kitchen table math, the sequel: Gutting Out the Grammar

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Gutting Out the Grammar

Lately, I have been thinking more about SteveH's experience of an elementary teacher dismissing his young son's knowledge of geography as "mere facts" because I have steered my family's educational boat even more towards the classical model over the last year or so.  (We have even started Classical Conversations one day a week, the model of which would horrify the type of folks who say "drill and kill.")

Because, well, *OF COURSE* his son only had superficial knowledge, mere facts.  He was an elementary student.  That's what they do, those little collectors of knowledge.  Those sponges.  They absorb facts.  And if you don't provide them with useful ones, they will happily populate their brains with the name and basic biographical information of every character in the Star Wars Extended Universe.  (They may even do that, anyway.  Mine sure have.)

Here's what I don't understand about the folks who think it is so horrible to load up a child's brain with "mere facts" -- do they really, *really* think it never has to be done?  Do they not mind that the fact-can just get kicked down the road to either high school or college, when you can no longer progress without the domain knowledge but your brain is no longer developmentally eager to be constantly memorizing and chanting inane things?

Then I was thinking of Catherine.  And basal ganglia.

Well, I did no actual thinking about basal ganglia, to be sure, because I don't know the first thing about it.

Of course, there's the rub -- what is the "first thing" about basal ganglia?

As Catherine wrote much about when she started plunging into her studies, you have to learn the lingo.  You have to absorb the "mere facts" -- the grammar -- of any new field.  Why wait to do it until you have to simultaneously struggle with the logic and rhetoric (to use the classical model's terminology)?

The whole thing just makes me angry.

I can't tell you how many moms I have met who tell me a similar story: They "hated" math.  They feared having to teach it to their kids.  Then after going through Singapore (or even Saxon, for that matter) in the elementary levels, it all clicked and they realized they *liked* math and were good at it.

My pet theory is that if you look at math from the grammar --> logic ---> rhetoric model point of view, grammar has been gutted out of the picture in many schools for some time and it is fashionable to try to jump straight into logic (if not rhetoric) right away.  And now we have these moms who are *finally* getting their grammar stage math competence, and suddenly the logic / rhetoric stage math is no longer frightening (and, in fact, fun and fascinating) because they finally have the foundational underpinnings to understand it.



Glen said...

Interviews with 21st century, Google-equipped, critical thinkers who weren't forced to waste valuable time on mere geography facts:

(skip ahead to the 45 second mark)

momof4 said...

It's the same problem in English grammar; grammar and composition have been essentially removed from ES, and perhaps from MS, so kids arrive in HS unable to identify the subject of a simple sentence with only one noun/pronoun. That was a close relative's class, in an affluent suburb. It takes years to cement grammar and composition skills, just like the math ones. Explicit instruction and a properly-sequenced curriculum work, but they're neither new or sexy.

Mrs. Tefft said...

For a long time, I have been wondering if many of those who contribute to this site are actually on the high functioning autism spectrum. SteveH's son memorized pi to 100 digits. As I remember, SteveH had trouble understanding the meaning of the word between. I suspect that his son has similar gaps in his language ability, and it is this combined with his tendency to memorize things that have little value or interest to the larger world that his teacher found so unsettling.

Neurotypical children are not "eager to be constantly memorizing and chanting inane things". I am not trying to be critical. I actually believe that you have found a type of education that works for your children. But I would suggest that you stop being so angry at people whose minds work very differently. The thought of sitting down to memorize a list of tedious facts makes me want to pound my head against a wall. This doesn't mean that I am against knowing things,but most people acquire knowledge by reading, discussing, and thinking about things, not by going through a bout of rote memorizing.

TerriW said...

Yes, it is horrible that we spend 15-20 minutes a day chanting the things that we want put into memory. Usually while they are playing Legos.

Really? Is that too much to ask for "typical" children?

The rest of our school day is typical. Well, no, probably not. Since my son is not fully reading yet, I also spendhours a day reading out loud, various fiction and non-fiction, stopping to discuss and answer questions.

The chanting does not replace the rest, it goes with.

But I digress -- I do dispute that children hate memorizing. Though I am specifically referring to young children -- I do not doubt that older children do, which is why I think it is cruel and unusual punishment to dump it on them to have to memorize the things that they could have learned much more easily (and I argue: naturally) while they were younger.

TerriW said...

Pardon my uncharitable tone in my first sentence, though my question is real: is 15-20 minutes a day dedicated to memorizing really that awful?

I think it's an easy straw man to think that what we have in mind is a madrasa-style day, working to commit the entire Koran to memory.

But, yes, we do daily repeat the pledge of allegiance, the Lord's prayer, the preamble to the constitution, the presidents in order (only adding one new one per day), the states (ditto), math facts, a handful of poems that we're currently working on and some new. (And a handful of other sets of facts. For instance, we used to do the days of the week, months of the year, our address, etc.)

I think the reality of how this plays out in a real life day is not what people think it is.

Anonymous said...

"For a long time, I have been wondering if many of those who contribute to this site are actually on the high functioning autism spectrum."

Probably not quite.

When I worked at a small tech company, a co-worker brought in an "autism questionnaire." Most of the engineer/techies, including myself, scored as not-quite autistic. I don't think the folks there were unusual for the tech community [and, no, I don't know how valid the test was :-)].

So ... my guess is that folks like SteveH, myself, ChemProf and Allison would score similarly. Not *quite* high-functioning autistic, but very close.

But ... why? It isn't like learning the locations and names of most of the countries on the globe is terribly difficult if you spread it out over a few years. And that does help understand history and the newspapers a bit more.

-Mark Roulo

momof4 said...

None of my kids would appear anywhere near the autism scale and they memorized things as young kids. Their schools demanded mastery of math facts, the Pledge of Allegiance etc. My DH and I did states, capitals, major rivers, some songs and poems, countries and capitals. The grammar stage, in the Classical Curriculum, is based on the need to know the basic language and facts underpinning each discipline before it is possible to use that knowledge to seek relationships in the Logic stage.

Anonymous said...

Terri, I don't think that you were uncharitable at all. You have found a way of teaching and learning that works very well for your children, and you are wise to use it. I do disagree that all young children enjoy or even benefit from memorizing lists of things.

Anonymous said...

Young children vary in their willingness to memorize things (as do adults> > >). But since there's a huge advantage to having those things memorized, we are right to give them opportunities to try, and reward them for succeeding. Not to a ridiculous degree, but in a way that respects their developmental stage. I did not "memorize" any nursery rhymes, but I know them all to this day. Memorization can happen through "reading, discussing, and thinking about things," as proposed by Mrs. Tefft, but when that method of committing important facts and skills to memory is not sufficient, we do have to fall back on intentional memorization.

ClassicsMom said...

It is difficult to understand the push back against memorizing facts so fundamental as math facts, states, geographical sites, grammar, etc. There are many fun and engaging ways to help kids "memorize" these things such as songs, games, apps, and fun worksheets. Learning content does not equal drudgery.

ChemProf said...

And an over emphasis on "reading, discussing, and thinking about things" can fail even advanced students. I am always shocked by how many of my students can talk about things like phosphoric or sulfuric acid, but cannot write the formulas automatically or know how to break the compound into ions. Sorry, some memorization is necessary to do other work later on! I feel like I spend the whole year reminding them "you know that list of ions I handed out the first day and told you that you had to know? You need it now."

MagisterGreen said...

2500 years ago Socrates noted that children enjoy memorizing and prefer it if their lessons appear as games. Kids love to learn and they love to memorize and they love to do so in games, songs, and chants.

Whether or not contributors here are technically autistic or not, kids do love to memorize and do so whether we want them to or not. Ask any kid to recite the lyrics to their favorite song, then tell me that "normal" kids aren't eager to memorize.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, and those same kids who "can't" learn their math facts not only know the lyrics to their favorite songs but can recite baseball stats in excruciating detail.

Glen said...

I use memorization strategically with my kids. I don't have them memorize state capitals or US presidents, because I don't consider them of much strategic value as frameworks for useful bodies of knowledge.

On the other hand, I'm very insistent that they memorize a lot of geographical locations, historical dates, math facts, and other facts on which we can build large and useful bodies of knowledge. The strategic value of these facts makes them worth deliberately memorizing instead of waiting for them to show up and hoping they eventually stick or leaving it to Google.

When I took their mom out for Afghani food recently, my kids guessed quite accurately what the food was probably going to be like. They had memorized the locations of the countries in the region and used their experiences with Indian and Persian restaurants to interpolate. On another occasion, they interpolated between the Pilgrims and the 49ers to guess that European Americans had probably spread about halfway from the East Coast to the West Coast in the 1700s. More reasoning based on memorized facts.

With this framework, facts encountered in books or TV shows either match expectations or violate them and draw attention---either way making them easier to absorb into the framework than if they had just been "random factoids."

Some bodies of knowledge are better approached by learning to reason from first principles. In physics and calculus, practicing deriving formulas instead of memorizing them is better when practical. It produces far more understanding.

But some bodies of knowledge are better established on a framework of strategically-chosen, memorized facts. Relying entirely on incidental learning with no underlying framework is too inefficient and haphazard even for the neurotypical.

Christina said...

I have a 17 yr old son who went through traditional (mostly public) schooling. He is an average student,behaved well in school and was eager to do well but not overly enthusiastic about academics (this lack of enthusiasm increased through the grades). He was never asked to memorize typically went like this: read/study the chapter or content, review on Thurs. night, take test on Friday, perform fairly well. Checking back over the years about what he "remembers" and we have little to nothing. He has retained so little and unfortunately I think the content was so shallow that it never drew him in (in any subject). Some of this is his fault, some of it is mine (I should have been more alert to what/how/when he was learning things). In many ways he was let down by the education system (but I want to mention that he had many good, intelligent, diligent teachers who were doing their best to serve students well).

I also have 2 young girls now and I am much more involved and focused on what and how they are learning. We started with some memorizing because I realized how little my son actually knew and I thought I should be more intentional with my other ones. We started with things like poetry, the presidents (which I had to learn with them), states and capitals, continents, etc. What I realized was that they enjoy memorizing and I casually noticed that once they understood *how* to memorize, they were eager to memorize various things. For instance, if they hear a poem they like, they just memorize it because they like how it sounds. It seems almost effortless now because they have trained their minds to work like this. And I like the idea of adding to their minds some beautiful, complicated language through poetry to balance the various jingles, pop tunes, etc. that they also seem to memorize without effort!

I will end with an anecdote from my son's experience. I attended a Back to School night for his 9th grade biology class. His teacher told the parents that there is no need for memorization, the kids will not be memorizing the periodic table or any of *that* kind of information. Lots of heads were nodding...after all, the students have phones and can google whatever they need. I was not sure what to think of what he was saying but one thing came to mind, memorizing some things in biology is really the difference between a doctor and a teacher (the first year of medical school is a lot of memorizing). This is not a slight to teachers, as I stated above, my son had wonderful, caring and smart teachers and I am grateful to them. But we must be able to speak honestly about what various professions require and not continue to tell children that they can be anything they want (without much more clarification about what it takes to be whatever it is you wish).

Barry Garelick said...

I am not trying to be critical. I actually believe that you have found a type of education that works for your children.

It works for a lot of children, autistic and not. Not knowing math facts is an incredible hindrance in later math courses, even if you believe (and it sounds like you might be one who does) that the calculator can be used as a memory aid. I am tutoring a girl who does not know all her addition and subtraction facts and will count on her fingers. Knowing math facts not only frees up working memory but allows one to see certain relationships with numbers. Reliance on a calculator can actually slow people down; I have seen kids struggle over reducing a fraction to lowest terms, even with a calculator handy. Why? Because their unfamiliarity with the multiplication and division facts makes it difficult for them to see common factors between numbers like 21 and 42, for example.

allison said...

While I would bet a lot of money that if I were today the troubled youth I was in the 80s, some inexperienced counselor or teacher would have labelled me autistic, I'm not. Not a high functioning one or any other kind. But my temperament and anxiety issues would look like it to many who don't understand anything deep about psychology or autism. Many children are/were misdiagnosed as such, which is part of the reason the FSM 5 went in the direction it did with Asperger's.
is a good reason for skepticism that "many people on this blog are on the high functioning autism spectrum".

But I'm not neurotypical, and Mark is right, several of us here are non-neurotypical in similar ways. If you are 2-3 sigma away from the mean on just about everything, you're not typical.

So the issue is: should supposedly neurotypicals not learn X using Y because they don't want to?

Because I can't think of a better way to bifurcate society into the high achievers and the no-chance-for-ever-achieving than to teach children "don't learn anything you don't instantly take to, and don't learn using any method that is unpleasant".

Willingham has written extensively that while "learning styles" may exist, they are basically are irrelevant, because there are basically best domains for teaching content, and matchinf the topic with the best teaching style promotes the best learning.

So some kids may be a whiz at learning certain facts. But the ones who aren't still have to compete in the world with the kids that do. So other than just *doing the work*, what, pray tell, is the alternative?

It isn't to remove all content knowledge from k-12, unless the goal is idiocracy.

This issue goes deeper though, to the question of character: if one is not taught the character traits to learn something difficult or unpleasant, then there will be failure. Better to learn it young.

I don't home school, and I haven't found a way to teach my kids much of anything. They are like their parents, so stubborn that they abide practically no authority, except occasionally the laws of physics. They know every pokemon and corresponding attacks, every character in Ninjago and all of the Star Wars worlds. The only way I could get them the least interested in the names and locations of the countries of the world was with the Animaniacs' song. But now they can hang historical knowledge on that map in their heads, and the books they read have more meaning.

Those who advocate skipping this step do this at their students' peril. It may be true that it is easier for my kids than for others, but that does not absolve others of the need to get it done for their students.

Anonymous said...

Of course you're correct about my inappropriate use of the phrase "autistic spectrum" to describe people I don't even know. It would be more accurate to just say that you learn in a different way that may not apply to the majority of students.

My son is hardly a low achiever or lacking in character. He trouble shoots communications satellites for the army and teaches others how to do so. He graduated at the top of his class which allows him to put the word "distinguished" in his qualifications. He is in the midst of earning an engineering degree which the army is glad to pay for.

He has managed to do this without ever sitting down to memorize a list of presidents, states, or countries of the world. He totally bombed his fifth grade assignment of memorizing the states and their capitals. But guess what. He devours books about history. He has a nearly encyclopedic memory of countries, dates, and important historical figures. He didn't achieve this by memorizing lists, but by reading actual histories.

Let's put it this way. For my son, memorizing a list of names is a pointless kill me now assignment. He learns my being exposed to the drama of the historical story. For many of the people who contribute to this blog, memorizing lists of things is a thrill. They can't imagine being able to slog through a historical account without having first memorized a number of lists of facts.

There is nothing wrong with this. Different brains function in different ways. But is is a mistake to insist that everyone must learn in the same way.

lgm said...

I wouldn't say that memorizing lists is a 'thrill' but rather a technique. That was the technique used when I was in public elementary back in the Jurassic, it works for those who will do it, and it takes less time and money than reading a lot of material, or grading worksheets where the student had to use critical thinking skills, which is no doubt important to a group learning situation funded minimally at public expense.

That reading worked for your child, who had the money and time resources, is wonderful. Unfortunately it doesn't work with the fully included elementary school populations of today, as they don't have the resources your child does. Hence the memorization as memory hook assignments to allow as many as possible to benefit from future studies, rather than just the privileged.

Glen said...

And insisting that memorization is merely drill and kill and it will be eliminated is likewise insisting that everyone must learn the same way: the slow way.

There is no question that people can come to a knowledge of, say, geographic facts, by incidental exposure: traveling, reading newspapers, reading historical novels, taking world religion classes, or whatever. In fact, in-context methods such as these are the ONLY way to achieve a deep understanding of even something like geography.

But memorization of certain strategic geographic facts (like locations of states but not state capitals) gives those who accomplish it a larger context in which to mentally place everything they subsequently encounter in smaller, self-referential contexts. This prepared structure lets them extract and retain more of the knowledge they encounter incidentally. Such frameworks (some obtained initially by memorization, some obtained by careful sequencing of lessons, some by learning the "first principles" of a topic, some by other means) make learning more efficient.

Efficiency in education matters more every year. The frontier of human knowledge is receding farther away, the frontier of machine automation isn't too far behind, but the hours in kids' lives aren't increasing.

Memorization of *strategically useful* material boosts efficiency for those who succeed at it. If some kids don't like memorization, that's not a good reason to take away the efficiency advantage from all kids.

Anonymous said...

Glen, I agree with you. However, there's a huge stumbling block in the way of implementation; I have seen no evidence that the ed world has any awareness of the concept of efficiency, let alone any appreciation of it. Its most cherished instructional practices are its antithesis. Compared to convincing the ed world to change its collective mind and approach, Sisyphus' task looks relatively easy.

Glen said...

I certainly agree with that. When an organization manages to insulate itself from market competition, efficiency usually goes out the window.

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