Parents of public school children who are thinking about homeschooling often ask questions like:
“How do you homeschool your child without leaving gaps in their knowledge? How do you know homeschool curricula authors have expertise and their curricula are covering enough?”
The most common answer I see is this: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
“No curriculum is perfect! Students are always going to have gaps! You should just follow their lead and let them study whatever they enjoy! As long as they figure out how to learn, that’s the important thing.”
I have a problem with this, and the following is why I have a problem.
One of the original thinkers in the study of how children learn is Jean Piaget. Piaget came up with the idea of schemas. (East Tennessee State University, 2016) Schemas are the basic building blocks of knowledge. If you spend much time around toddlers, it is easy to notice huge gaps in their schemas—all animals with fur and four legs are “doggy,” for example. Toddlers eventually refine their schemas to exclude all but canines in the “doggy” category.
So what? From my example, most people would point out that everybody has gaps, right? Well, yes and no. The more we learn, the more we refine our schemas. “This has four legs and fur, but it meows, so it is not a dog.” Our schemas become incredibly complex, in fact—and this is a good thing! (East Tennessee State University, 2016) The more refined the schema, the more information inherent in it and the more opportunities a child has to attach more information to it!
In terms of schemas, random facts do not “attach” to anything, which is why they are so difficult to learn. This also explains the phenomenon of “in one ear and out the other”—students aren’t making connections to existing schemas. However, when a student is attentive, with proper background knowledge, refining a schema can be effortless—see also, “meow” versus “bark.” As an instructor, one should be on the lookout for incorrect schemas. Without correct background knowledge in their schema, a student “knows” that gravity does not act equally on bowling balls and feathers (Clement, 1982).
This is where my problem with laissez-faire education occurs. When they don’t have an introduction to human knowledge in a structured fashion, with explicit connections to prior knowledge, students will have enormous gaps in their education of which they are unaware (East Tennessee State University, 2016), (Clement, 1982). Furthermore, their lack of prior background knowledge will actually impair their ability to learn in the future. (Willingham, Ask the Cognitive Scientist: How Knowledge Helps, 2006), (Clement, 1982).
If you want your child to be a good learner, it’s self-defeating to shrug off the “gap” question. In educational research, this is called the Matthew effect (Sanovich, 1986), after Matthew 25:29:
For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.
Students with refined, complex schemas—or in other words, well-organized depths of background knowledge—learn more easily (Willingham, Ask the Cognitive Scientist, 2003) and are more likely to draw correct conclusions when given new information. For example, every progressively-educated public school student in a study was gullible enough to believe that a website about tree octopuses was telling the truth (Krane, 2006). Why would we not do as much as possible to “mind the gap” so that our students do not fall prey to tree octopuses?
Classical education is good for all kinds of students, not just students who love to read. For poor readers, background knowledge increases reading comprehension (Kosmoski, Gay, & Vockell, 1990). For students who struggle with working memory, education research has firmly shown that increased background knowledge increases working memory (Willingham, Ask the Cognitive Scientist: How Knowledge Helps, 2006).
One common criticism of classical education is its emphasis on rote memorization. If you want your child to have good problem-solving skills, random, scattered background knowledge is insufficient. “The student must have sufficient background knowledge to recognize familiar patterns—that is, to chunk—in order to be a good analytical thinker.” (Willingham, Ask the Cognitive Scientist: How Knowledge Helps, 2006). Classical education’s emphasis on memorization actually contributes to good problem-solving skills and flexible thought!
On the other hand, schemas are not composed solely of facts—they are also composed of knowledge of how those facts fit together. This allows students to draw analogies between prior knowledge to create new knowledge:
a shark is to a vertebrate as an octopus is to a(n) ______________
Classical education’s emphasis on learning facts in context—history as narrative, for example—helps students “fit” their memorized facts into their increasingly refined schemas.
Will every classically educated student become an expert in every subject? Of course not. But background knowledge of facts and concepts is required for students to develop expertise in their chosen areas of interest (Willingham, Ask the Cognitive Scientist: Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise, 2002).
Another way to look at this research is to note that the hierarchical, highly structured nature of formal classical education actually lends itself beautifully to the way children learn. We provide them with oodles of background knowledge, diving deep into a particular subject for a year or so at a time, explicitly scaffolding their schemas with timelines, science notebooks, and nature journals. Then we revisit the topics at different age groups, making connections and relationships between knowledge clearer, strengthening schemas until students develop a deep understanding of the material.
Classical education’s overarching view of knowledge, organized into interrelated domains, actually works with the way our minds create schemas. Will there be gaps? Of course—but we’re minding them, providing our students with basic, underlying structures for their schemas, instead of throwing our hands up and shrugging at the inevitable
I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do. –Edward Everett Hale
Clement, J. (1982). Students’ Preconceptions in Introductory Mechanics. American Journal of Physics, 66-71.
East Tennessee State University. (2016, May 31). Schema Theory: What is a Schema? Retrieved from Faculty Support for Instruction: http://www.etsu.edu/fsi/learning/schematheory.aspx
Kosmoski, G. J., Gay, G., & Vockell, E. L. (1990). Cultural Literacy and Academic Achievement. Journal of Experimental Education, 265-272.
Krane, B. (2006, November 13). Researchers find kids need better online academic skills. Retrieved from University of Connecticut Advance: http://advance.uconn.edu/2006/061113/06111308.htm
Sanovich, K. E. (1986). Matthew Effects in Reading: Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy”. Reading Research Quarterly, 360-407.
Willingham, D. (2002, Winter). Ask the Cognitive Scientist: Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise. Retrieved from AFT American Educator: http://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/winter-2002/ask-cognitive-scientist
Willingham, D. (2003, Summer). Ask the Cognitive Scientist. Retrieved from American Educator: http://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/summer-2003/ask-cognitive-scientist
Willingham, D. (2006, May 31). Ask the Cognitive Scientist: How Knowledge Helps. Retrieved from AFT American Educator: 2016
Willingham, D., & Riener, C. (2010, September-October). The Myth of Learning Styles. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning.
Courtney is a relatively recent, accidental homeschooler of the secular, classical persuasion. Courtney has been teaching online (mostly community college algebra) since 2000, while working towards a ridiculous number of college credits for teaching certifications in general science, social studies, and visual impairments. Along the way, she’s done substitute teaching, face-to-face college adjuncting, technical writing, web design, public relations, data analysis, teaching in a public school, homeschool portfolio evaluations, providing vision education services for Birth To Three, and a whole host of “other duties as assigned.” In her spare time she enjoys reading, photography, cooking, sewing clothes, and other various domestic arts. She lives in the middle of the Appalachian mountains on the east coast of the USA with her husband, her two children, and her mother. Her family’s menagerie currently consists of a dog, assorted lizards, assorted cichlid fish, and assorted cats.