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.