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Talk Early, Talk Often

What can you as a parent do to help your children develop their language skills?

Workbooks? Flash cards? No, my advice is much simpler. Talk to them. Talk early. Talk often. Talk about all the interesting aspects of your life together.

My fans may remember the 30 million word research. Today, I discovered an extensive interview with one of the authors, Dr. Todd Risley. It’s long, but well worth reading or listening to the end.

Doctors Hart and Risley observed very young children – 0 to three years of age – trying to find out why some have rich vocabularies in the preschool years, and discovered something unexpected. Children hear on average 1500 words per hour, but some hear as few as 600 per hour, and some 2100 words per hour. The children whose parents or caregivers talk a lot, come away with richer vocabularies than those with taciturn caregivers.

It’s not just quantity. Ever child hears a certain amount of “business talk” – do this, come here, stop that. These directives tend to be simple and repetitive. The additional talk is varied, complex, interesting, and vocabulary-rich. It entices the child with pictures and rhythm and back-and-forth engagement. It helps to develop important centers of the child’s brain.

You’ll find that the correlation between this sort of speech and measures of children’s reading, IQ at age 3, and academic success is strong. And it does not matter what the socio-economic status is. A poor minority parent who engages with her child – or is able to place her child with such a caregiver at an early age – will impart a great gift to her child; the gift of a rich vocabulary, learned during the crucial early years of the child’s life.

I stress again – this is early development, the development of babies and toddlers. Conversation, back and forth, as you change the baby’s diaper or nurse her or clothe her or take her shopping. You needn’t spend money; you needn’t do any more than converse with your little children. Early and often.

 


Socialization is Normal

The most common question for home educators, by far, is “What about socialization?” I’m always shocked. Socialization was always the least of my concerns.

It’s a big world out there. Let kids out in the world, and they’ll socialize with everybody. Humans are inherently social; socialization is as natural as walking and talking. Actually, socialization is talking – and talking is the main thing you’re not allowed to do in the cloistered environment of schools.

The socialization question arises from a deep misapprehension, from the belief that you and your children will stay at home, all day, every day. Most of us would go stark raving mad! We’d be homicidal! So, we don’t do that. We go out. We explore. We socialize.

Do we send children to school to learn how to walk and talk? Not unless they have severe difficulty in acquiring these natural skills. They pick them up easily, as part of interacting with and engaging with the world. For most children, socialization is equally natural.

There’s a fine article which expands on these ideas, and which motivated me to write my first blog about socialization. (Can’t believe it took me so long!)

Why I don’t worry about my homeschoolers’ socialization

(This is a replay of one of my most popular posts. It’s a very common peeve.)


Pedants: Converting Good to Bad

A standard argument for government provision of education is that it would otherwise be under-provided. The theory is that, since one’s education also benefits other people, one who purchases education for one’s own self would only pay enough for the benefits to oneself.

If we take this argument seriously, we must determine how much education is under-provided, and subsidize that portion. This argument can never justify 100% subsidy of education. The early arguments for state subsidies proposed merely to fill in the alleged gaps of existing methods for the provision of education.

But laying that aside, there is a much more fundamental problem: what exactly is “education?” The theory assumes that there is one good called education, and widespread agreement about what is desirable, and how it should be provided. Those who have followed the many controversies about education might be excused for scratching their heads at this point, if not laughing out loud. If we do not all agree on what a “good” education is, how can we agree on what should be subsidized?

“School choice” proponents claim to get around this objection. Pick your school, and the government will subsidize it. Really? What happens when the Happy Coven establishes a school, and requests equal remuneration? Or, as allegedly happened in San Bernardino recently, a group of Happy Nepotists use government funds to enrich family members? Is there to be no oversight over the use of these funds?

More broadly speaking, governments are not very good at managing resources.

What is this “education” variable? It’s quite an oversimplification. Is the education which suits one person the same as that which suits another? Let us take an example: a first grade reading class.

Typically, about a quarter of the class arrive already knowing how to read; some, quite fluently. When required to sit through “See Dick Run” or some other first grade primer, their education is not being enhanced, but slowed down. Their time is being wasted. They are being taught to endure frustration without purpose. This is a bad, not a good; but the tidy aggregate equations of some economists do not measure this.

Likewise with math skills. The typical “First Grade Math” curriculum lags far behind a certain number of students. I know of a young fellow who could mentally multiply double-digit numbers, and even larger ones; who could work easily with exponents and fractions and decimals and negative numbers. Even a “gifted” first grade class would have been an utter waste of his time. Yet another portion of students find the typical pace to be quite confusing; their time also is squandered by classes unsuited to their needs.

Bureaucrats thrive on tidiness and regularity. The variations of real children are far too diverse and confusing for bureaucrats and pedants and certain economists. This zombie argument for the government provision of education should be nuked wherever it arises.

The education of our children is far too important to be jammed into Procrustean beds by the arbitrary and uncaring mechanisms of politics. We need, rather, for such important decisions to be left to individual parents, students, and teachers themselves.


Children Are Not Interchangeable Cogs

Variations of the picture above have been widely distributed in schools. Education works best, we are told, when all the parts work together. The picture shows three gears, arranged in a circle. If you remember your studies of mechanics, this arrangement cannot possibly work.

Imagine the first gear turning clockwise; it would drive the second gear counter-clockwise, which would drive the third gear clockwise, which would drive the first counter-clockwise. But the first gear cannot simultaneously go clockwise and counter-clockwise; this circular gear train would be frozen.

It’s sad that an exponent of government schools would mangle a metaphor so badly. But what does this metaphor tell us? Permit me to speculate why the artist chose a circle, rather than a linear train of gears. A circular model suggests that parents, students, and teachers are in a kind of cooperative dance, ring around the roses. No part drives the others.  What is missing from this picture? Administrators, politicians, and the political process. That’s a large omission. Ask any teacher; they’ll tell you how important politics is, how it often trumps the best interests of teachers, students, and parents; how the best teachers often struggle to find ways to work within or to work around the system, in order to do the best they can for the students.

A more important problem, however, is the assumption that participants are mere cogs in an inexorable machine. There is more truth to this analogy than we like to admit. The origins of what we know of as the Prussian Model of Schooling were military; this model of organization was designed by Fichte, in his Addresses to the German Nation, to produce compliant cannon fodder, soldiers who would march into a barrage of fire when ordered to, “theirs not to reason why. Theirs to do and die.” It was organized as a top-down hierarchy, following the pattern of the military. Everyone was assigned specific limited roles to play, including teachers, students, and parents.

Later, as assembly lines became the norm, industrialists sought a labor force who would do as they were told, and not raise too much ruckus. Schools became an assembly line, a pipeline, where children were fed in one end, and emerged, tightly controlled, compliant, ready to follow orders. Rejects were ejected, or subtly encouraged to self-deport. They were labeled “misfits.” But often, these “misfits” accomplish great things. Those who start powerful trends, who change our lives, are seldom the compliant ones.

“A man must consider what a rich realm he abdicates when he becomes a conformist.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is a famous story about young Carl Friedrich Gauss, who was ordered to add the numbers from 1 to 100 when he was only six years old. Moments later, he presented the answer: 5050. The teacher, instead of recognizing the child’s genius, was outraged; his answer did not fit the limited playbook from which the teacher was working. Gauss recognized that the hundred numbers could be easily rearranged into 50 pairs, each of which summed to 101. He quickly performed the simple multiplication. He went off-script, both in being able to discover that insight, and in being able to do multiplication in first grade.

These are the rich possibilities which are blocked off by pedantic teachers, textbooks and processes which force children to abdicate responsibility for their own learning, and guide them into a “safe,” predictable assembly-line.