Radical Notions


Last night I grabbed my copy of One-to-One: A Practical Guide to Learning at Home Age 0-11 by Martin Williams, for bedtime reading.  I simply must read before falling asleep, and if I’m out of magazines and library books I rummage till I find some dusty book to fall in love with again.  I have fallen in love with One-to-One many times. I kept getting to quotes that made me stop and think.  Here’s a little one:

The object of primary education is to teach a child to read, to write and to be able to do simple arithmetic.  This can be achieved by any parents in a few hours per day (for a few months at a time) at some point before a child is ten or eleven years old.  It does not require five or six years of full-time school work.

Wow.  For a non-unschooling book, that’s a pretty radical statement!  And I’m not so sure he’s very far off.  If we really think about it, what are SOTH (School Outside The Home) kids learning all day?

  • Reading, often from an early age when it is going to take much longer than it ought to, just because it’s simply too soon.  Which kids really do on their own and gobble up if just left alone 95% of the time.
  • Writing, which is another one of those things they’ll do anyway.
  • Basic math and math concepts like time, money and measurement (and the time, money and measurement… more stuff they learn on their own anyway).
  • History, which is generally taught on a 3 year loop of ancient history, world history and then American history, and taught over and over so they learn the same things in elementary, middle and high school (in different ways and in different depths, of course).
  • Art, if they get it (it seems to be a once a week thing, if that, these days) and in creativity-stifling ways like predesigned projects.
  • Science, which I always hear is so good in public school (they have equipment!) but in primary years is so effortlessly taught through life (gardening, cooking, nature studies, etc.).  Again, this is a subject that many schools are eliminating to focus more on the tested subjects.
  • Social studies, which seems to be a whole lot of learning what jobs people do and how people live in various places, which being out in the world and renting some cool Netflix DVD’s can pretty much handle.

What else do SOTH kids learn?  Labels.  It seems as if most of the work they do in school for the elementary years consists of learning labels.  What’s a participle?  What’s the commutative property?  What part of the letter is the salutation?  What’s the divisor?  What’s a homophone?

I occasionally see lists of things children “should” know in elementary years and freak out because I don’t even know what half the words mean.  They should know ordinal and cardinal numbers.  Ooh.  Yeah, if memory serves me, that’s numbers– 1, 2, 3 and 1st, 2nd, 3rd.  I’m not even sure of that, and I’m an adult!  But I think it’s okay since I know how to count.

When is the last time in adulthood you EVER needed to know the definition of a homophone? Why do we require such exhausting lists of nothing for young children?  Could it be that Williams is right, that schools were originally designed to teach kids these 3 things and now they’re just using filler to still seem relevant, educational and worthy?

We always hear how our schools have to do better at teaching our kids because they have to be able to compete in the global market.  Someone tell me how teaching a 4th grader how to diagram a sentence or the definition of a homophone will help her compete in the global market as an adult.  How will these things be relevant in any way in her adult life?

As homeschoolers, I think it’s easy to look at the stuff they’re learning at the local schools and panic.  Eek!  Not only do my kids NOT know the commutative property, but I don’t think I know it!  How can I be qualified to teach them?  Never mind that we all know it (3+2 is the same as 2+3), we just didn’t know the label.

Besides that, this is all short-term memory learning, especially for young children.  This is the stuff that we all learned 3 or 4 times in school, retained long enough to be tested on it, never needed it and promptly shook right out of our brains.   So why dedicate so many hours of their lives to “learning” it?

Williams is not saying that children don’t need to learn lots more.  He just is of the opinion that what they need in primary grades is pretty basic and pretty easy to handle.  And then his book is filled with fun ways to do it.

Just wait till you hear what he does think is important in primary grades though…… 😉

I’m not saying I completely agree, but I love the question of all of this.  And the things that I think are important to teach in these years tend to be completely absent in SOTH classrooms.

So what do you think?  How much of early education is busywork?  How much will just have to be taught again when they’re older?  Do HSers try too hard to keep up with artificial educational goals that really aren’t needed?  Just how much “schooling” do elementary aged HS kids need?  And what things are important to you when you teach yours? And just what is the difference between a homophone and a homonym?


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10 thoughts on “Radical Notions

  1. Great post! I was blogging about the same thing recently. I’d been struck by the fact that my son could learn in a few weeks, in maybe fifteen minutes a day, concepts that would be drilled for MANY hours if he were in school.

    A lot of what they teach in school seems to be based on a spiraling approach. For example, if they teach multiplication facts in second grade, they’ll teach them again in third grade, with a bit more information added on. Then they’ll teach the same facts in fourth grade, with a bit more information tacked on, and so forth. I think they assume the child will forget 70% of what he learned during the school year, over the summer, anyway. (And if he wasn’t motivated to learn it in the first place, he probably will).

    The short answer is, YES, I think there is a lot of busy work. A lot of drilling and repetition, not to mention worksheets that are handed out to keep kids busy while the teacher is busy with other students. It really doesn’t take that much time to learn “the basics,” if it’s taught when the child is ready.

    Have you seen this article, about an “experiment” at the Sudbury Valley School? Very interesting:


  2. Very engaging post. I agree with much of it–soooo much of what we ask young kids to do is busywork, irrelevant to the rest of their life. Except…I sort of see some of it differently.

    I actually like exposing my kid to all kinds of things–including diagramming sentences, algebra at age 6, or word groups (homophone, homonym, synonym, etc.) But not cuz I think these are “What Every Xth grader Needs to Know.” It’s more like strewing in the unschooling sense. Some young kids LOVE algebra (and makes learning math facts more enjoyable); some think diagramming sentences is neat, and helps learning grammar–and some might even grow up to be linguists! Some kids love the minutia of history (dates, places, names) and some the minutia of science. As long as it’s approached in a “gosh, look at all the things in the world, and all the ways people have thought about them” way, I see no problem. Dig deeper if your kid grooves with it, drop it if they don’t. But somehow we’ve convinced ourselves as a society that all this stuff REALLY MATTERS…after all, kids fill in little bubbles in HB pencil to prove it, year after year. Sigh.

    I am adding that book to my reading list–thanks!


  3. A homophone is a word that is spelled the same as another word, but has a different meaning (like a rose – flower, or I rose from the chair.) A homonym is the same thing. The only time you’ll need that info is if you’re taking a test, otherwise in real speech you pick up the difference.

    Yes, HS’ers try too hard, you can teach the same stuff in a shorter time, you can teach things without a label, you can learn from a book or from your garden. I wonder why we need 4 years of English, can’t we talk by then? How does diagramming a sentence make you a better person? (I hate diagramming.)


  4. What a breath of fresh air this post is! And, I can’t wait to get a copy of One to One, it sounds like a very interesting book…

    Amusingly, the anti-spam word I had to type in to prove I am a human just now was ‘school’ 🙂

    School has WAY too much busy work, that is why we started homeschooling (it made my son sick, in Kindergarten, first and second grade, so we pulled him out). Once we started homeschooling though we realized how much more there is to life than school – home learning has opened up new worlds, not just for the kids, but for my husband and myself.

    Thanks very much for this excellent post – if you are interested, here is a post I wrote about my son’s struggle with school:


  5. I’ve always thought that school has a couple primary purposes — indoctrination, and socializing with other kids. The education part of school is very minimal.

    I guess I can now think of a third purpose, and that’s to give kids something to keep them busy all day while their parents work. Being part of a family with both parents working full time, I can really see the value of that third purpose.


  6. Steph, I have heard of the Sudbury math thing. It was one of those things that changed the way I thought about school and learning.

    Risa, I love to expose my kids to all different things too. I just wonder about the value of thinking we must actually teach them a-z. Exposing leads to questions and interests and discussions and passions, and it’s fluid (this interest leads to this direction and this new subject). Rote teaching from a list of “musts” is very different.

    Thanks Liese. I thought a homonym was a word that sounded like another word but was different, though (like their/there). I’m going to have to google this, aren’t I? 🙂

    Jennifer and Karen, it may be tricky to find the book. I looked a while back and couldn’t find a copy in the U.S. (it’s British). Karen, sorry about your son’s experience in school!

    Zataod, I do think child care is a big part of why schools are there and indoctrinization too. The socialization thing, though… that depends on your definition of socialization. In terms of the way most people mean it, I don’t think it’s a goal or a result at all, personally.

    Lastly, sure Ute! 🙂


  7. What a great post! Lots of great points. We’re just embarking on our elementary path and I have to say that I am not really concerned with what public schools are doing. We do things my daughter finds interesting and fun.

    I couldn’t tell you the definition of any of those words in your post, yet I’ve gotten through 44 years of life pretty well anyway. I guess they aren’t so important, huh.


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