Thursday, August 23, 2012

Give Them the Box First

Today's society is all about thinking out of the box. I do love that. Really, truly, I do. But for crying out loud, you can't think out of the box if you don't know where the dang box is.

I worked for a while at Sylvan Learning Center, and one of the things that drove me nuts was the textbooks the kids brought in from school. I taught mostly upper level math and reading, and that meant helping kids with their homework and such on top of doing the Sylvan curriculum with them.

First of all, the Sylvan stuff was awesome. The program really worked. The idea was to find the gaps in the child's foundation of skills and fill them in before trying to build on top of them. Teach them phonics before reading comprehension. Teach them addition before learning how to work equations. In other words--teaching the old-fashioned way. The way it was done when *I* was in school.

What I saw, though, while working at Sylvan, were kids coming in, feeling like failures because in school they were being pushed to do things they were not prepared for. 

NOTE--I did NOT say they were not smart enough. I did NOT say they were not skilled enough. I did NOT say they weren't old enough. I said they weren't prepared

And that, my friends, is not the students' fault.

What happens is that kids are being forced to understand abstract concepts about topics which they have not been given the basic building blocks. For example, I had two students who were taking the same geometry class, and they were both failing. I asked to see their textbook. These kids were being asked for the derivation of certain theorems and such without being taught the component pieces first. They were being taught concepts, without being taught the equations and basic steps of solving them first.

I told those two to put away their school textbooks. I pulled out an old 1980's textbook--pretty much like the one I used in high school--and taught them from that one. They both made B's on their next exam.

Kids need to be taught the basics first. They need to be shown, step by step, how to go through a process. They need to see it in action, and then they can take it beyond the borders.

My husband and I were discussing this the other day. I said it's like handing a kid a screw and a screwdriver when the kid has never seen one before and expecting them to know instinctivey how to use it. Doesn't the end of the screwdriver obviously go in the slot on the screw? Don't those threads make it obvious that the screw needs to turn? 

Oh, and not only are they expected to know how to turn the screw, they are being asked to come up with novel uses for it! Or new, inventive ways to turn the screw!

No, sorry--they need old-fashioned practice. Probably with a hammer and nail first, to be honest. Show them what a nail does, show them what a screw does, show them why one is used in one instance and one in another. Show them how to use both first. Show them the traditional way. SHOW THEM THE BOX. And then take that first step outside the box WITH them so they have a hand to hold while they traverse that unfamiliar territory before setting them off on their own.

Ironically, you will likely find that the child takes off on their own much more quickly. When someone feels equipped, they aren't as afraid of failure. But our kids aren't growing up feeling equipped. 

Now, before you jump all over me and say, "Little Miss Homeschooler is blaming the teachers," let me say this:

TEACHERS are probably the most aware of this problem. Teachers in the public school system and being forced into corners all over the place. Their students have to pass tests in order for the schools to be funded. They have no say in what textbooks they have to teach from. This is not generally their fault either. So don't shake that finger at me. I have the utmost respect for public school teachers.

My beef is with the system itself, with the textbook writers--probably the same people who design Barbie clothes--you know, the ones who make skinny little sleeves and expect kids to get those sleeves over splayed plastic fingers....

Anyway, not sure where this rant came from. But I will make one last statement--that it applies to many things other than school. I can't tell you how many times people I know have complained that they took a new job and got no training. Or they were handed a training manual that read like stereo instructions.

And writing. I believe in rule-breaking with writing. But ya know what--you need to learn the rules FIRST and then you can find the right way to break them. Learn the box. Measure its dimensions. Memorize all its angles and such, and then step out of it.


Rick said...

Hi Kat! Great post! As you know I write a devotional blog and your message here is so easily applied to the process of faith.

Faith foundations are often lacking in our spiritual teaching today. I believe this is related to the speed of information, primarily electronic.

I have been watching the construction of a seven story office building. There were months of preparing the foundation and before that, probably years of preparing what needed to be done.

I love your line of stepping outside the box WITH them so they have a hand to hold. So often a new believer steps out alone...imagine their confidence if we were there to hold their hand for those first few steps.

Thanks for stepping outside the blog box!

Kat Heckenbach said...

Rick--awesome expansion on my idea :). Lovely!

Kessie said...

I totally agree with needing to start with the box. My munchkins are starting their first year of school, so it's been very basic. Learn the alphabet. Learn to write letters and numbers. Learn to add and subtract. Read books and pick out interesting words. Talk about the Bible stories we're reading. If they don't have that foundation, how can they possibly function when the harder stuff comes along?

Did you homeschool your kids from kindergarten up? Do you remember this foundational stage? What sort of curriculum do you do now?

Kat Heckenbach said...

Yes, Kessie, I have homeschooled from day one.

I actually taught both my kids to read with a book called "Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons." And supplemented with a basic phonics book. I really like Modern Curriculum Press and Spectrum for phonics.

For math, I used some standard math workbooks for their ages--can't remember which ones--but we eventually transitioned into LifePac by Alpha Omega.

We still use LifePac for math and Bible. It's workbook based and I love it for those two subjects, but not crazy about their other curriculum.

The rest of my curriculum is a hodge-podge.

Krysti said...

When I was teaching my kids to read, we used Sing, Spell, Read and Write, but there was this one point in the lessons where they jumped from phonetics to stringing words together to make sentences, and completely skipped all of the lessons on combining letters/sounds to form words.

I supplemented with writing lists of simple words while only changing one or two letters at a time, and then using the "Bob Books" before returning to curriculum. After I figured out that I had to do it that way, reading became a lot easier.

But you're very right about the gaps in education.

My daughter's math class is doing review lessons covering last year's math. They're reviewing the homework from the previous night in class, then bringing home new homework (that they haven't discussed at all).

It has been a journey of frustration, trial, and lots of error trying to determine from the examples given how she's supposed to lay her answers out. She's getting the right answers, but we keep having to redo the problems.

I really do wish her new math teacher would give them instructions on the new review problems before they leave class so that she knows what is expected and we don't both waste so much time, but that part of the classtime is being skipped.

Kat Heckenbach said...

Krysti, I noticed the same thing in a lot of reading curriculum and phonics books. That's what I love so much about the 100 Easy Lessons book. It eases children into reading words and stringing them into sentences. They can start the book knowing NONE of their letters, and end it reading whole paragraphs.

And yes--I know parents with kids who are in school and they have those same frustrations. Not knowing what is expected, not understanding the homework assignments, and being expected to understand things that were never explained. The whole "teaching kids how to think" idea has been twisted. You FIRST have to give them information, and then teach them how to use it--and THEN they can move forward. You can't just slam a bunch of work at them and let them sink or swim.

Headless Unicorn Guy said...

Working as a code monkey, I am all too familiar with that sort of instructions. It's because everyone writing the instructions are already experts and "EVERYBODY KNOWS THAT".

Example was a telephone exchange commercial on local radio several years ago:

"I asked him how we could improve our phone system."

"That's Easy!" he said. (Then goes on with alphabet-soup acronyms and jargon jargon jargon for most of the commercial) -- "See? Nothing to It!"

Historians are routinely driven crazy by all the general-knowledge stuff nobody ever bothered to write down because "Everybody Knows That!"

Trying to figure it out cold is like having to master Advanced Calculus before you can add 2 + 2.

Kat Heckenbach said...

And what you say isn't far from the truth! Kids ARE being expected to understand abstract mathematical concepts before mastering concrete facts.