Saturday, 23 February 2013

Ideology v real children





Earlier in the week, readers will have noticed that we were reaching broad agreement on a number of points concerning home education. Of course, this pleasant state of affairs  could hardly be expected to continue indefinitely and in the last day or two, we seem  once again to have descended into acrimony and name-calling. Most of this has come from one or two individuals, people whom we might perhaps not inaptly describe as hardline autonomous educators.

Now I believe that most home educators, whether structured or autonomous, use or used a mixture of educational styles; some direct teaching, some self-directed learning. This was certainly how I worked.  The proportions might vary, but there tends I think to be in general a pragmatic approach, with different techniques being used as and when they prove effective. For some parents though, their educational methods  are  dictated more by ideological than empirical considerations. These are people, often disciples of various writers or philosophers, who pursue one pedagogy remorselessly because that is what they believe must work uniquely, according to Karl Popper or Ayn Rand. I have an idea that if such individuals spent a little more time with real children and a little less reading about education and childhood, then they might change their views. I have never been very keen on reading what Piaget, for example, said about children and their development; preferring to work directly with children. The problem is that if you read too much about the subject, you start to expect the children to fit in with your ideology and when they don’t behave as they are supposed to, it becomes irritating. We have seen this over the last few days.

Let us examine a couple of statements made here in recent days about children and their learning. These statements shed light upon the thought processes of some of those whom I mentioned above; the ones who take their knowledge of children from books, rather than real life. Here is one such statement;



'Nobody can teach anything to anyone who is not intrinsically motivated to learn it'


Here is another statement, confidently made. I had talked of teaching children the value of Pi by getting them to chant the figures out loud. Somebody then said of this method of teaching;



‘Research indicates that children retain only about 5%-10% of what they learn when "taught" this way’


Observe the quotation marks around the word ‘taught’. This person believes, on purely ideological grounds, that children cannot be taught. They can only learn what they wish to learn. This point was emphasised by somebody when I talked light-heartedly about being compelled to learn under penalty of sanctions, the order of the royal houses of England. The assertion was made that it would have been impossible to teach me this sequence; I secretly wanted to know about the Plantagenet, Tudor and Hanoverian dynasties and the teaching at school was irrelevant. There's an unexpected insight into my early life and no mistake! I just hope that no other readers are entertaining the delusion that they were compelled at school to learn a lot of foolishness which would never be of any practical use to them. You fools! You only learned about the principle exports of Australia because you wanted to! The teachers and school had nothing to do with the case.

I wish to consider one of the first things that children in this country learn in the academic line; that is to say the sequence of letters in the English Alphabet. According to the people whom I quote above, it is all but impossible to teach children to recite the Alphabet. One person asserts that it is impossible to teach anything which a person is not intrinsically motivated to learn and the other thinks that typically only 5% to 10% of material taught by chanting in a rhythmic and sing-song fashion is retained. Looking  at the first of these objections to the idea of children being taught to say the Alphabet, we observe at once that there can be no possible intrinsic motivation for wanting to  know the sequence of letters in the Alphabet at the age of four or five. The only  reason anybody would wish to know the letter order would be so that an index might be consulted. It will be a little while before most four and five year olds will be using indices and so they have no conceivable intrinsic motivation for learning the Alphabet.

The other person to comment states that only 5% to 10% of material taught by means of rote learning and chanting will be retained. This is a less extreme position than the first writer, but still means that it will not be possible to teach the Alphabet to the average child. They will only be able to learn perhaps the first two or three letters of the Alphabet by systematic teaching; say as far as ‘B’ or ‘C’. Teaching children  the whole thing would mean expecting them to retain  not just 5% to 10% of the material, but 100%. This is clearly unrealistic. The conclusion is plain; at least according to the two people who made the claims which we examined above. Teaching the Alphabet to children is impossible.

Here we see the perfect example of where too much ideology may lead us when looking at children and their learning. The people who made the statements above must surely never have had any dealings with real children. Their ideas about how children’s minds work have been taken from books or research papers, rather than by looking at and interacting with the genuine article!

I might mention,  for the benefit of  those who really doubt that teaching the Alphabet is possible, that 80% of five year-olds  this country are able to recite the Alphabet. The rest learn it in the following year. The exceptions are usually those with sequencing problems, dyslexia and other learning difficulties. The child who is unable to learn the Alphabet beyond the letter ‘C’, is actually very rare.

Incidentally, I am not advocating the teaching of children to recite the Alphabet at three. I regard it as a pretty pointless exercise. But believing, as I do, that we should not do it is a quite different thing from asserting on purely ideological grounds that the thing cannot be done.

20 comments:

  1. I may have been able to recite my alphabet at five, but I couldn't when older. I set out to learn the alphabet when I started work and needed to know it to do filing. The same goes for the order of the months of the year. I remember setting myself the task of learning those too. Purely anecdotal of course, but it would be interesting to know how common that is.

    ReplyDelete
  2. 'I set out to learn the alphabet when I started work and needed to know it to do filing. The same goes for the order of the months of the year. '

    Yes, some people do have difficulty with sequencing like this. It is not common to have to re-learn the order of the months in adulthood, but of course it does happen. One diagnostic test used to detect this sort of thing is reversing sequences. Try and see if you can say the months of the year in reverse order, starting from December. Most people can; those who can't sometimes have a problem in this particular area. This sort of thing often goes hand in hand with taking longer than average as a child to distinguish between left and right and also a family history of left handedness.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Or it could just be an example of material taught but not retained, followed by the retention of self directed learning. I have no trouble with reversing the order of the months.

      I have no doubt that rote learning at the direction of an adult works perfectly for some children, possible even quite well for many more. But we are not all the same. Maybe some children need to learn autonomously whilst others can make do with adult directed learning?

      The education we are required to provide is supposed to be suitable for the individual child, not an average child. We started out with a more structured, parent-led approach but found it didn't work for our eldest who appeared to tune out a lot of the time, no matter how interesting we made the presentation. This is what drove us to look for alternatives. We read lots and compared what we read with our own learning experiences, and autonomous learning made sense. We had personal experience of learning far more as a result of self directed learning compared to outside directed learning.

      AE fitted with our own experiences and over the years we have seen it work with our children. We didn't blindly follow someone else's direction or ideology. We analysed what was written, comparing it to our own learning experiences and what we observed with our children. I'm not sure why you insist that people like us are blind followers. Were you a blind follower of the methods you used? If not, why assume that others are any different? I don’t see what we did as an ideology. It was a practical and effective solution to a problem we encountered.

      Delete
  3. ' I'm not sure why you insist that people like us are blind followers'

    I don't. I talked of those with a pragmatic approach, using teechniques that they find work. You seem to fall into this category. I then contrasted people such as you with others, who adopted their methods for ideological reasons.

    'I have no doubt that rote learning at the direction of an adult works perfectly for some children, possible even quite well for many more.'

    It is effective for most. I do not favour this approach personally, but that does not mean that I do not realise that it is an effective teaching method for most children.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. We also decided that it was the moral approach to raising our children and were non-coercive over activities such as teeth brushing, bed times, etc, so on second thoughts I suppose in a broad sense it was an ideological approach.

      But ideology seems to have a bad press. It was an ideological approach in the sense that we developed a set of ideas that constituted our goals, expectations and actions, but not in the sense that the ideas as a whole were proposed by some outside individual or group and then adopted by us. We read widely, and would struggle to name any individual author that influenced us most. We discussed and analysed our reasoning whilst developing our ideas and this continues to this day, as I'm sure it does for most/many parents.

      You say we adopted a pragmatic approach, but I'm not sure what we would have done if we had realised at some point that our children's education would benefit from a coercive approach because that would have felt morally wrong - as wrong as it would feel to you to threaten your daughter with violence, even if you knew for a fact that it would improve her education. Luckily it never presented as an issue!

      Delete
  4. 'children's education would benefit from a coercive approach because that would have felt morally wrong'

    Are we talking about the same thing, though? Would you really have thought it immoral and coercive to teach your child the Alphabet Song?
    I have no objection to ideology as such. After all, one cane pursue altruism and compassion for ideological motives. When, as in the case I gave in the post, ideology leads one to believe irrational things, then this can be a problem.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Would you really have thought it immoral and coercive to teach your child the Alphabet Song?"

      Only if they didn't want to listen to it. As it happens, there were several alphabet songs on the tape they asked for most often in the car.

      Delete
  5. "I have an idea that if such individuals spent a little more time with real children and a little less reading about education and childhood, then they might change their views."

    Once again you make a totally incorrect assumption about the other party based on articulating whatever is in your mind without questionning it or examining it. I made my decisions about learning based upon my experience with own children and *then* went hunting for the philosophy.

    Do you not see how you completely discredit yourself with these wild assumptions and annoy people to boot? It has been said to you before and stands repeating - ask yourself not merely "What do I think" but "how do I know it"

    ReplyDelete
  6. ' It has been said to you before and stands repeating - ask yourself not merely "What do I think" but "how do I know it"'

    When somebody asserts, as was done here a few dys ago, that children being taught the Alphabet by rhythmic chanting will be unable to memorise it beyond the letter 'C', then I must assume that thisa person has never had any dealings with real children. I cannot see what other conclusion I may reach, since those with children or who have worked with children, know that learning all twenty six letters of the Alphabet is routinely accomplished by the great majority of children using this method.

    Similarly, when somebody states that children can only be taught things that they have an intrinsic motivation to learn, it is hard to believe that the individual making such a fatuous assertion can have played with or had any dealings with young children.

    ReplyDelete
  7. "Similarly, when somebody states that children can only be taught things that they have an intrinsic motivation to learn"

    Explain please. How do you insert information into a child's brain? How do you force the neurons to fire and neural pathways to be built?

    ReplyDelete
  8. 'Explain please. How do you insert information into a child's brain? How do you force the neurons to fire and neural pathways to be built?'

    By repetition along different paths in the cortex. If you show a toddler a large letter 'A' and then say to her 'A', then certain neurones will fire as a matter of routine. If you repeat the process often enough, those neurones will be strengthened and create what we call a memory. If you take the child's hand and then move it along a sandpaper letter 'A', while saying 'A', then this will lead to a different set of neurones being stimulated. If you then show the child the letter 'A' in different colours and sizes, then she will extract the essential nature of the thing. Every time such activities are engaged in, the architecture of the brain will be slightly altered. Doing this frequently enough will actually create new pathways through the brain. This prcess is called teaching and learning.

    ReplyDelete
  9. And how will you force the child look at the letter she does not wish to look - will you prise open her eyes? How will you force them to focus? How will you stop her tuning you out, how will you force her to let you take her hand?

    ReplyDelete
  10. Perhaps more to the point, assuming you force this unwilling learner, she will simultaneously integrate all kinds of learning about power, control, fear, powerlessness, might is right, anger, resentment, perhaps unhealthy information about gender roles etc right along there with whatever information you are trying to force feed her. And you have absolutely no control over this process.

    ReplyDelete
  11. 'And how will you force the child look at the letter she does not wish to look - will you prise open her eyes? How will you force them to focus? How will you stop her tuning you out, how will you force her to let you take her hand?'
    assuming you force this unwilling learner, she will simultaneously integrate all kinds of learning about power, control, fear, powerlessness, might is right, anger, resentment, perhaps unhealthy information about gender roles etc right along there with whatever information you are trying to force feed her. And you have absolutely no control over this process.'

    To speak candidly, I regard this as raving lunacy. Why on earth would a small child not wish to play games with her mother or father? You have put the thing into your own category of 'teaching'. For the child, this falls into quite another category; that of 'enjoying the undivided attention of a loving parent who is playing a slightly puzzling game of which I do not yet know the rules'. It is no different for the child than playing peek-a-boo. Presumably this game too might lead to feelings of control, fear and powerlessness for the child?

    ReplyDelete
  12. Well if the child is not to be coerced to play these games and keep playing them then you are back to intrinsic motivation. If she has no interest in your alphabet and walks away you have two choices, you either respond to her lead and do something she finds interesting - autonomous ed - or you insist using coercion.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This is the bit that tends to trip Simon up. He does not like to think that he coerced his daughter to learn what he wanted her to learn, but also does not like to think he was an autonomous educator, so he tries to have it both ways.

      Delete
  13. Genuine question for Anonymous at 24 February 2013 14:47 (or anyone else qualified to answer!) - why are the only two options to give up entirely or somehow force the child to play? Why not let the child toddle off for now and try the letter games another time? Would you regard that as undesirable for some reason?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Not the same anonymous, but no, I don't think it means never suggesting a particular game again. For example, I might ask my children if they want to go to the park, but at that particular point in time they may prefer cycling up and down the road with their friends. It doesn't mean that I should/will never suggest the park ever again. Why would it be any different for a game or song involving the alphabet?

      Forcing someone to do something now that they may well have loved doing before and in all probability will love doing again in future is coercion. And 'forcing' in this context can include less obvious coercion such as jollying them along or promising some kind of reward for when they've finished. In this context, coercion is defined as 'the psychological state of enacting one idea or impulse while a conflicting impulse is still active in one's mind'. This was taken from the TCS glossary of terms, http://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/node/50

      Delete
  14. Thank you very much for the great list and I appreciate your efforts to bring such a huge list for us. I really appreciate posts, which might be of very useful. I look forward to future updates. Once again thanks. Keep smiling. Bio Sanjaya | Les Privat | Hasil Prediksi

    ReplyDelete
  15. Whats up are using Wordpress for your site platform?
    I'm new to the blog world but I'm trying to get started and set up my own.

    Do you need any coding knowledge to make your own blog? Any help would be greatly appreciated!



    My weblog :: USA real estate agent directories

    ReplyDelete