Posts Tagged ‘homeschooling’

What We Study and Why We Study It: History

What We Study and Why We Study It: History

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

In this part of our series, we are looking at individual subjects and asking why we study them and, to a lesser extent, how. Thus far we looked at two “STEM” subjects, math and science. This time I’d like to look at what I have always considered the core of our homeschool: history.

Why We Study History

We have all heard the saying “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” but why, from a biblical perspective, should we study history?

In mathematics, we look at the structure God built into Creation. In science, we learn about the Creator from what He has made. When we study history, we are studying how God has worked in the lives of individual humans and of larger human societies. Another corny truism: history is His story. It tells us about God and it tells us about ourselves, our propensities for evil and the good that we, through the Spirit, can do.

The Scriptures instruct us to tell our children the things God has done:

“Things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.” (Ps. 78:3-4; all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

The forces of history, nations and rulers, are formed and controlled by Him:

“And [God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.” (Acts 7:26)

“The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” (Prov. 21:1; cf. Rom. 13:1)

“He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings . . .” (Dan. 2:21; cf. Dan 2:37-38; 4:17)

We see specific examples of this in the Scriptures themselves. God uses the situation in Egypt to save His people in the days of Joseph. He raises up the Persian King Cyrus, again to save His people and return them from exile (Isa. 45:1). He uses the nations as rods to punish His people (2 Kgs. 18:9-12; cf. Isa. 9:11; 10:5-6).

But it is no less true that Christ is king of nations today and that He is still as intimately involved with their rise and fall as well as the more day-to-day lives of people (Ps. 135:6; Prov. 16:4).

Cornelius Van Til argues that because history is about man, it should be the center of our educational endeavor:

“Arithmetic and all other subjects that emphasize the space aspect of the space-time world lie in the nature of the case in the periphery of the whole area of the creation of God. This is due to the arrangement God has made in his creation, namely, that man should stand at the center of it. And since man is a selfconscious and active being his most characteristic human traits will manifest themselves more fully in the movement of time, that is in history, than in the immovable atmosphere of space. Accordingly it is easier to bring out the more specifically human and the more specifically Christian interpretation of reality when teaching history than when teaching nature.” [Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1974) p. 204]

How We Teach History

Christians tend to get themselves bent out of shape over science resources — Does it present a biblical view of Creation? Is it godless? Does it assume evolution? Does it agree with my view of Creation? But the Van Til quote above argues that the mindset of our history curriculum is even more vital. As he says elsewhere, there are no uninterpreted facts (p. 88; see also this post for a number of quotes from other authors on this point). We see history through a lens. If we assume a godless universe, there will be no meaning to the events we study. Cultures will rise and fall, wars will be won and lost because of economic and political and military factors but there can be no higher meaning nor is there any end towards which events are moving. Even those who accept the idea of a Creator can misunderstand events if they do not accept that He is a Sovereign God who is in control of all things. As reformed people, we believe that there is a purpose towards which all things work and that there is no event or detail, no matter how small, that is outside God’s sovereign plan [Ps. 135:6; Lk. 12:22-26; Acts 17:25-28; Rom. 8:28; Eph. 1:11; Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) 3:1; 5:1; Van Til does an excellent and thorough job of critiquing other Christian worldviews and showing how they fall short (pp. 72ff)].

Those beginning with young children often wonder where they should begin with history. Is it best to start at the beginning of human history or to begin with one’s own country? I don’t think there is one biblical answer to this question but my own inclination is to begin with what is closest. The child should first learn how God has worked in his own life and that of his people. “His people” here can include a few different circles. Most narrowly, it may include the family — Where do we come from? How did his parents come to faith? Are there family stories of deliverance from illness or other troubles?

Beyond that there is the state and nation in which he lives. I do not believe the United States is a Christian nation but its history does contain wonderful tales of God’s deliverance that affect the lives of small children. The story of the First Thanksgiving comes to mind. Nor should the bad stories be neglected, the ones about our failures.

I would add that though history should always be taught with the assumption that God is in control of people and events, we do not need to beat children over the head with the fact. The Bible (largely) does not do so when it tells us of God’s actions. It tells the stories and leaves us to see God working and to judge the humans involved and to make our own conclusions. It does not moralize. Lessons are best learned when one is allowed to draw one’s own conclusions. The tendency on the part of adults to want to add morals to every story often arises, I believe, from our own lack of faith in God’s story. His deeds speak for themselves more powerfully than we can when we turn a history lesson into a sermon.

We are also all part of a community of faith. The Scriptures give us part of the story of God’s work among His people. The story continues as well through the history of the church, both on a broad basis and, depending on one’s denomination, on a more local level. (As I outline my proposals for a Reformed approach to education, I am assuming that “religious” education is going on as well but I am largely confining myself to education on “secular” subjects so I will not spend much time on how we teach the Bible.)

Though we may begin with history close to home, it is also good and necessary to expand beyond one’s own people. We learn first what God has done for us, but then we also need to learn that God works in other societies as well. How we expand may depend upon our particular circumstances. It seems reasonable to me for those of us in the United States, having learned something of our own nation, to next consider those close to us. What it means to be “close” can be defined in various ways. We are a big country and personally I don’t live especially close to a national border. So “close” may be defined by geography but it need not be. Historically and culturally, England is our closest neighbor. In my own homeschool, I tend to emphasize the history of England when we cover the middle ages in the hopes that it will give my children a feel for where our own government comes from. Looking back even further, we are part of the stream that is western civilization so again it seems reasonable to spend a little more time on western civilization and its foundations (read: Greece and Rome) than on other cultures. There may be other societies to which you feel a particular tie that you want to spend more time on as well. It could be a family tie. It could be another kind of connection. Perhaps your church has missionaries there. Perhaps you have friends from another country.

And then there are peoples to whom we have no immediate tie (though you never know where God will take you in the future). Here too we can study them to learn how God has acted among people very different from us. We can also learn about the people themselves. We may see that they are very like us and that the same forces work in their societies as in ours. We may learn that they have different values and that the things we have always assumed need not be true for everyone (perhaps this is good, perhaps not).

A word especially to homeschooling parents: Human history if a huge subject. You will not get to everything. We all have gaps in our educations. Personally I learned very little about the middle ages when in school and no American history after WWII. The point is not to do everything but to do what you can and to do it with the right mindset.

The other big question I hear about history is whether it is safe or wise to teach the myths of pagan cultures to children, especially young children. Of course if you begin, as I am suggesting, with more local history this may not be an issue for a few years. I will say my own children heard Greek myths from an early age. One child was particularly attracted to these and now has declared a college minor in classics. I have never known a child to be confused by these myths and to wonder if Zeus is real or Jesus isn’t. If anything, even younger children seem to see quite clearly how messed up the lives of the Greek gods are and how hard it is to live in a world with many gods to please. On the positive side, I do believe these myths teach us about human nature (which is really what is reflected in them, though the characters are divine). And, as mentioned above, they in some sense form the basis of our own culture and a familiarity with them can help one understand later allusions and ideas.

While I am trying to give broad outlines and not specifics in these posts, let me make one more plug for “living books” (see this post for a longer explanation of what makes a living book and why we should use them). If the history we are teaching is God’s story and if we want children to see Him in it, we need to provide them with interesting books. Dry compendiums that are little more than names and dates are not going to engage their interest or help them see the majesty that is there. And similarly, I am not opposed to all memorization, but recalling facts (lists of presidents, for example) is not knowing.

Those are my thoughts in history, why we study it and its importance and place within the curriculum and a little bit on the how. Do you have other questions about history?

Until next time,

Nebby

What We Study and Why: Science

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

In this part of our series, we are looking at individual subjects and asking why we study them and, to a lesser extent, how. Last time we looked at mathematics; this time I thought we could tackle science.

Why We Study Science

Most people take for granted that children should study these “STEM” subjects. But for our purposes, the real question is not whether they will help us get ahead of the Chinese or get high paying tech jobs, but how can they help us grow in our knowledge of God and His creation.

The Scriptures make it pretty clear that we can learn about the Creator from His creation:

“For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” (Rom. 1:20; all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

We learn from the biological world:

“Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.” (Prov. 6:6)

““But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?” (Job 12:7-9)

And from astronomy:

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Ps. 19:1)

And some quotes from other writers, on astronomy and geology:

“We are living in a universe that is constantly trying to talk . . .’The air,’ says Emerson, ‘is full of sounds, the sky of tokens; the ground is all memoranda and signatures; and every object is covered over with hints which speak to the intelligent.’ The stars above my head are signaling; the astronomer masters the code and reads the secrets of the universe. The stones that I tread beneath my feet are signalling; the geologist unravels the code and interprets the romance of the ages.” [Frank Boreham, The Uttermost Star (Pioneer Library, 2015; originally published 1919) Kindle loc. 89]

On chemistry:

“The chemistry of life is like an unknown alphabet and language rapidly spoken to us.” [Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt, A Meaningful World (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006) p. 113]

How We Study Science

Because science is so central to modern world, it is also perhaps most prone to being done with the wrong attitude. The world recognizes the value of the sciences for the things the world values: making money and beating out the Chinese. It is very easy for us also to fall into the trap of making our studies entirely practical and serviceable. As I have argued in this post about attitude, what we need most is to keep the right focus. If our science does not ultimately point to God and revel in the truth and beauty He has created, it is fruitless.

On a practical level, especially for younger children, my own inclination is keep the focus on joy. Most small children are inherently fascinated by the world around them. Often animals, but sometimes pmats and rocks and less directly tangible things like dinosaurs and volcanoes. We want to encourage and not dampen these natural tendencies. Our world tends to discourage close, patient observation so this also must be encouraged and even taught (though some come by it more naturally). Getting facts into children is not as important, especially in the younger years, as cultivating attitudes and habits that will keep them looking at and appreciating God’s Creation throughout their lives.

Sadly, we live in a time when many consider science and God to be opposites. This is not the case and should not be the case. Science, rightly done, should point us to God. And we do not need to live in fear that if we look too deeply or think too hard that we will lose our faith. (Which is not to say that we shouldn’t ideas against the Scriptures.)

While it may take a little searching around, there are many wonderful science books that inspire awe at God’s Creation. I quoted from Benjamin Wiker’s A Meaningful World above. This is an excellent book which touches on subjects from Shakespeare to chemistry to astrophysics and I highly recommend it.

We need not only read Christian authors. Sometimes even those hostile to faith can be inspiring. This is the case for E.O. Wilson. I disagree heartily with his views on the origins of life but when he talks about his main subject, which is entomology, he is inspiring.

For more on the value of Christian and non-Christian scholarship, see this post in which I argue that all truth is God’s truth and, conversely, this one in which I argue that we should expect more truth to come to us through Christian sources.

As I said last time, I’d love some input on this part of the series. Do you have other good quotes on science? Do you have questions? Recommendations?

Until next time,

Nebby

My Booklists for Science

 

High School Biology

High School Chemistry

High School Physics

Environmental Science

Fossils

Geology

Weather

Anatomy and Medicine

Meteorology

What We Study and Why: Mathematics

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

Last time, we wrapped up the section of this series on practical details. You can find that summary post here. Today I’d like to begin a new sub-series on individual subjects. I have argued that the teacher’s attitude is paramount and so a large part of what we are doing here is just to frame each subject rightly. Whether you are a homeschooling parent or employed in a school setting, you may find yourself having to teach subjects that just don’t thrill you (what on earth does grammar have to do with the kingdom of God?). While we will touch on some practical details as well (why teach pagan myths? does everyone need calculus?), the main goal of this part of the series is just to show why we teach each subject.

There are a couple of big ideas behind what we are doing here, including: All truth is God’s truth; In education we lay before our students the things of God, primarily His general revelation which comes to us in many forms; and The purpose of education in the life of the believer is for the transforming of his (fallen) mind. (If you are just dropping in, I do recommend reading some of what has come before; see this summary post on the theory behind it all.)

With these goals and ideas in mind, we will ask for each of the subjects we address: Why do we study it? How does it point is to God? How does God reveal Himself or His truth through this subject? In answering these questions, we will look at Scripture whenever possible but we will also look at quotes from many other sources.

Finding God in Mathematics

Let’s jump right in then to mathematics. Most would agree that some level of math instruction is necessary. Beyond the basics, there tend to be two camps — those who see no need to go beyond the basics and those who find pleasure and meaning in higher mathematics. The problem is that there is a gap — we don’t convey the beauty of math when we are teaching the basics and so those who do not naturally enjoy it drop it as soon as possible and never get to the part where it seems to expand and take on a wider significance. The solution is to show that math is lovely even at the lower levels (that’s where the teacher’s attitude comes in again). So if you have lost to joy of math, or never had it, here are some quotes to inspire you:

The laws of mathematics point us to the Law of God:

“We take strong ground when we appeal to the beauty and truth of Mathematics; that, as Ruskin points out, two and two make four and cannot conceivably make five, is an inevitable law. It is a great thing to be brought into the presence of a law, of a whole system of laws, that exist without our concurrence,––that two straight lines cannot enclose a space is a fact which we can perceive, state, and act upon but cannot in any wise alter, should give to children the sense of limitation which is wholesome for all of us, and inspire that sursum corda which we should hear in all natural law.” (Charlotte Mason, Towards a Philosophy of Education, pp. 230-31)

Mathematics conveys eternity:

“But education should be a science of proportion, and any one subject that assumes undue importance does so at the expense of other subjects which a child’s mind should deal with. Arithmetic, Mathematics, are exceedingly easy to examine upon and so long as education is regulated by examinations so long shall we have teaching, directed not to awaken a sense of awe in contemplating a self-existing science, but rather to secure exactness and ingenuity in the treatment of problems.” (Ibid., p. 231; emphasis added)

Math underlies the universe. It may even be called the langauge of God:

“Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe.”  —Galileo Galilei

Math is the foundation of many other fields, both sciences and arts. Its beauty can be seen even by non-Christian authors:

“Mathematical analysis and computer modeling are revealing to us that the shapes and processes we encounter in nature — the way that plants grow, the way that mountains erode or rivers flow, the way that snowflakes or islands achieve their shapes, the way that light plays on a surface, the way the milk folds and spins into your coffee as yo stir it, the way that laughter sweeps through a crowd of people — all these things in their seemingly magical complexity can be described by the interaction of mathematical processes that are, if anything, even more magical in their simplicity.

….

“The things by which our emotions can be moved — the shape of a flower or a Grecian urn, the way a baby grows, the way the wind brushes across your face, the way clouds move, their shapes, the way light dances on water, or daffodils flutter in the breeze, the way in which the person you love moves their head, the way their hair follows that movement, the curve described by the dying fall of the last chord of a piece of music — all these things can be described by the complex flow of numbers.

“That’s not a reduction of it, that’s the beauty of it.” [Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (New York: Pocket Books, 1988) pp. 182, 184]

That’s all fine, you say, I am inspired but I am still teaching long division to cranky eight-year-olds. A couple of thoughts: I argued recently that when educating we must be careful not to provoke children. Math is a field in which it is very easy to provoke. It tends to come with a lot of repetition. I do think we should all learn to do long division without a calculator. But if I have ten such problems to do, I get my calculator. Why should we ask a second grader to do so many at once? Sometimes more is less (how’s that for a math concept?).

There is a certain progression to math; one can’t do algebra before learning to count. But that doesn’t mean the beauty of math needs to wait until high school or beyond. There are resources which are accessible at younger ages but which either introduce concepts usually reserved for later or give more of a big picture understanding of math, bringing out its complexity and elegance. (I will add a brief bibliography of some we have used at the end of this post.)

Lastly, there is the elephant in the room question: When will I ever use this? And its corollary (there’s a nice math word): Why do I need to learn calculus anyway? As for the first question, I reject the premise. Our approach to education is not utilitarian. Whether we will use upper level math has nothing to do with anything. The end we have in view is not the balancing of checkbooks or even being able to do advanced physics (for which I hear math is useful) but to bring glory to God which we do by learning about Him as He has revealed Himself through creation, and (as the quotes above are meant to show) mathematics is an integral part of that creation.

As for the second question, not everyone needs to learn calculus. We are finite people and time and energy spent on one subject come at the expense of another. So while I do think it is good to learn these things, beyond a certain point we must recognize that we are different — indeed unique, individual — people and that we don’t all have to learn the same things (see this post on core curriculum). So perhaps you don’t have to learn calculus.

I’d like to end with a plea — as I work on this section of the series, I am giving you my best ideas and resources but I could use some help. Please reply to this post or contact me if you can help with any of the following:

  • What questions do you have about teaching (insert subject here)?
  • Do you have good quotes about math, or any other subject, that you have run across, particularly about why we teach them and how they point us to God and/or teach us about Him and His creation?
  • Any favorite resources? Since math was our topic this week, feel free to add in the comments your favorite big-picture math resources.

Nebby

A Brief Math Bibliography

Life of Fred Math by Stanley Schmidt (Polka Dot Publishing) — You may have heard of this alternative math curriculum. It takes a narrative approach and follows the life of 5-year-old math professor Fred. Though the author says the elementary books can be used as a stand-alone math curriculum, I was always hesitant to do so. They do, however, make a lovely supplement to whatever else you may be using. The stories and such may be overly silly for some but my kids always loved them. The elementary series is a collection of thin books with short chapters. It is easy to add in one chapter a week. Ages 10 and up could breeze through them pretty quickly. The upside of these books is that they introduce concepts that usually don’t come up until later such as set theory.

Here’s Looking at Euclid by Alex Bellos

The Number Mysteries by Marcus du Sautoy

Thinking in Numbers by Daniel Tammet

These three books are all of a type. They are roughly middle school level books (and up) that have relatively short chapters which disuss math concepts like pi, prime numbers, and how people in Iceland count.  I am sure there are many other such books out there; these are just a few we have used.

 

 

 

Principles of Reformed Education: Summary Post

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

My goal in this part of the series has been to lay out some principles to help you evaluate books, materials, and curricula. For a summary of the big ideas behind it all, see this summary post.

This series within a series — the practical details — began with an explanation of methods. As we move away from theory and into the nitty gritty, we are not going to be able to find Bible verses that bear directly on the questions we have (Are spelling tests inherently evil?). To the extent that we can, I have tried to elucidate biblical principles while acknowledging that we are on less certain ground here.  We must rely more on personal observation, scientific studies, and logical reasoning. And as good reformed people we also acknowledge that our reasoning has been affected by the Fall and that we think is unassailable fact is often tainted by our own experiences, emotions (also tainted by the Fall), and presuppositions.

With that firm foundation, we dove right in.

Before we even get to curricula, we must begin by looking at ourselves, the teachers. I began with a presupposition: that the attitude and expectations of the teacher can do more to facilitate or to undermine learning than almost anything else he does. Therefore we must begin with right expectations and right attitudes. Simply put, the teacher should expect that God will work in the minds of his students. The attitude of the teacher should be one of joy and delight in the things of God because he himself is growing in knowledge and because he believes that they are the things of God and delights in them.

Once you’ve mastered that easy first step, you can begin to consider materials. So we talked about what to teach. I argued for a broad education that encompasses many subject areas [not just the trendy STE(A)M ones] based on the principle that all knowledge comes from God and as He is One so it is ultimately unified. More recently, we tackled another trendy question: Is there a core body of knowledge all people need to learn? With some qualification, my answer to that one is no, there is not (note that we are not talking here about religious knowledge as such but about all those subjects it is still legal to teach in public schools).

After we have considered the what, we must ask how? There are various aspects of this. We began by considering what the materials we use should be like. I argued that they should be interesting but need not be designed to be entertaining. Since the things we place before children in education are the things of God, they should be inherently interesting, We must be wary, on the one hand, of curricula which suck all the inherent joy out of knowledge and, on the other, of curricula which try to dress it up in clown costumes complete with red honky noses thereby sending the message that it needs our dressing up.

I also made the argument that the written word, that is, books, should be the primary tool by which we place such knowledge before our students. There is a place for other media as well, including but not limited to lectures, videos, audio recordings, visual aids (such as maps and charts), fine art, and music. Whichever we are using, we should use discernment in selecting our sources. We need not limit ourselves to Christian “teachers.” On the one hand, all truth is God’s truth and He may choose to reveal it to us through non-Christians. On the other, many who claim to be Christian are either not or are but have bad theology underlying what they are saying which affects their presentation of their subject. Nonetheless, we should expect more truth and better scholarship to come to through Christian sources. Because this is a tricky area, it is important for us to vet our sources and to consider such things as the age of the child we are educating. We also took a bit of a side trip to examine the power of narrative, for good or evil.

Lastly and most recently, we discussed what we do with this material— Do we ask kids to reproduce what they are learning and if so how and why? This includes testing but also more mundane things like worksheets, essays, and narration. Specifics will depend on the setting one is in (home vs. school, small vs. large class) but there are some principles we can seek to adhere to. First and foremost is not to provoke children with unnecessary and/or tedious work. Second is that we need to consider the benefit to the child. I argued for narration as a wonderful tool and discussed some pros and cons of other methods.

For the moment, I think these posts will wrap up the “practical details” portion of this series. I have been promising you that I will go through individual subjects one by one and my intention is to begin that next time.

Until then,

Nebby

Principles of Reformed Education: Synthesizing Ideas

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

I have been out of communication for a while and I apologize if anyone was actually seeking me out looking for posts. In the future I think I need to plan ahead for December to be a wash.

When last I blogged, we were talking about some practical principles for reformed Christian education, specifically what our students should learn and what kinds of  materials they should use (here and here). Today I’d like to talk about what we do with that information.

When discussing whether there is a set body of knowledge all children should learn, I made the case that what we believe about curriculum is reflected in what we require children to produce. For example, unschoolers, who do not believe that there is a set body of knowledge that all should know, would be less apt to require testing. On the other hand, if, with classical education, we believe there is a fixed body of knowledge, then we are more likely to require students to reproduce that material in some form.

Purposes

There are, broadly speaking, two purposes when we ask students to reproduce material: we can do so for their sake or for our own.

It is not necessarily wrong or bad to ask students to reproduce material for our (the teacher’s sake). There are settings in which this will be much more necessary — when there is a large class, when the teacher is not the parent and must report to either the parent or to the administration. A homeschooling parent may have to report to others as well (depending on things like state laws) or may want to generate hard numbers for transcripts and the like. And while they are more likely to know what the child knows, they may also find that there are certain subjects in which they could use a little more objective evaluation. Testing (of various sorts; I use the term quite loosely for now) can reveal holes and gaps. We may at times get a sense that something is not quite clicking but need to explore to find out where work needs to be done.

Which brings us to the second purpose — reproducing what is learned can benefit the student.  This is often missed in our society, but is, as I have argued, education is for the child, for his sanctification, then we must be careful that what we do is truly beneficial to him. I don’t generally like proof-texting things with single verses but Ephesians 6:4 comes to mind in this context:

“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Eph. 6:4; ESV)

We must be very careful that the things we are requiring are not wearying to our students. I was actually one of those public school kids who really didn’t mind standardized testing and even enjoyed it a little (there is something about filling in forms that still appeals to me), but rumor has it that what kids are required to do these days has been quite stressful and time-consuming and benefits the child little if at all.

Methods: Narration

I am hard-pressed to think of ways a standardized fill-in-the-bubble test benefits a child or furthers his learning. On the other hand, I do firmly believe that we do not truly know until we can convey that knowledge to others. Narration, oral and written (a la Charlotte Mason), has been a mainstay of our homeschool. Simply put, almost every time my kids read something (or I read it aloud to them) they have to retell what they have read. There are variations on this; words are primary but one can also retell  at times through  drawing or other means. This is not about me grading what they have told or even requiring certain facts to be included but about them synthesizing and cementing their own knowledge. Because narration requires both these things — one must put together the ideas floating in one’s own mind and by so doing lays further claim on that knowledge.

As we get into these practical details, there is not necessarily going to be biblical evidence that one way is the correct way and another is not. In defense of narration, I would like to offer two arguments, one from observation and one from the Scriptures —

Narration is what children do naturally. Little kids tell you what happened in their day and they retell stories they have heard and liked over and over. They also act out stories they have heard which is a wonderful way for small children to “narrate.” When we require narration, we are not asking children to do something foreign to them but encouraging them to do what comes naturally to them anyway.  I am enough of a Calvinist not to argue that natural=good but I do think there is some evidence from our natures here to clue us in to what works best for children (and bigger people).

The Scriptures also give us some hint that retelling is beneficial, and even good. Retelling is pretty much what the Scriptures do, and it is also what the people in the Bible do. When at Passover, the child asks why we do this or that, the father is to tell him all that God has done for His people. In fact, this is how people in Old Testament times expressed their appreciation — they didn’t say thank you; they told others what had been done for them. That’s almost entirely what the Psalms are — God’s people telling what He has done for them. And remember that what we are learning is God’s truth, His general revelation (again see this post). We should want to tell others about it.

Other Methods

Standardized tests (especially the ones with those bubbles) require certain bodies of knowledge; narration allows the student to tell what he learned. In between there are a number of other approaches. I don’t think there are necessarily black-and-white standards here but I do think we can set forth some principles. To expedite things a little (as this post is getting long), I am going to go to a bullet-point format:

  • If, as I have argued, there is not one body of knowledge all people need to know, then we should encourage methods (such as narration) that allow the student to tell what he knows. We can both read the same passage and get different things from it. Your child may not get what you got but that doesn’t mean what he gets is wrong.
  • But there is absolute truth. I have one child who tends to narrate things that are just plain wrong. We should always insist on truth.
  • While I do not believe we all need to learn the same things, there are some basics which are the foundations of further learning (think the three Rs). Math in particular lends itself well to more standardized forms of evaluation.
  • But remember the rule not to provoke. One long division problem done correctly is better than a full page if it brings your child to tears.
  • I am wary of true/false, multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questions. These sorts of questions ask for specific pieces of information that the adult prioritizes. In the long run, you may want your child to remember Christopher Columbus’ name but just because he forgets it on a worksheet does not mean he doesn’t know lots of other cool facts about Columbus’ journey. These sorts of questions prioritoze facts over concepts. They also often make the child who remembers them overly proud and  the child who doesn’t feel bad about himself though there may be much he has learned. Again, they test knowledge of facts but don’t directly benefit the child.
  • Essay and short answer type questions encourage children to integrate knowledge. Used rightly, they can take retelling to the next step by requiring deeper thought and analysis. I would be wary of using them at too young an age. If your child doesn’t seem able to compare two characters or analyze the author’s motives, they might just not be ready for that yet.
  • I am also wary of projects and unit studies and the like. There is a fine line here. There are certain kinds of material which are best told through pictures and diagrams (the sciences often lend themselves to this). And perhaps if your child builds that Viking ship model he will better remember what their boat looked like. But a lot of this sort of thing becomes either busywork or entertainment. Busywork wastes everyone’s time. Entertainment (as I have argued here) actually undermines how truly interesting God’s creation should be for us.

Above all, we need to keep our ends in mind as we consider our means. Ask yourself, Is this (test, assignment, worksheet) benefiting the child? Is it allowing him to integrate the knowledge he has been ingesting? Is aiding in the transformation of his mind?

Until next time

Nebby

 

 

Principles of Reformed Education: Core knowledge?

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

One of the big questions we have to answer as we seek to build a philosophy of education is what are we to teach? Is there a necessary core of knowledge that every student needs to learn? This is an issue which divides philosophies of education and has practical applications for how we teach and test as well.

On one end of the spectrum is the unschooling movement which says that no, there is no one body of knowledge that every child needs. The child, left alone, will learn what is necessary to him. Even if he shows no interest in some basic subject, it is not to be pushed. On a practical day-to-day basis, an unschooler, though not setting out perhaps to teach basic math skills, will often find himself doing so through every day activities like cooking. Many of the unschoolers I have known have been very diligent, busy parents. They may not set an agenda for what their child should learn but when he asks about dinosaurs, they are all over the library finding every resource they can on the topic.

On the other end of the spectrum is the Great Books movement, aka classical homeschooling including both its Christian and secular varieties. This philosophy of education says that yes, there is a core body of knowledge. It is often defined very much by western culture, relying heavily on Greek and Latin classics as well as more modern works from Shakespeare to Robert Frost. A classical educator is likely to make use of old-school techniques like memorization and traditional testing.

In between these two extremes there are of course other positions. Charlotte Mason’s philosophy of education, on which I have blogged extensively, tries to bridge the gap. Miss Mason did believe that there is appropriate fodder for education but also acknowledged that one can never force another to learn and that each pupil is an individual person. This is an approach which takes the horse to water but does not force him to drink. The material is presented but the student must ingest it for himself. Again, this can be seen in the techniques used. Memorization is not prioritized nor are other methods which require the child to reproduce precise bodies of information (worksheets, true or false, multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank). Narration replaces these and allows the child to be more selective in what he or she gets from a given lesson.

It is perhaps easier to understand the differences if one considers how studying a classic book like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn would look in each of these philosophies. The unschooler does not require her child to read the book. She might get it from the library and leave it lying around the house (this is called strewing). And certainly if the child were to ask for it, she would obtain it. After the child has read the book, the unschooler might have a casual discussion — “Did you like the book?”– but would not require any sort of report or testing. The Charlotte Mason (CM) homeschooler and the Classical educator would both require the student to read the book. In CM’s approach, the child narrates what he reads, that is, he tells what he has read, deciding for himself what is interesting or worth noting. This may be done orally or in writing. For the classical homeschooler, there would be more concrete ways of integrating the knowledge. These could include such things as reading comprehension questions and worksheets. There would be certain facts that the child would be expected to know — who the author is, for example, or the names of the main characters and some details of setting and plot.

We are going to return next time to how the student reproduces the material and how his learning evaluated. Today I would like to focus on what we are teaching — is there a set body of knowledge? And if so, to what extent should we enforce its learning? I hope the above examples show that this is in some sense a foundational question to answer before we can begin to talk about the hows of education.

Though we are ranging more and more into the realm of general revelation –i.e. topics about which the Scriptures may not have anything specific to say — we should always begin by asking what they do have to say, either overtly or more subtly through the principles we can derive from them.

When it comes to the knowledge of God, His Word makes clear that there is a specific body of knowledge we are to communicate to our children. Not only so we present this knowledge to our children, we fairly drill it into them, keeping it always before them (Deut. 4:9-10; 6:6-7; 11:9). To the extent that the other subjects we teach also reveal the Creator – and I have argued that this is exactly what they do and why we study them – it is reasonable to conclude that they are also, if not required, at least very profitable and valuable for our children. (I have argued previously for a broad education that is not confined merely to the trendy STEM subjects.)

As reformed Christians, we believe that there are absolute standards of truth and beauty. We also believe that all people are sinful and that all their faculties have been tainted by sin. Combining these two facts, we can draw two conclusions: There are ideas which are good and true and profitable and, conversely, there are ideas which are evil, false and dangerous. And, secondly, our children, left on their own, will not always – indeed, will rarely – choose the good ideas and reject the bad. We must, therefore, reject the unschooling end of the spectrum which allows the child to choose entirely what he will learn. We do not believe that the child left on his own will gravitate towards what is good or what he needs.

The flip side of the Bible being the only infallible rule for faith and life (“only” modifies “infallible” in this phrase) is that nothing else is infallible, not Calvin, not your homeschool curriculum. All human culture bears the stamp of our race’s sin. The pagan cultures which form the basis of so much of our western civilization carry with them pagan presuppositions and ideas. We must be especially wary and discerning because the underlying assumptions are often just that – underlying and not overt. We will not realize we are accepting ideas built upon ungodly bases. Which is not to say that we must reject them altogether; I do believe (as I have argued here) that all truth is God’s truth and that it may come to us through non-Christian sources. My argument is not that it is wrong to study the likes of Plutarch but that we must do so with great discernment.

We must be equally wary of “Christian” culture. There is no doubt Christianity has had some profound and real effects on western culture, but much of what passes for Christian culture (including Christian homeschool curricula, of which there is an abundance these days) does not reflect a reformed (which is to say, biblical) understanding of God, creation, and man. [1]

All work can, rightly done, being glory to God. While there is greater responsibility and therefore potentially greater glory (or greater rebuke) for the preacher and pastor (1 Pet. 5:1-4; James 3:1), the Bible teaches us that man is made to work and that all work can bring glory to God. (Gen. 2:15; Prov. 16:3; Eph. 4:28; Col. 3:22-24; 2 Thess. 3:10). If the work of a farmer or a physicist or a poet or an accountant is good and, rightly done, able to bring glory to God, then it follows that the study which gets him there is also good and that God can be glorified in our learning about plants and atoms, literary devices and spreadsheets.

The child is a person and no less capable of bringing glory to God through what he does. In our society, the work of the child is to be educated (and, I would argue, the Bible also depicts childhood as the ideal time for education). Just as his elders can work to the glory of God no matter their profession, so he can learn to the glory of God no matter the area of study (for a little background see this post on the child in the Bible).

Practically speaking, there are skills and ideas which build on one another. It is very hard to be educated in our society if one cannot read (and I have argued that words, and the written word, are vital to how we learn). It is hard to function in our society without basic math skills. Greater knowledge of math is needed to understand certain scientific concepts. There will be rare exceptions of children who are truly not capable of learning even the basics. We must be careful not to view them as less than persons and we must not deprive them of whatever learning they are capable of. For most, however, it is reasonable to require some basic common knowledge which will be needed for further learning.

One caution — just because some learning is foundational does not mean that  the early years must be spent on the basic and only the basics. He is capable of a relationship with his Creator from birth or before so we must nto deprive him of the tools of redemption and sanctification no matter his age.

As we get beyond the basics, I believe it is reasonable to require our children to learn certain things. The subjects we teach are general revelation, that is, they reveal God to us, and, as Creation has One Creator, they work together as a unified system (see this post). We would be neglectful to teach only history and omit any sciences (or, as our society increasingly does, to teach the sciences and neglect the humanities), because we would not be allowing our children to see the big picture of how God works throughout His Creation.

Our goals can affect what we teach. The Bible sets a good precedent for us to teach history as the story of what God has done for us so we often begin children on local history. The history of one’s own state or country teaches that God works in my life. If we then expand to world history, we see that He works throughout the world in the lives of all people. Similarly, in studying the sciences, we learn first that God makes the plants grow and created all the animals unique. But then as we delve deeper, we see also that He is involved in His Creation as levels we can’t even see – in the minutest atoms and in the farthest reaches of space. When we get to higher levels of math, we learn that even the intangible principles behind Creation are orderly and beautiful. Not every child will learn every subject and certainly cannot do so in depth. God and His Creation are so vast that none of us can ever be comprehensive, or even close to it. Nor do we all need to learn exactly the same things. We may start in the same places – with the foundational building blocks of further knowledge, with subjects that are close to home– but, because we are all unique persons, we will expand in different directions. I believe that we bring greater glory to God by doing so. We express our unique personalities, which He has given us, more fully, and we, as a race, are able to learn more of God’s work and therefore give Him greater glory.

Summary

Because this has been a very long post and has covered a lot of ground, I would like to end with a summary of the main points we have seen:

  • What we study, and whether we believe there is a set body of knowledge to study, will affect how we study and measure learning.
  • As reformed Christians, we must reject the view that children will, on their own, gravitate towards what is good and what they need to know.
  • When it comes to “religious” knowledge, the Bible makes clear that there is a fixed body of knowledge that we are to teach our children.
  • In other fields, we must use discernment. Because there are absolute standards of truth and beauty and goodness, there are also things that are bad and false and ugly.
  • All human culture has been affected by the fall and, while truth can come to us through non-Christians, no one culture has a monopoly on such truth.
  • Much of what passes for Christian culture is also not based on biblical ideas and it should also be approached with discernment.
  • As it is possible to glorify God through one’s work, so we may glorify Him through study.
  • There are some basic concepts which are foundational to later learning and should be required of all children (barring severe mental incapacity).
  • As even the youngest children are fully human, it is not a matter of memorization of basic facts for the young while withholding bigger ideas for later years. Even the youngest children deserve to learn ideas which will point them to their Creator.
  • Because we have One Creator, all areas of knowledge have an inherent unity. They all point us to God yet each teaches us something slightly different and new about Him. For these reasons, we should require a fairly broad curriculum.
  • Nonetheless, each person is a unique individual and we must not expect that all will learn the same things. Since learning ultimately points us to an infinite God, there is no end to what can be learned. No one can learn everything and we should not expect everyone to learn the same things.

Nebby

[1] Cornelius Van Til does an excellent job of explaining this in his book  Essays on Christian Education (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974; see my review here).

 

Movie Review: The Test and the Art of Thinking

Dear Reader,

Thanks ot a local homeschool group, I recently had the opportunity to watch “The Test and the Art of Thinking,” a movie on the SATs. I wrote this review for my local group and thought I would share it here as well.

Not surprisingly, this movie was critical of the SATs (and ACTs though less time was spent specifically on them) as criteria for college admissions. It began with a brief discussion of the original purpose of the test. This was not actually entirely bad. Though it was the era of eugenics and most scientists expected the test to show differences between those of us who are more evolved and those who are less so, it also had an egalitarian purpose. Prestigious schools of the day each had their own admission tests and only offered them to students who were already at high level prep schools. A common test allowed students from different backgrounds to compete.

The main criticism of the test was that it does not really measure intelligence. This is true for a number of reasons including: There is not just one kind of intelligence. It is very hard to measure or even define true intelligence. Beating the test has itself become a game of tricks in which those who can pay for expensive prep classes have an advantage.

There was also some talk of the power of the test in society. Though started by those not looking to make money, it is now big business. While some colleges have dropped testing requirements for admissions, the big names still use it and it is hard for others not to follow suit. It was implied that these elite colleges somehow must benefit from using the test though it was not specified how. The national rankings of colleges also play a role and people watch them closely and the average SAT score of admitted students is considered in them (though it was not abundantly clear to me how large this one measure plays in overall rankings).

This movie was best when it was specific and showed ways the test can be “gamed.” They demonstrated for instance that in the essay portion (which is no longer required or even wanted by most schools in my experience) that a long essay gets high marks even if its content is complete drivel. They also showed some tricks prep agencies teach for getting probable right answers without even reading the problem.

I had a number of issues with or questions about the movie:

  • It relied heavily on test prep people and admissions staff (or former admissions staff). Every time a College Board (the people who run the SATs) person was talking it was recorded from some other forum. It may be the College Board refused to talk directly to them, but then this should have been said.
  • It was very low on statistics. In fact, there were almost none that related to the success or bias of the test. There was an allusion made to gender differences but no facts on what these are. Again, it was said in passing that test scores do not correlate to college success and that all they correlate to is parents’ educational level (all things I have heard before in other contexts), but hard numbers to back these things up would have been more persuasive. Nor was there any real discussion of how poorer and otherwise marginalized groups do on the test.
  • There is no doubt schools rely on test scores. What I have heard is that even top schools do not rely solely on test scores. Harvard gets a lot of 1600s applying and they look beyond scores for something more. The movie presented things as black-and-white, we use scores or we don’t. I think an honest assessment would need to look at how schools really evaluate students and how much of a role those test scores actually play. (I know a lot of this information is proprietary and that schools do not want to share how they make decisions but we need to at least acknowledge that it is not a simple process.)
  • The movie is dated. Though it was made in 2018, the SAT has changed recently and the essay is no longer required and (from looking at schools for my son last year) most schools don’t even want it. The best criticism the movie had was of how essays don’t even have to be true (see above) but it is no longer relevant. I laughed in appreciation when they said the reading selections are like articles from Time Magazine and there are still a number like this, but my experience with my children is that they are also now including passages from real literature (like Jane Austen novels). In my observation there has been some real improvement in the latest changes which was not addressed.
  • Most of the tricks shown which cheat the system had to do with the math section. There may be similar tricks for the reading and writing potions but this was not made clear. So I am left wondering if those portions are also as game-able.
  • At one point one of the talking heads talks about a hypothetical question about who was president during WWII and how some answers, though wrong, are still better than others. I get his point, but it wasn’t well related to the test which does not have these sorts of factual history questions. I assume he was meaning to say something about the reading portion which often asks for the best answer out of a selection of possible ones but this connection was not made clear.
  • Obviously some people pay oodles of money to learn the tricks of the test. I would like to know how much they actually improve their scores by doing so. My kids who have taken the test improved some by doing practice tests at home. How does this method of preparation compare to those expensive classes? How much can a 1400 kid (on a first try) imporve versus a 1000 kid? Again hard numbers are needed.
  • There is an underlying value system here which I don’t buy into anyway which says that one needs to get into the elite colleges and therefore needs the best scores. When my own son was looking for colleges, we saw that the elite ones require a certain number of SAT subject tests or AP tests. Knowing he would hate to do all that extra prep and testing and feeling that it would be a waste of his time, we eliminated such schools from our list under the assumption that if they attract people that are so focused on such things they are probably not good schools for him anyway. It is hard to avoid the SAT (or ACT) in our society, but one can keep it in perspective and get by without buying into the whole system.
  • Not really a criticism of the movie: The test was not originally game-able (even in the 1980s when many of us parents were taking it, this was not a big thing). Since it has become so, because people have discovered ways to get right answers without actually doing the problems, the whole thing has become a game and of less value overall. The film used a lot of test prep people who make lots of money teaching rich kids how to trick the system. (I don’t honestly know how these people live with themselves, but that’s a side issue.) I think we should not be surprised that human beings cannot create an un-game-able test but how this comes through in test questions thereby making them game-able seems like it would be a fascinating psychological study to me.

“The Test and the Art of Thinking” did not really provide new information. I went in expecting it to tell me just the things it told me: that the test is game-able, that those who can afford expensive test prep have an advantage, that it does not measure true intelligence. I didn’t find that there was much new added to the discussion here and I would really have liked to see the hard numbers to back all this up.

Nebby

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