by David Parkerson
Let me say up front, the following is in no way intended as a criticism of teachers. I have taught high school math courses for a couple of years and know the challenges. There are thousands of wonderful teachers working incredibly hard because they love kids and want to make a difference. What follows are merely some honest reflections on the traditional ways of doing things. It is no secret that America’s public education system is not doing well. Statistically, we are last place among the seventeen industrialized countries, many of which have fewer years of school than we do. In Switzerland only 23 percent of the student population goes to high school though it has the highest per capita income in the world. The curriculum in America has been dumbed down so far in the last four decades that we have forgotten where we started. Calculus, for example, used to be a standard high school course, but no more. Geometry and Trigonometry were taught to children as young as eleven.
The system has problems that more money, teachers, taxes and buildings will not fix. The root problem is much deeper; it is the philosophy of education. In other words, we must rethink some things. Maybe it’s not normal for kids to hate “school” and for “school” to be so unsuccessful.
Before beginning I have to thank Greg Stablein, Mark Wade, and many other home educators whom have gone before me. Many of the ideas below are ones I’ve heard them share with others. Also, thank you to my wife, April, and Mark Wade for editing this for me, several times.
THE ART OF TEMPORARY MEMORIZATION
The main thing I learned in school was what I call the “art of temporary memorization.” Whether it was a list of presidents, chemicals, or vocabulary words, there was always something to memorize, to cram in long enough to pass Friday’s test. To add to this pressure, we all knew that the culmination of all those quizzes, tests, and final exams would be a grade point average that very well could determine the courses of our lives. “So this is it,” I thought in seventh grade. “I know the plan, the goal, and the method of getting there. Just one problem. I hate school! I hate memorizing because I have to labor so long at it. I’m tired of memory schemes. I would rather get out and explore the woods around my house, play for hours with the CD-ROM encyclopedia, find things, build things, fix things, and read real books! Wouldn’t that be learning?But I can’t. I have too much to memorize before Friday’s test!”
What else could I do? I did the memorizing, but I never liked it. There are some people who love a good list to memorize. My wife’s brain works more that way than mine. She can hear a song from Veggie Tales three times and she’s got it. I would have to listen to it over and over, type up the words, outline it, highlight the key phrases, and develop some acronym before it stuck to anything in my head.
School was frustrating for me. To add insult to synaptic injury, I was further discouraged when I began to realize (somewhere around ninth grade) all that once-memorized information was gone. I couldn’t remember much of anything from those countless exams. Wouldn’t it be great if I could impress my friends with a list of presidents, or chemicals, or vocabulary at any given moment? But I couldn’t. I knew I learned it because I had passed! But, where did it go? Down the hole of Rote Memory.
THE SCHOOL OF ROTE MEMORY
“rote (rot) noun 1. A memorizing process using routine or repetition, often without full attention or comprehension: learn by rote. 2. Mechanical routine.”
I still remember when I first learned about rote memory, our shortest-term capacity for storing bits of info. It was in Mrs. Harwell’s 9th grade biology class. “There are three types of memory,” she would tell us. “Long term is forever. Short term is for months or years. But rote memory is only for days. ‘ In one ear and out the other.’ That’s rote memory.” This was just the ammo I needed! I could not wait to get home that day with proof, proof that all this data I was being forced to swallow was useless because I would soon forget most of it. Surely my parents would recognize the futility of it all and dismiss school from my life.
On the bus, I thought of all those tests that I had taken, and all that remained to take; tests on capitals and significant dates, elements and parts of speech. I thought of how it was all routine and repetition, often without full attention or comprehension in order to accomplish one goal, pass the test so I could keep everyone happy. “Who cares if I know it forever or even for a few years? It’s the test on Friday that counts for or against me.” I pled my case to the highest court in the house, but there was no reduction in my sentence. I had to go back to the old grindstone the very next day, back to memorizing the definitions of those words in bold, because that was what “learning” was all about.
That was before my parents became home educators. Soon my brother would be rescued from a downward spiral. Born with a learning disability (so the label read) the one-size-fits-all school of rote memory did not work. He was nearly suicidal…at twelve! As my parents ventured into the world of home education, I watched Tyler take part in a whole new (or old?) way to learn: The Suction Principle.
THE SUCTION PRINCIPLE
There is a neat experiment that my good friend, Greg Stablein, uses in his workshops. He takes a hard boiled egg (peeled), and an old glass milk bottle (with the opening slightly smaller than the egg). After taking a young volunteer or two, he asks them to try to get the egg into the glass jar without damaging the egg. They never can. The egg squeezes in a little and pops back out. Greg then pulls out a book of matches, lights them, and drops the tiny flames into the milk bottle. He places the egg on the opening of the bottle, and, (because the flames quickly create a vacuum by using up the oxygen in the jar) THMMMPP! In it goes. “This is the suction principle,” he proclaims, “and it works with education. If you try to force it in it will often pop back out. But if you can create suction…ahhh! Your work is done.”
Interest and appetite are essential to true education. Get a kid excited about something and you’ll have to tell them to go to bed and finish reading about it tomorrow. The key is to use books, resources, and links you will not have to force in, but that your kids can’t get enough of. Use really good books and you may have to make your kids share. (Have your kids ever fought over who had the text book last?) It is not too difficult to nurture the desire to learn when good books are used. When our children are young they have the “suction principle” built right in. It is as if God hardwired their little brains in such a way that, as soon as they can utter intelligible words, they start asking questions. “Why’s that so tall? Why’s that fluffy? Where does that come from?” And God’s favorite, “Who is God?” Part of being a parent is answering all these questions. Every parent is a home schooler in this sense. Most children love to learn with their parents in the first few years. But in the traditional system, somewhere down the corridor of tests, bells, and hours of homework, kids who started out curious start complaining. What appealed at five appalls at fifteen. The hunger for understanding is replaced by a hundred ways to skip school. Why, though? Why do most kids hate going to school? Have you met many high school students who just cannot wait to get to class and get their next homework assignment? Could the reason for this situation be that something which is supposed to be natural, spontaneous and fun has been forced, and it never needed to be forced?
Think about the Gospel, the Good News of salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). God never forces it on us; it is free for our choosing. Accept Jesus as Lord and you will be saved. “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.” (Romans 10:9). Good news does not need forcing, just telling. This is the suction principle in the message of Christ. Freedom and love compel good works. Never the other way around. If accepting the good news were compulsory it would suck the life out of it. God knew this. That is why he gives us the choice but begs us with blood to choose Him. If you told your kids, “I demand your love and affection!” they would not give it to you. And if they did it wouldn’t be real. Choice is essential to many things. Learning is one of them. When it is forced something goes wrong. We value the things that we get to choose.
Picture this: What if there was a compulsory shopping law passed?
THE COMPULSORY SHOPPING LAW
What if there was a compulsory shopping law that demanded that everyone must shop at Wal-Mart? If you don’t show up at Wal-Mart for mandatory shopping five consecutive days you will be charged with truancy. If you miss thirty days you will be hauled into jail. Due to zoning you must go to the same Wal-Mart every single day. Attendance is taken each morning at the door. You are required to be in only one department for 50 minutes, memorizing all the products and prices on each shelf, then a bell rings and you switch to the next department (even if you find something useful). Also, you have to shop with only those in your age group, regardless of whether you have more or less purchasing expertise than the others. There might be pop shopping quizzes at any time, so stay alert. Advanced placement is given to the exceptional patrons. While the slower customers would go to special sessions to overcome shopping deficiencies (though for some reason these sessions would seldom help with the problem). Finally, there is no talking, no bargaining, no bartering, and very few questions allowed because there is only one department manager for every 35 to 40 shoppers.
What do you think would happen to the natural enjoyment of shopping? The first thing to go is the curiosity, the excitement, and the desire to be there. Customers would very soon start moping around, dragging through the day, trying to complete the remaining one-hundred and eighty; praying for snow or manager inservice or holidays to come; thinking, “I can’t wait until summer so I won’t have to shop for three months. And I really can’t wait until my twelve years is up so I’ll never have to shop again!” Second, the quality of the product would inevitably decrease. Wal-Mart no longer has to rely on excellent products, marketing, or customer service to lure you in. You have to shop there. It is the law. And it is enforced by the police. It is not hard to imagine that something fun and interesting would turn into a bore and a chore. People would quickly start thinking of ways to skip. They would complain to their friends, sneak out the back, fake sick to their parents, and view Wal-Mart’s employees as their arch enemies. (Especially because they assign two to three hours of shopping homework each evening.) Finally, in a desperate attempt to rescue the failing mandatory model, millions upon millions of dollars in tax money would be allocated to the already huge monopoly, with very little consideration of alternative shopping franchises. And zero consideration would be given to going back to the very successful free-shopping model that existed before the compulsory-shopping laws were ever passed.
No analogy is perfect, of course. I hope you can agree, however, that education is meant to be free. Most things are best when we are excited about learning them and are free to choose. Otherwise, we end up saying, “I can’t wait until summer so I won’t have to learn for three months. And I really can’t wait until my twelve years is up so I’ll never have to learn again!” So how and why did we end up with a forced school system? There is a great deal on the subject if you are interested. It is important to mention that “school” came from Prussia.
FORCED SCHOOLING CAME FROM PRUSSIA
The modern classroom school model was introduced to Americans full-force in the mid-eighteen hundreds by J. D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Henry Ford, and Andrew Carnegie. They spent their own money to bring it to the new land because it was successful in training the masses of a region called Prussia. Prussia “was instrumental in the unification of Germany, and in 1871 its king was declared Emperor William I of Germany. The state became a republic in 1918 and was formally abolished after World War II” (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd ed.). America’s industrial giants “borrowed the structure, style, and intention of those Germans for our own first compulsion schools” (John Taylor Gatto, The Underground History of American Education, pp. 133-134). Thus, when they added a grade before first grade they called it “Kindergarten,” a German word meaning “Garden of Children.” Their goals were order, submission, and group over individual. “Traditional American school purposes–piety, good manners, basic intellectual tools, self-reliance, etc.–was scrapped to make way for something different. Our historical destination of personal independence gave way slowly to Prussian-purpose schooling, not because the American way lost any competition of ideas, but because for the new commercial and manufacturing hierarchs, such a course made better economic sense” (Gatto, Underground History, p. 134).
In a few decades we went from being an agricultural society where parents were primarily responsible for educating their children to an urbanized society where parents delegated that responsibility to the government; ironically, one of the very things we fought the Revolutionary War to break free from. Not to mention that the heralds of the public school system (Columbia’s teacher-trainer, John Dewey, for example) were and are, for the most part, atheist and humanists. Many of them believed the implementation of the German school in America would usher in the next stage of human evolution, i.e. utopia without God. It has taken a hundred years, perhaps because of America’s foundations, i.e. “In God We Trust,” but God was finally banned from the public school system. The Prussian system’s goals which America adopted were never academic and intellectual excellence. Its goals were to create the working class of obedient, non-pioneers they needed to grow a competitive industrialized nation, i.e. “In Man We Trust.” And it has succeeded. Industrially we are very strong. But academically and spiritually we are very, very weak.
What should we do then? Do we spend more money, time, and energy on the educational establishment of forced schooling? It is already ten times bigger than any business in America (yes, much bigger than Wal-Mart). I suggest we get back to the beginning.
BACK TO THE BEGINNING
I suggest we get back to the days when it was commonplace for kids to learn their lessons in the classroom of real life; back to the days when boys like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin became leaders not because they were “schooled” to think like everyone else but because they were educated in meaningful ways and relevant contexts. They were thinkers, visionaries and wise leaders. They were refined, cultured, and faithful to God in a time when the curriculum had not been dumbed down. George Washington learned Geometry and Trigonometry at age eleven (which was common until the mid-1900s). He had only two years of formal schooling. He became an apprentice in Virginia and at nineteen was appointed chief land surveyor, making a staggering $100,000 a year in modern purchasing power. He was a self-learner with a free mind. Later he led a volunteer army of rag-tag farmers to defeat the British and secure our freedoms. When grateful people offered to make him King of America, he adamantly refused. He knew the nation would thrive on a decrease, not increase, in government compulsions.
Washington loved to learn. Do you think he would have hated school? It is no wonder the majority of today’s kids hate school–“school,” a word first applied to fish, whose eyes and fins move in dutiful sequence. Perhaps it is normal to hate “school.” It is certainly not the most natural way to learn. The problem is, kids not only learn to hate school but they learn to hate learning. The once-curious child too often becomes the discouraged or bored teenager. Is it the only way? Once, not too many decades ago, there was no such thing as compulsory attendance laws. When they were first implemented there was great resistance. Perhaps we need to get back to the beginning. The first step is to create a learning environment.
CREATING A CONNECTED LEARNING ENVIRONMENT
The first step is to create an environment in which our children maintain that childhood appetite for learning all the way to adulthood. Help nurture their appetite for understanding and their soul-searching for God. Be their guide and friend in discovering the world around them. Create an environment where curiosity and the desire for further understanding is part of everyday family life. For example, put a dictionary in every room and make it a policy to look things up. Announce, “Family rule #7: We do not read past words we do not know.” Maybe your kids will repeat with salutes, “We do not read past words we do not know.” Study the roots of words not just the definitions. Where did the word come from? What other words sound the same? Put up a big marker board and make it a game. “Who can think of words with J-E-C-T in them?” Object, reject, deject, eject, and adjective all have “j-e-c-t” in common. It’s a Latin root which means “to throw.” Adjective literally means “to throw something in” the same way that eject means “to throw something out.” If I had been taught that way in school–taught the connections of words–I would have remembered the eight parts of speech!
Let your household be a place of discovery: microscope in the corner, telescope on the porch, books everywhere. Take on the attitude of learning and kids will naturally follow. You should say, “I don’t know. Let’s look it up” at least a million times before your kids graduate. Do not worry that you “might miss something” or “might not cover it all.” God will provide. Remember, kids are not empty containers into which you simply pour information. Every child is a creative genius just waiting to be inspired. It’s not difficult to surpass the dumbed-down curriculum of the educational establishment. The average home-educated student is now four grade levels ahead of public-school students by eighth grade, scoring consistently near the eightieth percentile on standardized achievement tests, thirty percent higher than the traditional school system’s fifty percent (Bob Jones University, Homeschooling Works , p. 3-4). The learning environment, where connectedness fosters retention and appetite, is perhaps the most important contributor to this success.
Second, don’t let smart kids get bored.
DO NOT LET SMART KIDS GET BORED
Another side of the compulsory-school problem is boredom. I asked an eleven-year-old recently if she liked school. She said, “No. I used to but not anymore.” She couldn’t tell me why at first, but as she thought about it she decided it was because she was bored. “Bored?” I repeated. (She is an extremely bright girl.) “Yeah,” she continued, “the teachers just lecture most of the time.”
Large classrooms lack flexibility. And a lack of flexibility means bored students. When I was a teacher, in every class I had students who asked to go faster and students who asked to go slower. But my hands were tied, I had twenty-eight to thirty students. Every day I wished that I could mentor and tutor just two or three kids for four hours a day. So much more could be accomplished. What if the school system could have that kind of teacher-student ratio, one tutor for every two or three kids? More teachers and smaller classrooms are at the top of the school-reform list. Campaign trails are being paved with this promise. But what if we all paid more tax, spent an extra billion dollars, and got the teacher-student ratio down to, say, one teacher for every fifteen students? Even in a classroom of fifteen, the slower kids would be frustrated and the faster kids bored. Home educators would still have a better ratio. Home schooling works because parents all over the country, now in the millions, are first and foremost tutors. They are tutoring their own kids without teaching degrees and their kids are winning national spelling and geography bees, getting full scholarships and generally out performing kids in public schools.
Most bored students just need to be more challenged. They do not need more drugs. Many “hyper” kids do not have attention deficits. They have questions. They are curious. They need a guide. It grieves me to think how many brilliant minds we may have lost to ritalin. Hyper kids whose minds aren’t destroyed by school administered drugs grow up to run businesses, invent things, build magnificent buildings, and preach all over the world. And they’ll do it on four to six hours of sleep a night! God made the energetic extrovert the same as he made the quiet introvert (who also does amazing things). But believe me, even though I am adamantly opposed to drugging children there were times as a teacher that the idea crossed my mind. Why? Because I had so many to deal with and so much I had to accomplish (or cover, that is). The traditional system needs the medicinal help to maintain order and keep its teachers from quitting. And still, the faster learners are bored and the slower learners frustrated. Recognize the personality of your child and hang in there if you’ve got a wonderful little hyper one (or more).
Third, give kids the freedom to explore.
THE FREEDOM TO EXPLORE
The freedom to explore is essential to inspired learning. Of course there are certain things you will want to be sure your kids learn. But let them follow some of their own interests and the trail of education will take you to great heights. Of course there are educational plans to be made and the parent must be in charge, but do not hesitate to take advantage of the teachable moments God provides each day, moments you had not planned for. You might get off the subject and away from your plan but that is exactly what you want! You want to allow them to chase rabbits. Let them chase ’em till they catch ’em!
If you take a trip to an historical site and end up studying Civil War history for three weeks because your kids got excited about it, let it happen. That is the best sort of learning. Do not be trapped by curriculum or the thought of keeping up with the system. Kids will learn. I have heard the question hundreds of times, “But what does my fifth-grader need to know?” To start with, he or she needs to know that learning is fun. It’s not having your head buried in a text-book laboriously memorizing for a test. It’s exploring! Fifth-graders need to know whatever they are ready to learn. Afterall, who decided that, out of the millions of things a ten-year-old could possibly read, there was a certain set of facts that needed to go into every standardized curriculum? Go to the library. How many books are available for your child’s age? Walk out with an arm-load every month and you won’t go too far wrong.
But be careful to surround yourself with good books. I’ve never seen a kid climb under the covers with a flashlight and her favorite school textbook. Textbooks are written under contract by achievement test companies and committees. They are designed for fifty minute lessons and homework assignments, a sure formula for boredom. Real books are written by authors. Someone loved the topic so much they wrote a book about it. That’s the sort of book you’ll have to take away from your kid so he’ll turn out the light and go to sleep. The real educational magic is not the facts in your child’s brain, it’s the appetite in your child’s heart. Give your kids the freedom to explore.
In conclusion, I hope you can agree education is meant to be free and not forced. God built in a natural burning desire to learn that the compulsory school model seems to dampen and in many cases squelch. Likewise, parents have a built in desire and ability to teach their own children. It’s instinctive. Parents can teach their children without government control the same way in which they can feed their children without government control. You are trusted to give your child a healthy diet for growth and development. No one dictates your menu or steps in to feed them for you. Of course there are those who do not supply their children with healthy foods. However, that is no reason to take the responsibility away from all parents. There are no compulsory meal laws. If there were, it may guarantee that every child is fed but they would all be fed the same thing, in mass quantity.
God created a natural desire to learn which resides in every human being. This desire can either increase or decrease over time. Children need guides in finding out how things work, where things come from, and how to find their place in the Kingdom of God. They need tutors to help them discover their strengths and weaknesses. As guides and tutors your students can master a great many things. In home education there is never a reason to give an “F” for anything because you have the luxury of working with them until they succeed. Once they do, there is no better motivator to succeed than success.
A parent once told me that her 16 year-old son came down for breakfast one morning and asked, “Mom, are we doing school right?” She didn’t know where the question came from. He’d always been home educated. She thought a minute about her answer and decided to ask him a question instead. “Well tell me. What did you do last night?” He replied, “Oh, I finished that novel I’ve been reading, worked on my poems, played the piano some, added a couple things to my web page, and fell asleep reading.” She just smiled and quietly said, “Yes, son. We are definitely doing school right.”
May the Lord bless you and your family.
In Christ, David.