Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Becoming Obsolete, Part II

Strategies for helping your child be independent and resourceful, and to maximize his ability to learn and to think critically.

The ability to learn and to think is grounded in movement.  As a baby begins to move through, and to explore, his environment, he develops his understanding of the world based on his physical relationship to everything and everyone around him.  Around the age of six, this understanding of the physical world deepens into reasoning and abstract thought.

In order to think critically and logically and to be available for learning, a child must have an organized body with a stable, reliable relationship with gravity, a mature, organized nervous system that allows the child to observe and respond to his world in a calm, flexible, reasoned, manner, and an organized brain that takes in and processes sensory information accurately.  The adults can help by making sure that he gets enough exercise and fresh air, sleeps well, eats a nutritious diet, and is accustomed to solving problems.

The child also must have a strong grounding in the basics of math, grammar, penmanship, and all of those other boring, old fashioned, outmoded necessities that modern education has decided to dispense with, having deemed them useless for the 21st century.  I vehemently disagree with discarding the basics.  They constitute the underpinnings of education, and without them, the acquisition of knowledge, and the ability to reason and think critically and logically, is compromised.

Think of learning to play an instrument.  To be able to make the most beautiful music, you have to spend a long time preparing.  You have to learn to sit and hold your body and instrument just so; you must practice hours and hours and hours of scales and fingering exercises with a metronome; learn to read and play musical notation fluently; follow time and key signatures; and translate the composers' instructions, which are traditionally in Italian. Only then will you be have the skills to get the music "up and off the notes."  If these technical abilities are not effortlessly in place when you play, you won't be able to express your musical ideas.  You will still be struggling with the mechanics.

Being a successful scholar requires the same preparation of the mind and the body to think, solve problems, and be creative.  To write the most elegant, articulate, persuasive essays and to be able to successfully tackle the most complex math problems, you have to have a strong, sturdy, healthy body to support the workings of your brain, your eyes, and your hands.  You have to have mastered and internalized the foundational rules of grammar, spelling, handwriting, and arithmetic so that they are securely  organizing and supporting your thought processes.  Without them, you can't easily solve problems, and you can't really fully formulate or express your ideas.

In order to make the most of his education and to function within both the academic world and the world outside, the child must have the basic rules of arithmetic solidly internalized and instantly accessible to him.  He should know his multiplication tables backwards and forwards, be able to add and subtract small numbers without a pencil and paper, do long division, add, subtract, multiply, and divide fractions, understand decimals, and be able to calculate percentages.  He should know how many feet are in a mile and how many ounces are in a quart.  Ideally the child should be as comfortable with metric measurements as well as Imperial.

If the child's school does not drill in the basics, like addition, subtraction, division, multiplication, fractions, decimals, spelling, punctuation, grammar, and handwriting, you'll either have to do it yourself or get the PTA to insist that the curriculum be revamped.  These skills are vitally important, no matter what the current educational philosophy dictates, and don't let anyone tell you anything different.  They discipline and organize the mind. They arm the child with the principles and rules he needs to rely on for knowing how to spell, write grammatically correct sentences, and for being sure that his numbers will always do what he tells them to do.

  The rules for grammar, spelling, punctuation and arithmetical computation are the building blocks for learning. If the child does not have the basics, combined with legible, rapid penmanship, {which also has its own rules that should be learned} solidly in place, his ability to understand higher level concepts, think critically, manipulate numbers reliably, and to fully express his ideas in writing will be severely diminished.  Disciplined, organized, logical work can only come from a disciplined, organized, logically trained mind.

There are so many articles flying around the web these days about handwriting.  Some people advocate for it to be dropped  completely from the educational curriculum and others insist that it still matters.

I am solidly in the latter camp.  I still use handwriting every single day of my life, and most people do too.  Today, for instance, I had half a dozen telephone conversations and took notes while I spoke during all of them, jotting down addresses, telephone numbers, dates of birth, license numbers, etc.  

Handwriting is essential to humans who live in a civilized world.  A child who cannot write down his thoughts, organize his work on the page, or express himself fluently in writing is at a serious disadvantage at school.  Handwriting trains the brain and is essential to developing hand-eye coordination.  Make sure your child has legible handwriting.  If your school does not teach it, buy the materials to do it at home, or hire a handwriting specialist to help you. 

Read to your child regularly.

See that your child knows how to use the library.

Teach your child how to tie his shoes and to tell time on an analog clock.

Homework:  frankly, I'm not a fan of homework.  From what I see at the clinic, there is far too much of it, and a lot of it is just busywork.  I was thrilled to hear that a very prestigious, very rigorous, very expensive prep school in New York had made it a policy to reduce homework for the lower grades.  

If your child has difficulty focusing, make sure that his homework time is preceded by vigorous exercise outdoors, a big drink of water, and a protein rich snack.  Break up the time into small, manageable segments and give him a quick movement break in between each one. 

 If your child has a hard time doing his homework by himself, by all means have him sit at the kitchen table and work while you are cooking dinner.  

More detailed suggestions about structuring homework here.

Not academic, but worthwhile:

Help your child find a hobby or pastime that involves solving problems, like woodworking, knitting, crochet, sewing, cooking, putting together wooden models, etc.

Send the child to camp in the summer where he will learn outdoor survival skills like swimming, hiking, building a fire, cooking over an open flame,  paddling a kayak or a canoe, archery,  setting up and tearing down a tent, tying knots, and foraging.

Give your child plenty of opportunities to prove to himself that he is smart, strong, flexible, and capable, by challenging him, keeping him active, providing him with problems to solve, not automatically removing every obstacle from his path, giving him responsibilities, and setting high standards.


Christine said...

Love this post and I absolutely agree with everything you said. As a teacher I know how important it is for children to know the basics as soon as possible. My dad drilled me on all my multiplication facts when I was 7 and I'm very thankful for it! Many kids are still using their fingers or resort to a calculator, even in junior high and high school. And speaking as a future parent (somewhere in the distant future) I love what you said about teaching them skills and hobbies, reading, etc. Thanks for sharing!

Babajeza said...

There is a rule for homework, how much of homework. 10 minutes in 1st grade, 20 minutes in 2nd, 30 in 3rd. ... 1 hour in 6th. However, children in 1st grade are about 7 years old in Switzerland. I think this rule is just perfect. :-)

Using your fingers for calculating: I truly believe this is not wrong. I do it all the time and I have been a very good student all my life. :-) Using the fingers helps to visualise numbers. My fingers are my calculater, a very basic one but really helpful. Why shouldn't I use it? If I see the problem and I know how to solve it, I understand it. That's what math is.

Maybe numbers and calculating in Englis is different from German because of the speaking. For instance, we don't say sixty four but Vierundsechzig. This can be confusing. Anyway, the fingers help.


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