About Classical

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ at the Gap, by Courtney

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)_/¯

In words:

“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.

ostaff-headshot-1

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.

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Education is a Right

The Oldest Trick in the Book, by Jen N.

In large states public education will always be mediocre, for the same reason that in large kitchens the cooking is usually bad.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) German-Swiss philosopher and writer.

(Every so often we like to have a Throwback Thursday and reprint a popular article.  This originally ran on April 30, 2015.)

Apparently cafeteria food hasn’t improved over time. Education seems to be suffering the same fate – look at the history of education in our own country.

In pioneer days a school section (one square mile) was required by law.  An area six sections by six sections would define a township. Within this area, one section was designated as the school section. As the entire parcel would not be necessary for the school and its grounds, the balance of it was to be sold with the monies to go into the construction and upkeep of the school.  In those days a single teacher would typically have students in the first through eighth grades, and she taught them all. The number of students varied from six to forty or more. The youngest children sat in the front, while the oldest students sat in the back. The teacher usually taught reading, writing, arithmetic, history, and geography. Students memorized and recited their lessons. Sound like classical education? I think so too. Students educated in this way did not often go on to college, yet most ran businesses, farms, and households quite well.

“No, no,” Mr. Darling always said, “I am responsible for it all. I, George Darling, did it. MEA CULPA, MEA CULPA.”
He had had a classical education.”
J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

We still fund public education in this country. We as taxpayers spend a lot of money, yet our nation’s children are behind most of the world academically. There are hundreds of studies trying to explain why and how to improve our situation. Some say we need more STEM; others say there is too much time in the classroom and the kids need more play; still others say the exact opposite. Let me proffer this idea:  that a new and improved classical method along with an age-appropriate workload is the answer.  While not every child will or should attend college, all our children need to be educated to become good, moral, responsible citizens.

Books are the bedrock of a classical education.  The oldest trick in the book is to actually forget the books.  As the popularity of homeschooling has increased more curriculum has become available. A good education does not require a kit or a set of workbooks. Classical education requires a teacher, a willing student, and time. You need only visit a homeschool convention for minutes before noticing the Thomas Jefferson was homeschooled t-shirts. The greatest minds of the ages were educated by reading books, learning to debate ideas, and discussing those ideas with teachers. None of the ancient Greeks ever had “box day.”

In our consumer-driven society it is easy to fall into a “needing the next new thing” mindset.  It all comes down to trusting ourselves. Do we know the nature of our children? Do we understand the nature of education? Are we willing to put in the time and effort to make it happen? A classical education is worth working toward, but it is work. Will a classical education benefit all of us? I don’t know anyone who would argue that a country of children educated to think logically and to know the history they do not wish to repeat would be a huge benefit to all of us.

We need more than just a syllabus.  Knowing the how’s and why’s of an education that most of us did not receive ourselves leaves us constantly running to catch up.  The idea of an education that only supplies a student with skills to get ahead in the world is not  an adequate preparation for even entry-level employment. An education rooted in the classics gives each student their own arsenal of information and experiences to draw from. This is where the non-classically educated teacher must accept the responsibility of continually self-educating.

If we accept the premise that classical education is the best that has been thought and said, then why wouldn’t that type of education be for everyone?

Uncategorized, Veteran Homeschoolers

Follow Your Heart, by Briana Elizabeth

Have you ever talked to a homeschooler who had high school children who were doing amazing things? Not just extra-curricular hobbies, but starting non-profit organizations, running farms, taking outreach classes at universities, performing music on the weekend, or running their own businesses?

I’m privileged to know a few, and they are inspiring. They were so inspiring, they made me start questioning my own children about what they liked to do. Not what they would like to do (future), but what they like to do (present). It was something I had never asked because I had separated classical schooling from hopes and dreams. Education had nothing to do with careers and dreams, did it?

For a while, I sat on that information because truthfully, it overwhelmed me. But I also must admit that they didn’t tell me anything I didn’t know before.

My oldest daughter wanted to be a cosmetologist. After my initial trepidation, I worked at getting her into a vocational school as a share time student (meaning she did her academics at home, and went to school for her shop classes).

she passed the state board exams, also

She did have to go back to public school full time for the last year because the state licensing board wouldn’t acknowledge her homeschool diploma, and that wasn’t a fight I was willing to take on at the time.

Doing hair when her sisters were in a school play

She is now working at an amazing organic hair salon and very happy with her decision, even though she had to read The Scarlett Letter three times between her homeschool lit classes and her senior year English class.

My middle son took a completely different route. One of my favorite pictures of my now 15-year-old son is of him as a toddler, asleep with earphones on. We were on our way to Maine, and he was unhappy unless he had those headphones on. That was the start of his intense love of music.

music calming my little savage

We held off on buying him his first guitar, but after we did, he saved his money and bought many more. He then acquired a banjo, a mandolin, and a ukulele. He also plays bari sax, and tenor sax with the school band and marching band as an after school activity. (Our district allows homeschool kids to join certain public school activities.)

first guitar

His other loves were Legos, robotics, and designing things. He now is an amazing musician, and wants to be a luthier and an engineer. We were amazed to find out that perhaps the country’s best luthier lived in our county, and soon my son will be taking classes with him. He’s also making sure he works hard on his other academic courses because he knows he wants to head to college.

if you don’t play every day, you lose your calluses

I also have twin 12-year-old girls, and from the time they were tiny, they were as different as night and day. One loved baby dolls with all of her heart, but the other wanted nothing to do with them and would look at them disdainfully and toss them across the room.

my ladybug queen

The one who loved babies wants to be a teacher and a mother. The other one wants to be a kennel owner, and for a long time wanted to be a vet.

chicken whisperer

We work with animals every chance we get. It would be no surprise to those who know us that when we can, we’ll be hopefully buying a farm.

champion puppy whelping team

My youngest son has always been physical. He is very aware of how his body moves, and the space he takes up. It doesn’t take him long to learn complicated physical things, and he has always been this way.

Yep, he did it.

He is now in football. We are all excited about going to his games, and cheering him on!

practice, practice, practice

Where he goes with his love of physical activities is up to him. I could see him in martial arts competitions, mountain climbing, and even in the armed forces, though lately he’s expressed a desire to be a police officer.

My youngest who is 8 asks me once a week if it’s a good thing to be an artist. Ever since she was a toddler, she’s been drawing and coloring every chance she got. She has free reign of my paints and paper, and of my pastels, and pencils, and she is on her path.

My oldest son that I classically homeschooled through 10th grade is deep in his two loves: cooking, and mechanics.

Here’s the thing: If there is any educational style that befits any child no matter their path, the classical model is it. I want my plumber to know Longfellow. I want my banker to know Faust. Classical education is about the true, the good, and the beautiful. It is about developing virtue, and I honestly can’t think of one profession that doesn’t need both.

So how do we incorporate both? With ample amounts of time, and for this, homeschooling is the best. My son who is a musician was able to learn all of those instruments by my giving him the time to learn them. By truly living multum non multa. By weeding out all of the unnecessary, be that books or co-ops, so that they have time to pursue what they love, and so that they also have time to fruitfully rest. It may not be easy, this path, but it is amazing, and delightful, and deeply gratifying.


Briabrianana Elizabeth has been at this homeschool gig since her 23 year old son was in 7th grade, and his psychiatrist told her that he had to be homeschooled. Her son never went back to public school that year, and the following year, she pulled her 4th grade daughter out of public school. Her five other children have all been homeschooled entirely. It was baptism by fire, but she wouldn’t trade it for the world. Through the years, she has in the end, not only educated her children, but herself, and homeschooling has brought about a whole paradigm change of living for her family. The education that had seemed only possible for the elite was possible through classically homeschooling.

CF: Preschool/Kindergarten, Classical Foundations 2014

Earlier Rather Than Later: Unique Preschool for a Child with Down Syndrome, by Brit

 

When our daughter was born with Down syndrome, we never questioned whether we would homeschool her. That was just a given: she would be educated at home with her brothers. What we did question almost from the beginning was how, what, and when. As we were moving toward a much more classical approach with our boys, we wondered if we would also classically educate Kate. Would she be able to handle the rigor and work? Could she handle learning Latin like her brothers? We started to question the curriculum choices we were making with the boys, wondering if she would need something entirely different. And we weren’t sure when to start a more formal approach to her learning. Would we wait until she was “school age” to begin formal learning, beyond what she showed an interest in? Or would we take an “early is better” approach?

It wasn’t very hard to realize that Kate, too, would be classically educated. We knew it might, and probably would, look different than her brothers’ education looked. But it would be classical to the best of her ability. I bought Cheryl Swope’s book Simply Classical. Reading her story, and that of her two children made me realize that it wasn’t just possible to educate Kate classically, it was the best way to educate her as a whole person. Sure, she will need to learn life skills. Sure, we will need to help her gain as much independence as possible. But those skills just address one piece of what makes Kate, well, Kate. She is a body and soul and deserves an education that forms her whole being just as much as her brothers do. Recently, our decision was validated and cemented when I read this quote by Martin Cothran of Memoria Press:

If a child cannot accommodate the amount or depth of knowledge of most children, it is not less, but more important that what they learn be of the highest quality.

Now that we knew roughly what her education was going to look like, we needed to decide how it was going to play out. As I read books and on the internet, and as I spoke with others who have walked this path before me, I began to discuss the idea of early academics with my husband. Knowing that all learning for Kate would be uphill both ways, we decided that an early start to building her academic foundation was vital to her potential success later in life. The first place we began was reading instruction. Not only is the ability to read one of the most fundamental abilities necessary to participate in every day life, but learning to read also helps cognitive development as well as speech development, both of which can be delayed in individuals with Down syndrome.

We have put together a reading program using a variety of resources including The Learning Program materials, See and Learn, and the book Teaching Reading to Children with Down Syndrome. Mostly, we use flash cards that have a word on one side with a corresponding picture on the reverse. The flashing through is fast; it takes a couple minutes to go through a stack of ten cards, twice. We have also added books from the Learning Program with simple sentences to help her make the connection between words on a flashcard and words in books. The goal is for Kate to be reading and comprehending at or above grade level when she begins first grade.

In addition to teaching reading in the preschool years, we also are teaching early math literacy – counting everything (steps as we go up and down the stairs, objects on pages of books we read, pieces of food), sorting and categorizing toys, and playing with pattern blocks and attribute blocks, among other more formal activities. Looking back, so many of these early concepts came naturally for her brothers, either through playtime together or through videos from Leap Frog. We didn’t think much of what we were doing, we just included colors, numbers, shapes, and sizes in everyday conversation with our boys. With Kate, though, nothing can be assumed. Yes, we play with her in the same ways, having similar conversations. But we also pull out flash cards, linking cubes, and small math manipulatives. We must be much more deliberate with Kate, much more explicit with the instruction, much more repetitive with her. The idea is that she must have 10,000 times more input than typical children to retain information. She must have her working memory exercised consistently to build connections and synapses. We can never just assume with her that she is learning the ways her brothers learned – just by picking things up in everyday life.

The final, and the most beautiful, piece to the puzzle for Kate’s early preschool education is the new Simply Classical curriculum from Memoria Press. Harkening back to the quote from Martin Cothran, and based on her book, Cheryl Swope is designing classical curriculum for special needs children. We have begun working through the first level with Kate this summer. We start each day with a prayer from the beautiful Little Golden Book Prayers for Children. When we talk about the baby birds and mama bird on the page, Kate practices her speech and her signing. From there, each day includes basic calendar activities (days of the week and weather), counting and alphabet recitation, as well as beginning memory work from Scripture. We then read the book of the week. Cheryl Swope has chosen wonderful books from authors including Beatrix Potter, Richard Scarry, Eric Carle, and Margaret Wise Brown, among others. Because these are board books, they are perfect for little hands and allow Kate to practice her fine motor skills by turning the pages for me.

Fine and gross motor, oral language, and other therapies are wrapped into the weekly readings. We practice making a pointing finger to count objects; we jump, squat down, and push strollers to act out parts of a story; we discuss feelings and learn empathy while learning to read emotions on the faces of the characters. Cheryl Swope has taken those skills that need explicit instruction and woven them beautifully into activities springing out of the books we are reading. She has captured special needs preschool and bottled it inside something true, good, and beautiful.

Early academics is not something I would normally advocate. If I did, it would come in the form of “only if the child shows an interest.” Of my three boys, the younger two did show an interest, but ultimately, it was not the early academics that drove them. It was the desire to emulate their older brother(s) by doing “school” too. We kept it simple – a few Kumon books; a white board and marker to practice “writing;” some paper, scissors, glue, and crayons. If they felt like being at the table with the rest of us, they were welcomed. But it was not planned or forced. We do not have that luxury with Kate. We knew early on that she needed an early start to build a foundation that came easily for her brothers. We knew her development was an uphill climb from the beginning. But we also knew that given the skills, the input, and the time, she would be able to fly. Early academics, beginning much younger for her than her brothers, is the key to helping her fly. For us, that takes the form of early reading instruction, explicit math instruction, and a beautifully written preschool special needs curriculum. And she is thriving.

 

10320484_10152303634377954_6796617664035885030_n1Brit and her husband are living this beautiful, crazy life with their three sons and one daughter in sunny California. They made the decision to homeschool when their eldest was a baby after realizing how much afterschooling they would do if they sent him to school. Brit describes their homeschooling as eclectic, literature-rich, Catholic, classical-wanna-be.

CF: Why Classical, Classical Foundations 2014

Why Classical Education? From the Well-Trained Mind to Charlotte Mason, by Megan

 

I made the decision to homeschool when my oldest child was two. Even though I had several years to plan, I immediately began scouring the internet for curricula. I was overwhelmed by the numerous options. I wanted to ensure that my children received a better education than my own but I didn’t know which path would get me there.

I asked for help on a homeschool forum, and someone recommended The Well-Trained Mind (WTM). I got it from the library and couldn’t put it down. This was exactly what I was looking for, but didn’t know existed! It was how I wish I had been educated.

I loved the idea of laying a foundation that could be built upon in greater detail further down the road. It seemed so logical, so obvious once I’d read it, yet so completely different than my own experience that I never would have come up with it on my own.

sts-why-classical

Two of the biggest reasons drawing me to this method were how Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise handled History and English. In the public elementary school I attended growing up, Social Studies started with the child and they learned about self, then their community, then their state, and then their country. Social Studies in 7th-12th grades were a convoluted mess. Between 6th and 12th grades, I took four and a half years of American History and only one year of World History. In the WTM method, History is done chronologically from beginning to end and the cycle is repeated every four years. And every time it repeats, the historical facts make more sense as they build upon they foundation the students already had. I loved this idea that History could actually make sense!

I listened to Bauer’s method of English instruction here. I loved the methods of copywork, narrations, and dictation, and her explanations of why they were so important. I could understand the skills they taught and appreciated that they’re developmentally appropriate for younger children. I could also see how students will take those skills and build upon them as they grow, and learn to be persuasive writers by college. That made me hopeful because I feel like I struggled so much in college whenever I had to write papers.

After a year of this method, I began to realize that although it was exactly what I wish I had had, it wasn’t working very well for my son. Apparently, different people enjoy learning in different ways. I started learning more about Charlotte Mason’s take on classical education and we’ve added some more of her methods. I still get chronological history, copywork, narrations, and dictation (among other things), but I’ve tweaked how we approach them. He’s behind in some areas and ahead in others. I get to tailor his education to his needs and it works out very well. I still love the WTM as a guide and a starting off point whenever I need curricula suggestions, but I love the natural learning of Charlotte Mason’s approach.

Even though we’re still in the “sandbox” stage of our homeschooling journey, I feel confident that we’re on the right path. We may no longer strictly follow WTM, butI know my son is getting a high quality education. It’s a proven method and my friends who are much further along in this process are there to encourage and support me. With their help, I am able to see the big picture of where I want my children to be in ten years.

 

Meganmegan–Megan is mom to three children: Pigby (boy, age 7), Digby (boy, age 4), and Chuck (girl, age 2).  She loves history, ballroom dance, and crocheting.  She made the decision to homeschool when her oldest was three and they’ve been on this journey ever since.