Follow the Ant (Science and Scientific Thinking)

This is the first of two pieces on skills needed to function well in a complicated world. This time, I’ll explore science and scientific thinking.  I’ll list and discuss some resources for encouraging scientific learning and thought in a short post to follow. After that, I’ll explore critical thinking. As always comments are welcome, especially the good resources kind. For the introductory post, read Essential Skills for a Modern World.

Science. Let’s start with what science is not. Science is not the sum of memorized facts about DNA, Avogadro’s number, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, electron orbitals, the gravitational constant, and tectonic plate movements. It’s not equation-spouting, not those about projectile motion or glycolysis.  It’s certainly not about memorizing who did what when, taking the worst of some history classes to a subject that already is viewed by some to be hard. Science (and math) are too often feared from an early age and far too often taught to young children by people who learned to fear them when they were young.

Science is asking questions about the natural world, musing about answers, carefully and thoughtfully considering what scientists in the field have found before, experimenting as exploration and/or confirmation, and then asking more questions. Children do much of this naturally, watching the world and acting upon it, our carefully timed commentary providing a factual base with context. We name flowers and the birds as our children wonder at them. We explain the tides, the rain, the stars, and the bruise on the knee.

Unless we don’t know. Then, if we’re not distracted by what’s for dinner tonight or whose socks are on the floor again, we look it up — we do research. Better yet, we include the questioning child in the looking up process, or perhaps we pass the job to them. “Hmm. You could research that,” became my phrase as my children’s questions outpaced my answers and library (and before Google was such a dear friend). It didn’t take long before my prompt was unnecessary. “I’ll look that up,” became a usual child-offered solution to his curiosity.

Often, once their question is answered, the exploration is done. But sometimes the questions keep coming. Then, if we’re brave and unafraid of messes and more unanswered questions that will follow, there are experiments. Kids experiment naturally, often asking the next question after repeating an experiment a number of times. (Water and dirt make mud. What happens with water and sand? What happens if I let the mixture dry overnight?) Many science curricula squash this question-experiment-question cycle by providing only experiments (or, more appropriately, demonstrations done by kids) that have answers provided. These cookbook-style experiments are easy on those teaching and have predictable “correct” answers while teaching children what we don’t want them to learn about science: When you enter an experiment, you should know how it will end.

Scientists don’t do it that way. Scientists overflow with curiosity, the sort that takes them to the internet, the library, their bookshelves, the scientist down the hall, and, eventually, to the laboratory. No one source gives them the question or the route to answering it. Relying upon their own experience and the procedures and findings of those who came before, they formulate both the question and experiments, perhaps expecting a particular outcome but never wed to finding it, lest they see what isn’t there or guide the experiment to give the desired answer. And often, quite often, the results aren’t what they hoped or expected, leading to more questions, more experiments, and more research.

“But my child isn’t going to be a scientist. Why does this sort of science education matter?”

DSC00031It matters because, whatever line of work our children pursue, science permeates their modern world. Climate change. Nuclear reactors and bombs. Gene therapy. Stem cells. Invasive species. Missions to Mars. Ebola, TB, and malaria. Alternative energy sources. Water contaminants. If we are to be responsible citizens in this complex world, lobbying and voting for or against legislation on all those issues and more, we need to understand a good deal of science as well as how science works. We can’t vote on what we don’t understand, and we can’t simply vote against something that scares us or will increase our taxes or personal expenses. We need some understanding of the way our universe works to even read about the risks of radiation leaks from nuclear power plants, and we almost always need to research more before we go out and vote on laws.

If we want our children to be able to make responsible and safe personal (and, eventually, family) health decisions, they must be able to read the latest article on gluten or vaccinations or DNA testing and hold up the latest article to careful scrutiny. Junk science and junk reporting abound, especially in health and medical science. In an era where prescription drugs are advertised on TV and pseudoscience, especially about health, fills the internet, we need more than ever to think like a scientist. How many people were in that study? What was the control? Was it double-blinded? Were the researchers funded by Company X, Y, or Z, who just happen to produce or sell drug A, supplement B, or treatment C? Has the study been replicated by someone else somewhere else? Are the results statistically meaningful and practically meaningful?  What questions does this piece of reporting raise? Where can I find out more?

“But I don’t know that much science! How can I teach my kids when I don’t know a beta particle from a leukocyte and couldn’t tell you what’s going on when I take a breath anymore than explain why a bowling ball and a marble, when dropped from the same height, hit the ground at the same time.” 


Start the way your children started. Look at the natural world with new eyes, seeing the ant on your deck as a subject of study rather than occasion for a call to a pest management company. Find the moon every evening, noticing where it is at the same time each night. Watch bread rise and eggs cook.

Then, ask questions. Why does the ant follow the path it does? Where does the ant live, and what does it eat? When does the moon vanish from sight, and just where in the sky is it when it does? Why does it change shape, at least to our eyes?  What’s in those bubbles in my bread, and why do egg whites turn white and firm when cooked?

Next, look for answers about what interests you most. Research the phases of the moon. Read a book about the science of cooking for answers about egg whites, rising bread, and more.  Use reputable sources (applying your critical thinking skills, to be discussed in a future next post), eschewing the junk science and poor reporting found in books, internet sources, articles, and, too often, those around us who also aren’t sure about science. (Charlatans and the simply not scientific abound.)  Be persistent, especially about what is new. Science has a working edge, and it’s at this edge that most mistakes (and poor science reporting) seem to occur. But even old ideas can be wrong or in need of tweaking, so follow the years of research and debate as you read and explore. The way our universe works doesn’t change, but our understanding of it certainly does.

And follow the ant. Watch her (and it is almost definitely a ‘her’), seeing where she goes and whom she meets. Even if she joins a throng of fellow ants, watch your ant as best you can. Does she lead, follow, or neither? Why do you think this behavior occurs? How does she interact with the other ants around her, and what happens after interactions?

Then feed the ant. Set out, on a small index card, a smudge of jelly and place it near the ants.  A few inches away, place another card with chicken or a bit of egg yolk, perhaps, something filled with protein and fat rather than sugar. You pick, as it’s your experiment, but pick with reason and logic. Then sit and watch. Watch longer than you think you can, returning at regular intervals if you must look away. See what happens. What do these ants like? What do they do with the food? How do they find it? Do all of them go for it, or only some?

When the sun sets and the ants return to their home, think. Ask more questions. Consider more ways to find answers. Find a fantastic book or reliable website on ants (see below), and read what interests you. There’s no test, no final paper for which to study. There is only a world to watch and explore and research to read and ponder as you explore the natural world through the lens of scientific exploration and thought.

Ant Resources:




Essential Skills for a Modern World

IMG_1380 Again I’ve been disappointed while on the internet. I should know better than to expect scientific accuracy and critical thinking skills in the world of social media, where opinions are valued over truth, and truth is often “Because I said so” or “Because someone on the internet said so.” It’s circular reasoning reinforced by ego and emotion. No matter how many times I blunder, trying to inject scientific rigor and critical thinking into conversations filled with fear, supposition, and emotion, I don’t seem to learn that far too many adults don’t understand enough science or have enough critical thinking skill to navigate today’s information-filled world.

If pressed today to pick two skills essential to teach our children and ourselves, I’d pick an understanding of science and the ability to think critically. I’ve not the hubris to suggest an entire list of most important skills to teach your child, whether they learn at home or at school. The list would grow long and be impossible to order, as we live in a world where life is far more complicated than a hundred years back. Reading. Writing. Math. Government (and history). Housekeeping. Cooking. Personal finance. Swimming. Apologizing. Interviewing. Music and art, or at least the appreciation of them. Rudimentary social skills. How to be wrong. How to use your computer and phone, and how to help your grandmother do the same. Patience. Promptness. Someone stop me, please!

When I watch the reality show that is social media and read through what passes as reporting on politics, science, current events, health, and nutrition, I realize that two skills are poorly lacking for many people, even degreed and credentialed people: the ability to think critically and a basic knowledge of the mechanisms of science and the scientific process. These basic skills often are required in tandem, although there is plenty of need to employ them independently of each other. I need critical thinking to decide if a source I’ve found is objective and informed. I need an understanding of science to appreciate where that doctor is going with that long, flexible tube and just what he expects to find and why I should care.

Many times we need both. Understanding the infectious diseases that fill the news and our world  — Ebola, measles, malaria, influenza, and more – requires some basic understanding of virus versus bacteria and immunology, but it also requires the ability to think about risk without letting fear cloud our judgement. It takes critical thinking to appreciate risks correctly — the risks of acquiring those disease ourselves, the risks inherent in the ways we treat those with the diseases, and the risk to the world’s divergent populations if we don’t. Public health touches private health in ways that can benefit or harm either, and it takes merging science with critical thinking to see how that works.

In our highly technical world, where so much of what we encounter each day has a chip and is run by a program, comfort with science and skills in critical thinking are more important than ever. How many of us understand the basic way computer programs work or even what an algorithm is? Not the programming languages themselves that are behind our Angry Birds, Messenger, Facebook, Instagram, Google Everything, and Pandora, but the basics of the stuff of programming. On and off; ones and zeros; procedures, loops, and subroutines. Whether we’re wired overtly or not, computers and the programs that tell them what to do are woven into our daily lives, keeping inventory in grocery stores, managing countless systems in our cars, and protecting our well-earned money. Thinking logically, part of critical thinking, paired with some basic knowledge of physics, can help us better appreciate what limits (and doesn’t limit) technology today. You can be certain that hackers have at least some critical thinking skills in place and not a small amount of computer science skill as well. While we may not be able to keep up with every advance or learn any programming language in its entirety, understanding more about these ubiquitous systems is wise.

In my next two posts, I’ll explore what I see as the desirable skills in critical thinking and science and pose some suggestions for how to pass those skills onto our children while developing them in ourselves. I’ll recommend a bit of curriculum to help these processes along.  I’ll share what I’ve done at home to nurture these skills in my boys as I help them to grow into adults who better understand their world and know how to find out more about that world in a way that’s smart and responsible. Passing on these skills guarantees them years of frustration with those they may meet in social media, at meetings at work, and in their personal lives, but knowing they will leave the nest asking questions and pulling from their bank of scientific understanding helps me sleep a bit more easily.


Will I Eat My Young? (Homeschooling for Beginners)

Thanks M.M., a new homeschooling mom who asked the big questions all new homeschoolers asked. Here’s a longer answer to one of her questions. Click on the blue links if you want to read more I’ve written on a particular subject. 

Welcome to homeschooling.

Perhaps you’re bringing your 5th grader home from school because she was miserably bored in 4th grade. Perhaps you’re skipping kindergarten round-up, suspecting kindergarten won’t be a good fit for you or your child. Or perhaps your son is in the middle of second grade, in the second school of his elementary career, and is miserable, and with his mix of exceptional giftedness and learning disabilities, you know home would be a better environment for him to grow. Wait. That last one is our story.

Whatever the reason you’re coming home or staying home, you likely have concerns about curriculum, co-ops, dual enrollment, online classes, transcript writing, and the laws in your state about homeschooler. I’ll be addressing none of those today. Curriculum is a matter of opinion. Procedures and laws vary from state to state. Transcripts give me headaches. Those are all important issues that have been written about here and elsewhere, but they aren’t the crux of what a new homeschooling parent should be pondering but either don’t speak aloud or simply don’t consider.

You won’t eat your young. Fear of conflict ranks high on the list of concerns of homeschoolers-to-be. I’ve known many a frustrated homeschooling parent who often wondered if consuming a child would take care of uncomfortable and perhaps toxic conflict while also solving the perennial question of what to have for dinner, but from my last count, all their children are still present and accounted for. Mine are still here, ages 12 and 16, and I’m not so long in the patience department, so I’m sure yours will survive, too.

But there will be conflict. There was before you homeschooled, right? Kids and parents don’t always agree. Kids don’t always listen to their parents, and parents don’t always listen to their kids. And while as parents, we usually speak (or sometimes yell) our concerns and requests, kids often act them out instead. That stalling on the math assignment? That may be a way to communicate boredom with thirty more problems so much like yesterdays that they hardly seem worth doing. The refusal to sit down at the piano bench for just twenty minutes? That may be a message from the perfectionist child who fears starting what might not go perfectly.

And, yes, your kids will avoid assignments that are Goldilocks just right. Minecraft calls. Books you didn’t assign beckon. The cat desperately needs to play. Even chores seem more interesting than the volume of cones and cylinders or the lab report on kinetic energy. The result? Conflict. You may yell. You may patiently redirect. If you are more relaxed than I often am, you may dump a subject for a day or week or month or even year, finding a way to make your child’s passion the lesson instead. (Warning. This works for some kids, like my younger son. My older then just switches passions. Know when to keep your hands off.)

You will sometimes be afraid. That inability to learn multiplication tables before starting algebra won’t make and engineering career impossible. The writing disability or even just unwillingness won’t eliminate all careers except the skilled trades (although a plumber or electrician in the family would be a serious boon). And that playdate that ended badly? Your child will likely go on to have friends and even a partner someday. Okay, I’m short on data here, but my fears for my children have yet to be realized. Somehow, they keep growing and learning and having other people enjoy their presence. And that’s what we’re after, right? Watch your fear, however, since for many of us, if the fear is ignored — if we refuse to listen to it and accept it — it morphs into anger. And while you won’t eat your young, anger again and again isn’t so good for anyone.

You’ll have to apologize. Own up to your mistakes, those time when your fear boils over into anger and those times when a lack of sleep three nights running overlaps with the sudden coffee shortage in your pantry. You’ll lose it sometimes. If you’re anything like me, you’ll yell at points and say things you’d love to take back moments after they leave your mouth. But you can’t. So apologize often. And try again next time after some healthy reflection on what went wrong. Conflicts happen. Demonstrate that they can happen in healthy, productive ways, and when you can’t demonstrate that, demonstrate humility and the art of the heart-felt apology.

Protect your relationship with your child. Conflicts can remind us that our priorities are out of whack. Yes, we’re trying to raise kids that can go to college (or high school), perhaps go to graduate school, and hold jobs. It’s easy to see today’s refusal to do math or failure to write a coherent sentence as tomorrow’s disaster. At points, I’ve put my educational worries about my children before my relationship with them, worrying about this skill or that skill while losing sight of the child who needs the skills. It’s never made any of us happier or my children any more successful. Yes, there are nonnegotiables when parenting and when homeschooling. Health and safety matters aren’t debatable, and insisting on these rarely causes friction in our house. Yes, there are skills I see as mandatory for adult life, including some academic competencies as well as planning and organizational skills and knowing how to get up in the morning. But even these skills are best learned on the child’s timetable. (Those that know me in real life, please remind me of this next time I lose it. Thanks.)

Don’t make plans beyond the present year (or month or sometimes day). Homeschool today because that is what works today. It might work next school year, or it might not. You’re sure you’ll homeschool that darling 5 year old forever? Don’t be. Life changes. Kids have wills of their own. Positive you’ll return your miserable middle schooler to high school next fall? Leave it open. Sure, keep your child on track for returning if that’s a possibility, but  don’t marry yourself to a plan for a year not yet upon you. While I worry decades down the road, I’ve always taken the decision to homeschool one year at a time. It’s like trying to buy a swimsuit for your post-pregnant body when you’re one month shy of delivery. The shape of things change more than you’d think. Stay open.

Take care of yourself. Those first few years, its easy to lose yourself into the all-consuming world of homeschooling. With thousands of curricula, hundreds of homeschooling boards, and dozens of methodologies, it’s easy to make a life out of your child’s education. Don’t. Read books that aren’t about education and homeschooling. See friends and talk about things other than your children. Nurture your relationship with your partner, and create time to just be alone.

Develop your own talents and pursue your own interests. Take that class. Start that new business. Maintain your professional credentials (or pursue new ones). In short, have a life that is bigger than homeschooling, a position that is not a tenure track job. Also, it’s good for kids to see parents learning and growing and generally taking care of themselves.

Chances are that you’re not doing it wrong. There are as many ways of homeschooling as their are homeschoolers. It’s easy to read the email lists and forums and assume you are raising knuckle draggers who will never be able to make it in the world, much less move out of your basement or that you are the laziest, meanest homeschooling parent in the world. Walk away from the lists and forums. Look at your kids. Are they learning? Are they relatively happy and developing skills that allow them to give back to the world? Are they nice kids? If yes, you’re likely doing just fine. Continuous improvement is exhausting for all involved, so give it a break.

Breathe. Laugh. Sleep. Sit still when you desperately feel like you shouldn’t or can’t, because that’s likely when you should. Do less than you think you should, because there really are only 24 hours in a day, and some should be spent on contemplating the universe, reading for fun, playing Scrabble, watching BBC dramas, wrestling with your children, playing with kittens, and writing blog posts about homeschooling. You’ll make your own list, of course, but only follow it if you want to. Homeschooling, like most worthwhile endeavors, is hard work requiring long days and sometimes sleepless nights. So take nap. Take a walk. Take time to recharge. And have fun.



Reading the Classics…Sometimes

January 2010 009I’m not as well-read as I wish I was.  I’m a once-English major who’s avoided a host of mandatory classics that my Engineering-major friends read for pleasure. I’ve not read through all of Dickens, Austen, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and countless others, and, frankly, I only want to want to. Sure, I’ve read a good amount of standard fare, enjoying much of it and merely surviving some. Faulkner eluded me, or more likely bored me to the point of poor comprehension. I started Anna Karenina several times, starting at age twelve, and never made it past the first chapter.

I read, voraciously when time allows. The problem is that time rarely allows. Sure, you make time for what matters, but parenting and homeschooling two boys while also wearing the hats of writing instructor, Physician Assistant, church volunteer, foster caregiver for cats, physics instructor, and single homeowner doesn’t leave much time for long afternoons curled up with a book. And by the time I make it to bed, I’m spent. If I make it through a chapter of one of the many books and magazines that live on the empty side of the bed, it’s a miracle. I’m midway through The Radioactive Boy Scout (Ken Silverstein), Japan: True Stories of Life on the Road (ed. Donald George and Amy Carlson), Rosy is My Relative (Gerald Durrell), How to Write a Sentence (Stanley Fish), the latest copies of Scientific American Mind and Brain, Child, and a knitting pattern book. At a chapter or article a night, I’m accumulating more reading material faster than I have a chance of reading it. And I’m not reading the classics.

And neither are my kids. Oh, they’ve read plenty of them as the years have passed, almost always assigned by me or by an online literature instructor. Both boys are willing readers, my younger with a heap of Horrible Histories on the floor near his bed and more in the car, by his seat at the kitchen table, and on the end tables near our couches and chairs. Oh, a book about zombies is in the mix, too. He’s enjoyed the classics he’s read or that I’ve read to him, but he doesn’t seek them out. Well, he plowed through a copy of Beowulf a few years back, and his copy of Lord of the Rings is battered and well-travelled, but he’s not picking up the Hemingway or Dickens on his own.

My older reads, too, although less prolifically and almost always nonfiction. His nose is either in Popular Science or one of his growing number of computer repair books, although some Bill Bryson or other lighter fare will appear at points. He did manage a list of fantasy and science fiction books this last summer, all required by a Coursera class. Some he liked; some he didn’t. None inspired him to explore the genre more. And he’s frank about it — the classics just don’t appeal to him. And for my older, not appealing is a fast track to not retaining. I sympathize.

Like with most subjects, our literature studies have been eclectic. I’ve avoided studies based around comprehension questions and other bottom-of-the-Bloom’s-Taxonomy pyramid activities. As one who struggles with remembering names and the favorite drink of the antagonist in chapter 7, I’ve always hated those questions. And without exception, every literature class I took, from junior high through college, relied heavily on comprehension questions. I stunk at them, losing the joy of the story while trying to guess what the quiz questions would be. It spoiled a fair amount of literature for me, blunting my thirst for more since most of what I associated with classic literature was the tedium tinged with panic as I read for quizzes rather then for story and joy. Thus as a homeschooling parent, I’ve avoided this method of teaching literature.

My younger eagerly laps up literature in his Online G3 classes, where discussion fills class time and meaty, high-on-the-pyramid questions dominate the homework assignments. He talks about reading more on his own, but despite my strewing them in his path, he gravitates to the familiar Horrible Histories or whatever the comfort reading of the season is. He’s a habit-driven child who finds it hard to break routine, even in his reading. I’m comforted that he’s generally interested in literature but not certain how to encourage him to try more on his own.

I’ve had some success wooing a child to read a book himself by reading the first several chapters aloud. Since my younger was born, I’d read to my children, either books in entirety or parts designed to pull them in and launch them on their own. This has slowed down as their bedtimes have moved later and our days have been busier. Classics filled most of our read-aloud selections, but plenty of popular fiction and nonfiction worked their way in. Just this last fall, I read Peter Pan to my younger (somehow I’d even missed that one), following up with the Michael Clay Thompson’s  Literature series, Alice, Peter, and Mole. (Review to follow when we make it through more.) This is one of four in a series available through Royal Fireworks Press with a focus on discussion rather than regurgitation.  Now, he actually doesn’t mind comprehension questions, but I don’t see the point in spending time on them. I’d rather discuss the book and literary techniques, noting connections between it and other books read. Most of all, I want to keep the focus on the discovery about our past, our selves, and the universe available through reading.

I hope that’s happening. I hope the balance we hit by my negligence interrupting my diligence gives them what they need to continue to be lovers of the written word, the sort to never leave the house without access to reading material. I hope they find some classics that speak to them, informing their writing and pushing their standard for what they read just a bit higher. But most of all, I hope they learn to read to learn and continue to feel a deep need to read long works requiring sustained attention. I’ll continue my job — gentle exposure focused on the bigger messages of a book rather than the little details. And maybe I’ll try some of what turned me off so long ago just one more time. After I finish what’s sitting on the empty side of the bed. 

Preliminary Planning for 2012/13: My Older (10th grade)

A few weeks back, I posted preliminary plans for fall for my younger son, A.B. My older son’s plans still have some holes, but here’s what I have so far.  As always, plans are subject to change. For past plans for both boys, see the tab above, “What We Say We’re Doing.”

A.D. (15, 10th grade)

Math: This one is easy, at least for me. My older will be enrolled in a local homeschool-friendly university for Calculus I and II this year. Math is his strongest subject, and his biggest challenges will be showing his work and writing legibly. The math part should be no problem, especially since he’s spent the past month working through my college calculus text with the help of Khan Academy videos. Yes, he’s excited, albeit in that somewhat cool, detached way teenage boys often have.

Language Arts:  The goals for this year are to continually build his writing skills, with a focus on the essay and academic writing, and doing more formal literary study and analysis. For the writing, we’ll selectively work through Models for Writers: Short Essays for Composition, adding in a few research papers throughout the year.  He’ll also complete a Hewitt Lightning Literature course, likely American Mid to Late 19th Century, although that’s under debate.  I’d like to add some formal vocabulary study, since that fell by the wayside midway through Word Within the Word II. What we’ll use remains unknown (suggestions welcome).

History: This one’s a mystery. This summer, he’s watching and discussing The World Was Never the Same: Events that Changed History (Teaching Company) with a group of homeschoolers.  I’m adding some readings to round out the subjects as well. A friend is musing about creating a course on the history of the English language, but this is still in the maybe stage. Last year was American history, so this year won’t be. Beyond that, I’m uncertain (and again, open to suggestions).

Science: Ack! It’s physics time! Somehow, I found myself volunteering to teach (algebra-based) physics to a handful of local homeschoolers. Then, I promptly lost a night of sleep in sheer panic. I’ve found my ground and some good resources. We’ll likely be using Singapore’s Physics Matters for the text, with additions for the material it’s lacking (parabolic motion, centripetal and centrifugal force, and quantum physics, just to name a few). A friend’s husband, who will be doing labs for my younger son and his own son, volunteered to run labs for the high school kids one day a month. I’ll teach the material, likely working some smaller labs and demos during our weekly meeting, and turn over the true excitement to him. Lesson plans will appear on this blog as they develop.

Foreign Language: Latin didn’t work. Spanish with Rosetta Stone (assigned to give the flavor of the language only) yielded less than 20 vocabulary words, per my son’s estimate. So this fall, we’re trying something different. So this September, my older will start the American Sign Language  sequence at our local homeschooling-friendly university. A kinesthetic language for a kinesthetic learner seems appropriate. Will colleges accept it? Many do, and he understands the limits this choice may place on his options later.

The Rest:  He’ll continue with piano through the summer and next year. His negotiations with him piano teacher did yield a happier student and a generally satisfied teacher, and he’s pleased enough to stay put.  While he spent some time at tennis lessons this winter, he’s not interested in our local Y’s current configuration of classes (teens were moved from  classes with adults to classes for age 8 and up). He needs exercise, and finding what will work for him is one of our summer quests.

I’d like to teach a class using David White’s The Examined Life: Advanced Philosophy for Kids, although not first semester when I’m settling into physics. Both my boys enjoyed White’s Philosophy For Kids: 40 Questions That Help You Wonder About Everything, but I’d rather run this second one with a larger group than my own two children (and I think only my older is ready for this much more challenging tome).  I’m also waiting to hear from my older. It is, after all, his education.

Suggestions are always appreciated, as are links to your plans.

Preliminary Planning for 2012/13: My Younger

It’s that time of year. May. The time of year when I can’t stand one more minute of homeschooling and just want to be done. It’s the point when we’re almost done with most of the books and classes we started the semester with and have even moved on to new material in some, vamping a bit for the last few months of the school year. (This always seems to happen with math.) It’s also the time to set the fall schedule for the classes and events that happen outside of our walls, and given that’s going on, I might as well make some selections for home, too. Here’s what I have so far.

A.B. (11, 6th grade)

Math: After a fair amount of angst, we settled on continuing with Singapore Math for secondary mathematics study.  We’re a few chapters into Discovering Mathematics 1A, which contains a fair amount of review for him on subjects covered in The Algebra Survival Guide but with far more depth and extensions. Our pace is a lesson a day, with a day at the end of each chapter to play with the more challenging problems in the workbook and a day for the end of chapter test.  Taking tests is new for him, and he’s still pretty anxious about that process, but since that’s the only hiccup thus far, I’m giving DM a thumbs up.  We’re still plugging away at Singapore Challenging Word Problems 6 as well, and I keep a stack of alternative math options on the shelf for his more anxious days when “regular” math just isn’t doable.

Language Arts:  A.B. will continue with Michael Clay Thompson’s Word Within the Word and Magic Lens series via Online G3, this year studying the second level. This program of study (both the books and online class) work wonderfully for him. For literature, he’ll pick one the Hewitt Lightning Literature classes Online G3 offers, most likely Mid to Late 19th Century American Literature.  That course’s reading selections seem accessible given his age (and I’m fairly sure some of the selections in British Lit, like Jane Eyre, would not be enjoyable reads for him). He’s determined to participate in NaNoWriMo 2012 and plans to continue to write on his blog. I’ll likely try to broaden his writing beyond these forums, but he’s a strong enough writer that I’m willing to largely follow his lead and work my agenda into his.  I’m considering signing him up for WriteGuide for the second half of the school year with the aim of strengthening his fiction writing.  Finally, since he enjoys Steck Vaughn Spelling, he’ll proceed to level six in that series.

History: In fall, he’ll take the last of the American History classes from Online G3 this fall. This course covers the Civil War and the rest of the last half of the 19th century using Joy Hakim’s History of US books.  He has his eyes on her Government class for the following spring. The first semester, he’ll also take Coursera’s A History of the World Since 1300, a free online class from Princeton University.  History is his favorite subject and one of his career aspirations (historian and college professor vs lawyer), so plenty of new ideas in this area are key to his happiness.

Science: This year is physical science with a focus on physics. Middle School Chemistry provided a sound base in that portion of the physical sciences, so I’d like not to belabor that end of the subject. He’ll be studying with a friend, although what text or supports we’ll use are to be determined. Any suggestions for a text are welcome!

The Rest: He’ll continue piano lessons and daily practice, and at this point, he’d like to attend Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp in the summer of 2013 for further piano study. We’ll see where that drive goes come the new year. For physical education, he’ll continue to fence, a sport that replaces karate for him as of the last five months. Lessons are twice a week, and eventually, he should be ready for a few tournaments. He’s interested in becoming a fencing director (think ref), which is a path open to him as well. He loves rules and the enforcement of them, so this seems a reasonable pursuit. We’re still discussing foreign language options. He’s interested in German. I know none and have no desire to learn it. He might play with it via Rosetta Stone this summer and see if that mode of learning works for him. It was not a good match with my older son, but these boys are wired completely differently, so I’m willing to give it a try.

As always, we’re working on communication and social skills. I’m not using any formal materials for this but rather continually discussing the nuances of the conversation, friendships, and general relations between people. We have a few resources on the shelves for this purpose, but they just seem to sit. We do post-mortems on situations, with a mix of trouble-shooting and celebration of successes and will continue this process.

As always, ideas are welcome. What are your plans for fall?

How Does Your Homeschool Bloom?

The new Bloom Taxonomy, with skills gaining complexity as you move up the triangle.

Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Perhaps that’s a familiar pair of words.  Perhaps not.  In short, Bloom’s Taxonomy is an ordered list of six learning objectives designed by a committee of educators in 1956.  Benjamin Bloom headed that committee, so the name went to him over time.  Sounds like a homeschooler’s nightmare.  Committee of educators?  Many of us removed children from school to avoid having our children educated by committee.  1956?  Wasn’t that when rote memorization and corporal punishment reigned?  What use is that to me, a homeschooling parent?

Plenty.  Consider for a moment what learning means to you.  What do you want for your children’s education?  Few of us would say they simply want their children to remember numerous facts, since we’re aware the knowing times tables, spelling rules, the dates of rule for England through the last 300 years, and the genus and species of the ant on the kitchen floor.  No problem with knowing those things.  The first two are tools that can make learning a bit more easy.  The last two are perhaps, at best, lessons in rote memorization, which is a skill as well, handy in medical school and when gathering edible mushrooms.

Bloom’s Taxonomy reminds one that remembering is only the base of learning.  When we ask one to locate the parts of a snail or name the states and capitals, we’re working at the bottom of the pyramid.  Classical education gives four years to honing this skill in the so-called grammar stage, from grades 1 through 4, capitalizing on the sponge-like minds of our youngest kids. Montessori takes advantage of this skill as young as three, emphasizing geography and science at that young age with great success and interest.  For some folks, especially when their interest is piqued, this love of knowledge acquisition never end.

Understanding is the second stage, where one classifies material by any number of criteria, grouping and regrouping.  “Why?” is the question by which we often understanding.  Why does the rain fall from the clouds?  Why did the Civil War begin?  Summarizing and narration, popular activities in many homeschooling methods, fits well into this stage, since it goes beyond simple fact and asks one to restate just what is important into his or her own words.  For classical homeschooling, this takes place in the logic stage, grades 5 through 8.  (Three year olds may take the prize for frequency of asking why, although not all kids really care about the answer until years later.)

For too many homeschool curricula, especially math, history, science, and language arts for the pre-high school set, this is as far as evaluation of learning goes.  Most fill in the blank, short answer, and multiple choice tests require little more than these skills, although at late high school level and beyond, more may be required.  Many workbooks and tests in homeschooling resources stop here for the younger 2/3 of children, only asking them to remember and understand.   It’s not enough.

This is where good use of Bloom’s Taxonomy allows educators, homeschoolers and teachers and alike, to make learning really happen.   The third level, applying, asks one to take that remembered, understood information and use it.  This may mean making a model of a watershed or writing an example of a declarative sentence starting with an appositive and containing a prepositional phrase.  Problem solving utilizing previously learned math rules, such as finding the area of a floor plan, fall into this arena.  This is where knowledge starts to be manipulated and used.

Analyzing takes another jump in thought, and at the fourth level, the learner needs to manipulate information in new ways.  Here, comparing and contrasting activities fit.  What might have been, what could happen later, and discussing what problems occurred are all tasks of this level of thinking.  Knowledge from multiple domains is manipulated, shaped and reshaped, and understanding of a bigger picture occurs.

At the fifth level, evaluating, requires the ability to judge material and create an argument to support one’s thesis.  The thesis could literature based (Which character in Huckleberry Finn shows the greatest growth?), historical (Who was more responsible for the Cold War, the US or USSR?  Defend your answer.), scientific (Critique Pasteur’s use of the scientific method.), or any mix of domains.  Classical education’s final stage, the rhetoric stage, focuses on these very skills.  Certainly success in college and beyond demands ability at this level of the taxonomy.

The sixth level, or top of the pyramid, is creating.  Somehow, creating seems more valued in the traditional second grade classroom (I recall having to draw and write about an invention at age 7.) but isn’t emphasized later on.  Science calls for creating and idea generation by its nature.  Ask a question, devise an experiment, draw conclusions, judge what should come text.  Inventing something (a machine, a methodology, even a taxonomy) or improving upon an existing one fall under this tip of the pyramid.

Of course to apply, analyze, evaluate, and create, plenty of understanding and knowing must exist.  But if a seven-year old (or far younger) can invent and create, surely these needn’t be done in order.  Newer science curriculum, which is often inquiry based (Quite simply, see a demonstration or model, ask questions, make inferences, then get all the vocabulary.) starts higher up the pyramid, even backwards, some may say,  yet the understanding that can come from inquiry based learning is impressive.

Is it more work to hold the discussions, grade the papers, and create and score the tests that come with the higher levels of thinking?  Absolutely.  Do many homeschool curricula approach the elementary and middle school years this way?  Absolutely not.  Should this change?  Absolutely.

The jobs our children will hold as adults will likely require them to create new things and ideas, to judge what is a better or worse choice, to compare options, and to apply knowledge to new situations.  Whether they end up in medicine, law, engineering, education, or in the music studio over their garage, they need the same tools.  Let’s not educate our kids on the first two steps of the pyramid.  Let’s start early, asking them to create, evaluate, analyze, and use their knowledge.


A Very Incomplete List of Curricula Using Bloom’s Taxonomy

Michael Clay Thompson (notably the grammar recipes in the Magic Lens loops but examples exist throughout)

Suppose the Wolf Were and Octopus (questions aligned with the taxonomy, with books for kindergarten and beyond)

CPO Science (Very usable at home and inquiry based.)

Singapore Science (While the content for the elementary texts seems scant by American standards, these teach real scientific thinking quite well.)

Middle School Chemistry (Excellent inquiry science)

Singapore Math (All those Challenging Word Problem texts are great application of skills.  I’ve seen nothing better for the elementary set.)

Art of Problem Solving (Fantastic curriculum for highly talented and driven math students.  Pre-algebra debuts in August.)


Calculus for Young People (Discovery-based math for those in early elementary through adulthood.  Don’t be scared by the title.)

Online G3 (History, Literature, Grammar and more, G3 offers classes for highly and profoundly gifted kids.  Most class time for literature and history is spent on the top 4 levels of the taxonomy.)