Sunday, May 24, 2009

Just how good are those homeschoolers?

I work with homeschoolers, offering classes a la cart to them, meaning they can take just a math class if they can do everything else at home, or they can take up to 5 classes if they want our organization to do more of the directing of their education.

The most common misconception of homeschooled kids is that they must be socially retarded because they are isolated at home.

This couldn't be further from the truth.

Homeschoolers are often so involved in church youth groups, 4-H, scouting, educational cooperatives, etc. that their tendency is to be on the road much of the day for several days each week. They have to fight the impulse to join another group.

Yes, their interactions with other age-peers is much more controlled. Their parents do actually get to choose who they hang out with. You must understand, they DON'T want their kids growing up in a greenhouse, withering at the first incidence of opposition the moment they step out into the 'real' world. They DO want the sun on their faces, the wind in their hair, the rain on their heads. They just want to be able to control what weeds grow up next to them.

Homeschooled kids more often know how to act like adults, because the adult-child ratio of the social circles in which they interact is much higher than with kids in a classroom setting 25 hours each week. They have much more opportunity to have mature behavior modeled for them, and much less opportunity to observe the behavior of classmates intent on disrupting a lesson.

These sorts of homeschooling families, intent on seeing their kids succeed in a classroom setting somewhere, have wonderful students. They often show up in classes at the community college, having been 100% homeschooled prior to taking college level classes at age 16, and they look and act a lot older than they are. I've mistaken a few 16 year olds for being 20 or older, because they are often far more mature than the usual 18 year old who is taking some classes at the community college because s/he just graduated from high school and is trying to find out what s/he wants to do in life.

But just as often, we get homeschoolers who place at the bottom of our placement tests. They come in wanting a job for which they need a GED or a high school diploma, and are using the college to get that, now that they are eligible for Running Start or adult high-school completion. They can barely read, write, or do sums with whole numbers. The folks who run the adult basic education programs sometimes complain that homeschooling is terrible because this is what it does to people. They don't see the students who were homeschooled and placed very well.

There ARE homeschooling families who are homeschooling for the wrong reason. The parents may have had disastrous experiences with schooling, and they have no intention of ever putting their child inside a classroom. They stay at home, helping mom or dad with whatever they do, and sometimes have a lot of spare time. Yes, sometimes the parents are engaged in illegal activities. If the child were in school and spilled the beans, their parents would be jailed.

But some of them just do not care about education. Their kids tend the farm, build treehouses, or play video games.

Before homeschooling was legal in this state, I knew these families in a public school setting. Regular absence was always followed up with an excuse, which often read "Johnny was needed at home on Friday." In my class, Johnny admitted to going fishing every Friday. Needless to say, these kids didn't do well in school, were not required to go to school by their parents, and disappeared by age 16. They're no different as homeschoolers, and who is to say they are doing any better or worse? They'll show up at the community college when they need a job that requires a GED or diploma!

Before they 'need' that GED or diploma, they place just as well on the standardized tests as the kids who have been in public school all their lives. Why? I asked this of someone who offers standardized testing annually to the local homeschooling population. Is it the test, I wondered, or is it how bad our K-12 educational system is? She suggested it is neither, but it is the ability of the student, any student, to figure out what is necessary to know, and to learn it. People who have never been taught to read learn how to read, write, and do math necessary to their lives. Hmm. It's likely that our educational establishment has a highly overrated opinion of itself!

The truth is that on the continuum of academic success, the top is occupied by homeschooled kids, but so is the bottom. They are also sprinkled pretty evenly between the two. Academically, homeschoolers look like the general population. They just have a better chance of reaching their goals without being sideswiped by the thug on the bus or in the lunch room. They are much better to work with, because they haven't learned the distracting behaviors that kids teach each other in a K-12 classroom.

I'll take them, any day, from the bottom or the top of the placement tests.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

If you're not a visual, you're learning disabled.

Before the printing press, there might have been one text book in each subject taught for the entire school. The way the students 'got' the text book was to recite it, line by line, after the instructor. The instructor would repeat the important parts to be sure they were memorized. If a student really wanted a copy for himself, he could make one.

A photocopier was twenty people in a room writing down what one person was reading. Each of those copiers were trained to form their letters exactly the same shape and size as everyone else in the room, and when the reader was done reading, there would be twenty nearly identical copies of the text.

By the way, an error checking method was to stop at the end of a line, count how many characters were in the line, and be sure that everyone in the room had the same number of characters. That would help prevent misspellings or misuse of sound-alike words, like 'rain' and 'reign'. It's an error checking scheme that electronic devices use today to speak with each other.

"I just sent you a packet of 256 characters? Did you get it?"

"No, I only got 248. Send the packet again."

At any rate, when the copying was done, it was easy to tell a 'published' version of a text from one that someone had made for himself or herself. It was just as easy as it would be today, comparing someone's handwriting with a published book. This is what is meant by 'reliable manuscripts'. 'Manu' means 'manually', and 'script' means 'writing', and before the printing press everything was a manuscript, written by hand. But 'published' versions were clean and uniform in appearance, like today's books.

Anyway, the process of recitation was really important. Students wouldn't be writing a lot of papers because paper was a precious, expensive commodity. Teachers would know what a student knew by questioning them and listening to the answers. Students would be preparing speeches much more often than they would be writing papers.

When books were opened, they were read aloud. With the rarity of a book, one could never know who might be interested in hearing what someone else had taken the trouble to publish, and so reading was always aloud. I can see folks in a neighborhood gathering for the reading of a chapter of a book at the end of a day. If you had the funds to buy a book, then sharing it aloud would be a neighborly thing to do. Even after the advent of the printing press, families would gather around the fire at night and have someone reading aloud while everyone performed the small manual tasks necessary to life and survival.

This method of education greatly favors the auditory learner.

There are many definitions of 'auditory learner', but the one I'm going to use is the student who finds that s/he must recite or reiterate the material to be learned before it's solidified in his/her brain. They don't just learn by hearing, but the sound has to come out of their own mouth into their own ear before learning has taken place. They have to find the words to speak what they've heard before they 'know' it.

Somebody told me a story about St. Augustine, possibly sitting in the library with an array of books around him. He was reading silently to himself, and everyone thought he must be really smart because he could read silently. I don't know if the story is true or not, but it IS an illustration of how far we've moved away from the auditory learning system of the past.

Today, our educational system greatly favors the visual learner. We have kids reading silently for 20-minute stretches. We think that everything can be learned from a book. You must be quiet in our libraries so as not to disturb others.

We do almost nothing for the kinesthetic learner, the student who has to find a way to get the material into their hands before it clicks into place in their brain.

Some auditory learners get enough auditory stimulation through the discussion that goes on in class. If small group work is encouraged, then there is more opportunity for everyone to participate and talk about ideas.

As a math instructor, however, I'm acutely aware that teaching math is almost exclusively a visual exercise. It's true that lots of math is easier done than said. It amuses me that there are symbols in math books that the book itself does not explain how to say aloud. But we tend to work a few examples on the board, turn around to our students, say "There it is. Follow the example." Mathematicians tend to be a visual lot, having been sifted out from among the auditory learners to be mathematicians. Having learned math that way, we tend to teach math that way. We almost NEVER give our students the opportunity to discuss what they're learning. I've found that that means encouraging them to work in pairs and threes in the room, and talk through how they got an answer, or why the problem should be worked this way and not that way.

Let me offer a few more illustrations and observations.

A few years ago, bad weather toward the end of a term knocked out both meetings in a week, of an evening math class I taught. I came to class with a test in my hand. We hadn't had a chance to cover the last lesson of the chapter or do the chapter review. "I need this test score," I told them, and passed out the test. I told them to get with one or two other people in the room, and work the test. It would be open book, as well. I would walk around and teach when I found folks stuck. I would collect it at the end of the hour.

I heard some amazing learning going on that night, people arguing vehemently about how quadratics worked. They taught each other the material, checked each others work, and turned in their tests. I was amazed to find that I had a nice range of scores, and that no one was far off from their average on previous tests. Their learning that night was solid, and showed well on the final exam. The students appreciated the experience.

Although a tiny sample, a young woman I worked with in algebra a few years back was being caught up in both English and math skills. Both subjects poked at her brain in different ways. It was our observation that when we saw her verbal skills improve that her math skills did as well. The math made her think in symbols, a visual skill, and when she learned the skills to explain the symbols, her math skills improved. The work with symbols taught her another way to think about the words, and then her verbal and writing skills improved.

What you need to know is that today's educational methods favor the visual learner almost exclusively. Large lecture halls give students very little opportunity to interact with an instructor. TV is visual. Computer games are mostly visual, with some very narrow kinesthetic skills required. Reading silently is a visual skill. We almost never require a student to recite after the instructor, and talking out in class is bad. I've heard of K-3 instructors who insist that they should have to tell students only once what to do, and that should be enough.

The auditory learner HAS to talk about it!

If you recognize yourself or your child in the 'auditory' category, what can you do? Here are some suggestions.

1. Form a small study group, so that each person has more opportunity to tell what they know, or try to verbalize what they're learning.

2. Record lectures. Stop and start the recording and recite what you heard, verbatim. See if you can learn how to gather longer and longer chunks into memory before you can't repeat what you heard. ITunes has the iTunes University, and there are some fabulous lectures there. TED ( has some amazing lectures that you can watch online and download to your iPod. Google 'lectures online' and find everything. Learn to stop your iPod, repeat what was said, and start it again. Become an auditory learner.

3. Talk with your kids about their lessons. Even visual learners need to learn to communicate what they know.

4. Read aloud. Sit with the child next to you as you read. When they are learning to read they'll be following along beside you, learning vocabulary.

5. Have the child read aloud. If a child has a lot of trouble doing this, find a recording of a book so they can follow while playing the recording. Go back and read aloud sections already played to see if the child can pick up the art of reading aloud. Don't stop this before age 12, and don't stop then if you both enjoy it.

One of the reasons our modern educational system favors visual learners is money. Large lecture halls or even classrooms of 30 deliver learning to large groups of people at the price of a single instructor. This might seem cost effective, but it isn't necessarily educational. Small groups of students enable an instructor to check the knowledge of each student on a daily basis. I find personally that a class of ten on the grade 6 - 12 level is too many. A class of 20 on the adult level is my maximum. I regularly see classes of 35 at the community college. The smaller my classes are, the higher the rating I get as a professor from my students. Hmm. Could be that I actually get a chance to talk to them all. That's an auditory experience.