The Flashcard Backlash!

Hi Readers — Lovely article by Tara Parker-Pope in today’s New York Times about how we have been led astray by the flashcard mentality that says the more we DRILL our littlest students the SMARTER they become.

On the surface of it, the drilling idea makes sense: Why not efficiently shove info into our kids? Here’s the info, kids: Shove it!

But all the research (not to mention a million years of human development BEFORE flashcards) is suggesting that the way kids really learn is through PLAY. Even a game like Simon Says — or a variation that’s “Do the Opposite of What Simon Says” — can give a lot more developmental boost than another afternoon of  learning “F is for Foot.”

While the game may sound simple, it actually requires a high level of cognitive function for a preschooler, including focus and attention, working memory to remember rules, mental flexibility (to do the opposite) and self-control.

“We tend to equate learning with the content of learning, with what information children have, rather than the how of learning,” says Ellen Galinsky, a child-development researcher and author of “Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs.” “But focusing on the how of learning, on executive functions, gives you the skills to learn new information, which is why they tend to be so predictive of long-term success.”

You probably know that I dislike having to endorse a Free-Range approach because it is actually a “long-term success” incubator. But, hey, if you’re talking to parents who really believe LESS playtime means their kids will be MORE triumphant, it’s not bad to have a little ammo. – L.

Flashcards are fine…but not at the expense of play!

88 Responses

  1. I agree!

    A great book about this is “Einstein Never Used Flashcards.” The value of playing freely teaches kids SO many things. Two other great books on the benefits of play are “The Power of Play” As well as “Play: How it Shapes the Brain…”

    And “Your Brain on Childhood” is a fabulous all-parents-should-read-it book for the value of play AND how what we are doing with our kids is creating neural connections that maybe aren’t going to be the most helpful to have in this crazy, ever-changing world of ours. Play evolved naturally for a reason! We need it! (Adults too.) Play makes smart kids. Period.😉 Plus, it’s cheaper than flashcards.

  2. Well, not sure what he learned, but the only part of the day my son wants to talk about is playing. Yesterday I asked my 6 year old what he did at school today… “At recess we played Boy World and we played on the monkey bars!” So I asked him what he did after recess “At second recess….” So what did you do besides recess “At lunch after we ate we went out for lunch recess and …”

  3. Drill works for some things. When your child is genuinely ready to learn the multiplication tables, or the capitals of the fifty states, or something like that where there’s just a pile of data to learn for ease of future recall, drill may be the best way to learn it.

    It doesn’t make your kids “smarter,” or help with things they’ll encounter routinely in the course of life or in reading, like colors, shapes, phonics, etc. Free play (and in the case of reading, access to books and being read to) — actually encountering the things and learning how they fit into their world, works much better for that. It’s really a simple of matter of understanding that hammers are great for driving nails and really awful for fixing screws.

    And here goes the necessary caveat — there may be some neurologically atypical kids who need things drilled that other kids might pick up freely. But that is “atypical,” that’s why we call it that.

  4. Rote learning creates zombies.

  5. I really like Tara Parker-Pope, although the article doesn’t really address the headline very well. I think it’s directed at those Baby Can Read or whatever flashcard sets but it’s not very clear.

    The saddest thing is that we are pushing school curriculum to younger and younger ages, unnecessarily so. We are so concerned about “competing” that we aren’t even paying attention to the fact that these methods make it harder to compete. It shuts down struggling learners so only the very brightest (or most left brained) get to the top. And don’t get me started on how we reduce recess and phys ed in favor of more drill, kill, and test.

  6. I went to dinner and saw four adults in the booth and a baby (maybe 13 months) sitting in a high chair at the end. The adults may have been parents and in-laws – they all appeared to be related. STUCK IN FRONT OF THE BABY WAS A COMPUTER SCREEN WITH FLASHING LETTERS AND PICTURES. AS IN “B” FOLLOWED BY A BUS. Because the kid won’t learn language the same way that humans have always learned language, you know, by listening to adults talk. I wanted to cry. The kid would have been better with a mom who was smoking a crack pipe, I swear!

  7. Well, I think for some things that would be hard to discover through play — numbers, letters, shapes — flash cards or some kind of drill can be useful _as a component of the full learning experience_. How did we learn this stuff? I seem to remember that learning facts through drill was pretty standard and I don’t think it was any different for generations prior. How else would you learn those fundamentals?

    Why not use them to teach the basics and then build on them through play? Teach a child what a B or a 7 or the color red looks like then see how many instances they can find. I have been surprised at the range of kids who know the basics of letters and numbers and shapes vs those who don’t at kindergarten entry. Those kids often know how to play but not how to recognize and name elements of the world around them.

    The argument against any form of drill seems akin to arguing against learning the rules before you play a game. The rules make the game, don’t they?

  8. We need a “like” button for some of those comments! Thanks for sharing, Jimmer Olsen!

  9. Jimmer Olsen – Your son has 3 outdoor recess times?!?!!!! That is amazing (& wonderful). My 1st grader only has one for 20 minutes. Where does your son go to school?

  10. Oooh, that could have been me at the front of class!! That was “the” way to teach reading/writing in the Netherlands when I was a kid. I still remember most of the board, too🙂 The board was supplemented with story books featuring the same characters. I loved this class and was hooked on reading right from the start.

  11. For the record- it’s largely on parents who can get away with “drill and kill” style teaching. If teachers try it, even in some of the cases where it might be useful (as said before- simple addition facts, multiplication tables, state capitals, spelling bees) we get shot down by the parents who are doing it at home or by our “higher ups”. Totally not OK in the classroom anymore– especially now that the “helicopter state” is in our classrooms dictating curriculum. The reverse “Simon Says” game could easily be used in the elementary school classroom (I’ve seen it done for math facts!). You’d just have to have an accompanying lesson plan so that if someone stopped in to observe you you could prove that you were really teaching. For Example:

    Unit: Body Parts
    Grade:1
    Subject: Science (interdisciplinary with Phys Ed and Study Skills)

    10:15 AM to 10:30 AM

    Objective: Students will participate in a kinesthetic activity which encourages them to perform an action inverse to the directions given by the teacher, demonstrating an ability to think quickly and with flexibility while demonstrating comprehension of subject matter.

    SWBAT: Use quick and flexible thinking to perform actions inverse to the directions given by the teacher.

    Benchmarks: Students will perform actions inverse to the directions given by the teacher 80% of the time.

    Modifications: Teacher will use both verbal and physical cues assist students.

    Extensions: Teacher may integrate unfamiliar terms (calf, nostril) to challenge students averaging above 80% accuracy.

    Materials: None

    Warm Up Activity: Review with students parts of the body learned in previous lessons

    Steps:

    1. Review directions and expectations with students.
    2. Go over classroom rules and expectations with students.
    3. Have students stand up.
    4. Ask students to raise left hand.
    5. Assess how many students correctly raised right hand.
    6. Ask students to stand on right foot.
    7. Assess how many students correctly stood on left foot.
    8. Ask students to pick left nostril.
    9. Assess how many students correctly picked right nostril.
    10. Continue alternating between giving directions and assessing success.

    Wrap up: Ask students to fill out a self assessment sheet rating their performance of the task. Do they feel that they were able to perform an inverse action 80% of the time? Meet with each student individually to review their self assessment and provide feedback.

    Follow up: Have students recreate the exercise in a “pair share” activity.

    Exit Ticket: Give each student a slip with two pictures. Remind students that they are to circle the picture that show a person performing the OPPOSITE action of the one the teacher says. Ask students to circle the picture of the dog sleeping. Review Exit Tickets for accuracy (students should have circled the picture of the dog standing up, not laying down.)

    Homework: Have students recreate the exercise at home with a parent, grandparent, caregiver, guardian or sibling. Parents or caregivers must take a photograph of the activity being completed and post it to the class’s blog by 9 AM the following morning.

  12. Well, my kid IS atypical, and will require a lot of drill to build neurological pathways for some kinds of facts. His stepsister may or may not be atypical, but she still needed flashcards to memorize her math (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division) facts. There are times and places where flashcards are appropriate and even can be made part of a game. (Heck, there are plenty of websites that help adults memorize things by using a flashcard approach. Like sporcle.)
    As for the 13 month old, I just don’t get why giving a child who is waiting in a restaurant a electronic device — which they love anyway– with an alphabet game on it to pass the time is such a crime. My son learned to talk from listening to us and parroting the books we read to him– but he still loved playing flash games with animals for each letter of the alphabet.

  13. I don’t think you’re really talking about flashcards per se, but more going against the child’s natural learning and thinking style. It may be flashcards, tracing letters, reciting from memory, etc. Any of these can be either beneficial or problematic depending on the child and how they are used.

    This is an area where it’s really problematic to have a “one-size-fits-all” rule either for or against these two-dimensional learning materials.

    As much as I love FRK’s philosophy, one has to admit we sometimes love to point fingers at other people’s choices. I hate to give people an excuse to look down on others. I’d rather talk about guidelines for how each parent can decide whether and how much to use flashcards etc.

    I see no harm done if a parent takes a few minutes a day to drill stuff the child is developmentally ready to learn. In my eldest daughter’s case, this was extremely helpful to her because her visual memory is poor. Just one flash per day per word – a matter of a split second – helped her to stay on top of things at school. What is the problem? Now if I was doing it before she was ready to distinguish between the words (which, in her case, would be nearly age 5 thanks to her vision problems), that would have wasted time and created stress for no good reason. Looking at a word isn’t going to make a child ready to read.

    And if a child happens to be wired for early reading, like my youngest, flascards are superflous. Jut bring out the books. However, maybe they like playing flashcards, and if so, what’s the harm? I mean, we drill our kids on animal names and sounds etc., and nobody complains about that. Toddlers just love doing and saying the same thing over and over and over. So what if it happens to be a word versus a picture of a cow? As long as it is play to the child, no harm is done.

    The problem comes when one mom gets concerned seeing another person’s kid reading through a pile of flashcards. Instead of thinking “how nice, that child has a start on reading,” the usual reaction is “what a stupid parent” and/or “should I be concerned that my kid can’t do that?”

    So no, flashcards don’t make kids smarter, but they don’t make them dumber either. It’s the parents’ / teachers’ approach that sometimes gives them too much power.

  14. I think flashcards have their place, but they are overused and a crutch for many parents (note I said parents, not kids). I happen to think you can introduce letters and numbers without drill and kill. My son is observant. He sees words in his environment. He asks about the letters and what they say. Same thing with numbers. Today he saw a hop-scotch board on the floor at a children’s store and recognized them. Then he counted them backwards as we walked out the door.

    There are ways to introduce letters and numbers without flashcards. Same with addition, subtraction and multiplication. Parents need to use their imagination. Flashcards are great for review after the concept is understood. I sincerely doubt that 13 month old actually understand what “B” was supposed to represent in his world. What’s the point of memorizing something that has no meaning?

  15. German kids go to kindergarten (preschool) from ages 3 to 6. There is no real academic learning going on at all. The philosophy is that young kids learn best through play and interacting with others. There are no flashcards, but there is a lot of indoor and outdoor play. The teachers also read to the kids, but don’t expect the kids to know how to read at an early age. The only “academic” thing that my son did when he was in kindergarten was to learn to write his name.

    Kids in Germany start school at age 6 to 7 and are then developmentally ready to learn to read and do math. When my son was in elementary school, he used some flashcards for learning simple addition, subtraction, and multiplication. He used them for a short time and then didn’t need them anymore because he fully understood the concepts. Now that he is taking Latin, he uses flashcards for his vocabulary words.

    In Finland kids also have play-based kindergarten and start school at age 7. Even without academic activities and flashcards in kindergarten, Finnish elementary and high school students are among the top scorers on international tests of reading, math, and science. It just goes to show that pushing kids to achieve at an early age is not necessarily advantageous.

  16. Dad gave me the drill and kill treatment once for a few weeks leading up to an IQ test, of all things. By test day I was one distressed kid. Upon seeing the results my dad was incredibly remorseful. The psychologist was disturbed enough to blab, and my test became a subject of town gossip (though for a secondary issues). After a short time, I was given a different IQ test, by a different psychologist. There was no fanfare leading up to the second test. The discrepancy in scores was well outside the margin of error. I tested 20 points higher on the second test.

    My parents took great comfort in blaming the secondary issue. And, I guess, forgot the flashcard fiasco.

    In 4th grade I was failing all my math memorization tests. No solution was offered beyond drill, kill, and test. It was brutal. I remember timed tests at home every night, sometimes multiple time a night and then weekly in school. Everyone was frustrated because it “shouldn’t be happening.” Because I could memorize whole plays in an hour, and with my times table by my side and I could knock out long division, decimal math, and fraction multiplication. I even played with geometry and algebra. No one understood but eventually they gave up.

    After those fiascos went away, I would occasionally grab a pack of flashcards trying to figure out if it was the stress or the cards. I never learn what was on the cards. I simply couldn’t mentally attach one side of the card to the other. I would attach the backs to one another and the fronts to one another. Where I could answer it wasn’t because I could visualize the other side of the card, but because some random thing or group of memories stuck in my mind.

    Eventually I leaned about the odd and messy process my husband and a professor use to do head math. Once I had that permission to deviate from the script of how facts are learned, I actually started learning. By thinking of the clock and calender, seasons and work days, I have mastered more of the times tables than I ever got by flashcard or drilling.

    I respect that for some things, and with some people, flashcards are the right tool for the job. Or can jump start the real life connections. But some people need the connections before they can answer the card.

  17. Don’t get me started on this subject! I get all fired up!

  18. I am thinking back on my daughter’s vision therapy, which is most likely to be credited for her being able to read now. As others have noted, it’s nearly all play and all three-dimensional. Whether it’s following something with the eyes, hitting a ball as it comes close, poking a stick through a hole, hanging those crazy monkeys in a long chain, or connecting dots to eventually be able to write the letter “A.” Another aspect of it was targeted large-muscle exercises intended to help the child replace retained primitive reflexes with intentional actions. As a parent, I certainly provided opportunities for her to do these things, but I would not have known what to target and in what order. She was certainly wired “differently” before I took custody.

    The only thing the vision therapist did with 2-D symbols (that I recall) was to practice transitioning from near to far vision.

    I’ve learned that some of the most important aspects of reading readiness involve freedom and opportunity to play as an infant. Not seeing the letter people on a screen, but being able to push up one’s head from lying (gasp) on the tummy, spending lots of time trying to scoot over to the toybox, etc. I was told that my kid (as an infant) spent most of her time sitting in a stroller watching TV.

  19. What requires a lot of drill at the age of 5 can often be taught easily in the age of 7. I read that knowing how to read before going to school does not make much difference precisely for this reason. The slower kid will make it up much faster.

    The older kid is also able to understand relationships between numbers and therefore he does not have to remember the whole multiplication table. Just parts of it and then calculate the rest reasonably fast (I used to do it that way).

    But I would be suspicious of a school if 9 years old would only play in there and would never required to remember things or solve exercises. Things should be challenging once in a while I think.

    Drilling 5 years old makes no sense, but 16 years old should be able to learn from a book even if it is boring. He should be also able to remember a fact or two once in a while and be able to handle the stress of a grading or exam. That is possible only if things got less “play only” somewhere between those two ages.

  20. Havva, that is interesting. When I was in college, I was hired to tutor a 5th grade student. She had always been a good student, but she was failing math because they had been doing serial units on word problems.

    I would try to make a real-life connection with her and she’d just look at me like, “huh?” I recall trying to use the height of a doorway in an example and it was completely beyond her to conceptualize that said height was approximately 6 feet or 2 meters.

    We slowly broke everything down to the bare basics and she started to do really well. The family was so pumped, they kept me on even as the math class got back into what she was good at, e.g., 324/4 etc. I continued to break each concept down and use real-life examples, to the point where her dad seemed a bit irritated with me. But the student gained so much confidence, she was in seventh heaven.

    This is something to remember as my kids are beginning to do more symbolic math. I have a pile of books involving math-oriented stories and math “riddles” (encouraging different ways to look at numbers) which I have been reading with them, leaving the “operations” mostly up to the school for now. But, I do have flashcards that I might bring out for simple practice if needed.

  21. I guess it depends on how the flashcards are used. I don’t have kids yet, but a friend of my wife and I has a 3 year old. I remember going to their house and seeing these “flash cards” when the kid was an infant. I don’t know if any of you have read the “Teach Your Baby to Read” book, but his parents did and they did it with him. But they LITERALLY spent 3 MINUTES a day doing it. They would show him words at breakfast for 60 seconds, lunch for 60 seconds and dinner for 60 seconds. That’s it. And he loved it! The rest of the day he explored, played, they played with him, took him to the park and zoo, and had a very normal babyhood/toddlerhood. But let me tell you…..that kid was READING at 2 years old. I would actually bring books/newspaper clipping to the house I know he hadn’t seen before and he would read it to me. Amazing. Now this kid is set for life with regards to reading and he loves reading and comprehends the stuff he reads, as well. (Believe me, I’ve quizzed him, LOL.) So I think maybe it depends on the attitude approached with (his parents told me if he learned to read, great, and if not, it was only 3 minutes a day and he loved it, anyways.) But if kids are sat down and drilled for long periods of times and parents get frustrated over them not learning, then yeah – it can be overkill. I imagine there are some parents that do take it to the extreme, which is very sad.

  22. Regarding math facts – I never learned with flash cards. I had my own ways of very quickly computing whatever I had not naturally memorized. (I mean, everyone knows 1+1=3, right?🙂 ) I would break everything down in to 10 and go from there. SO 6+7 = 6+4, +3 = 10+3 = 13. I still do this at age 45. Even though my career is numbers-based, I have never suffered from not having “6+7” memoried by sight.

    If I had a kid who could not succeed in math without flascard drill, I would want to figure out where his logic was failing him and work on that. Even if it meant a 10-year-old stacking up legos and counting them. But on the other hand, if the flashcards were just to help the kid do his work faster, that might be a different story. I guess I’ll decide that later.

  23. Children will learn even if we don’t teach them.

  24. My daughter started second grade last week. The first reading test was this morning. She had to read and define these words:

    proficient
    underestimate
    challenge
    passion
    ignore
    style
    heed
    dangerous

    The state is changing the curriculum next year. They want higher expectations.

  25. I think it depends on the age of the kid. There is no academic advantage to learning to read or do math at an early age. If your child is naturally inclined to precociously learn these things, he won’t need flashcards and drills. However, if your child is at an age where these concepts should be learned and he is having difficulty, flashcards and drills may help.

    Flashcards were always helpful to me in learning those things that are really just a matter of memorization – spelling words, history dates, capitals, the elements, chemical formulas, etc. I even remember using them occasionally in law school when I had to memorize things.

    My daughter also went to summer school at a school that has an Asian-based math program and the math drills are amazing. She progressed farther in math in 5 weeks than her class will this entire regular school year. This is not flashcards but simply doing many, many math problems every day until it becomes totally second nature. It is very clear why Asian countries kick butt in math. She liked the drills so much that we do them for fun now.

  26. One of the parents of a student in my pre k class (2.5 to 3.5) just ask if her just turned 3 yr old could be moved up to the next class because he knows everything already since she drills him. He knows his colors and his shapes and the letters and the sounds and can count but he still pees in his pants and walks around my class screaming and hitting. He is nowhere socially ready to be with the older children but if that’s where she wants him then that’s where he is going to be.

  27. Best comment ever goes to Christi! That lesson plan is a thing of beauty, and proof that with a bit of creativity on the part of a teacher all our old “stand by” games and activities could still have a place in our classrooms.

    ————————————–

    Christi, on August 25, 2012 at 02:22 said:
    The reverse “Simon Says” game could easily be used in the elementary school classroom (I’ve seen it done for math facts!). You’d just have to have an accompanying lesson plan so that if someone stopped in to observe you you could prove that you were really teaching. For Example:

  28. I remember a coversation I had with my son’s 3rd grade teacher about studying and learning facts (math multiplication and division tables) for timed tests:
    Mom: I’m trying to get him to study, but after school, he just wants to climb trees.
    Teacher: Well, let him climb trees. He’s only 9. Kids his age SHOULD climb trees. I climbed trees when I was his age.
    Mom: But what if he does poorly on the timed tests?
    Teacher: He will do fine. After he’s tired out from climbing trees, he can review his times and division tables.

    She was one of my favorite teachers. When we realized he had perfect attendance for the year, we rewarded him with a “hooky” day. She suggested a great biking trail that she knew he would love and we had a blast biking.
    *The boy is actually quite good at math and it is his favorite subject. He also thinks timed tests are for morons.

  29. To Jenne: it isn’t just about learning language. It is about being human. Infants learn everything from social cues to emotional responses by being around adults. It is bad for the development of the brain to put a computer screen right in front of his face in place of a human face. It is tragic in so many ways.

  30. @Rachael

    The first year my kids went to school here they had 3 recesses every day. 15 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes after lunch and another 15 minutes in the afternoon. Last year they changed it to just morning and lunch recess to allow for “special” classes in the afternoon. We’re in a small town outside of Vancouver, WA and it’s a public school. They also have recess twice a week (the middle school has it daily but no recess).

    And kindergarten only goes 3 days a week. Two full days and all elementary kids have half days on Wednesday every week.

  31. That picture is from a Dutch ‘third grade’ classroom where the kids learn to read by the old ‘aap-noot-mies’ board system. I learned to read with that system, as did my parents and grandparents, and you know what? It was/is a highly succesful way of teaching kids to read!

    Think of it for a moment, if you will. What happened/happens is: a Dutch kid would go to kindergarten for two years between their fourth and sixth year, during which they would ‘play-learn’ such skills as ‘playing nicely with other kids’, singing songs such as the equivalents of ‘I’m a little teapot’, playing solitarily with finger paints, sandboxes and water tables and playing group games and.. well, a whole heap of playing which helps with a kid’s motor- and social skills.

    Then, when a kid is six, they went to the ‘big school’ (today it’s called ‘grade three’) in which they were introduced to simple maths using pictures of items and the alfabet, using a board with pictures under which the kids could form the names of those pictures with detachable letters.
    No kid had learned to read before that age and at the end of that first year, EVERY KID COULD READ!! Not because they were ‘mercilessly drilled with horrid flash-cards’ but because linking words to pictures, making words visible, WORKS and is FUN. Yes, we kids thought it FUN to learn to read. We thought it exciting to learn such a ‘grown up’ skill. It was fun to learn with the picture board and it’s accompaning and interlinking storybooks by wonderful Cornelis Jetses (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ts5QUPV5_b8) and it was highly succesful!!
    The old ‘aap-noot-mies’ board has been modernized, but the beloved old images are Dutch icons.

    You can imagine that I don’t appreciate it AT ALL that a photograph of that beloved and EFFECTIVE learning tool has been used here to illustrate the (apparent) overzealous American helicopter pilot parent that ‘drills’ their kids beyond their capacity and capability.

    But then, maybe the American ‘flashcard’ technique (whatever that may be) isn’t so bad either. I feel very leary of critique which seems to exist solely of “oh, let children run around and play and they will absorb all they need to know from sticks and stones”. Sure, play is important, but classroom learning, where you have to sit still, be self-disciplined and mindful of others and where you have to exercise other skills than running around and screaming are important too.

    Don’t throw away the baby with the bathwater. And please remove that photograph, or at least change it’s caption to ‘flash-card learning as it SHOULD be done: learing to read can be fun!’

  32. @Violet – Yes it is tragic if a computer is all the baby ever looks at while starved for human interaction. Sorry, but a baby spending 10 minutes pushing buttons on a game while you wait is not even in the same stratosphere as a tragedy. It is not necessary, but allowing it is not tragic by any stretch of the imagination.

  33. Memory is strongly attached to emotion. Play is fun. It can also over ride flashcards because they aren’t emotional.

    However, fun isn’t the only emotion that people learn by. Fear is also very strong. that’s why people can ‘learn’ that the world is too dangerous to allow children to play. It can also over ride facts because they aren’t emotional.

  34. @ Frank

    ……..That’s it. And he loved it!…….

    He learned a great deal from his flashcards BECAUSE HE LOVED IT

    My son learned how to read at a very young age because I made a game of it.

    I ‘tried’ to disallow him from reading. I’d read him a story. When he would read along I would quickly ‘hide’ the page so that only I could see it and he couldn’t.

    He loved the way he ‘got in trouble’ for reading. I would complain to him that it’s my job to read the story to him and he’s not allowing me to do that. He’s making me look bad.

    All this time he was laughing (sometimes hysterically)

  35. I’m on the fence about this. I agree that, especially for the under-5s, the focus of education should be play. However, here in Australia a more repetition-focussed style of learning has had significant benefits for children in our disadvantaged Aboriginal communities: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/features/getting-down-to-business/story-e6frg6z6-1226448722208

    I learnt to read and write in a “disadvantaged” school, and we learnt from what I think you would describe as a “flash card” method (lots of repetition, chanting of letters) but we also did a LOT of playing. In preschool, I recall no “formal” education at all — it was all games, storytime, outdoor time.

    So I’d say for some kids, more repetition-based learning can work for the literacy/numeracy skills, but at the same time, we can’t forget the benefits of playing.

  36. @SKL learning basic math facts the way you did is generally considered superior. It requires understanding. Learning this way teaches problem solving which is going to be important in later math. Drilled tables are much easier to forget. However, you are probably talented in math and it is quite possible that this method would be very difficult for some kids.

    I never used flashcards to learn things. I either tried to find or create connections between things to be remembered. If there was no inner structure, I created a sentence out of first letters, or a story involving all names in a row.

    But if flashcard works for somebody, then whatever. If the stuff is remembered in the end, the job was done.

  37. @Donna That is funny thing about those Asian math books. People tend to call them rote, but I think it is because they never really looked at them. Each exercise is a bit different than others and difficulty increase, so you are constantly challenged. They look the same only until you try to solve them.

    And you are actually solving those problems as opposed to being told how to do that. I would like my kids to be taught that way.

  38. About the Asian math. I too have looked at those textbooks and they are fine. They explain things and then provide practice problems. However, the way those textbooks are used, based on how testing is done, is not always ideal. Kids who are wired for math will do great using those textbooks as apparently intended, but kids who aren’t so wired will be expected to drill and memorize so they can produce enough correct answers on the tests. Because a lot rides on those tests, and they don’t allow for the fact that some kids just aren’t ever going to be mathy.

    Of course from a US educational perspective, I’d rather my kids understand 5th grade math really well than memorize 10th grade math but have no idea how to apply it in real life. But other cultures don’t view it the same way.

  39. About the screens and such used in public: let’s be careful not to assume that what we see in public is what goes on all day. I never used “screens,” but I know some people use them so their kid will not be noisy and disturb others in the restaurant. So maybe they have it on for 10-20 minutes before the food comes or whatever, once or twice a week. The rest of the time they may be little hyperactive learning machines for all we know.

    If the alternative is keeping the kid out of the restaurant (because who wants a screaming brat at the next table), I don’t see how that’s better. Going to a restaurant is also a learning experience.

  40. As a teacher, I’ve never done flashcards or drills as part of my teaching. We do practice (and sometimes work on memorizing) our math facts and spelling patterns but there are more effective ways. The problem with drills is that people may memorize these facts but they often don’t know WHY they got the answer or HOW to apply it in another situation or see that there is another way to get the same answer. People say, “Well, it worked when I was a kid!” but I counter with, “that one method of teaching has also left you so you can’t comprehend `new math’ or alternative methods to solving problems without wanting to pull your hair out!”

    My friends think that my children do well in school because their mother is a teacher. We do not spend time on formal lessons or practice reading at home. My son has not picked up a single book this summer or last (and it pains me because I am an avid reader!) but has been outdoors playing, building forts, running a lemonade stand, catching bugs, raising snails as pets and more. Last year I worried about `the summer slide’ with my son as his reading at the time was on the low side of the normal range for the first grade level. At the start of second grade, the teacher tested him again and he was now reading at a late grade three level! I thank my son for teaching me that you don’t necessarily need a book to help you learn to read. We tried at the start of the summer to have him read ONE book this summer but sadly, Charlotte’s Web, sits beside his bed, bookmark still on page 11. I’m sure he’ll get to it one day but for now I refuse to fight with him over reading or math or spelling. He is a quick learner so things seem to come naturally for him so why should I (or anyone else) destroy his love for learning and exploration by drilling him? Reading decoding isn’t the most important part of reading, it’s the comprehension and synthesis of knowledge that comes alone with reading a text. It took my son a little longer to figure out the decoding but his inferencing skills in kindergarten were far superior than my fourth graders at the time!

  41. @SKL If someone manage to memorize all that, then he has really exceptional memory. I do not really think that normal person could memorize so much, there are too many subtle differences between those exercises. But if he do, then he deserves special hard worker award.

    My impression is that people often just claim “I’m not math person” without even trying. Some people are truly incapable to learn math, but I think more just think that about themselves.

  42. I often lament that what the schools focus on most is what these future adults will likely need least. We should be encouraging creativity and discussion and problem solving, not repetition and memorization. My children struggle with rote memorization. Their grades aren’t straight A’s. But, I have no worries. Their ability to think independently and connect concepts proves they will be plenty successful in the adult world someday.

  43. Andy, you may be right, but I think that you’re more likely to think you aren’t mathy if you are not given the opportunity / encouragement to take the time you need to figure something out.

    I am a person who has to understand. I resist “memorizing” – not sure whether it’s because I’m not good at it, or because it seems counterproductive to learning. There have been many times when I’ve taken extra time to go over something again and again until it makes sense to me. As it turns out, I’m pretty good (but not great) at math and science. Who knows where the cause and effect is.

    I just don’t see the value of testing on how well someone memorizes things they don’t understand. Aren’t we supposed to be learning this stuff so we can use it as adults? Without understanding, the “knowledge” is going to look pretty on a shelf but not do much else.

    I recall hearing of a study that showed that while there is a big gap in test results between US and Japanese 18yos, there is no significant gap between US and Japanese 25yos.

    I also had lots of Asian friends who could recite stuff but couldn’t think past their nose.

    I guess different people have a different idea of what “learning” is. So naturally they are going to use different methods to achieve “learning.”

  44. Jenn, that’s great your son improved so much without ever reading, but surely we can’t come to the conclusion that this is at all typical. In fact it would be extremely rare. Otherwise reading would be automatic. Kids would spend all their time playing and just automatically know how to read – it just doesn’t work like this with most kids and study after study proves that the more you read to a kid and the more time kids spend with books, the better readers they are. Kids should spend a great deal of time in free play and running around outside. But there’s also nothing wrong with a bit of discipline and down time to enrich their minds and get them loving books. You have to think most kids are up 14 hours a day. Take 2 hours for meals and chores and that still gives the average kid 12 hours to play. I think we could knock 30 minutes or so out of that to take them on a book adventure. 😉 Reading aloud to kids is actually one of the best ways to encourage reading. I’m a third grade teacher and I always get an exciting book to read aloud to my class. I give them each their own copy and then I make sure to always stop at an exciting part. They all whine for me to keep going, but I tell them that it’s time for something else. I make sure to give them free reading time after that and without fail, every kid pulls out their copy and reads what happens next. I’m pretty well known for always having the class that moves the furthest ahead in reading skills each year. I did the same thing with my own kids when they were younger, conveniently leaving the book on their nightstand after I stopped at an exciting part. We also did big treasure hunts every so often where the clues were found within each chapter of the book. This was very popular in the classroom as well as my home. My wife also had a good trick she used. Everyday after lunch she initiated an hour of quiet time -even early elementary school age kids. The kids would go their rooms and rest for an hour doing something quietly. We felt it was good for them to learn how to be quietly be alone for an hour and enjoy some down time. There were no toys kept in their rooms. Only books. So naturally once they didn’t need naps they would spend their time with books. My kids were all avid readers very young and all love books to this day. There was no drilling or force used. But we also didn’t just sit back and hope. We found creative ways to motivate. Our house is just a place where books abound, we read aloud as a family every day – even to our teens – and we just love stories! Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that what you are doing is not working for your son. You know him best. I just know that for 99.9% of kids, it most likely would not work.

  45. With my slower reader, during KG, I spent maybe a few minutes each evening on skills/words but read nice books to her every day. When she took the “standardized tests,” her decoding skills were about average, but her reading comprehension score was 93rd %ile. Since good comprehension skills tend to pull other reading skills along, I considered that an excellent outcome. Her other area of strenght was sight words – and yes, flash cards had something to do with that. Granted, she still seems behind on “sounding words out,” but I’m not worried about it. She is able to muddle through an easy book, and that is motivating enough to keep her going.

  46. David- Actually for a typical classroom one third of the class, is learning to read with minimal teacher assistance. Another third, needs supportive help and the final third requires direct assistance most of the time. Those kids who struggle to read are the kids that take most of the teacher’s time and energy while the kids who find learning comes naturally, they often teach themselves, with the odd bit of feedback here and there that reinforces what they are doing or gives them a more enriching strategy to master. In a typical classroom of 25 students, in a six hour teaching day, a child is lucky to get ten minutes of their teacher’s time! Most children ARE learning to read with little help from their teacher. That being said, I also teach third grade at a `needy’ school (which is far from that typical classroom) and my literacy scores have gone from the lowest in our school board to being in the mid-range after three years. My strategies are very effective and helps gets the highest risk students discover reading in a way that isn’t being forced upon them.

    I’ve been researching boys reading and I’ve come across dozens of studies where boys are learning how to read by playing with Lego. It’s a non-traditional approach but what the research says is that playing with Lego taps into that part of the brain that helps with reading. If we can continue to stimulate this part of the brain, the boys are exercising the part that will help them later when they need to read. It’s time to think of other ways to get our reluctant readers to develop stronger literacy skills and for some children, like my son, picking up a book is just not interesting to them, despite everything we do for them.

    We have books in every room in my home. I have walls covered in book shelves and rooms filled with books. My son sees my husband, myself and his younger sister reading all the time. We’ve tried reading to him and until he started reading himself, he somewhat enjoyed it but now can’t stand being read to. I also hate being read to and need to have a copy of the text when being read to. We have that bookworm gene and perhaps it missed him. Forcing him to read is not the answer. Forcing any child to read is not going to turn them into readers or a lover of books. Taking a different approach is what many children need and sometimes we have to take books out of the equation.

  47. Nice article. “Simon Says” is a particularly effective game for young kids — my children started taking martial arts when they were quite young (4 and 7), and their instructors had them play it at almost every lesson. It taught the kids to pay attention both to what the instructors were doing AND what they were saying — and they loved it!

    Repetition is also important for learning specific skills and facts. But repetition alone, especially forced, directed repetition, doesn’t lay the foundation for learning particularly well — and it’s really not useful with children who are too young, wiggly, or unmotivated to participate actively.

  48. Apparently you misunderstood me. If you reread my post I said nothing about forcing a kid to read. All of the strategies i listed are creative ways of motivation that still leaves the choice up to the child. I never said some kids don’t need direct teaching. But they do learn from group instruction. I assume you are doing some group instruction/games as a class. Many bright kids pick it up from that and especially if they are read to all the time starting from day one at home and have supportive parents that’s all they need. Others will need extra one on one. But for those reluctant readers some of the strategies I mentioned really get them reading and loving it. The principal actually takes all the struggling readers from the year before and puts them into my class because I have had so much success in getting ALL of them to read and love it. I’m not trying to brag. Just saying that I do know a little bit of what I’m talking about. 😉 Your son may be atypical, but I have yet to meet a kid who was told time for bed, lights out……Unless you’d like for me to read you bit more of (insert name of book that has a topic that interests kid). Maybe your son would rather just go to sleep. Now if it’s during the day and it’s a choice between listening to a book and riding his bike, I could see where he wouldn’t want to be read to. You also might consider giving him his own copy of the book you are reading so he can follow along. It sounds like he may have weak auditory skills (as you mentioned you yourself can’t stand listening to a story but would rather have the text in front of you – I suspect you are highly visual and your son may be as well.) I’m sure you are an AWESOME teacher. But surely you aren’t suggesting we shouldn’t use methods of motivation to make reading exciting for the kids. We shouldn’t just sit back, give them legos, and hope they get it. There has to be other ways to motivate that actually involves READING. No forcing. Just fun and adventure. 😉

  49. I was never asked to read outside of school, but I read without really thinking about it. The backs of cereal boxes, product labels, menus, and whatever else was colorful and different. My youngest is the same way. I used to ask her to read to me most days, but now it’s the exception rather than the rule. I agree with the person who said that kids who are wired for reading will improve without intervention, because we live in an environment where you can’t escape the written word. These are also the kids who will come and ask for help if they do encounter difficulty.

    My other kid needs me to read with her pretty much daily or she’ll forget some of her skills.

    Like I said before, this is an area where we have to avoid any “it worked for me, it should work for you” (or the opposite) kind of attitudes. Reading is so complex and it draws on so many different aspects of who we are. It’s actually pretty amazing that most humans do learn to read.

  50. PS, I’d love to learn more about the Legos.

  51. SKL- Interesting you mention that you would read cereal boxes and product labels. 90% of what we read in an average day is non-fiction so most educators use non-traditional texts to teach reading strategies. It’s a great way to get those kids who aren’t into reading, seeing that they can do it and that there is a purpose to reading. I’ve had students reading Happy Meal bags, PVR guides, video game screens, iTunes app reviews, Webkinz profiles, anything that they are interested in that they are reading but not realizing that they are reading. You’re right that you need to avoid attitudes of that it worked for me. We live in a different world and we have different skills that are needed for future careers, some that don’t even exist today!

    The Lego building works on skills like inferencing (the manuals have pictures only so you need to `read’ the picture in order to determine what you need to do), problem solving, making connections (I did this last time and this is similar so I’ll try it out), creativity, critical thinking, and more. I started a Lego club at my school over lunch time and it’s one of the most popular activities because it’s hands-on and student directed. It’s the easiest extra-curricular to run as all you need to do is make an announcement and the kids will come! I just let the kids in and make them responsible for the clean up before the bell rings.

    David- I’ve tried almost all of those strategies you suggested with my son and he’s just not a reader right now. I know with him (and many kids) that when you force it, it’s not going to happen. Because everyone in our family are avid readers, I’m hoping that one day it will rub off on him and that the role models around him lead him to recognize on his own that reading can be fun. I think if teachers and parents try different approaches than the drill/practice, they would have a lot more success with these kids who hate reading. The drill/practice is what takes the fun out of reading (and learning) so you lose many kids.

    I know many people have brought up the Asian math texts and I think one reason why this style of math works is not necessarily the practicing of the skills. Most Asian languages have a similar system to explaining numbers. They use the numbers one to ten and then are repeated in different order to refer to the place value. For example, 27 is two-ten-seven and 12 is ten-two. Because of the language used to understand numbers, children at two, when learning to count are also learning place value, addition and multiplication! (83 is eight-ten-three or 8×10+3) This does give an early advantage to understanding how numbers relate to one another so when it’s time to teach addition and multiplication, it is already engrained, not drilled!

  52. Is this an American thing? I’d not heard of flashcards being used to try to program toddlers. It sounds weird – and probably another one of the factors that adds to the Culture of Fear, which has a surprising amount of economic sources. Margaret K. Nelson, in her book ‘Parenting Out of Control’, discusses data that suggests that a good amount of the ‘helicoptering’ and nervous, controlling behaviour that parents these days are exhibiting is status-based. Economically speaking, there is no guarantee that the next generation is going to match or exceed their parents’ socio-economic status, and that makes parents nervous for their kids’ futures, to the point where they seem to think that what ivy-league kindergarten their kids attend matters.

    This, too, seems to be exaggerated in American culture, though (perhaps because of American influence on English-speaking cultures worldwide), you find it elsewhere as well. We seem to have less of it here, thank God. This seems to me like an unhealthy intrusion of the language of capitalism into realms where it has no business being; namely, the interpersonal relationships of humans and their children. This kind of status-driven nonsense just seems so profoundly neurotic from out here on the periphery of the culture of fear.

    I’ve really been struggling to understand where this all comes from, lately. Lenore’s book and this blog have been an enormous help, and for my own understanding, I tried making a flowchart to look at why my generation is caught so profoundly and so needlessly in fear. I was kind of shocked at how many of the ‘tendrils’ of fear have their root in the rise of corporate capitalism as we experience it today. It’s messy and incomplete, but for anyone who’s interested in looking, here it is:

    http://natureofnurturing.wordpress.com/2012/08/10/speculations-on-the-culture-of-fear/

  53. While I don’t automatically disbelieve this research, I am inclined to suspect that the value of “play” is prone to being overrated after the early years. I suspect this because it has been my observation that one of the great mistakes of the “Progressive” educators has been to emphasize fun at the expense of sound structure. The progressives have always asserted that learning should be fun. I am deeply suspicious of this; HAVING an education is a lot of fun; it greatly expands you abilities. Getting the basics of an education involves an awful lot of, frankly, dull detail.

  54. P.S. On the subject of flashcards — when I teach Latin to teenagers, I often suggest they study by using flashcards….if it helps them, and if their learning styles work that way. I don’t force it on them, but I suggest it to those who could benefit from it. If they don’t want to use them, so what? They’ll find their own way to learn.

    I also don’t understand the push to force literacy on very young children. You can take a motivated, totally illiterate person, and teach them to be functionally literate in about a hundred hours or so. Just wait until people want to learn what you have to teach, and I think you’ll find that you’ll have fewer problems trying to force them.

  55. @SKL – There is no possible way to memorize a 10th grade math class to pass a test unless you have the test. I’m not sure what “10th grade math” even is. Trig, alegebra, geometry? To memorize every formula with every variation and every different number that could possibly be plugged in would be Rainman-like. There has to be some level of comprehension.

    The fact that a study showed that Japan and US level off in math AFTER college and grad school tells me nothing. Who was studied? Mathmeticians or the general population? What level of math was reached? Does it take 7 years for US students to catch up to what the Japanese learned in high school? Or do the Japanese quickly forget everything they learned?

    I do know that, at my local major state university, the math, science and engineering (and any other subject that requires high level math skills) grad students, doctoral students, post-doc students and professors are largely Asian. Have been since I was a student there in the late 80s and are still now. And this is a very common complaint from college campuses across the US. Does the early achievement in math lead to more Asians being interested in math, science and engineering careers? Or are the US students being pushed out by the earlier achieving Japanese students who are capable of doing US grad school level work at 18? Because these are the jobs going unfilled while the largest percentage of college graduates in history are unemployed.

  56. Desire to read for pleasure is somewhat governed by where you fall on the introversion/extroversion line. Reading is a solitary activity. Extroverts, who need to be around people and activity to be happy, don’t often sit down and read for pleasure. If they do, it tends to be the latest 50 Shades of Grey so they can know what everyone is talking about or as part of a book club or social activity. Sitting alone for hours reading is simply not that pleasurable to them. Introverts, who need alone-time to be energized, tend to find reading enjoyable. I’ve seen nothing to say that introverts have a higher reading ability than extroverts so mere hours spent reading can’t have that much of an impact on ability.

    I saw an interesting study a few years ago that showed that reading to children had no effect on overall reading achievment. One of the biggest indicators of reading success was books simply being present in the home. Kids who were taken to the library and read to regularly but had few books in the home showed lower achievement than kids who grew up in a house full of books regardless of actual time spent reading.

    The other big indicator was parental reading. Parents who read regularly themselves produce better readers regardless of amount of time spent reading to the child. Maybe that explains the book thing since parents who like to read have more books?

  57. I definitely don’t think there is a one size fits all approach for reading. I’m just saying that I’ve yet to meet a kid that I haven’t been able to figure out a way to motivate to want to read all on their own. I’ve had years where 90% of my students were struggling readers and below grade level and most of them had no interest whatsoever in reading. I make home visits at the beginning of the year to each of their homes and get to know them and their families. I find out what they are interested in and what motivates them. Then I’m able to use that information to teach and motivate them to read. I’ve never had a kid yet who didn’t leave my class reading at least on grade level (often above) and enjoying it! I have countless parents thanking me so much for helping their child read and I tell them all the same thing. I didn’t do a thing, really. All I did was find ways to motivate them to WANT to read and after that it’s easy to teach them. (Yes, even dyslexic kids – which I obviously have to use different methods to help them learn but they can do it. I’m a “recovered” dyslexic, as I like to call myself. I was lucky to have a teacher who cared enough to motivate me and use the proper methods so I was able to soar.) I also don’t argue that legos are a great toy for building the brain. (A lot of different building sets are awesome for that.) I wouldn’t go as far as to say being a lego lover will make you a great reader in and of itself. Maybe for some kids, but I’ve had many lego lovers in my class over the years that struggled with reading (and they shouldn’t be if that theory really pans out), but I have been able to use that obsession to my advantage when motivating them and making reading and writing enjoyable. It’s funny because I remember one year I was talking to a parent about what motivates their child and they said he was obsessed with legos. After talking a bit more they said they were planning on getting him this humongous lego set for his birthday. We talked about it and I suggested a little experiment. I suggested that maybe instead of giving it to him for a gift they pull it out now and show it to him. Then tell him that for every sentence he reads he’ll get one piece. They agreed and after something like 1300 sentences read he had the whole set and was thrilled. And he improved his reading dramatically to the point his parents told me he started reading for fun after that. The problem is getting kids to the point that reading isn’t such work for them. Then they soak it up. Sometimes that just takes practice and sometimes they need that immediate gratification (like a new lego piece) to help keep them motivated toward the real goal – that reading in and of itself is the reward. Do I expect kids to be little bookworms when they leave my class? No. I do have a goal that each kid will be able to pick up a grade level appropriate book (or higher) and enjoy a good story by the end of the year. And I do have a goal that each kid will be able to function in society by knowing how to read basic things around them. Like if mom tears off a portion of her list at the grocery store and gives it to her 8 or 9 year old and lets them find the things on that list with their own cart. Great independence builder and great way to sneak in some fun reading practice. (I’ve had to do some talking to convince a few parents this was alright, LOL. And sometimes we have to compromise like only give Tommy the produce section and then you can watch from aisle 9 as he gets the items. Baby steps, LOL. 🙂

  58. Donna, first, I was using 10th grade math as an example. 10th is the final grade in many Asian schools (junior college comes after that) and they study pretty much the same stuff our kids study, but it’s a little of this and a little of that. They don’t delineate it into precalculus etc. like we do.

    As for memorizing for a math test, you might be surprised how tests are written in some countries. They copy stuff out of the book and if you’ve memorized the book, you’ll pass the test. If you’ve memorized half the book, you’ll still pass the test but you might not reach “distinction.” It really seems meaningless compared to the tests I grew up with.

    If you’ve spent your entire school career memorizing, you’ll find it easier than someone who hasn’t ever had to memorize much. That’s a skill like any other.

    As for the Japanese/US 18/25 example, I’m pretty sure they were testing the general population, most of which is not in grad school. So they’re saying that after 7 years out of high school, the stuff people remember is pretty much the same whether they have learned calculus at 16 or not. You remember what you use, and how many in the general population use derivatives and integrals? I was actually really good at calculus when I was taking it, but I’m darned if I could do anything with it now (at least, not without some time to review). Not to say it was a waste of my time to take the class – it was cool to stretch my mind in different ways, and maybe it spilled over into other areas – but I know of no quantifiable benefit just from having the class on my transcript. (Obviously if I were going into a field that used it, that would be a different story.)

  59. As for encouraging reluctant readers to read. My kid sister was an early reader and I used to really encourage her. I had been such a lover of books, I wanted her to enjoy them too. I wouldn’t say I “forced” reading but it was kind of like bathtime – not presented as optional. She enjoyed “story time” (where we’d take turns reading aloud) but really didn’t develop a desire to read independently, much to my chagrin. To add insult to injury, when she did become “a reader,” she chose romances and other junk – stuff I couldn’t force myself to read because it seems like such a criminal waste of time. They say “oh well, at least she’s reading,” but I wasn’t feeling it, LOL. Maybe I should have encouraged a different hobby. 😛

    Not saying that is what will happen to everyone who pushes reading, of course.

  60. Oh, Jenn, since you seem to be interested in alternative methods for building the brain for reading, have you heard of having kids creep on their hands and knees? It’s the cross pattern movement that is supposed to stimulate the area of the brain that is responsible for reading. I have a track built around the edge of my classroom with foam mats and we crawl around it daily. I don’t know for sure how much progress it gives, (although I did see faster improvements the year I started doing it versus the year before – but then again it was different kids), but it’s good exercise and it certainly can’t hurt. 😉

  61. Crawling is another thing my daughter’s therapist looks at. She doesn’t like the way my 5yo kid crawls (among other things), and has assigned some rather strange exercises to remedy this. It’s really quite interesting, though confusing to a person who isn’t used to thinking along these lines.

    This is the kid who was skipping before age 3, riding her bike and tying her shoes at 4, etc. Certainly not a gimp in the usual sense of the word. But awkward in some ways, yes.

  62. Here in Virginia (USA), the kids are expected to know all of their letters and letter sounds on the way INTO kindergarten. They are expected to be reading at the end of kindergarten. Crazy! It teaches the kids that school is lots of drilling and pretty boring.

  63. David- I’ve heard a lot about how crawling stimulating the brain. Personally I find it fascinating because I never crawled as a baby and still get my left and right mixed up, (getting directions when driving is a challenge!) letter reversals as a kid and later found out I was dyslexic. I definitely see the correlation between crawling and reading and have my students all kind of crazy body-kinesthetic learning. My favourite (which my principal hated) was light saber spelling- the kids took their personal word study lists (got my word study program off Beth Newingham, Scholastic blogger) and `drew’ their letters with a mini light saber or had a light saber battle with a partner where they shouted out each letter with each saber strike. I try to find engaging ways to get my kids to practice their skills but no drills allowed!

  64. It’s exactly what I hate the most about public schools. There are supposed to be there to help the most children to have equal chances in life (I know that’s not why they were created) But what they do is glorifying good learners who would have no problems learning how to become responsible adult without schools and undermining poor learners. Poor learners who are required to learn stuff they are not developmentally ready for are not striving in schools settings because they are continually told that they are stupid or lazy and generally worst than their good learners friends. If a child is not ready lo learn to read or do maths by 6, chances are he will struggle all year, will come to hate school and will probably be asked to redo his first year. It’s not helping them! Why is that that it’s the government that decides when ALL the children should be ready to learn something? Some children learn to walk at 9 months, some do at 19 months, 10 months is an eternity when you are that age! Why is it different when it comes to read or learn any other stuff?

    Interesting read about arithmetic: http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/sanjoy/benezet/1.html#description

  65. SKL – I don’t disagree with what you use you remember, and if it isn’t pertinent to you, you don’t remember it. So it is not remotely surprising that someone who has no interest in math doesn’t remember the calculus they learned in 10th grade 9 years later. Who cares? Why is it remotely relevant to anything that a kindergarten teacher, lawyer or plumber doesn’t remember how to do calculus?

    The question is the competitiveness of people who are INTERESTED in math, science, engineering and other careers that require a high level of math ability. I couldn’t possibly care less if Joe Public remembers the calculus they learned in high school many years later. I do care that it appears that Japanese students who are INTERESTED in math, science and engineering have a clear advantage over US students, dating back to well before high school graduation. That US students who WANT to study math, science and engineering in college can’t compete with the Japanese students at high school graduation and start college already years behind them.

  66. Donna, I think the problem is that we limit kids to a boxed curriculum AND the curriculum isn’t very challenging. Kids who are really interested in math should study it. My brother was very mathy, and he used to read old college textbooks (while neglecting to do his high school homework). If I had a mathy kid, I’d drag out my college texts (still have them in the basement!) and leave them around where she’d find them. I sure wouldn’t count on the public high school to rise to her level of potential.

    But there are always going to be more kids who don’t need to know advanced math, so it’s not necessary for *every* student to master trig and calculus. And forcing kids through that kind of program when they don’t have the aptitude is a waste of their time and talent, not to mention rather mean in my opinion. I’d rather they focused on practical stuff, such as budgeting for life expenses including taxes, insurance, mortgages and retirement savings. (Or if that’s too ambitious, perhaps we could make sure kids are able to count change should they aspire to be retail cashiers.)

  67. I agree to a certain extent. I do think that US schools are way too limited and regimented. We need to make more use of tech schools and less focus on everyone being college bound. We also need to go back to grouping students based on ability. However, I worry about allowing kids to limit themselves at too young an age.

    I probably haven’t used a lick of math I learned beyond 5th grade since college. I don’t need to. I would never have voluntarily taken an advanced math class if given the choice to opt out. I did well in math; I just didn’t enjoy it and wouldn’t have sought it out. However, at late high school/early college age, I seriously considered becoming a veterinarian. Obviously, I ultimately did not go that route in life but math had nothing to do with that decision. I’m glad that I could make that decision when appropriate instead of having it made for me years earlier by being able to opt out of advanced math at my own whim at a time when being a vet wasn’t even on my radar.

    So, while it is not necessary for every student to master trig or calculus in high school, most high school students don’t have a great idea of what they want to do and what they really need to get there. Forcing kids who don’t have the aptitude is definitely not good. Allowing kids to opt out willy nilly because it doesn’t interest them is not a good idea either.

    And EVERYONE should have to take that practical skills math class you mention. I know several people who can do calculus but not balance their own checkbook.

  68. On a different issue that may nevertheless be of interest, the September 2012 issue of Boys’ Life magazine (from the Boy Scouts of America) includes directions for building a “Pipe Lamp” homemade desk lamp. The base of the lamp involves steel metal tubing and pipe fittings, and a power cord is passed through a hole in a metal tee, up through a metal tube and is attached to a 120-volt light socket which may be enclosed in a shade. (One option that is mentioned is using a tin can as a shade.) To be sure, the article has a prominent caution that “Electrical wiring is for experts only” and that adult assistance should be involved to correctly wire the lamp. (The other directive to seek adult assistance for tools that the builder hasn’t used before is probably fair enough.) The capabilities of persons certainly vary, and a certain amount of caution is of importance when dealing with electrically-operated devices. At the same time, the article could easily have been far more restrictive (i.e. specifying a very low voltage light socket and bulb.) In one sense, the publishing of the article may have an aspect of positive bravery.

  69. Donna, for the record, I only went through Algebra II in high school. I graduated at 16 and my aspiration was to be a special ed teacher. I registered for the college math in that track, bought and looked over the textbook. I was horrified. I was sure to flunk because I can’t attend to stuff that is so far below me. I spoke to the advisor, and I ended up signed up for trig, precalc, and calculus. The trig/precalc teacher was an a-hole so I didn’t do great in his class (I’m rebellious that way). But the Calculus was great. My calc teacher was horrified to learn that I wasn’t pursuing a math-heavy career.

    In short, if you have the aptitude, you don’t actually have to take the class at a certain time in order to learn the material. As long as your brain is getting some kind of exercise, you can catch up later in math. The nice thing about the US system is that you aren’t closed out of opportunities at a certain age. Many members of my family have pursued college degrees after age 40.

  70. Donna- you may not have used the math you learned after grade 6 but the math you learned throughout your education trains your brain to think a different way. I know that I can recall a couple of the texts I read in high school English and have forgotten most of them but every day I use the strategies taught, from presenting an opinion, formulating an idea, reading a text for meaning and more. I also took math throughout high school and know that I don’t USE the formulas taught but it opened my mind to understanding other ideas that most who did not continue with their education struggle with. Mortgages, Loans, Interest, Medication Dosages, Quantity of Paint, Discount Percentages are just a few of `higher’ grades math that you may be using and not realize!

  71. As a former public school teacher, I have plenty of issues with the way modern education is exasperating our children (particularly our boys), and stifling maturity and out-of-the-box thinking, but based on my experience, I would have to disagree that play-learning is an effective teaching tool. It’s a great reinforcement and mastery tool, but it’s not good for teaching fundamentals (unless we’re talking about preschool, of course).

    I left teaching specifically because so many schools have turned from institutions of learning into entertainment mills due to this belief that play-learning is ideal for kids. You know what I saw in most of the classrooms in public schools throughout my city? Kids playing “learning” games all day and bombing skills tests at year’s end. If students engage in learning games daily (and many schools do this) and they are not growing educationally, then what’s the point?

    In addition, requiring everything to be “fun” or have an element of “play” in it tends to teach kids that things that are not particularly entertaining are not worthwhile. Adults who always seek the next big thrill and who avoid difficult challenges are not generally successful and well-respected. Teaching our kids entertainment uber alles is not a good path for growing healthy adults.

  72. SKL – There is a difference between aptitude and prerequisite knowledge. My mother dated a math professor when I was in second grade. He decided to try to teach me calculus. I did very well but he was walking me through it and teaching me the other skills I needed – like multiplication and division – along the way. Clearly I had an aptitude for calculus but I had no where near the knowledge needed to pass a college calculus class at 8.

    That is the problem with choosing to skip earlier math classes and jumping right into calculus in college. The professor is going to expect you to know how to multiply and divide and is not going to wait for you to learn those elementary concepts. A few trig references you don’t know can be overcome with a little effort, an entire school career of math is a little more difficult without going back and gaining that knowledge.

    And I think colleges have a right to demand a certain amount of knowledge be obtained before you darken their doors. They can’t teach you everything, even if you are bright enough to learn it quickly. Professors design their classes expecting that you already know certain necessary background information and that they can gloss over that to get to the meat of that particular class. Kids who don’t have that knowledge have to play catch-up regardless of how smart they are.

    Setting up a system where kids can opt out of math – or anything else colleges expect you to know – and then struggle to gain the knowledge that they should have learned in high school in order to pass college classes that they now realize that they need doesn’t seem like a good structure for success.

  73. @SKL I think that whether math test measures memorization or understanding depends on how it is written. If there are few predictable exercises types and you need to be fast to solve them, then it is about memorization. If the exercises are taken from huge pool of various exercises some of them difficult, then it is not possible to memorize that. You have to understand otherwise you do not pass.

    By huge and various I mean that a kid never seen that particular exercise type before, but has enough time to work it out. (I know some consider it unfair, I disagree. That is the only test that checks whether you really know math. Anyway, kids themselves does not have much stakes in those race to the top tests.)

    Math is difficult precisely because it is not possible to memorize it. If the people think that math is easy to memorize, then they have seen only some weird subset of it.

    As for being slower, I can understand that. I used to avoid learning in groups precisely for that reason, someone would tell me answer before I had a chance to work it out by myself. I sometimes needed bit more time too and only way to get it was not to have overly helpful advisers around🙂.

  74. @SKL & Donna: One more point: If you learn something and then forget, it is much easier to re-learn it as if you would never new it in the first place. You will not pass test if it is given to you unexpectedly, but you can learn for it much faster.

    It is also much easier to add into knowledge area you already have then to learn something entirely new. So if we cut all learning in elementary and high school into only absolute necessary essentials, they will have nothing to build on in college.

    Anecdote: I took a class on those free courses and it required some math. I remembered nothing from math when the course started, but it came back to me withing first two weeks and I was fine. Those who never had such math struggled till the end.

    The other thing is that if you learned physics, chemie or history in the past and someone gives fishy argument, you have better chance to see that it is suspicious and eventually look it up.

    If you never learned physics, you will have trouble to understand popular physics article or argument and you will have trouble to apply its consequences. So even if you look that up, you will be confused on what all those words means.

  75. Donna, I don’t think anyone is suggesting that kids be allowed to opt out of basic math such as multiplication and division. I do not view those as high school math, though. Those should be mastered by upper elementary / middle school. I don’t think that is the level people are talking about when they compare the rigors of Japanese high school to American high school. I think they are talking about the more abstract algebra, geometry, trig, and calculus that not all American kids choose to study. (Kids who opt out of these higher math classes still have to take some basic math in high school, which presumably reviews the basic stuff their peers mastered by middle school.)

  76. Andy, the problem is that we don’t allow kids to learn at their own pace. They either take Algebra 2 or they don’t. If they do, they have to master a pre-determined amount of material in 36 weeks. If the first week is difficult for them, they will flounder in the second week and never catch up (unless they have access to supplemental help and have extra time to work on it). I see no point in putting a kid through that unless he has a realistic chance of keeping up.

    Maybe nowadays they have (or can develop) courses that allow slower students to pursue these courses on a more flexible timeline, but I’m not aware of this being the norm. Kids choose between 36 pre-programmed weeks of basic math or 36 pre-programmed weeks of higher math. In other countries, I also don’t think they are flexible. I don’t see 36 weeks of frustration / embarrassment / failure to be worth the little bit of mathematical insight a slow student might possibly gain.

    I’m not suggesting higher math and science should not be encouraged in high school. I’m just saying it’s not for everyone. In the USA, the majority of kids are not going to university after graduating high school. They don’t need to beat this knowledge into their heads just so the USA can say our education system doesn’t suck.

  77. @SKL I’m not aware of an education system that allows kids to learn at their own pace. American system seems to me to be quite flexible, French or German systems are much more rigid (less electables, no individualized teaching, parents does not influence school days, teachers are available for an hour a week or so if you want to meet them out of class – not more, the teacher will spend only limited time with slower student).

    They divide students into different schools around high school level, but everyone within the school go by the same pace. On the other hand American system has the same high school for everyone, but you can choose difficult AP classes if you are good in something.

    Maybe trade schools in those systems make some difference, some of these schools give very little in terms of general education, but you end up knowing (sort of) a trade. I tend to forget about those kids when I write about high schools, because they are not expected to learn much math or history. Just absolute basics – they are supposed to be good in their chosen trade.

    Note: some trade schools are much more academically oriented than that and some are quite difficult. It is not end of the education to go to trade school, but you have to choose wisely.

    American system still seems to me to be able to handle that if there would be money and political will, all you need is to add trade classes into mix of electables so those uninterested in theory may learn something useful. But they would still need to choose wisely, too much trade not enough academics will make you unable to go to college in any system, even if you are smart.

  78. Andy, we do have trade schools here as well. They do have some required courses such as English and basic math and social studies. But they spend at least half of the day on trade skills. You can choose from a variety of programs including office technologies and industrial stuff. They do hands-on stuff from rebuilding cars to building a saleable house. My brother graduated from such a school and went on to college.

  79. Our school system does allow some students to learn at a different pace, the kids who have an IEP are given extra time (sometimes years) to learn specific skills, sometimes forgoing others. I’ve taught students in grade six who were working on a grade one program within the grade six curriculum so they were able to get the knowledge about the material but were working at a level that they could understand and master. I’ve had a fourth grade class where students were working on a kindergarten level math and reading program to those who were gifted working on an eighth grade program. With differentiated instruction, you’re able to work students at a pace that suits their learning needs. It’s a lot more work for the teacher but this is the way the school system is now.

  80. @SKL Then it sounds quite similar. Not much is written about those schools and I never heard about them before and through that they do not exist. I read some lamentations about “trade schools being destroyed”.

    It make sense what you wrote, fixing a car is not a college topic, but it still requires significant learning.

    The trade schools I wrote about (the ones you can not go to college after them) are much weaker then the ones you just wrote about. Those that qualifies kids also for the college are usually harder and also teach harder traders (such as car fixing or entire electricity reparation etc).

    Right now it sounds to be almost the same.

  81. Andy, it’s also my understanding that “trade schools are being destroyed” in the States (or, actually, already have been for some time now.) I heard funding for them has been gutted and they now only serve as a place to stick the worse of the worse – in order to keep those kids away from the other “normal” students. I’m also hearing a lot of lamenting of that policy lately, as Americans realize that college education for every man is a very costly — and probably very inefficient — way of realizing full employment.

    SKL refers to her brother, who I would imagine is 40 + years old?? Back then, yes, those schools still existed as a worth while alternative (although given that SKL says her brother then attended college leads me to believe that even back then they weren’t considered a equally worthwhile alternative to the college track, as they are in the countries you mentioned).

    If anyone has newer information about trade schools thriving in the U.S., I’d also be interested in hearing about them.

  82. DHF, I’m talking about what we call “Vo-Ed” here, the vocational schools for high school students (grades 11-12) who want to begin learning a trade. The kids graduate at the same age as regular high school students, and afterwards make their own decision whether to go to college, just like everyone else.

    My niece also went to the same Vo-Ed as my brother did, and that wasn’t that long ago. I know the school is still in operation because I drove past it often. It may be true that they’ve cut funding recently – I don’t know – but the county tax levies generally support it in our area.

    I won’t pretend it’s like a “college prep” track. That’s not the point. The point is to prepare kids who want to start a blue-collar career once they finish high school. However, it can be an alternative for those who don’t fit in well with the typical high school crowd, who need to work with their hands, yet still have future aspirations. My brother is a person who didn’t like to sit down and be quiet. He happened to also be intellectually gifted. Just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you’re going to like sitting in Calculus class.

  83. You can learn about the school where my brother and niece attended at atech . edu. This is part of the local public school system. Apparently it’s still going strong.

    I know there are at least a couple in the big city near where I live as well.

  84. SKL, thanks for responding. The words you wrote “yet still have future aspirations” gives the game away. Vocational schools are considered (have always been considered?) the sub-standard. The standard being college.

    It seems to me most people are interested in educating themselves in order to put themselves in a position to get paid work. A college education (most esp. in the US!) is a very costly, not to mention time- consuming method of doing that. In my opinion it’s simply unnecessary in a significant number of cases.

    Not everybody is academically minded, nor should they be “made” to be so and also not be made to think they should be so. But it seems to me that’s the status quo right in the now. I don’t hear much about alternatives to the college track. But I hear a lot about how schools are failing to teach children “right” – right meaning prepare them for college. As far as I can tell, nothing outside of that mind-set gets much credit.

  85. Ugh. I have an 8 month old and I remember the baby flash cards I was supposed to buy for her when she was a newborn. I passed, and instead bought her one of her favorite stuffed animals (which, incidentally, came from the dog toy aisle instead of the baby section. The baby toys are just too overly safe and boring.)

  86. Michael- I think we ought to start out own school!

  87. I think flashcards is an American obsession… I have never seen them until I came to the US for college. I found it surprising that my classmates did not mind memorization (that I found a) tedious b) boring c) useless in the long run) but had trouble with complex analyses or multi-step problems… it’s more important to teach a child to think – information can always be looked up if terribly necessary (and most information actually necessary gets memorized by itself, simply because you use it a lot).

    Sure, there is value to some academic learning early on – but not at the expense of everything else.

  88. Hey folks,

    I just found this blog though a link on another site and while i don’t have children myself I have to say I’m worried about so much stuff going on in regards to how we treat our kids

    But as to why i posted, I wanted to weigh in on this. I took a fascinating course on permaculture (sustainable living) and a large part involved pattern recognition. It has been proven that our brains respond and learn best when things are put into patterns. That is why you remember mary had a little lamb or the abc song years after you’ve sung it last. It was also how things were taught before people could read let alone use flash cards
    :
    For example, the song- “the more we get together” was originally a field song sung when reaping (cutting wheat) the rhythm of the song helps keep a rhythm for the movement, while they lyrics tell how much easier it is to work together than trying to do a job alone.

    fairy tales weren’t always happily ever after fluff. stories like red riding hood taught about the dangers of predators (not always the animal kind), while folk tales such as Jenny Greenteeth (a British water spirit who would pull in the unwary who got too close) warned children to say away from rivers and bogs where they may drown

    This is also how indigenous people taught their children, though song and story and experience. Probably the most amazing example I heard of this is the Australian aborigines who could navigate the barren Outback by singing their “maps”. Again, the song’s rhythm would set their pace while the lyrics would speak of important things around them such as food sources, navigation points or the territory of other tribes.

    The flash method probably has a place under certain circumstances but remember that people had children for centuries before we came along and they weren’t as stupid as some sources portray them. Don’t forget methods that have worked for centuries because they are “old”

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