Back to the Classics

To teach, to learn, to change

Archive for the month “December, 2012”

Why isolated learning can be better

The remote, asynchronous model of the Freeman Academy and many other online schools offers some social advantages, and a chance to break down some of the outdated ideas that have lingered in education.

People learn and develop at different paces, especially children. The idea of grouping children by ages, rather than by ability, is a relic of the industrial age, with its view of people as part of a huge machine and perfectly interchangeable. People have different abilities, different interests, different challenges. Grouping kids by age creates an expectation that they will all learn at the same rate and in the same way. A child that lags behind in something or gets ahead in something faces terrible social pressure for being different. For a teenager or an adult, admitting to not understanding something others consider basic (for example, having difficulty with reading comprehension or multiplication) can be overwhelming.

The Academy is perfectly positioned to avoid all that.

The way our classes will be set up, all learning is individual. A student will never have to repeat a class, because they take the class at their own speed. When he or she knows the subject and has demonstrated their competence at it, they will move on to the next step. No one knows how quickly they progress but the student (and their parent if it’s a child) and any tutor they may work with.

What other advantages can you see in working on your own like this?


So what do they get?

I’ve talked a lot about the process of the Freeman Academy: what will be taught, how the teaching will be done, who will do it. I’ve talked about the abstract goals: better prepared citizens, men and women who can appreciate the intellectual in life and still tend to the practical issues of the day to day. I haven’t talked about the concrete outputs, certifications and such that schools are expected to provide.

The names are uncertain, but these are the offerings I have in mind:

Certificate of Preparation
The student has fulfilled the minimum requirements of Jefferson’s public education objectives
Certificate of Completion
The student has completed a course of study that fulfills the highest requirements for high school graduation in the United States. This will change, obviously, as state requirements change, but a student completing this will always have completed at least the requirements for thier state.
Trivium Certificate
The student has completed advanced study of the subjects included in the classical Trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
Quadrivium Certificate
The student has completed advanced study of the subjects included in the adapted Quadrivium: mathematics, the physical sciences, music, and the visual arts.
Certificate of Liberal Artistry
The student has completed the requirements of both the Trivium and Quadrivium Certificates and passed some kind of final examination I’m thinking some kind of thesis).
Individual Subject Masteries
The student has completed advanced study of a particular subject. In my mind, this would be about the same knowledge level as an associates degree, but with a narrower focus (ie no general education requirements)

Some notes, as always. The Certificate of Completion could also be called the Diploma. The way it works is to take the toughest requirements ande combine them. For example if state A requires civics and geometry to graduate and state B requires trigonometry and fluency in a foreign language, the Certificate of Completion will require civics, trig, and completion of the Trivium in a language other than the student’s native tongue.

I’m not certain what level of knowledge to require for the various subjects in the quadrivium, because so many of them are open-ended. For math, do you require trigonometry? Calculus? This is another place where I need to consult with people who have more in-depth knowledge of the subjects, and look at the historical expectations on these things. This applies to the Subject Masteries as well. Because students can take classes from the Academy at their own pace, measurements of time (like “three years of English”) are pretty useless. It’s not about how much time you take, it’s about what you know and understand.

The Certificate of Liberal Artistry will be a challenging thing to obtain (I expect to work my butt off to earn it myself), and will be much more significant than a Diploma. That said, Anyone who has earned a Trivium Certificate and the Certificate of Preparation should be well prepared to go into business or a trade, or go on to study any specialty they’re interested in. Those two things should leave them ready to learn anything else they want to quickly and effectively, and make themselves useful in the world.

One other idea that I’ve been kicking around is letting people or organizations customize their own courses of study from the classes that we offer. This becomes even more useful when expand to include training as well as education. Oh, did I not mention we would do that eventually? 🙂 That’s part of my long-term planning; I’m trying to focus on the present as much as possible. Still, being able to create educational expectations could be useful to all kinds of organizations. I’m not sure whether this would be feasible to implement, but I love customization. We’ll have to see what the software we end up using can handle. For now, what do you all think of the options available?

What do you mean, classic?

I realized a few days ago that when I talk about ‘classics’ I really mean at least two different things. One is the ancient texts, mostly Greek and Roman, that form the earliest basis of the Western philosophy. That is what people are usually referring to when they talk about a “classical education”. But for the Freeman Academy, I have other books in mind as well: influential works of fiction and non-fiction that promote the ideas of freedom and individualism. That includes things like Frederic Bastiat’s tracts on economics, the American Declaration of Independence, Huckleberry Finn, and others. Those who teach in other languages will have to handle compiling similar collections in their respective spheres.

One of the things that I learned from The Great Conversation is the importance of the historical context of what we learn and do. When we understand the steps that led us to where we are, right and wrong, we appreciate what we have more. When a child sees how his father or mother worked to provide for them, rather than just seeing what they have, they will have more gratitude for what they’ve been given. In the same way, when we understand how men and women struggled for centuries to compile the knowledge we have now of human nature, of science, and the amazing developments we have in technology, we will better understand what we have and be better prepared to build on that foundation. We can go amazing places, but we need to understand how we got here.

Division of Labor

No, I’m not going to ramble on about Adam Smith, though he was the one who taught me the principle. I want to talk about one part of the implementation of the Freeman Academy: work loads. Breaking up responsibilities can help to control costs and make an operation more efficient. Since one of the main purposes of the Freeman Academy is to make this kind of education accessible for people, we have to keep things affordable.

We want to break things down based on the kind of work people will be doing. Aside from the administrative staff, there are three primary role that I see. Here’s how it breaks down so far:

These people will create the curricula and exercises, present lectures and activity instructions, and act as backstops for the tutors (see below). Each professor will be responsible for a certain subject or subjects in a certain presentation mode (young children, middle childhood, or teenage/adult teaching). A professor for the Freeman Academy does not need a traditional degree, though to start with most will probably have them. What they must have is solid knowledge of the subject they’ll teach and the ability to present information effectively in their mode.
Just what it says on the label: someone to check that answers are correct, and to check things like grammar, punctuation, etc. Basically, the TA. They must have solid language skills (preferably having finished the Trivium) and have passed the class for which they will grade with a certain score (I’m thinking 90%, but I’d love input on that from people with more experience).
One on one help when a student is struggling is available from a tutor for an hourly fee. Where the professor creates a curriculum and presents it to the world at large, the tutor can customize the presentation to the individual.

I struggled on that last one, I must tell you. I wanted to include the tutor’s services as part of the class, but it simply became too expensive when I ballparked the numbers. Also, I usually hate buying product ‘bundles’ where I must pay for things I don’t need to get the things I do. This is why I don’t have cable, for example. I only want about four channels, and I’m not willing to pay for the others to get them. The same applies here. The professors’ work should be sufficient for many or most students. Some will need more help, but many of those will have friends or family members who can take the tutor role. Why make them pay for what they don’t need?

Holy writ in secular teaching

One of the most influential books in the Western world has to be The Holy Bible. This is especially true in the English-speaking world. The great labors and sacrifices that lead to the translation and publication of the Bible in English are wonderful stories and important parts of history. But those pale next to the impact that the book itself has had on the legal, cultural, and literary worlds. I don’t think anyone can really understand the world we live in and how we got here unless they have some familiarity with the Bible, its teachings and history.

But how do you teach that without preaching?

The Freeman Academy will not be a religious establishment, not even en ecumenical one. I have nothing against religious schools; I spent a few semesters at one years ago and enjoyed it. But what I want to create is for everyone, which brings me back to the issue. How do you teach the Bible as literature and history? I know such classes exist, but they were not available at any of the colleges I attended. The book and its teachings need to be treated respectfully, thoroughly, and objectively; that seems like a difficult task in these polarized times. Do any of you have experience with this kind of approach? What other important books do you think might present similar challenges?

Trivium for young children

I had another epiphany about the same time as the one I mentioned yesterday. I was struggling with how to teach the trivium to that age bracket I was discussing, about 5 to 10 years old. Older children might be able to handle the subjects are separate things, but I could not for the life of me see a way to present them to young children. It was an odd block to have, because in the end, I already knew the answer. (Yes, that is a common problem for me. Tunnel vision sucks.) The fact is grammar, logic and rhetoric don’t exist in a bubble. They are part of a cultural and linguistic tradition. Heck, I’ve often explained to people when talking about this project that the Trivium is the language portion while the Quadrivium is the math/science part (music being very mathematical in nature when you study it).

So the answer was right there: you teach the Trivium by teaching language. Grammar is straight forward: teach them to read and write properly, to understand the symbols and sounds, using good literature. Once they can do that, start them writing and show them how Logic works as part of that. Find what interests them and get them reading about it, and help them analyze what they’ve read logically. One of my favorite writers of both fiction and blogging, Sarah Hoyt, mentioned recently how she had an old book on essay writing that she used with her boys when they were very little, and I think that’s fantastic. Most kids love to argue and debate things, or at least to question endlessly, so if you have a realtime arrangement (homeschool or private school) let them have discussions or debates and help them build logical arguments. Lastly, once they can think logically, continue using essays and debates to help them develop their Rhetoric, their ability to sway opinions or resist being swayed themselves. That’s a big one in our modern world. We are bombarded by rhetoric every day – commercial advertisements, politicians, people we do business with, neighbors and family members, you name it – and our children by and large don’t know how to judge what they’re hearing.

So in all this, we teach the linguistic skills by reading and writing. With critical feedback. A lot. Makes sense doesn’t it? Obvious isn’t it? Yeah. Hopefully the next epiphany will be a bigger leap.

This approach really applies through all age brackets, by the way, and across languages. Adults who are native speakers will need less grammar help, but the other portions still apply. Those who are non-native speakers (an American learning German, or a Brazilian learning English, for two not-really-random examples) will need to learn the fundamentals of the language first. Both will go through much the same process as a child, learning the trivium through language. Logic crosses languages, but how you express that logic changes, and rhetoric is a beast of a whole different type from one language to another. All this leaves me with a new challenge: I have to find language teachers who are well-versed in both their subject language and the classical trivium. They must understand both before they can create a useful curriculum to integrate them. I’m still wondering what languages we should offer as well. Sound off in the comments on what languages (besides English) you think would be of most worth to offer, as well as any suggestions on teaching logic and rhetoric to kids.

A great find to share

Just a quick note to pass along my good fortune to you. I was reading a good article at the City Journal yesterday about some of the troubles of modern education, particularly cultural issues. As part of this, the author mentioned the change in attitude toward classic literature – which is of course one of the primary tools we’ll use in the Freeman Academy. He says this about teaching literature to young children:

It might be argued that a richer and more subtle language would be beyond third-graders. Yet in his Third Eclectic Reader, William Holmes McGuffey, a nineteenth-century educator, had eight-year-olds reading Wordsworth and Whittier. His nine-year-olds read the prose of Addison, Dr. Johnson, and Hawthorne and the poetry of Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Southey, and Bryant. His ten-year-olds studied the prose of Sir Walter Scott, Dickens, Sterne, Hazlitt, and Macaulay and the poetry of Pope, Longfellow, Shakespeare, and Milton.

He goes on to explain how this was done, and why, which is very much worth reading. Like I mentioned when I started this, I am ignorant of a lot of what’s out there as far as education, and trying to improve my knowledge as best I can. So, curious, I went to Amazon to see if there might be an old copy of some of these books for a less-than-ridiculous price. I was in luck. The complete line of Eclectic Readers are available for free in Kindle format. I looked over the First Eclectic Reader, which had a few formatting issues that make some of the text difficult to decipher. There are printed versions available very inexpensively that would not have that problem, but I’m willing to put up with the formatting issues for a free book. I’ll be grabbing the rest and sharing them with my children. I hope you find them useful as well.

Whither the little children?

I’ve written this post at least three times now. Every time I do I figure out part of the problem I was trying to complain about and have to start over with this new perspective. It’s a blessing, and I’m glad I’ve been able to figure out some key things in the last few weeks, but it’s not my favorite approach to development. 🙂

The great hangup I have been facing lately in planning the Freeman Academy is how to handle very young children. A remote system, especially an asynchronous one, faces huge difficulties in handling children between five and ten or so. I’ve looked at what online offerings I could find; none of them are tailored for small children. The only exception I’ve seen is the K12 system, which at those age levels is a hybrid of online exercises and homeschooling with professional oversight. I didn’t like the idea at first, it seemed to go against what I was trying to accomplish: building a school to provide a quality education for those unable or unwilling to homeschool.

Teaching young children requires being able to keep their attention; in fact that seems to be the primary challenge. Doing that without someone there to remind them of what they are supposed to be doing can be a problem. There are a few ways, mostly by mixing education and entertainment. Educational television programs like Schoolhouse Rock or early Sesame Street (back when it was still good. You kids get off my lawn!) taught key concepts while keeping kids’ attention. It’s a fantastic approach for many things, and the Internet makes distribution a breeze, but it has at least one big drawback for the Academy. You can teach concepts that way, but you can’t drill things. A child could probably learn to read that way, but never to write. Addition and subtraction probably, but not their multiplication tables.

I puzzled for days and weeks over how to handle distance learning with small children. I didn’t want the parent to have to do the teaching, so it had to be one of the Academy’s teachers. Remote teaching (online) I felt we could handle, but what about making it asynchronous? That step is one of the keys to getting the costs for students and their families down to where they’re manageable. Real time teaching is much more expensive. How could I make sure the student was paying attention if the teacher wasn’t directly interacting with them?

Somewhere along the line, I made a realization. I was conflating two different things in my approach. I was confusing supervision with teaching. There must be an older person there to supervise the child and keep them on task, but that person does not have to be the teacher. A parent or sitter can keep an eye on the child, remind them of what they’re supposed to be doing, etc. without having to handle the actual teaching. Will that work for everyone? No, of course not. Many parents want the kids out of the house, accustomed to using public schools as daycare centers. Others just can’t be home, such as a working single parent or a two-income household. There are various circumstances that would keep parents from being able to supervise their school-aged child, but we have to accept that no one solution will work for everyone. I’ve kicked around the idea of setting up what amount to student-only internet cafes to help address this, but even if it could work they still couldn’t be everywhere. I’m shooting for ‘better’, if I get stuck on ‘perfect’ I’ll never get anywhere.

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