Saturday, October 3, 2015

Jewels of Astonishing Worth Part 3 - Do preschoolers need academic instruction?

Sending a child to first grade without having had several years of formal or semi-formal academic instruction almost, these days, amounts to parental neglect as far as most parents or schools see it.  Middle class parents routinely consider two or three day preschool for academic preparation even when a parent stays home to care for children, and barring that, the at-home parent expects to begin lessons of some sort by age two or three.

Charlotte Mason discouraged formal lessons before the age of six, for developmental reasons.  Prior to that age, she believed, children's brains required freedom to choose their learning opportunities, within boundaries.  Young children have so much learning to do simply to satisfy the demands of their own brains and bodies that imposing additional learning burdens, even if they are fun, would be too much strain as well as limiting the opportunities for the learning they naturally need.
“His nerve centres and brain power have been unduly taxed, some of the joy of living has been taken from him, and though his baby response to direct education is very charming, he has less latent power left for the future calls of life.” 

Is an early start on academics necessary for later success in school and, more importantly, life?  Research says it is not.
"[Dr. Lillian] Katz also writes in the report that 'earlier is better' is not supported in neurological research, which 'does not imply that formal academic instruction is the way to optimize early brain development.'”

“On the contrary, a number of longitudinal follow-up studies indicate that while formal instruction produces good test results in the short term, preschool curriculum and teaching methods emphasizing children’s interactive roles and initiative, while not so impressive in the short term, yield better school achievement in the long term (Golbeck, 2001, Marcon, 2002; Schweinhart & Weikart, 1993).”

Actually, research shows that formal instruction impedes development rather than assisting it.  For one thing, teaching specific concepts to young children keeps them focused on those specific concepts and prevents their learning how to discover for themselves.
“Direct instruction really can limit young children's learning. Teaching is a very effective way to get children to learn something specific—this tube squeaks, say, or a squish then a press then a pull causes the music to play. But it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw unexpected conclusions.”
“Youngsters who are hurried from one activity to another may get lots of sensory input but be shortchanged on the time-consuming process of forming association networks to understand and organize experience meaningfully.”
Jane Healy, Ph.D. Endangered Minds p. 74
"Studies have compared groups of children in New Zealand who started formal literacy lessons at ages 5 and 7. Their results show that the early introduction of formal learning approaches to literacy does not improve children’s reading development, and may be damaging. By the age of 11 there was no difference in reading ability level between the two groups, but the children who started at 5 developed less positive attitudes to reading, and showed poorer text comprehension than those children who had started later. "
David Whitebread "School starting age: the evidence" University of Cambridge Research
Also, young brains, as Charlotte Mason suggested, have vital learning tasks of their own to do, and formal learning gets in the way of that work.
“It is much more difficult, however, to reorganize a brain than it is to organize it in the first place. ‘Organization inhibits reorganization,’ say the scientists. Carving out neuronal tracks for certain types of learning is best accomplished when the synapses for that particular skill are most malleable, before they ‘firm up’ around certain types of responses.”  
Healy p. 53
Significantly, young children may not be ready for the skills being taught, which can cause the growing brain to develop inefficiently.
“Before brain regions are myelinated, they do not operate efficiently.  For this reason, trying to ‘make’ children master academic skills for which they do not have the requisite maturation may result in mixed-up patterns of learning.  As we have seen, the essence of functional plasticity is that any kind of learning--reading, math, spelling, handwriting, etc.--may be accomplished by any of several systems. Natureally, we want children to plug each piece of learning into the best system for that particular job.  If the right one isn’t yet available or working smoothly, however, forcing may create a functional organization in which less adaptive, ‘lower' systems are trained to do the work.”  
Healy p. 67
Delaying formal academics, far from being a sign of neglect, allows young children to learn what is neurologically appropriate for them at the time they are developmentally ready.

Jewels of Astonishing Worth - What is a Child? (Series Introduction)

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Jewels of Astonishing Worth Part 2 - Should instruction be left to experts?

Lately, culture here in America has encouraged parents to send their young children to formal programs for preschool and kindergarten.  People assume that trained professionals need to prepare children for school.

Charlotte Mason says parents must direct and instruct rather than defer to professional educators.
“It seems to me that we live in an age of pedagogy; that we of the teaching profession are inclined to take too much upon ourselves, and that parents are ready to yield the responsibility of direction, as well as of actual instruction, more than is wholesome for the children.” 
CM Volume 1 p. 169
She also suggests that parents must learn educational principles and decide how to apply them in their own home, rather than trying to replicate in the home what the schools are doing.
“Though every mother should be a Kindergartnerin, in the sense in which Froebel would employ the term, it does not follow that every nursery should be a regularly organised Kindergarten. Indeed, the machinery of the Kindergarten is no more than a device to ensure the carrying out of certain educational principles, and some of these it is the mother's business to get at, and work out according to Froebel's methods––or her own.”  
CM Volume 1 p. 178
Many considerations may lead to this preference that parents take charge of their children's educations, not least being that parents have the most personal interest in the well being of their own children.  Just the fact of being a parent apparently confers some skill in working with children.
“Overall, being a parent may confer a special advantage.  One recent study compared children’s interactions with parents and with other well-intentioned adults who were not parents.  Parents did a much better job of guiding the children’s language, even if the children weren’t their own.”
Jane Healy, Ph.D., Endangered Minds p. 94 

Charlotte Mason recognizes that a well conducted preschool or kindergarten can be beautiful.  An exceptional teacher may impress, but not all teachers are exceptional.
“It is hardly necessary, here, to discuss the merits of the Kindergarten school. The success of such a school demands rare qualities in the teacher––high culture, some knowledge of psychology and of the art of education; intense sympathy with the children, much tact, much common sense, much common information, much 'joyousness of nature,' and much governing power;––in a word, the Kindergarten method is nicely contrived to bring the child en rapport with a superior intelligence. Given such a superior being to conduct it, and the Kindergarten is beautiful––'tis like a little heaven below'; but put a commonplace woman in charge of such a school, and the charmingly devised gifts and games and occupations become so many instruments of wooden teaching. If the very essence of the Kindergarten method is personal influence, a sort of spiritual mesmerism, it follows that the mother is naturally the best Kindergartnerin; for who so likely as she to have the needful tact, sympathy, common sense, culture?”

Even in such a lovely and unusual situation, the teacher manipulates the environment to make it so pleasant--and this, says Charlotte Mason, is not ideal.
“Our first care should be to preserve the individuality, to give play to the personality, of children.”

The charming teacher encourages the children to be good through her “zeal and enthusiasm”, and at home the children do not behave so well, but the school environment is for that reason probably not best for these young children.
“Most of us are misled by our virtues, and the entire zeal and enthusiasm of the Kindergartnerin is perhaps her stone of stumbling. 'But the children are so happy and good!' Precisely; the home-nursery is by no means such a scene of peace, but I venture to think it a better growing place.”

In this artificial environment, all ideas pass through teacher--and this is also not ideal.
“Everything is directed, expected, suggested. No other personality out of book, picture, or song, no, not even that of Nature herself, can get at the children without the mediation of the teacher. No room is left for spontaneity or personal initiation on their part.”
CM Volume 1 p. 188
Besides, too much peer interaction overstimulates children.
“The clash and sparkle of our equals now and then stirs up to health; but for everyday life, the mixed society of elders, juniors and equals, which we get in a family, gives at the same time the most repose and the most room for individual development. We have all wondered at the good sense, reasonableness, fun and resourcefulness shown by a child in his own home as compared with the same child in school life.”

In the next post in this series, we'll look at what Charlotte Mason and modern researchers say about what preschoolers really need.  What works, and why?

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Jewels of Astonishing Worth Part 1 - What is a child?

Jewels of Astonishing Worth Part I - What Is a Child?
Have you ever felt pressured to send a child to a preschool or Mother’s Day Out because if you didn’t, your child would somehow be less?

Ever worried that if you didn’t make sure your child mastered identifying shapes and colors, letters and numbers, counting, reading, or some other subject before kindergarten that your child would start school at a disadvantage?

Have you been concerned that keeping your child at home with you would warp the child’s personality, creating a clingy child afraid to venture out?

Our culture today tells us that young children must have professional educators to shape and mold them, or at the least have formal instruction, before they can be ready for the rest of their school career.

Even homeschoolers often find these arguments convincing.  But are they true?  What do young children need to prepare them for learning and life?

Charlotte Mason lived during the Victorian era, when these same pressures came to bear on parents.  She knew that at its heart this was a question of assumptions about what children are and what they need.
“But is the baby more than a 'huge oyster'? That is the problem before us and hitherto educators have been inclined to answer it in the negative. Their notion is that by means of a pull here, a push there, a compression elsewhere a person is at last turned out according to the pattern the educator has in his mind.
The other view is that the beautiful infant frame is but the setting of a jewel of such astonishing worth that, put the whole world in one scale and this jewel in the other, and the scale which holds the world flies up outbalanced.”
Charlotte Mason Volume 6 pp. 33-34

When considering any educational theory, we need to know what that theory assumes about the nature of children and how they learn.  Is the child a lump of clay to be molded by adults?  Is the child a receptacle to fill with information?  Charlotte Mason's methods, tested and refined over decades of work in schools and homes, rests solidly on her 20 Principles.  The first point on Charlotte Mason's list of principles, truths we know about children and education, is this:
“Children are born persons.”
CM Volume 1 p. 5

Charlotte Mason believed that children were precious treasures, already, from the beginning, and were actual people from the start.  One significance of this point is that children come already with a mind prepared to learn.  We do not have to prepare them for learning.
“Reason is present in the infant as truly as imagination. As soon as he can speak he lets us know that he has pondered the 'cause why' of things and perplexes us with a thousand questions. His 'why?' is ceaseless.”
CM Volume 6 p. 37

From the start, according to Mason, an infant* "perceive[s] and receive[s]" from the world about him.
“His [the infant’s] business is to perceive and receive and these he does day in and day out.”
CM Volume 6 p. 34

Rather than relying on parents or educators, the child's mind produces his education.
“. . . he always has all the mind he requires for his occasions; that is, that his mind is the instrument of his education and that his education does not produce his mind.”
CM Volume 6 p. 36

Modern neurological research supports this view of the young child's mind.
“Genes set the outlines of mental ability, but the way children use their brains determines how their intelligence is expressed.  The experiences with which a child chooses to interact determine each brain’s synaptic structure as well as the way it functions for different types of learning.  If children change the way they use their brains, their synapses are rearranged accordingly.  The more they are used in a certain pattern of response, the less flexible they appear to become.”
Jane Healy, Ph.D. Endangered Minds p. 81
“External pressure designed to produce learning or intelligence violates the fundamental rule: A healthy brain stimulates itself by active interaction with what it finds challenging and interesting in its environment.”
Healy pp. 81-82

Do we believe that our children are jewels of astonishing worth?  Or do we believe that they cannot shine without our constant active intervention?

*"Infant" here includes toddlers and probably preschoolers as well.

Articles and Research - Read more about best practices during the preschool years.

Posts in this series:


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Sample Term Schedules

I use AmblesideOnline in our homeschool, and I appreciate the chart-format schedules that are provided for each year.  Before I use those schedules, though, I modify them to make them work for our family.  Here are some samples of a shortened version of my edited schedules for a few different years to give you an idea of what these look like.  (The samples show only two weeks of each term so as not to violate AmblesideOnline's license by reproducing the schedules on another site.)

Two terms of Year 1

One term of Year 3

Two terms of Year 5

All three terms of Year 8

Briefly, I follow this basic process to prepare the schedules for the term ahead:

I download the art prints from the art prints Yahoo group and send them to Kinkos (upload to their website) to be printed.
I find the music for the composer study.
I buy the folk songs and burn them to a CD to play in the car.
I print maps for our history and geography and sometimes even for literature.  Remember that in each Forms area there's a thread stuck to the top that has links to the map threads for each year, where you can find the links you need.
I make sure we have copywork and grammar at least sort of figured out.
I add to the chart for the term, after the table for that term, the recitation passages that student will be learning.

Then I adjust the chart schedule.
I make sure all the subjects/activities we want to cover each day or week are listed.
I group together weekly subjects that seem to fit together in content type or difficulty.  Sometimes I change this later to balance the workload across the week, but this is where I start.
I look at each grouping of subjects to see how much work each week in the term will have.  I really want only four assignments in any particular grouping each week, although older students might have five.  Occasionally I'll shift an assignment from one week to another to balance out the load.

I then create a checklist.
I list all the weekly work in one column and every weekly category plus all daily work in another column.  The second column should all be checked off each day, and one item from each section of the weekly column should be checked off each day.  This isn't as necessary now that we've been doing this so long; generally my kids can work off of the chart, but at first this made the schedule easier for them to manage.

I hope this helps to encourage you if you're having trouble visualizing all this.  It does take a little time, although terms 2 and 3 are always easier than term 1 and each successive year I get better at this. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

Advent Daily Readings

For the last two years, during Advent we've read daily from The Jesse Tree, a beautifully illustrated book that follows a traditional sequence of daily Jesse Tree readings from the Old Testament.  The frame story used in this version by Geraldine McCaughrean involves a curmudgeonly man carving Jesse Tree figures in a church and a little boy who asks constant questions about the figures.  In response, the carver tells each Bible story, explaining why it is included on the tree.  We enjoyed these daily Advent readings and will read them again.

This year we're reading from The Christmas Mystery as a change.  This book also has one chapter to be read each day, but the chapters are significantly longer than those in The Jesse Tree.  The Christmas Mystery does tell the story of the nativity, but not directly.  The frame story hinges on an unusual Advent calendar, the story the calendar tells, and what that story means for the "real" world.  The calendar's story takes the frame story's characters on a delightful run in their imagination through geography and history, focusing on the history of the Christian church. In the end, though, the author abandons the magical tale, substituting an unbelievable and mundane explanation driven by the author's political biases. The failure of Jostein Gaarder, the author, to weave the threads of the story into a satisfying conclusion left me disappointed

If you skip over the forced realism in the ending (simply omit that section of the last chapter), the magic of the story will still delight. Parents should be aware that for several chapters the young protagonist hides the mystery (including a visit to their home from a strange man) from his parents through deception and outright lies, until the parents discover the secret. The parents are blamed for their something but the boy is never chastised for his lying. Also, in a couple of places some dubious theology is expounded.  These flaws will keep this from being a regular Advent reading in our home, but with judicious editing as we read we'll enjoy it this year.

Since The Christmast Mystery doesn't include the Jesse tree component, each morning we're also reading a traditional Jesse Tree story  from The Advent Jesse Tree.  We're not making the ornaments or doing anything extra with this--just reading the scripture and bits of the devotional reading from the book.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Parenting as a Recovering Listaholic

I like lists.  I like calendars and planners and organizers.  I have a stand specifically made to hold my Daytimer (only that brand will do) for which I have a lovely binder to hold my lesson plans.  I love to plan out my day and then check off items all day long.  I have an app that plans out my FlyLady zones.  I have another app that tracks my to-dos.  I feel wonderful when I've accomplished all my goals.

Children, however, do not fit into neat and tidy lists or schedules.  I've seen the books that purport to make children fit into boxes, but I don't own any.  I've glanced at the websites, but it's a bit like an alcoholic stopping in front of the bar on the way home.  I try to walk past as quickly as possible.  Probably those books and websites help those who find scheduling a mystery or a burden.  They inspire *my* soul with a zeal to make my day conform to my plans, and that zeal does not make me a good mom.

I have to lean the other way.  I have to consciously focus on what we have accomplished rather than on what we have not accomplished.  I have to take moments as they come and enjoy them, not overshadowed by the knowledge of what we should be doing instead of what we are doing.  When I make plans and then try to force us to fulfill them, I shut out opportunities I could have had, opportunities that come unexpectedly, and in their place I create lifeless accomplishments no one will treasure.  My children need to see that people matter more than things, but also that people matter more than accomplishments.  It is less important that we get the kitchen clean than it is that we treat others with kindness and respect.

I do make lists.  They help me to target my free moments towards tasks that need to be done.  They help me to prioritize my time.  I do use schedules.  They allow us to know what needs to happen for our important goals to be reached.  But I have to make the lists and the schedules subservient to life, to the real needs of our family and the individuals in it.  I keep my goals small and targeted, and I have to remind myself that it's ok if we don't meet them every day.

What I am learning is humility, and it's not easy.  Humility means accepting that my big goal for the day just blew up because I need to calmly and pleasantly teach a couple of siblings how to resolve their differences peacefully.  Humility means graciously redirecting my goals to account for the overflowing toilet (usually a victim of a child) or malfunctioning washer (most recently killed by Legos).

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds."  Becoming "mature and complete" isn't a pleasant process, but the end result is beautiful.