Yesterday I wrote about the importance of inspiring learning in order to help a child absorb information. As I woke up this morning, I could just hear many people shouting at their computers, “But what about _______? Children MUST learn _______! If they don’t learn ____ they will be handicapped.” So, I thought it important to continue my essays (I have another one coming) on various principles of developmentally appropriate education.
The method of inspiration differs based on the age of the child. For example, children in Core Phase (up to about 8 or so) need LOTS of play. Their primary learning environment is home and play. During this time they primarily focus on Good/Bad, Right/Wrong, True/False, and how to work, play, routines, and family relationships. This is not to say they don’t learn academic things, because mine certainly do as do many other Core age kids. What it means is that whatever academic material I want to deliver to that child must be delivered in an appropriate manner. Just as children of this age don’t understand calculus, they also don’t understand other abstract concepts. For them, learning needs to be concrete. This doesn’t mean that they need to be sheltered from history, scientific principles, or even foreign language, but it does mean there needs to be a concrete playful learning opportunity. For my children, we study history using what Charlotte Mason calls “living books.” I choose living books with beautiful pictures, sometimes pictures of artifacts (this is concrete), and that read like stories. Stories engage the mind in a way that a textbook never will. Children this age, given the opportunity, can get excited about history and learn to love it early. For example, when Tiger was 5, we went to a museum that had an exhibit of the Titanic artifacts. He fell in love with all things Titanic. He read all sorts of books about the Titanic, and as it turned out, the Titanic was my ticket to giving him the confidence to read a chapter book! By the time he was done with the Titanic, he knew all about the science of why it sank to how many horsepower the engines were, to what a horsepower was, to why so many died. He still marvels at the arrogance of those who said that God could not sink that ship! For him, the Titanic was meaningful play.
In Love of Learning Phase (about 8-12), learning continues to need to be playful but not to the same degree. As the child matures, play begins to move from imagination and toys to more books, projects, and discussions with parents. It still needs to be meaningful though. With my older children, last year, we did a class on the Pilgrims. We read stories about them, read some of their own words, talked about what tools they needed and the decisions they made as they departed from England. We did projects and wrote letters to pilgrims. They loved it. They also learned a lot. Contrast that to when I learned history as a child. I was given a list of names and dates to memorize and talked at through a textbook. I quickly developed a dislike of history. After all, it was irrelevant! I even remember telling my grandma once that I hated history and didn’t see the point. She tried to tell me that it was interesting. I couldn’t find anything interesting about history at the time. Because I have chosen to teach history in a hands-on, with classics method, my children love history.
What about Scholar Phase? After all, since I am not requiring them to learn all the names and dates of everything they might have holes! Learning in Scholar Phase begins to look a bit more “academic” but still should avoid textbooks and arbitrary learning. Truthfully the principle of the cup applies all the way through life. I remember in college I had to take a botany class which was intended for students on the credential track. I, and many classmates, couldn’t understand why we needed to know the scientific name of several dozen arbitrary plants. We even asked the professor why we would need to scientific name of those plants. From our perspective, it was just one more thing required, in a long list of requirements, that some teacher thought was important, but really had no relevance to our own lives. We were told we needed the information because some kid might come up to us with a plant and want to know what it was and we would be able to tell him or her. To which we responded, then we can look in a field guide and figure it out since we won’t know all the plants! (The dichotomous key lessons were valued for this reason.) Like we had done many times before with irrelevant information, we dutifully memorized the facts and then promptly forgot them as we exited the exam- the water ran off the lid. Later in life, I studied herbology. Now I had a reason for knowing scientific names! Although I had covered many of the scientific names of plants I was interested in, I did not remember the scientific names anymore because the learning had been irrelevant. Once I had a reason, I memorized, and used, many of those very same scientific names. Where previously I had no reason to learn scientific names of arbitrary plant the professor selected as important, now I had a reason and motivation to learn what was once useless facts and information.
Now, I sit before a large dictionary, the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy. I intend to memorize events and names and dates. What would have once been an exercise in futility without purpose, now has meaning. I read enough to see references to events or literature. While I might have heard of events or have a vague recollection, I want to know more about those events and at the very least have a minimal familiarity so the reference isn’t lost on me. Since I have a purpose, the retention will be much higher than if I were just trying to sit for the exam.
The truth is everyone will come through their education with holes. These hole will either be there because a teacher didn’t teach the material or because a student didn’t retain it due to lack of relevance. If a child can read, knows how to learn, has confidence in his ability to learn anything, likes learning, and has a reason to learn something, that child will be unstoppable as he grows up. This is why the latter part of Scholar Phase is the time to worry about holes. Scholar Phase is the time to go in depth in different topics. This is the time to draw connections and to go deep and broad in all areas of learning. This is the time to worry about content. A Scholar will have a motivation to learn the material even if it isn’t his or her favorite topic because he or she will be able to see the value in learning things that might have not been important before. That reason may be for personal curiosity like my purpose in memorizing from the Dictionary. It may be for a career that the child wants to pursue. It may be in order to do do well on the SAT. Whatever the reason the child has will motivate great learning.