let him skip it in those cases.  Sometimes I just forget to tell him to do it, and he rarely does it without being told.  Already, here and there, we’re seeing the advantages of studying Latin, in vocabulary items.  I’m sure we’ll spend more time on it when he’s a little older and we’re done with all three levels of Rosetta Stone.  At the rate we’re going, it looks like we won’t finish until he’s 7 or 8.  Maybe that’s OK, or maybe we’ll speed it up later.

Typing.  We went through one or two periods in which H. was practicing typing fairly regularly (this software), but since it was always after math and writing, and since these took a lot of time, we ended up giving up typing.  More recently, H. has been practicing typing and writing by writing emails to family members.  He still hasn’t learned what he needs to, to write a standard sort of letter, but it does give him practice on typing and writing (including spelling, grammar, etc.), and also keeps him in touch with his extended family, which is nice.

Music.  I’m rather proud of the work we’ve done in this area.  I believe we first started on the Music for Little Mozarts program just before he turned four, and he didn’t have any motivation to do it, and I didn’t want to try to force him.  So we did very sporadic lessons when he was four, and when he turned five, we tried piano lessons–which we dropped after a month because he wasn’t getting much out of them.  Well, we’ve continued to do two “micro-lessons” (5-10 minutes apiece) per day, and as a result he’s finished Book 2 today (just a coincidence).  He’s excited about Book 3, which it happens arrived in the mail today.  He’s gotten a lot better, sometimes practices (or at least makes up his own little tunes) by himself, and generally has a positive attitude toward piano.  We’re also renting a fiddle, and are threatening to return it since he isn’t practicing and I’m not going to require that he practice it.  But the threat is getting him to practice some, and I’ve given him a couple lessons a week in the last few weeks.  Still learning how to hold the instrument and make a sound, but he’s also made some progress here, too.  I expect we’ll return it and try again in a year or two.  Starting with piano is a good strategy anyway.

Other stuff.  Brief reports on other subjects that are mostly on hold:

Memorization: last year we memorized 10-20 poems or pieces of poems, quotations, etc.  We stopped doing that for the same reason we stopped typing.  This makes me regret, but he’s still just five, and I’m not prepared to ask him to do more; I guess I’d rather that he learn math and writing very well at this point.

Chess: in this time period we finished a chess tutorial book and also joined a chess class/club for 5-7 year olds (what a precocious bunch this was, let me tell you!).  We got a tournament-style chess set, played lots of chess games, and studied the game in various ways.  In the end, however, for whatever reason, he lost interest, or as much interest anyway.  We still play, but not as much, so we won’t be renewing the club.  I think trying again in a year will be a good idea.  At this point he’s getting some of the basic strategy and seeing most of the more obvious threats, but he’s still struggling to understand how to checkmate.

Logic: finished Lollipop Logic, Book 2, which was very easy, but slightly harder than Book 1.  I’m not sure it did him the slightest bit of good, but it’s an interesting intellectual challenge.  We’re skipping Book 3 in the series and going on to Primarily Logic, which we haven’t started yet.

Art history: we studied this quite a bit between the ages of 2-4, but not so much in the last year.  I finally ordered The Art Book for Children, and I think we’re going to try doing some art “narratives,” possibly during mealtime.


One of the big questions I’ve been wondering about lately–as you might guess–is whether we should continue doing math and writing so intensively (i.e., daily) or instead start doing other things more.  It’s not really an option for me to do more educational stuff.  He already gets 3-4 hours of study in per day, and given the quality of the study time, that is quite enough.

Over on welltrainedminds.com, a few different people have hinted that we are trying to do too much, or too early.  I don’t bother justifying our accelerated pace–it’s a ginormous online community, so nobody cares anyway, and I have a feeling it would not come across well.  But I am aware that, just because people are in favor of taking education out of its institutional context, and are otherwise bucking the system, that doesn’t mean they’re terribly open to every option.  A lot of homeschoolers have really bought into the idea of a lot of stuff is or isn’t “developmentally appropriate” when it really has to do with the sort of preparation a student has had.

I find “classical” homeschoolers refreshing in that they are really trying to find the best ways, or at least the best ways they know how, to give their children a full, rich education.  But the only places I’ve found online where people don’t seem to look at you funny (virtually speaking) for doing accelerated education and focusing on learning facts, and simply learning as much and in a high-quality a way as possible, are the baby learning forums like BrillKids.com.


As to baby E., well, that will have to wait for a separate update.  Suffice it to say that the only reading program that he has asked for consistently every day is…drumroll please…Reading Bear!  Since he turned 12 months (he’s now 15 months) he has had a great interest in seeing it for 10-15 minutes a day.  He’s now actually reading (and saying out loud) some words, including go, cat, ball, dog, and other words that he can say.  Anyway, more about that later.

Why online conversation cannot be the focus of a new pedagogy

Larry Sanger

One of the most commonly touted features of a new, digitally-enhanced pedagogy, championed by many plugged-in education theorists, is that education in the digital age can and should be transformed into online conversation. This seems possible and relevant because of online tools like wikis and blogs.  There has been a whole cottage industry of papers and blogs touting such notions.  Frankly, I’m not interested in grappling with a lot of this stuff.  Actually, I wish I had time, because it’s kind of fun to expose nonsense to the harsh light of reason.  But for now, let’s just say that I’ve read and skimmed a fair bit of it, and I find it decidedly half-baked, like a lot of the older educational theories that hoped for various educational “reforms.”  Some reference points would include fuzzy buzzwords like connectivism, constructivism, conversation, the social view of learning, participatory learning, and many more.

I am interested in briefly discussing a very basic question that, I imagine, underlies a lot of this discussion: can online conversation serve as the focus of a new pedagogy?  I’ve already written a bit about this in “Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age,” but I wanted to return to the topic briefly.

A lot of educators are–not surprisingly–very much struck by the fact that we can learn a lot from each other online.  This is something I’ve been aware of since the mid-90s, when I ran some mailing lists and indeed did learn a lot from my fellow early adopters.  I continue to learn a lot from people online.  Quora is a great way to learn (albeit it’s mostly light intellectual entertainment); so are many blogs and forums.  And of course, wikis can be a useful source of learning both for writers and readers.  These all involve an element of online community, so it of course makes sense that educators might wonder how these new tools could be used as educational tools.  I’ve developed a few myself and actively participate in other online communities.

But when we, adults, use these tools and participate in these forums, we are building upon our school (and sometimes college) education.  We have learned to write.  We have (hopefully) read reasonably widely, and studied many subjects, giving us the background we absolutely require to understand and build upon common cultural references in our online lives.  But these are not attainments that school children share.  (My focus here will be K-12 education, not college-level education.)  You are making a very dubious assumption if you want to conclude that children can learn the basics of various subjects by online participation modeled after the way adults use online tools.  Namely, you are assuming that children can efficiently learn the basics of science, history, geography, and other academic subjects through online tools and communities that are built by and for educated people.

Of course they can’t, and the reason is plain: they usually have to be told new information in order to learn it, and taught and corrected to learn new skills.  These are not “participatory” features.  They require that a teacher or expert be set up to help, in a way that does not correspond to the more egalitarian modes of interaction online.  Moreover, except in some fields that are highly interpretive such as literature or philosophy, the relevant information cannot be arrived at via reflection on what they know–because most children are quite ignorant and much in need of education.  To be able to reflect, they need input.  They need content.  They need food for thought.  They need training and modeling.  They need correction.  We adults don’t experience these needs (at least, not so much) when we are surfing away.  We’re mostly done learning the concepts, vocabulary, and facts that we need to make sense of conversation in the forums that interest us.

So the reason online conversation cannot be the focus of a new pedagogy is that online conversation, as used by adults for learning, requires prior education.

I have nothing whatsoever against K-12 classes putting their essays or journals on blogs, or co-writing things using wikis, or in other ways using online tools to practice research, writing, and computer skills.  But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that when children do these things, they are doing what we adults do, or that they’re learning in the ways we do when we use blogs, wikis, etc.  They aren’t.  They’re using these as alternative media for getting basic knowledge and practicing skills.  We adults mainly use these media to expand our knowledge of current events and our special interests.  The way we use them is radically different from proper pedagogical uses precisely because our uses require a general education.

Are you skeptical?  Well, I expect that if you’re reading this sentence right now, you’re pretty well educated.  So consider, please.  What would it be like to read a science blog, or Quora answer on a scientific question, without having studied high school mathematics and science?  Pretty confusing.  What would it be like to read any of the bettter blogs out there–the ones in your own blogrolls or feeds–if you had not read a lot of literature and in other ways learned a lot of college-level vocabulary?  Difficult and boring.  What would it be like if you had to read the news, or political blogs or Wikipedia’s current affairs articles, having only minimal knowledge of geography and civics?  Puzzling at best.  Could you really hold your own in a blog discussion about politics if you had an elementary student’s grasp of history and politics?  Would you find it easy to write a forum post coherently, clearly, and with good mechanics and spelling, even just to ask a question, if you had not practiced and studied academic writing and grammar as much as you did?  I could go on, but you get the idea.  You can’t do these various things that make you an effective, articulate, plugged-in netizen without already having a reasonably good liberal arts education.

I imagine it’s sort of possible, but conversation online among your fellow students would be an incredibly inefficient way for you to learn these things in the first place.  Why spend your time trying to glean facts from the bizarre misunderstandings of your fellow 10-year-olds when you can get an entertaining, authoritative presentation of the information in a book or video?  And I’ll tell you one thing–someone in your online study community, the teacher or the class nerd, will have to have read such “authoritative” media, and reveal the secrets to everyone, or you’ll be “learning” in a very empty echo chamber.

At this point, someone is bound to point out that they don’t really oppose “mere facts” (which can just be looked up), declarative knowledge, or “elitist” academics, or books, or content, or all the other boo-hiss villains of this mindset.  They just want there to be less emphasis on content (memorization is so 20th century!), and more on conversation and hands-on projects.  Why is that so hard to understand?  But this is where they inevitably get vague.  If books and academic knowledge are part of the curriculum after all, then in what way is online conversation the “focus” of the curriculum?  How are academics, really, supposed to figure in education–in practice?

My guess is that when it comes down to implementation, the sadly misled teacher-in-the-trenches will sacrifice a few more of the preciously scarce books in the curriculum and use the time for still more stupid projects and silly groupwork assignments, now moved online using “cutting edge” tools because that’s what all the clever people say where “the future” lies.  As a result, the students will learn little more about computers and online communities than they would learn through their own use of things like Facebook, and they’ll get something that barely resembles a “reasonably good liberal arts education.”

EDIT: I greatly enjoyed this literature review/analysis article:

Kirschner, Paul A., John Sweller, and Richard E. Clark, “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching,” Educational Psychologist 41 (2), 75-86: cogtech.usc.edu/publications/kir…

Would degrees by examination revitalize university education?

Larry Sanger

A 14-year-old essay by Prof. Paul Trout inspired some random but related thoughts on university education:

• Dumbing down college education, by grade inflation and lowering standards, can’t continue forever.  The nature of education itself demands limits.  At some point, a college degree will inevitably become meaningless, as many have said, and employers will need something with more objective value.  We might already be at that point.

• As I’ve said before, education is one of the last industries to be truly, deeply affected by the Internet revolution.  The Internet tends to decentralize things and place matters in the hands of individuals–features I support.  The way to do this is simply to build a movement toward awarding degrees by examination.  (Trout mentions this.  I have too, many times in the past.)

• This means that students, to earn their degrees, would not have any course requirements.  Only exam requirements.  And exams should be administered and graded by bodies independent of any course-offering group.  Basically, as a former college instructor, as a former student and father of future students, and as someone stuck in a society overburdened with degreed people who don’t necessarily know their stuff, I want a system of higher education that is bullshit-free.  I want the value of degrees to be both substantive and stable.

• Of course, universities might look askance at such programs (though they do exist).  But employers will not, especially if such programs are expanded.  Speaking as someone who has occasionally done hiring, I personally do have my doubts about the intellectual attainments of people regardless of their degrees.  I know I can’t be alone.  Society in general needs degrees to mean something.  Well, then, let’s expand the movement toward degrees by examination and portfolio review.

• If degrees by exam were to become widespread enough, I suspect they would cast doubt on the value of traditional degrees–and universities would start instituting serious exit exams.

• What should be especially appealing to ed techies about this idea is that it frees up the whole system to reinvent itself as a support network for students taking exams.  Courses and universities might continue–but rebooted.  In addition, a plethora of online and informal offerings might bloom.

• If I wanted to work on this problem, I would work not toward exit exams from universities, but toward nation-wide testing services.

• My guess is that someone could redo Excelsior College and attract serious venture capital for it.  (Wouldn’t surprise me if this were already happening.)

• Students who hated studying wouldn’t have to study–unless they wanted a degree.  Then they would have a real incentive to study, go to class (or other method of exam prep), and demand rigor.

• I remember the sort of students described by Trout, who were furious at any rigorous requirements, bored by everything, and had a pathetic sense of entitlement.

• I don’t fault college-age students for thinking that university education is overpriced.  I fault them for thinking (if they do) that it is a waste of time, if they study hard.  Of course, they can make it a waste of time by taking easy courses and/or not studying.

• I say, let the students escape their “boring” classes.  Then let them just try to earn a degree in a revitalized system that has fewer economic incentives to “dumb down” the requirements for a college degree.  Frankly, I wonder how many recent college grads would actually pass an examination system and thereby prove that they deserve their degrees.  Pretty far south of 50%, I’d hazard, supposing the exams were well designed, administered, and graded.

• To an extent, then, I support something like a system of educational “badges.” (But not all versions.)

• Perhaps such a system should be used for high school diplomas.  Why not a national system of examinations that allows students to establish just how much they know and what their skills are?  Then we can dispense with the meaningless diplomas that are basically certificates of attendance.  One of the most effective ways of real K-12 educational reform would be that students don’t get a degree until they have passed an exam (again, not just objective, but also written and oral, and perhaps even practical as well).

• I might not mind if the government established that such a diploma system must be used by homeschoolers as well, if they want to claim to have a high school diploma.  The homeschoolers have to pass the same exams to get their diplomas.

On educational anti-intellectualism: a reply to Steve Wheeler

Larry Sanger

Suppose a student arrived at the age of 18 not knowing anything significant about World War II or almost any other war, barely able to do arithmetic, ignorant of Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dickens, and most other great writers, and wholly unschooled in the hard sciences (apart from some experiments and projects which made a few random facts stick).  Now, we can charitably concede that such a person could know his way around a computer, the Internet, and other technology very well.  He might have any number of vocational skills and have a job.  We can also imagine that such a person even writes and speaks reasonably well (although this seems unlikely).  Finally, we can imagine such a person being happy with himself and his “education.”  This is all easy to imagine, because such students are being minted with appalling frequency these days in the U.S. and (to a lesser extent) the U.K.

Let us try to put aside our differences about educational philosophy for a moment; surely we can agree that, objectively speaking, this student is ignorant. He lacks an adequate amount of–to employ some jargon used by epistemologists, and by Steve Wheeler in a recent blog post that I responded to–“declarative knowledge.”

So next, let’s suppose that an education professor (whether this corresponds to Wheeler remains to be discussed) were to maintain that (1) our schools should be teaching even less declarative knowledge than they have been, (2) such traditional subjects as literature, history, geography, science, and French had become unimportant, or at least much less important, particularly now that Google supplies instant answers, and (3) we should not teach individual subjects such as those just listed, but instead mix various subjects together in projects that display how holistic and interrelated the world is.  Now, whatever else he might believe or say, it is reasonable to conclude that these recommendations, if followed by schools, would contribute to ignorance of the sort described above.

Now, I do not claim to have an interesting theory of anti-intellectualism.  But I do think that we can identify a theorist as anti-intellectual if his theories, when implemented on a large scale, would obviously and directly lead to widespread ignorance.  This isn’t a definition; it’s merely a sufficient condition.  (Forgive me for not refining this formula further, but I think it will do well enough.)  I could say more plainly that such a theorist supports ignorance over knowledge, but of course most people will deny supporting that.  So–to use some other philosophical jargon–I only ascribe the view to him de re, not de dicto.

This is not necessarily “anti-intellectual” in some more derivative senses, which have a lot of play in the media today.  For example, an anti-intellectual according to my test might also be an academic and staunchly in support of universities and academic work; he might support a technocratic government of experts; he might support science against faith-based criticisms.  But these are, I maintain, derivative senses of “anti-intellectual,” because universities, experts, and science are each bastions of knowledge. Knowledge is the main thing.  So in a more basic sense, to be intellectual is to be a devoted adherent of knowledge, and particularly of abstract or general knowledge.  I don’t intend this as a theory of anti-intellectualism, but more of a general, rough sketch.

Someone who recommends (or whose theories entail) that students should gain much less knowledge than they otherwise would seems to me a better example of an anti-intellectual than, say, a creationist or a climate change denier.  This is because the ignorance permitted is not limited to a particular topic, but is thoroughgoing–and deliberate.  The (perhaps fictional) education professor I described earlier is opposed to students getting more declarative knowledge, per se, than they get right now.  Whatever their problems, you can’t say that of the creationist or the climate change denier; at worst, their positions make them hostile to particular examples of knowledge, not to knowledge per se. Which do you think is worse?

In his recent post, Steve Wheeler defends himself against my charge of “anti-intellectualism.”  Now, I hope it’s very clear that my posts are not only about Steve Wheeler.  He’s just one example of a whole class of education theorist.  He has merely stated the position of educational anti-intellectualism with admirable clarity and brevity, making it especially easy for me identify and dissect the phenomenon.  Wheeler cites another Brit, Sir Ken Robinson, as someone who shares his views.  I’m sure he will not be surprised to learn that I have, in fact, responded similarly to Robinson (though I forebore to apply the label “anti-intellectual” in that case–I came close).  I also responded to another theorist Wheeler mentioned, John Seely-Brown, in this paper.

In his defense, Wheeler archly, with great irony, claims to be “gratified that someone with such a standing in the academic community had taken the time to read my post and respond so comprehensively” and “My list of peer reviewed publications and the frequency of my invited speeches around the world will not compare with his.”  In case you have any doubt, let’s just say that I am pretty sure Prof. Wheeler took the time to look at my site and gauge my meager academic and speaking credentials.  That would be the first thing that most academics would do.  So of course Wheeler knows that, in fact, I don’t have much standing in the academic community at all; I have very few peer reviewed publications, and my speeches, most of which were not for an academic audience, are not as “frequent” as his.  He has me hopelessly outclassed in these areas, and he knows it.  He’s the academic and the intellectual, and I’m the outsider–or so he seems to convey.

But his deliberate irony backfires, I find.  It is very easy for a distinguished academic, like Wheeler, to be hostile to knowledge, or science, or reason, or the prerogatives of experts.  Otherwise perfectly “intellectual” people have been justly called “anti-intellectual” because of their hostility to the products, power, or institutions of the mind.  “Anti-intellectual intellectual” is no more a contradiction than “anti-Semitic Jew” or “anti-American American.”  So this defense is incorrect: “It seems a contradiction that he can view me as a ‘serious theorist’ and then spend the majority of his post trying to convince his readers that I am ‘anti-intellectual’.  Surely the two cannot be compatible?”  Surely they can–and in our twisted and ironic age, all too often are.  So, while I have respect for Wheeler’s work, it doesn’t defend him from charges of anti-intellectualism.  He would conscientiously, on principle, deny our students just the sort of knowledge that he benefited from in his life and career–though he questions whether he needed them later in life, and says that his schooling “didn’t make that much sense to me,” and questions the worth of various subjects and facts that a liberally educated person, such as he himself, might pick up.

No, pointing out that he is a distinguished academic won’t shield Wheeler from accusations of anti-intellectualism.  Only a frontal reply to my argument would do that.  Does his recent post contain such a reply?

Not exactly.  I am not going to do another line-by-line reply, as tempting as that might be.  He does deny that he wants to remove “all knowledge…from curricula.”  I didn’t think so, and my argument doesn’t attack such a straw man.

In place of the relatively clear attack on “declarative knowledge,” Wheeler’s more cautious restatement resorts to a vague, contentless call for reform:

In my post I suggested that a possible way forward would require a reappraisal of the current curricula, with more emphasis on competencies and literacies. I wish to make something clear: My remark that some knowledge was susceptible to obsolescence was not a call for all knowledge to be removed from curricula – that would indeed be ridiculous. I am not attacking knowledge, as Sanger asserts. Rather, I am calling for schools to re-examine the content of curricula and to find ways to situate this knowledge within more open, relevant and dynamic learning contexts. I am also calling for more of an emphasis on the development of skills that will prepare children to cope better in uncertain futures.

He doesn’t give many details here or later, nor does he really retract anything in particular from his earlier post.  He does regret using “poor illustrations and analogies to underpin this call,” but only because it created a rhetorical opening for me.  As I see it, he wants us to believe that he were merely calling for schools to add a little more discussion and reflection into an otherwise really hardcore “facts-only” curriculum.

But it would be frankly ridiculous to characterize the American educational system, at least, this way.  Many teachers here are already deeply committed to the project method and skills education.  Students can get through an entire 13 years without reading many classics at all.  Indeed, just re-read the first paragraph of this post.  That (at least the first part) describes a lot of students.  Such poor results are no doubt partly because students don’t study enough, and their parents aren’t committed to school enough to get their children committed.  But it’s also partly because schools simply don’t teach enough, period.  I had an “honors and AP” sort of public school education in an excellent district (Anchorage, Alaska in the 1980s) and I didn’t learn nearly as much as I could or should have.  This is why I’ll be homeschooling both of my sons (my first is in kindergarten at home)–because standards have declined even farther from where they were when I was a student.

Schools do, clearly, require a huge amount of work. I think we can agree there.  But let’s not confuse work with sound training in the basics and the liberal arts.  There’s altogether too much busywork, worksheets, low-priority but time-consuming projects, group reports, etc., and not nearly enough reading of good books and reflective discussion and writing about it.  We could be requiring less but using more high-impact activities (like reading the classics and letting students go at their own pace through math texts, self-selected from a list proven to raise test scores), and students would learn more.

When Wheeler cites Ken Robinson in criticism of “old industrialised models” of education, calls for “conversation” and “self discovery,” and approvingly quotes Richard Gerver in support of a “personal and unpredictive journey,” I can stand up and cheer too.  I think Wheeler might be surprised to learn this.  On some issues, we might not be so far apart.  I’m an advocate of home schooling, in which such things are actually possible.  (As I said in my analysis of a Robinson speech, effectively opposing the “industrialized” or “factory” model of education really requires something like homeschooling en masse, which does not seem possible as long as control of education is centralized.)  But we still study subjects. Our studies still have coherence and benefit from our studying conceptually related topics near to the same time.  We still cover the traditional subjects like history and science–in far more detail than I ever did at this age.  It’s just that we are able to take detours, choose the books we like, drop the ones we don’t, etc.  The point is that you don’t have to throw out the baby (knowledge) with the bathwater (regimented, unpersonalized school curricula).

So much for Wheeler’s defense.

The question in my mind is whether his explanation has made his commitment to (1)-(3) any less clear.  Should our schools be teaching even less declarative knowledge than they have been?  So it seems, though now he regrets listing individual subjects and facts.  (Maybe fear of being called out as I’ve done with Wheeler explains why education professors often write so vaguely.)  He didn’t mention–not to support or retract–all the business about declarative knowledge being trivial to access and going out of date anyway.  No retraction of the line that the availability of instant facts via Google make study of various academic subjects pointless.  Should we avoid teaching individual subjects, in favor of (much less efficient) projects that display how holistic and interrelated the world is?  He defended that in his latest.

Well then, my conclusion still stands: someone who believes (1)-(3) is, admit it or not, advocating for even more ignorance than we suffer from today.  It seems that Wheeler supports (1)-(3), and that looks pretty anti-intellectual to me.

Applying “anti-intellectual” to Wheeler’s views is not a mere rhetorical “tactic,” as he calls it.  Harsh and possibly impolite it might be, but it names an important feature of his views.  If I wanted to, I could politely agree to drop the epithet.  Then I would simply say that Wheeler’s recommendations would have us, deliberately, on purpose, make students more ignorant and less knowledgeable.  Would that really be less damning than the epithet “anti-intellectual”?