Tag Archives: skills

In Praise of Teaching Content Subjects

For the most part, math, grammar, spelling, writing, and reading are skill based while science, geography, history, literature, engineering, and so forth are content based.  You will often hear from homeschoolers that in the early grades, or even before middle or high school, that everything after those three R’s is “icing.”  In other words, it’s extra in a way.  Many homeschool philosophies, in particular classical education, though others as well, make those three R’s the center of everything early on.

That’s with good reason.  They are undeniably important.  A child can get to middle school not knowing the difference between an amphibian and a reptile and do fine if she has solid reading, writing and researching skills.  The inverse is obviously not true.  No matter how many amazing facts a child has crammed in his head, he won’t succeed if he can’t read and do math.

A few years ago, PBS canceled the longtime show Reading Rainbow.  The reason?  They wanted to focus on reading mechanics, like phonics, sight words and vocabulary building, things Reading Rainbow never touched.  The focus of Reading Rainbow was to present literature in all its glory, letting kids review books, reading books aloud to kids, teaching about science, history and culture you could learn in books, and generally showing how the content of books could spark your imagination and help you go places in life.  In other words, while PBS now airs shows like Electric Company and Super Why, which teach kids how to read, Reading Rainbow taught kids why you should read.

That’s why I think you can’t dismiss content subjects too quickly or give them too short shrift.  Yes, a child who can’t do math will never become an engineer.  But a child who doesn’t read about bridges, buildings, and robotics may not see the point to the math in the first place or ever want to become an engineer.  A child who can’t write will never become a lawyer, but a child who doesn’t read about governments and elections may not ever either.

Content subjects help kids see the why in the skills.  They inspire kids.  They afford more opportunities for fun, engaging learning.  This is not to say that skills subjects can’t be fun (we certainly play a lot of games for math, for example), but there is an engagement in the world and a way for even young kids to ask real, deep, open-ended questions in the content subjects that they can’t in the skill subjects.

That’s why we strive for a balance here.  Math, reading and writing happen every day.  They’re pretty much non-negotiable.  If something has to be dropped, it’s usually the content read aloud or history project.  But the content stuff gets long chunks of our attention as well, sometimes just as much time if not more.  Some of the better moments in schooling are things like history narrations, historical fiction read alouds, dictations about science, and measuring things for a science lesson that allow us use skill subjects across the curriculum.

School would probably be shorter if we didn’t do as much content study, and I have no idea how much of it the kids will specifically retain, but I do trust that it makes our homeschool a richer place and gives us a better purpose than just reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.

BalletBoy learns about tornadoes.

What You “Should” Know

I’ve clearly read too many homeschool newbie threads lately because this has been bugging me a lot.

What you should know and what skills a child should have at any given time is extremely subjective.

I know that when people are starting out, they worry about this.  Some people, I suppose, never stop worrying about it.  And there are legitimate reasons to check in about where a child is.  If a child is really struggling, there may be a question of learning disabilities.

However, I have so much trouble relating to the desire to follow state standards, which apparently some homeschoolers do, even the standards of states they think are “better” somehow than their own.  These are politically motivated standards decided in large part by politicians, not by people who really know anything about kids, much less your kids.  I also don’t get the mania for the E.D. Hirsch books.  He advocated that children need to know about dead white guys (and not much else) then made books of random, unconnected bits of information for kids by grade level.  I’m less than impressed.  Following a certain curriculum at least makes sense to me as that way you’ve got a scope and sequence, but it’s not an exact guideline.  If a child finishes the 2nd grade math of one curriculum two months into what is technically 3rd grade, is that really going to destroy his whole future?  Different curricula have completely legitimate but completely different scopes and sequences.

This is why, when we assess (and I take the idea of assessment very seriously) we don’t assess against a rubric of skills or against some idea of the average child of their age.  We assess progress and effort, we assess meeting personal goals and moving forward.

For me, what it boils down to is the difference between product oriented education and process oriented education.  I don’t buy into product oriented education.  My child achieving a list of preset skills isn’t what I’m interested in.  I’m interested in helping my children grow, learn and find their path.  There’s information I want them to learn, but I’m guiding them, not pouring it in.  They have to take the steps themselves.  I can’t do it for them.  And in the end, I assume that the learning isn’t what you come out with at the finish of a preset school year, but the journey you took to get there.  You can measure the finish with a checklist of skills and a multiple choice test, and sometimes that’s a fine thing to do, but the more important piece, the journey, is harder to measure, yet more important.

How to identify a fossil shark’s tooth, a piece of coal, basalt, sandstone and a vein of quartz probably weren’t on any list of second grade skills.