Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Unschooling : How Good Morning America Got It All Wrong according to Lee Stranahan

I found a link to an interesting article on Alasandra's Homeschool Blog. Since my reply to the article and post turned out to be so lengthy I decided to do it on my on blog. Alasandra, with her amazing skill at finding interesting articles, posts and other information did it again. Thank You!

While the article was certainly well written and witty at times I noticed the fact that Mr. Stranahan noted how his son enrolled and successfully caught up with his 7th grade peers in public school. What shocked and dismayed me that the youth was unfamiliar with basic math concepts such as long division etc. Fortunately he was able to catch up. I wonder though, would Mr.Stranahan have taken him out of public school again if his son had struggled with the lessons and not been able to catch up? Would he have realized at that time that while the youth had in many regards undoubtedly a well rounded education he was lacking some important mathematical concepts he would have to be able to use in real life later on? Would he have abandoned some of the unschooling method he employed to fill those glaring gaps in education ? Kudos to the child for being able to do so and a fair amount of luck too.

I went to a German Waldorf school from 3rd grade through 8th grade until we switched countries in '84. I had to learn English and eventually enrolled in a very good private school. I was lucky to be admitted for 8th grade in '86 in February. I did awfully in the finals which were only a few months later. When they promoted me to 9th grade due to my age I refused. I insisted that if I were to have any chance at all I would need to repeat 8th grade as I had seen that a lot of key highschool academia was taught then and I had missed it all. Waldorf, while a cozy, feel good, kumbaya sort of a school failed to provide me with a strong basic science and math background. I had a great art background. Music, art, history... I loved and aced it all. But I lacked a thorough basic science education. That basic science background was taught at the other school 6th grade onwards. I struggled on and eventually did alright in Math, fabulously in Biology (which I loved) and abysmally in Chemistry which to this day I don't really get. My first day of school saw me getting into trouble with Mrs. Singhdeo, the geography teacher, when she asked me what the atmosphere was made up of. I innocently answered 'AIR'. She though I was being a smartass because the whole class errupted in giggles. I was in 8th grade and had never learned what the atmosphere surrounding our planet really consisted of. But man, I knew how to make beautiful candles. I knew how to grow wheat, grind it and make bread. I knew how to make lovely dolls, I could play Bach, Mozart and other composers works on various instruments. Watercolor painting, knitting and sewing, carpentry, woodworking, pottery, it was all right up my alley. But a simple question about Earth Science left me floundering and pissing off annoying a teacher on day one.  And Mrs. Singhdeo was not a woman to be triffled with. What I am driving at here is the fact that Mr. S. was goshdarned lucky that his son was able to catch up. Actually his son was luckiest of all. It turns out that I love biology and medicine. I read college level biology and some medical books while still in highschool. Just for the fun of it. Had it not been for the fact that I thought Chemistry was magic and never to be comprehended by my puny mind I would, undoubtedly, have gone into medicine.

While I condemn GMA for their hack-job journalism in the case at hand I must state a clear reservation when it comes to pure unschooling. I imagine that almost all homeschooling parents indulge in a bit of unschooling. We did this morning. The children went (unplanned) outside with their sketch books and sketched some plants in our backyard. Then they came in, learned about them and wrote about them. Now, while this is all very nice and they had a blast, how many unschooled kids will ask to learn necessary skills such as long division, algebra and fractions? I learned from my example that my children must be taught a variety of subjects, even the ones that don't always appear to be the most fun. To do otherwise would limit their future.


Marlis said...

And one other thing... had Mr. Stranahan sent his son to public school, how would he have reacted when the school would have failed to teach some basic knowledge like long division by 7th grade.

Bob Collier said...

I'm not at all surprised that Mr. Stranahan's son quickly caught up with his 7th grade peers. In a world where unschoolers are free to learn at the speed of thought, schools continue to teach at the speed of watching paint dry.

Long division is something that can be mastered in a few days of concentrated attention. Maybe even in a day.

Not learning it until you actually need it is hardly the end of the world.

Marlis said...

Hi Bob, a good friend of mine moved 'down-unda' from England as well. You remind me of him (yes, I checked out your site a bit). Very intellectual nice guy :).

Nice of you to take the time to pen a comment.

I agree with you on some points. Homeschoolers do learn at their pace which is what my children are definitely doing. It's wonderful. But to completely miss out on some very basic knowledge can affect how the rest of a childs learning process evolves. I went through life just fine without calculus, advanced or otherwise. But certain basic skills have allowed me to learn other things I would never have comprehended without the necessary foundation to begin with.

Bob Collier said...

It's true there are circumstances when acquiring knowledge in sequence is crucial. At the same time, my son has been out of school for more than seven years and I've yet to encounter a real life situation where he's needed to know long division - or his multiplication tables - so perhaps "basic skills" are only basic skills in some contexts and not others.

Marlis said...

Interesting, I use sequentially learned information all the time. Division, multiplication? All the time, at the bank, lender, grocery store in my kitchen, at my business, when I calculate my gas mileage...

Bob Collier said...

Given that the human brain interprets incoming data in terms of existing data, I suppose I could argue that I use sequentially learned information all the time too and so does my son. In any event, what he's learned in his life so far - and I know he's far more knowledgable about the world he lives in and how it works than I was at 14 after ten years in school - hasn't included a need to know how to use long division. Or a need to memorise multiplication tables. That's my point.

In the 1950s and 60s when I went to school, children were taught everything "educational professionals" could think of to teach because they knew we would need at least 5% of it in our adult lives but nobody knew from one individual child to the next which 5%. So everything had to be covered just in case. And I'm pretty sure arguments were going on then about what exactly constitutes "core knowledge" beyond the obvious "3 Rs" that children are perfectly capable of learning before they even start school.

Schools still seem to be approaching education in pretty much the same "just in case" way at a time in history when all human knowledge is freely available on the internet and can be accessed as needed.

What would happen if my son suddenly needed to know how to use long division? We'd set aside a day to master it, find a video online to learn the mechanics from and practice until we were both sure he knows how to use long division. Somebody else, of course, might simply suggest that he always carries a pocket calculator along with his mobile phone (assuming it doesn't already have its own calculator). But then, of course, that would invite all those "What if the battery runs out?" arguments.

Marlis said...

The point of memorizing multiplication tables isn't so much that it's intended to serve you as an adult as much as when you are a student doing math problems. Being able to remember (or recall quickly at the very least) say, 6 x 8 = 48 while in the middle of a math problem certainly helps with speed and accuracy.

Being taught 'everything' because no one knows what you'll need later in life is not something I see going away ever. Frankly, no one has that crystal ball and children change so much. My parents and their friends and family members always had me pegged as a future musician or teacher. Teacher of what? They had their bets on history. While I am undoubtedly still passionate about history I found out in highschool that I loved biology and science and would have made that my career given the possibility.

Yes, information is available on the Internet and I agree with you that it's something readily accessible to anyone with access. And I often wonder, would my future have shaped differently if I could have had access to something like that when I recognized my failure to understand chemistry. But the Internet cannot substitute a broad ranging education that, yes, includes basic core information. While my children certainly use the net to research subjects of interest I still need to maintain a focus on core knowledge. Because I believe that core knowledge will eventually help them move into whatever field they choose to go into. And even if not, at least they were exposed to it and it was at their disposal as needed.

I chuckled at your calculator joke... Yup, the old dead battery saw. When my daughter still went to private school for her last year I was shocked and utterly dismayed that on the 'needed list' we found the request for a calculator. The teacher I spoke to, when I voiced my concern, mentioned something to the effect that they were required to start teaching the kids how to use it. The highschool I went to was very clear on calculator use... only if you were in grades 11 and 12 had taken science and higher math as electives. If we were caught with a calculator we were in serious trouble. Consequently I can't use a calculator beyond + - and /. Why would a 3rd grader need to use a calculator? Shouldn't they use the stuff between their ears?

Like your son, my daughter is far more informed about a great deal of things than I was at her age but that's the world in general. our children are, by and large, far more exposed to this world than we were when we grew up. But that doesn't stop me from making sure that she learns core information, even with the strong possibility that she'll not use a great deal of it later in life.

All the information on the net is only as good as the understanding of the individuals understanding of it.

Bob Collier said...

"If we were caught with a calculator we were in serious trouble."

That's schools isn't it? When I was at school anyone caught using a ballpoint pen instead of a fountain pen got into serious trouble. Ballpoint pens were apparently the work of the devil. These days cell phones are the work of the devil it seems.

"Core knowledge". That's the thing. Is it unchanging across generations or does it change to suit the times? Win Wenger, author of The Einstein Factor, is of the opinion that everything a child really must know can be learned in 100 hours (though he didn't reply to my email asking him what exactly would be in those 100 hours, so I'm none the wiser). John Taylor Gatto has said much the same. Edward de Bono has been known to complain that crucial thinking skills every child must have to be successful in life are not taught in most schools. It's certainly my view that beyond the obvious of the "3 Rs", which can be learned before even starting school, what schools regard as "core knowledge" is a matter of opinion.

Or as I saw it very neatly put yesterday in a comment to a blog post elsewhere, "School teaches at best a trillionth of a percent of the knowledge available on the planet yet we quibble endlessly over which trillionth of a percent is most important."

I'm reminded also of something I read last week highlighting how slow many public schools have been in making computer literacy a priority. Whereas handwriting was a core subject in my schooldays, I think it would have to give way to keyboard skills in 2010. But there probably will still be people who believe every child should continue to practice cursive writing just in case.

After I left school my handwriting was illegible - well trained by writing as fast as possible for the purpose of exams - and when I got my first job and was informed of the fact, I started over and relearned to write. That's always an option and worth doing if needed. These days, I write very readable shopping lists and post-its.

Marlis said...

Bob, I like talking with you more and more after each exchange. I am rather busy this morning so I'll reply to your latest comment later today. Let me just say this... I loved it!


Marlis said...

Goodness, when I told someone the other day that we weren't allowed to use a ballpoint pen in school she was aghast. I went to a Waldorf school in Germany and they too considered the ballpoint pen most damaging to a childs' penmanship. Then, the next school I went to was in another country and while ball-point pens were allowed 6th grade onwards, calculators were banned. My handwriting, ink-pen or not, leaves much to be desired but for the most part its legible. My daughter is learning cursive but I don't really push it. As long as it's reasonably legible I am OK with it. I do try and keep in mind that she'll eventually be going back to institutionalized learning by way of highschool and college. But I generally do insist that she complete her notebooking pages in cursive unless it's a science page

You made some really great points in your latest comments. Thank you. It does seem as though the educators of this world still cannot come to a consensus as to which core information/crucial skills are the most important. And it would seem as though even homeschoolers have strongly differing opinions. We all have strong opinions on what we don't consider of great importance but that appears to chance from person to person and community to community. .

Tell me Bob, what do you think about the way kids are tested now-a-days. I mean those multiple choice questions, fill out a circle, take a stab-at-it approach. It all seems very counter-productive to me. When I went to school we had to write our answers, often accompanied by reasoning and the steps of thinking that brought us to our conclusions. Multiple choice wasn't something I ever saw until I moved to the US. How do they do this in Australia? Is homeschooling more or less accepted in Australia than, say the US?

Well, it's been a long day and I have to go tuck in the kids. I would love to tuck myself in too but my dh isn't home from the office yet even thought it's 9:30 PM or 21:30 hours (depending on what you use 'down under'.

G'nite :)

PS, let us talk some more about 'crucial thinking skills' if you don't mind. This is a topic very dear to my heart because that skill seems to be a very underused one in this part of the world.

Bob Collier said...

Multiple choice questions. Hmm.... :-)

No such thing when I went to school, as far as I can remember. I don't recall being aware of them when my daughter was at school through the 1990s though they may have been introduced here by then but had not become as predominant as they seem to be now.

A national curriculum for schools is being introduced in Australia (much heated debate, argument and controversy!) and as a prelude the government has created a website to provide information to parents that allegedly will enable the comparison of one school with another. The information will initially be derived from the results of a national literacy and numeracy test taken by school children a couple of weeks ago.

There was a feature on this in my daily newspaper with some samples of test papers ("Are you smarter than your child?" etc). All the questions are multiple choice. Put a circle around the correct answer, either a 25% or 33% chance of being right even if you're clueless. Many of the questions seemed a little lightweight as well.

As I said to my wife, "That's not an education. That's a trivia quiz".

Homeschooling in Australia seems to be growing more and more popular and is generally well accepted, although there continues to be an assumption that it means "school at home", which, as far as I can tell, is actually becoming less and less the preferred approach.

"Unschooling" is a newish idea here and as controversial as it is in the USA for the same reasons, though it's existed within the homeschooling world as "natural learning" for quite a while.

I'm regarded as an "unschooler" but never use the term in my everyday life. What my son does is more like a home based version of Judy Breck's "handschooling" (www.handschooling.com).

Marlis said...

"That's not an education. That's a trivia quiz.” Boy does that hit the proverbial nail on the head. I read that line to my husband and we both agreed we needed to remember it.

When we first started to hs I had my daughter take some tests. It wasn't hard. Just simple questions based on what she had learned. The rules were no multiple choice answers and no ‘one word’ answers. She was quite amazed as she had never experienced anything like it. 'But Mom, Mrs. D. didn't make us do tests like that...' But she quickly caught on and knows what I look for when we do tests. Test taking has been gradually decreased as we moved on in homeschooling. When I can pop quiz her any time anywhere an opportunity presents itself why only test when we have a table at hand. Every day is an opportunity to learn and we do just that. We have a store in town called Pier 1. It's an import store of sorts. Seeing a small collapsible handfan I taught her about the history of fans and romantic communication right then and there. She was fascinated and the clerk amused. Oh, well. Shopping for a birthday gift and history lesson in one. She is too young to find that weird. Wonder if she'll balk when she grows older. But then she doesn't socialize with a gaggle of eye rolling pre-teens every day. Maybe she'll always consider learning cool.

As much as I like the idea of indulging my childrens' whims and ideas in their educational pursuits I will always maintain my effort to provide key skills. Maybe this is why many homeschooling parents like unit studies.

I am not sure where this coming school year will take us. We used her old school's curriculum since we hoped to reintegrate her but her Dad wants to let her immune system calm down a bit more before sending her there again. I am still researching the material we plan to use this coming school year. Some stuff is a no brainer. My daughter hated the 'Open Court Reader' for reading comprehension and I can't blame her. So I'll be digging up old classics for her this year (thankfully she is a voracious reader) as well as 'The Hobbit' and eventually the 'Lord of the Ring' series. Life is too short to eat bad food and read boring stuff I say. We checked out the Singapore Math books and neither one of us like them so we'll probably stick with the publisher of her current math books. Science will be an amalgam of many different books and resources as is history. Did you follow any plan at all when teaching your son or was it him saying one day he wanted to study say Wallabies and Quasars the next? How and when did he learn to read. Sorry, so many questions.

I checked out the site you mentioned (www.handschooling.com) but haven't read enough to really understand it yet. Thanks for the link though :)

Well, time to go now. Looking forward to hearing from you again.

Bob Collier said...

When my son was first out of school we had a plan based on continuing to attend to the subjects that are usually considered the most important and that we thought were too - English, Mathematics, Science. In fact, having some kind of alternative to school lessons in place was part of the agreement to take our son out of school. There was no curriculum, just a timetable. Maximum of three hours a day, no homework, no need to sit at a table, sofa was fine, floor was fine. Very easygoing, I thought. No testing, no lessons even, just designated times to pay attention to learning about a particular subject. That lasted about two weeks before my son refused to continue. My wife and I had no intention of removing our son from circumstances in which he'd become chronically unhappy only to put him into a situation where he was equally unhappy, so we decided that since he was only seven he would have plenty of opportunity to catch up should he fall behind with anything and we allowed him to do whatever he chose to do for the following year. He chose to spend nearly all of his spare time playing videogames and never returned to any kind of formal learning. Which is not to say that he won't as we begin to discuss the acquisition of qualifications for his adult life.

When my son had been in his second year at school, he was in the remedial reading class (along with rather too many of his contemporaries it seemed to me). I was a volunteer helper in the program both years he was at school and it was pretty mind numbing. It taught my son to hate books. From the time he came out of school to this day, he's never read a book.

At the end of his year of playing videogames, however, his reading was excellent. I don't know how that happened. He never once asked me "what does this word say?", which is what I would have expected. I guess he built on what he already knew about reading plus he's in an environment where the written word is all about him plus he would have been highly motivated to understand the online instructions of his videogames (where there would probably be visual clues to what a word might mean). More intriguingly, his punctuation and grammar when writing were impeccable. Perhaps that came from his two years of school, I don't know.

I have described my son's education as an experiment in freeform digital media based learning at the speed of thought. Would I have been willing to attempt any kind of home education before the internet? I don't know. In any event, we live now in an environment where information and knowledge flow freely into our home in many forms 24/7; and, importantly, as I see it, I'm sharing this exciting adventure (most of what I know about science I learned from the Mythbusters TV show). In the 'old days', I was the kind of person who could happily spend the whole day sitting in a library. I haven't visited a bricks and mortar library for six years, but I have a 12GB library on my laptop; I'm constantly using Google to expand on ideas that occur during the course of our everyday lives, or Wikipedia, or YouTube. Even without knowing that my wife is a university lecturer and our now grown up daughter was an academic high achiever in her school days, I think it would be obvious to anybody who spends a day in our home that our family has a culture of wanting to "learn stuff". Of valuing education. Except how education has been happening for my son over the past seven years has been as if school doesn't exist. No lessons, no "subjects", something organic and perhaps amorphous at times but all the feedback has been positive so far.

Marlis said...

Good morning Bob :) I found your latest post very interesting. Thanks for sharing. It's interesting what motivated kids can absorb, isn't it. Your son was only 7 and in a remedial reading class? He either had lousy teachers or a bad system to deal with. How frustrating. I have noticed that most people whose children require remedial reading have one thing in common. Those kids learned reading via 'word recognition' rather than phonics. While phonics give children the tools to 'decode' words, word recognition leaves a child having to remember all the words and then facing frustration when a child meets a new word. Of course there are 'recognition words' children learn by heart but that is more in addition to being provided with tools like digraphs, long e short e etc. Rules like that. Man did I have it easy as a child! No wonder I learned reading within 2-3 weeks once I went to 1st grade. It was German. The easy thing is that it is pronounced the way it's spelled. Yep, in those days it was forbidden to teach a child to read before they went to school. Mom tells me that I wanted to read at 4 and that it broke her heart to deny me.

My son watches a lot of public television. He loves shows like Electric Company, Martha Speaks, Ruff Ruffman and other fun yet educational shows. I love the kid friendly shows that aren't interrupted by ads for garbage of all sorts. He also loves to visit the website of these shows and learns by playing games.

Your son has a definite advantage of growing up in a family that is very centered on knowledge. What does your wife teach? We love learning too but go about it in a slightly different way. While we use the net a great deal we also use the library a lot. My daughter and I happily spend many hours there. My son on the other hand isn't that fascinated. He loves having the opportunity to choose books about topics he is curious about but wants to go home after 20 minutes because we won't let him run around there. He is pretty high octane but then he is only going to be 5 in August.

Well, I have to end here for now. I have to be somewhere in 20 minutes. TTFN.

Bob Collier said...

My son's school taught reading by word recognition exclusively. In fact, I was specifically told not to use phonics with him at home. Not asked, told. My response to that was to create a picture book for my son that demonstrated the 44 phonemes in the English language so he would at least have some kind of tool to help him, even if he wouldn't be allowed to use it in the classroom.

As I mentioned, I sometimes got the impression that there were as many children in his school year needing remedial reading as not. I think the situation wasn't helped by the fact that the stories in the vast majority of the books used were quite insipid. Had I been a seven year old boy, I'm sure I would have found them a chore to get through.

My daughter was reading fluently before she started school. I read to her a lot when she was a baby and toddler for the enjoyment of the stories and as she began to show an interest in taking over the reading I showed her how to use phonics. I naturally informed her that not all new words could be "sounded out" and simply told her what the word was if it couldn't be. Progressing with the story was the priority. I don't know why my son's school couldn't have done something along those lines in preference to having so many children floundering.

My wife is currently teaching international human resource management.

Marlis said...

Makes you wonder, doesn't it. Why do so many schools all over the world insist on continuing what has already been proven ineffective. I don't get it. The other thing I don't get is why they feel the need to change something that works just fine the way it was.

As for example. My daughter came home in 3rd grade with some new methods of multiplying and dividing. One of those methods was the lattice method for multiplying. Pure Greek to me. When I looked at the text book I saw 3 or four different methods for multiplication and several methods for division. And my daughter (who scores in the 99th percentile in standardized tests) was utterly confused. I told her to never mind all that nonsense and taught her the technique for division and multiplication that I had learned, the way her Dad had learned it, the way most adults I know do it. And she understood it right away. Why are they trying to teach 3rd graders several different methods? Are they trying to confuse them on purpose? I asked the teacher and her response was that she too had to first learn how to do the new techniques before she was able to teach the kids. As to the 'why', it was so that all children had the ability of finding one system that worked for them. It was the curriculum the school had chosen and she was required to teach it that way. As it turns out with the exception of 1 or two kids the whole class used the same method. Go figure. And all that after wasting several days on teaching kids several different methods that no one even remembers anymore. Baffling.

The one thing I must say we enjoyed at the private school she attended was that the reading material is fun and entertaining. Advanced children are often placed in advanced classes. Just yesterday I overheard the headmistress talk to the mother of a soon to be second grader whom they'll place for math class in 3rd grade. That first grader is already a full year younger than the rest of the class. The school is very flexible to allow children who are gifted in a given subject to be able to advance through it faster. My daughter still takes French from the language teacher at that school. That was one subject I was happy to outsource.