Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Thomas Jefferson Education

Well, I've just finished reading A Thomas Jefferson Education, which is one of the many books out there describing a homeschooling theory.

I liked it. A lot.

The premise of the book as you might surmise is that Thomas Jefferson and other leaders of The Enlightenment Age were big old smarties and wonderful leaders and we should educate our children in the same manner (first, by taking them out of the "conveyor belt" education model--done!). The author, Oliver Van DeMille, advocates a combination of free play and interest-led-learning in the early years and an apprenticeship of sorts (and heavy on the "classics") with knowledgeable mentors in their later years (after about 12). The author strives to help parents recreate this education model in the homeschooling (and after-schooling) environment.

I joined a TJEd yahoo group several months ago when I first heard about the book. (The author of the book is very Christian, so my group takes a secular bent on the ideas.) I posted my introduction to the group this weekend after reading enough of the book to know that I would be interested in learning more from others who are implementing the ideas. Here's what I said, which may help to illustrate some of the finer points of TJEd and why I like it:
What I like about what I've read so far is that TJEd seems to combine two seemingly disparate educational philosophies: unschooling and classical [I should have said paideia, a "great books" education.] . I'm attracted to the unschooling world because I firmly believe that in order for a child to learn to be self-motivated and self-directed they need to practice making those kinds of decisions (for good or ill) in childhood. I also think it's pointless to try to force anybody else's mind to integrate a concept or learn a fact. True learning doesn't happen unless the person is ready and willing to stick those ideas into his own brain and make them stay there.

Yet, radical unschooling is not for me, because I do believe in a strong background of the basics: the three Rs, history, science, critical thinking skills. I want to raise kids who can spot the BS logic in a newspaper article and be able to articulate why. I think a fundamental understanding of statistics and economics would be nice, too! However, I've always envisioned myself guiding their studies--when they were old--rather than dictating them. Most of my real, true learning as a child was on my own, not in school. I used to pore over our encyclopedia set, bought my own poetry books, read Shakespeare, all outside of school. Oh how I wish I had been homeschooled!

I can't tell you what a relief it's been to read about the Core Phase and know that it often lasts until about 8 years old. My son would be heading into K this September, and our extended family, while mostly supportive of the homeschooling thing, are getting antsy about what we're "doing" with him next year. Honestly, I had planned to do more of what we've already been doing: reading books, going on errands and playgroups, having him help with our businesses and around the house, letting him go and build projects all over the living room, playing outside (he's digging a big hole). From what I can tell, these things fit in with the Core Phase. He's just not ready for schoolwork: he's bright and inquisitive and has come so far on his own, but actively and vigorously resists even the merest hint of a suggestion that it might be a good idea to, say, learn our phone number!

There are 3 basic learning phases: The Core Phase (ages 0-8), the Love of Learning Phase (ages 8-12) and the Scholar Phase (ages 12-16). The Core Phase is very Montessori-like, where children follow their learning interests and learn to participate in every day family life. This includes all the great Montessori insights such as not interrupting the child while they are working, providing them with appropriate workspace and tools, gentle guidance versus heavy-handed discipline. Obviously, that's where my kids are now.

Around 8 or so (as DeMille explains it), the time is ripe for the child to begin pretty much what amounts to the 3 R's, with coaching/guidance from the parent. The parent must refrain from being overly critical of mistakes, but encourage all aspects of learning. (I must admit to my doubts about this non-critical thing and its implications.)

The Scholar Phase is when the child delves into the classics--with the parent participating, too. Parent participation is critical (and I must say, a given in our case, as I'm a geek for this kind of stuff). That way the child and parent can discuss the ideas, with the parent acting as a mentor, rather than teacher. (The difference between mentor and teacher here is that a mentor provides guidance in a Socratic questioning/discussion kind of way, versus straight out lectures and tests.) DeMille suggests that this is the time for high standards of excellence in terms of scholarly work and that the parent give feedback on papers and such in one of two ways: "Great work!" or "This needs work--do it again." The Scholar will learn and come to have his own standards of excellence in this manner. Depending on the skills and readiness of the student, college-level classes are not out of the question in this phase.

Now that I've finished the book, there are a couple more things that struck me. I like that idea of treating teenagers as young adults with appropriate levels of responsibility. I have the book The Case Against Adolescence but haven't read it yet. The premise of that book, I believe, is that our culture has created this "teenager" idea and has kept kids otherwise able to function as adults in high school and job limbo, essentially extending childhood by several years (if not a decade) to the detriment of the child.

I also like the idea of redoing work until it's satisfactory. How many times have even I (Miss Goody-Two-Shoes-Easy-A's) just been content with a B? Work that's merely "good enough" but not excellent? There is much to learn by redoing work until it's really complete.

Naturally, the reading-intense program is appealing to an ex-English major like me. We are stepping up our family reading and I plan to venture into audiobooks in the fall. The kids see us reading all the time and want to know about it. I have a strong personal preference for introducing good literature to my kids and reading it myself.

There is an appropriate emphasis on hierarchy. DeMille recommends beginning the study of science from, well, the beginning, starting with the early inquiries of the Greeks and up through Newton to Einstein, etc. Same with math.

Another idea I agree with is the not pushing academics per se too early in childhood. I see that is impossible in my son's case (as I stated to the yahoo group). I'm perfectly content to wait until he is ready to read, math, etc. It might be easier for me to feel that contentment because he's doing so much on his own--he's got great pre-reading interests (letter sounds, word games), is interested in writing words (I spell them and he is practicing his letters in that manner), and he's figuring out a lot of basic math concepts without any intervention by me (addition, subtraction, grouping, higher levels of counting). I'm pretty confident he'll get there. The other one is only 2, but she seems to be doing just fine also--speaks in paragraphs, obsessively does puzzles and plays with water and other "two" kinds of activities.

I have much to absorb still as I work my way through the book again. It's really hard for me to project how my kids and parenting will be as they get older, so of course I will be reconsidering these ideas as circumstances warrant. Still to do on my homeschooling educational philosophy journey: Listen to the VanDamme lectures about education, read The Case Against Adolescence, read a few more TJEd books, discuss with the hubby-person (and kids, too!).

But I think that for now, we're on a good plan. :o)

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