Learning Is Like Eating Strawberries

Published January 1, 2001

When her daughter Susan started kindergarten in Virginia in 1972, Jessie Wise quickly heard complaints from Susan’s teacher that the child would become a social misfit because she wanted to read during free time instead of playing. This was not good news for Wise, whose son Bob already was a behavior problem in second grade, with his teacher complaining that he asked questions all the time and was starting to turn in bad work.

Not knowing what to do with her two “misfit” children, Wise had them evaluated by a psychologist at the local mental-health clinic. He assured her they weren’t misfits at all.

The tests showed that Susan, the kindergartner, was reading fifth-grade material and that Bob, the second-grader, was reading on a seventh-grade level. What had happened was that Wise, having seen 16-year-olds in the public school system who were unable to read, had taught her children to read when they were preschoolers, using the old-fashioned phonics approach. Her careful preparation seemed to have backfired since her children now were well-prepared and ready to learn, but regarded as academic misfits at school.

The psychologist, Jeffrey C. Fracher of the Henrico Mental Clinic, made a suggestion Wise had never even considered, but which completely changed her life and the lives of her children.

“Listen,” he said, “if you keep those children in school, they are going to become nonlearners. They’re bored to death. You’ve got a teachers certificate. Why don’t you take them out of school and teach them yourself?”

Although homeschooling was little known or understood in 1973, Wise decided to educate her children herself at home. The results speak for themselves.

Bob was accepted at the College of William & Mary in Virginia when he was only 15, and Susan went to college at 17 with a full scholarship. After that, Susan completed a three-year course of study for a Master of Divinity degree, followed by a Master of Arts in English literature. She reads Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Aramaic, has published two novels, and currently teaches literature at the College of William & Mary.

The one-time kindergarten misfit now is Mrs. Susan Wise Bauer, mother of three boys and a new baby girl, who is following in her mother’s footsteps and homeschooling her children, too. The framework she uses is the same three-stage classical education approach used by her mother, detailed in their invaluable 764-page resource book The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home (W.W. Norton, 1999). Susan Wise Bauer recently spoke with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: Can homeschooling work with parents who haven’t had teacher training?

Bauer: If you had asked me that 10 or 15 years ago, I would have said it was difficult because you have to be a teacher to know where to get stuff and how to use it. That’s just not the case any more. There are so many resources out there designed for parents–homeschool catalogs, full-service curricula, video tutoring sessions, online tutorials, and support groups. What a parent does in homeschooling often is more a matter of coordinating resources than teaching individual subjects.

If you are pulling a seventh- or eighth-grader out of school and schooling them at home, then what you’re going to end up doing is putting together resources, tutors, and shaping a school at home for your child. But if you’re starting with a kindergartner or a first-grader, the truth is that you really learn right along with the child. Learning then becomes much more of a cooperative enterprise. If a first-grader can figure it out, you can figure it out.

With reading, for example, the parents get a phonics program, they sit down with their child, and the child learns how to read. Assuming there aren’t any organic difficulties, a child who has been raised in an environment where they have been read to, where they have not been exposed to too much television, and where they see their parents reading, can be taught to read in four or five months. That involves teaching them what the sounds of the letters are, what words don’t follow the rules, and practicing with them a great deal.

When you look at standardized test scores, the area in which homeschoolers outstrip classroom-schooled students more than any other is in language arts. Your average homeschooled second-grader is reading on a fifth-grade level. Your average classroom-schooled second grader is reading somewhere around grade one-and-a half.

Clowes: What are the differences between the education you received at home and that provided in most of today’s public schools?

Bauer: My education followed the classical tradition. In classical education, learning is a three-step process. First, you absorb information; this is the so-called “grammar” stage. Then you learn how to analyze the information; this is the “logic” stage, and you do this through the study of logic and argumentation. The third stage is the “rhetoric” stage in which–now that you have accumulated information and you have learned how to analyze it and see whether or not it’s accurate–you interact with the information, express your opinion about it, decide if you are for or against it, and use it to draw your own conclusions.

What I see in schools is that they skip the first two stages of classical education and leap directly to the third. This starts in first grade where–when children are taught about Ancient Rome–they are asked “How do you think it would feel to live in Ancient Rome?” instead of being told what Ancient Rome was like. But they’re first-graders–they don’t have any information, their minds aren’t filled with anything, and they don’t know how to evaluate information. So how can they possibly express an opinion?

This is what I see with the freshmen that I teach at the College of William & Mary. When you ask them to read something and then to write about it, they don’t know how to first look at what the book is actually saying, then to analyze how it’s put together and where the flaws might be. They leap directly to “How do I feel about this?”

Clowes: What’s your view on the child-focused learning approach that is prevalent in most schools today?

Bauer: I think self-expression and delight-centered learning are great but most young children don’t have anything in particular to express. They’re like empty sponges that haven’t been filled yet–you squeeze it and nothing in particular comes out.

Classical education doesn’t say “Squelch a child that’s dying to express himself or herself,” but it does say that your primary mode of teaching is not to ask the child to focus on what interests them. Our position and the position of most classical educators is that a young child doesn’t know what interests them until you make them do it a couple of times.

The example we use in the book is that if you ask a child to eat a strawberry for the first time they almost always say “No, I don’t want to eat that.” And so you make them eat it. And sometimes you make them eat it for a couple of times, and then they say “Oh, this is really good.” A lot of learning is the same way.

The real difference between classical education and child-directed education is not that the classical schoolmaster cracks the whip and says “I don’t care if you hate this –do it anyway.” The classical schoolmaster says “I am a leader and you are a disciple. Because I am older and more mature and have done this before, I know what will bring you delight down the road. Because you are a child and you are immature, you cannot see the rewards that this current work can bring. So you must trust me. Submit to this and it will bring you delight down the road.” It assumes that the parent, not the child, has the long view. And it assumes that a child of six or seven–or for that matter of 12 or 13–is not yet mature enough to take the long view.

What classical education tries to do is to open up the child’s eyes to fields of knowledge that they didn’t even know existed. It also acknowledges that being educated and training your mind is hard work and takes a certain amount of striving.

We use the phrase “well-trained” because training is something that everyone recognizes for physical skills. When parents take their children to a soccer or a football practice, they say, “I don’t care if you don’t feel like doing it, this is what you need to do to get good at it.” They don’t say, “You don’t need to go to practice today. You just need to go to the game to figure it out. You’ll pick up the rules as you play.” Yet that’s the approach used for academic skills. It’s really a double standard.

What I have found in my own experience is that even the things I hated doing have been of great value to me in later life. I have these skills that allow me to pursue things that I love. Now I look at these students I teach as freshmen, and I think–they’re bright, they’re interesting, and they’ve got great ideas, and they’ve got social passions, and they want to go and change the world, but nobody ever forced them how to learn to write and to think clearly. They’re at such a disadvantage when they can’t convince others of their point of view.

Clowes: Do the basics of the classical education apply to each year as you’re going through school?

Bauer: In a way. When you are doing classical education, what you are doing is teaching the child a pattern of learning that they’ll use for the rest of their life. When you approach something new as an adult, these are the three stages that you go through:

  • First, at the grammar learning stage, you absorb a lot of information about the new area and you learn the language that people speak there;
  • Next, in the logic learning stage, you analyze the information you’ve obtained about the new field;
  • Finally, in the rhetoric stage, you use the information to do work in the new area.

These are the three stages of learning and the point of classical education in progressing through them is to teach you to be a learner for the rest of your life. In classical education, doing grades K-12 is just a warm-up; it’s getting you ready to keep on learning for the rest of your life. But the way that you do that is by focusing on each stage individually as the child progresses through school, and what it assumes is that a child’s natural development follows these three stages.

Very young children have very receptive memories. They repeat things over, and over, and over. They like repetition. They’re not analyzing, they’re not criticizing. That’s when you lay the groundwork of language arts and mathematics. Then the child can move on to do logic work when their minds start to think more critically, which happens around fourth or fifth grade for most children. Once the child is matured, they are going to keep on using grammar-stage learning and logic-stage learning. When they approach a new subject they’re still going to find out about it first and then analyze it.

In most cases, children through about grade four are not ready to think critically. Yet this is something that you see classrooms doing, pushing critical thinking all the way back to first and second grade. They teach inductively. In other words, they no longer say to a child, “Here’s the information that I need you to learn; here’s why we’re going to learn it; now let’s learn it.” Instead, they present the child with a bunch of information and ask the child to pick out the things that are important. This is a great teaching technique for the middle grades, who are at the logic stage, but it’s very frustrating for extremely young children who don’t have the context or mental maturity for analysis.

Clowes: From your perspective as a college professor and a product of homeschooling, do you have any recommendations for improving the quality of public and privates school education?

Bauer: The biggest thing, I would say, is to simplify the elementary curriculum. Don’t teach “critical thinking” in the elementary grades. Prioritize language arts and mathematics because these are the foundational skills on which everything else depends. History is great, but I think elementary children ought to spend more time learning to read and write because reading and writing is going to be how they do their history for the rest of their school career.

The same is true of science. Science is important, but if children don’t learn the basics of mathematics then they’re not going to be doing decent science when they get to the middle grades. The language arts and the basic mathematical skills are so much more important than teaching history or science in the early grades.

That mastery of early skills makes grammatical writing second nature, so that you don’t have to stop and think about whether a sentence is written correctly. You know it is because it’s been drilled into you. You’ve built a vocabulary that’s large enough to be able to express yourself with fluency. Once these basic skills are down, then teach the children how to reason.

Mastery of basic skills and the teaching of logic are so vital to good self-expression. This is what frustrates me about my freshmen. Their grammatical and writing skills are so poor they can’t say what they want to say. Their thinking skills are weak because they’ve never been taught how to develop an argument and to see whether it works logically or not. They can’t pick a point and develop it in a convincing manner.

Clowes: Do you have any final comments for our readers?

Bauer: If you have a young child, don’t mess around with your school system so long that those times for teaching the reading and writing and basic skills have passed by. I’ve seen this happen to so many parents. They realize their children are not getting what they need at school and so they immerse themselves in the school politics in trying to get the curriculum changed. While they may effect some change down the road, their children are in eighth or ninth grade by that time and still not reading well.

If a child is not reading well and has not been taught the basics of writing by fifth grade, then you’ve got a long hard road ahead of you. Everybody knows that foreign languages are more difficult to learn after a certain age, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that language skills period become much harder to acquire after a certain age. If you don’t learn them early they never become second nature to you.

So I would encourage parents to take both points of view: Sure, get involved in your local school system, but if you have to pull your child out to teach them to read and write, don’t be afraid to do it. It sounds very selfish to say “I’m going to put my child first,” but you’re a parent and that’s what you’re supposed to do.

For more information …

Visit Bauer’s Web site at http://www.welltrainedmind.com, or write Susan Wise Bauer at [email protected].

Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer, The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, ISBN 0-393-04752-0, 764 pages, hardback, W.W. Norton publishers, $35 (1999). Available through Amazon.com.