Thought of the week

It seems that I’ve wound down to about 1 insightful (not inciteful) post a week. All of the driving and being away from family is wearing me down in terms of new ideas for thought provoking posts. Fortunately, all of you are still visiting here and leaving me comments which give me things to think about. And while I’m driving I do get a good chance to think. The issue tends to be more one of having the mental energy to write. For this post, I have to thank Kim who left a comment below. Here is the excerpt of her comment that gave me some food for thought:

… I believe now, that some people need more help than repetition based on their motivation to learn how to do so. It is about 10% of the population and they need spelling guidelines, sadly, which most of us never needed to think about. Sorry to rant, but I just wanted to bring it up because dyslexics are often underrepresented in the homeschooling world.

As is quite often the case with me and a comment the things that come to mind are not really a response to the comment. More often than not my train of thought rebounds from the comment and heads off in a different direction. In my early career, synergy was a buzz word everyone was using to describe it.

I’m going to start by saying I have a very low opinion of repetition as a method of learning. I’m going to differentiate repetition from practice. Practice is trying to do something over and over again until you have mastered it. Repetition is doing something over and over again period. I don’t expect that my children (or anyone else’s) will learn from repetition. They do learn from practice. In this instance, I don’t expect Emma will learn to spell from us spelling for her over whatever period of time. Instead, by enabling her to communicate, we are giving her a skill that she will want to keep. Eventually she will be in a spot where we are not there to be a crutch to that skill. It may take her quite a while (possibly years), but she will work it out.

TBH, my spelling is brutal on first pass at a word. But, I’m a better than average speller because mispelled words do not look right to me. Some words take a half dozen changes before they do look right. I’ve read a few thousand books. I’ve seen nearly all of the words I use in writing in print thousands of times. Up until a certain point in my life if I wanted to write something I had to have a dictionary with me. And I’m confident that as long as my children develop a taste for reading they will be able to do the same thing I did.

For a moment allow me to digress into a little rant on repetition. In one of my programming classes, I would give the students the option of write a program called knight’s tour in lieu of other assignments. The object of the program is for it to be given a spot somewhere on the chess board and the program would find a path for the knight to move (the knight moves in an L) around the entire chess board using each square only once.

There are two approaches to solving that problem. The first is to evaluate the board and based on the things you know about the board and the movement of the knight. Using that knowledge you build into the program a set of rules it will use to determine which of the available moves is most likely to lead to a solution. There are a few sets of rules that work really well and a solution will be found on first try.

The second way is to have the program try randomly until it finds a solution. This does work eventually. It would probably take 5 to 10 minutes on the computers you are using. Among programmers this is called ‘brute force’ programming. And I believe that educational methods which rely primarily on repetition are brute force education. Nearly every math curriculum I’ve seen has been brute force.The thought behind it is that eventually the kid will learn it through sheer repetition. The curriculum itself makes no effort to accomodate itself to the learning needs, abilities or interests of the child.

The other thing that Kim mentioned was dyslexia. I have a few thoughts on learning disabilities (LD) in general. the first one I would like to tackle is ADD. Now, we have to realize up front that children are born with varying strengths and weaknesses. It’s one of the things that make us individuals. In those strengths and weaknesses there are going to be some who have weak control over their attention.

I had a student who I believe was ADD. During the first test I gave him, in the first 10 minutes or so he wrote like crazy on the test paper. Every once in a while he would stare off into the corner of the room for a few seconds while he thought about the question he was working on and then write some more. Somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes, he looked off in the corner. As best as I could tell he did not move from that position for over an hour. After every other person had handed in their test, he was still there. I had to say his name 3 times to get his attention. Because of the expression on his face when he looked around, I’m as sure as I’m sitting here that until then he had no idea that any of his 40+ classmates had left. To the point where he stopped on the test, he got 100%. The remainder was blank.

8 months later he was in his fourth class with me. He didn’t miss a thing through any of my 2 hour classes. There were often times I would reexplain things for him or answer questions. I’m convinced that the main 2 differences were that he was interested in what I was teaching and that it was not repetitive. I did not teach the same things twice. It was a transformation that took time as well. Do I think he was ‘cured’? No. I’m sure that he still deals with his weak attention control today.

A second LD which is ‘growing’ is ADHD. I don’t know what your experience has been, but every child I’ve met who had been diagnosed as ADHD had a very active mind that was always on the go. I would expect that an ongoing diet of repetition is a brutal assault on an active mind. The second tidbit I have on ADHD comes from a workshop I attended 3 years ago on LD. There was a study which showed that up to a certain age (8-10) dyslexia was often misdiagnosed as ADHD.

Finally, I’d like to write my thoughts on dyslexia. First, I’m going to tell you some interesting facts about dyslexia and dyslexics. Then, I have a story and I’ll finish with some thoughts I have on the subject.

  1. NASA recruits dyslexics. The statistic I was given in the workshop mentioned above is that over 50% of their staff are dyslexic.
  2. A substantial number of children exihibit symptoms of dyslexia at ages 5-6.
  3. The majority of the children above (I believe about 2/3) lose the symptoms by age 8.
  4. I have a CD at home of a workshop given by a doctor specializing in learning disabilities. I’m going to paraphrase what she said regarding the studies she had participated in in the study of dyslexia:

    Medically there is only one way that she had found that would differentiate between a young dyslexic and non dyslexic child. The fact that a young child showed symptoms of dyslexia was not an indication that they were dyslexic. The medical test consists of monitoring the child’s brain with an EEG while giving it a test. Not a medical test but a school test like spelling. What the EEG shows is the degree and type of stress the child experiences.

The story: A few weeks ago, Emma and I were drawing and writing on letter paper. The marker I was using was a black sharpie (permanent ink). Since we were making them for each other the last thing we did was fold them up so the other person could open it. When Emma opened the one I did for her she opened it up so that she was looking at the back of the sheet. Because I’d done it with the sharpie the ink had soaked through the paper and she could see what I had done. She looked at it for a few seconds and turned to Andrea and said, ‘it says …’ And she was right. Not only were the letters backwards, but the sentence went right to left. Until Andrea told her she had no idea that she was looking at the wrong side of the page. She’s 5. Am I concerned that she may be dyslexic? No.

I think that many children are able to do similar things when they are in that age range. IMO, dyslexia is only a disability in school. I believe that dyslexics can mentally flip things around on the fly and whether it is a b or a d does not slow them down. It’s when they are under pressure to pick the one that we recognize as being right that a problem surfaces. The fact that young children spell would ‘woulb’ doesn’t mean they don’t know how it’s spelled. It might say that they are brighter and more capable than we are.

And that is my 2 cents worth.

Unschooling Voices, etc.

Unschooling voices is up.

Tonight Andrea logged onto the chat program to say goodnight. Within a couple minutes, Emma also popped on. Yes, she’s 5 and has her own chat profile. So far as I know, I’m the only person she has chatted with. When I noticed her on, I sent her a ‘hello Emma’ and waited. A few minutes later she sent a full correctly spelled sentence telling me something that was important to her about her day. Before she was done she had sent me 3 or 4 more full sentences all spelled correctly.

Andrea told me after that she had asked for help with the spelling. You see, for quite a few months, she had been using her own version of phonetics to write things. But there were times when we misunderstood what she was writing. In the last month or so, she has changed her strategy by getting us to help her spell what she wants to write.

It’s come back to me again tonight how silly it is to set out to teach children a bunch of skills with the intention that once they have learned all of them they will be able to communicate. A child learns to talk because the child wants to communicate. When they are first learning to talk we don’t, “no, no, no you say that word this way and until you can say it that way we are not going to introduce the next word to you.” The secret to teaching a child to read, write and communicate is to accept the ability they currently have and understand that at some point their desire to understand and be understood will push them to develope those skills until they are every bit as proficient at them as the people around them. And for the abilities that they currently lack, compensate for them in the same way you do before they are potty trained, before they can dress themselves and before they can feed themselves.

Honestly, the only way I can imagine that someone seeking to understand child education could not see that is if they view the child as the object of education.

Chatting & Creativity

Before I get into the subject of tonight’s post, I must confess I feel the urge to talk a bit about the past. Shortly after we started this site, I briefly recounted our history of homeschooling. The thing I wanted to remind you of is that we were not always unschoolers. All 3 of the older children started out with an out of the box curriculum. So, many of the things I talk about are lessons that have been learned the hard way. Probably the main reason I am able to write with the surety that I do is that I’ve already tried the alternative. But, the main reason I take the time to write is to share our experience, so that anyone reading will not be as alone in this as we were for many years. And that, in the last few years, I’ve come to realize that the experts really know very little about what they are talking about in many instances.

Since I’ve been away during the week, Andrea and I have been using Google Chat to talk at night to allow for longer (and more convenient) conversations and save on long distance charges. In the first week, occasionally, Andrea would send a message for Emma. But the next week, Emma wanted to sit on Andrea’s knee and watch. The first thing you know, I’m getting messages typed by Emma. Some of them are something like ‘asfadflkfdj;sdlfndmcn,smcniowafhewoude’, others resemble things she would say. One of those is ’emmatodade’ (Emma to Daddy) followed by ‘iloveyou’. And once, she sent me a ‘fune’ (funny) in reply to something I sent her. Since then, she has taken to counting with me, ‘12345678910’ and then I say ’11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20′. Then she giggles hysterically.

This week she did, ‘123456789100’. When I got home last night she wanted to know if I thought it was funny that she ended with one hundred. That’s the number we count to when I’m tucking her in for the night (she always has to say 100). She has also caught onto a number of the ascii ‘smiley’s that the chat turns into a graphic. Of these, her favourite is <3 which rotates counter-clockwise and into a heart. What Andrea did this week was set her up with her own profile on a second computer so she can chat with me on her own. She loves it. Mom is close by if she needs help, but otherwise, she can do it independently.

I realize that circumstances have created a situation which has heightened the interest in learning something. I’m sure the experts would argue that the chatting doesn’t support unschooling because of the extenuating circumstances. But, that couldn’t be further than the truth. This is a perfect illustration of both how and why unschooling does work. The how is really simple. If children are interested in something, they will invest the time and energy into learning it. The whole point of unschooling is that if children are interested they can and will learn. If you eliminate all the situations in a child’s life which heighten his or her interest in learning what you are likely to be left with is, …well, something pretty much like a classroom.

The second half of the title relates to Emma’s growing investment in creativity. To step back in history again, we had abandoned alot of the structured element of the older children’s education by the time Emma was born. The transformation I went through involved me realizing that alot of the things that I had formerly assumed about children were not necessarily true. Having been graced with her, I had (and have) an opportunity to discover and learn about children. And so, I’ve done a great deal of observing and making mental notes. One of the things I’ve watched along the way is the development of her ability to exercise her creativity.

One of the things I’ve done with Emma has been respond to her motor skills being unable to keep up with her creativity differently than I did with the older children. When they got upset that they couldn’t do something because of a lack of coordination or fine motor skills, we used to try to comfort them by telling them it was ok. With Emma, what I’ve done is hug/hold her and ask her if she’d like me to help her. Sometimes she accepts and sometimes she refuses. The thing is, whether you are 2, 5, 10 or 50, when you can’t do something you really want to do, it’s not ok, it’s frustrating. I don’t want to give the impression that I think she is more creative than the older kids. But, that I think responding in a different way has allowed me to be more involved in her creativity and she is more willing to allow me to help her by hurdles.

Having said that, this week she made a car out of a cardboard box. Essentially, she drew alot of the details found in a car on appropriate locations on the box including a rearview mirror. In the rearview mirror you can see the sun, an ice cream stand and a car parked in front of the stand (because the driver is buying ice cream). It has an ignition and keys, a gas tank with fill cap, gauges and controls, etc. It’s very elaborate. She put alot of time into it. At the same time, you can tell it’s the artwork of a child.

When I was teaching at the college, this was the time of year where I taught the first year students their first language specific programming course. Likely, in the last few weeks, I would have discussed the course workload (very heavy compared to the other courses they had) and that the reality they were up against was that programming was like riding a bike. You can watch all the videos about riding bikes that you want and you can talk about bikes all you want, but you will never learn to ride a bike that way. The way to learn to ride a bike is to get on one and ride it. And that’s what creativity is like. It’s learned and developed through exercising it.

That’s one of the reasons I’m not really a fan of alot of early educational materials. Many of the materials out there in common use are intended to develop ‘skills’ but provide very little exercise outside of that. An example of that is a colouring book. The only real creativity involved in colouring a predrawn picture is choosing the colours. (We don’t prevent her from having such things. We just don’t limit her to those.) I guess what I want to say is that, wanting children to be able to produce a picture that looks as though it could have been done by an adult is a poor excuse for depriving them of the opportunity to develop the ability to create a picture they can call their own. I would rather be able to sincerely faun over 10,000 real drawings that undeniably show the development of real talent, imagination and expression than the best of the colouring competitions.


Over the last few weeks I’ve noticed that Emma’s nightly routine is changing a little. Now she reads us a story or 2 before we read to her. She likes to read books that don’t have a lot of text in them and saves the longer stories for us to read to her. On Friday night, I was reading her a story with a cat called Nebut (I pronouce it nay-boo). About the third time I encounter the name in the story, Emma interrupts me to say, “You’re not saying it right Daddy. It’s nay-but.” Of course, I apologise and adjust the remainder of the story accordingly.

So much for the study that says that kids don’t follow along with the words with you. If it’s a picture book, I don’t doubt that they may focus on the pictures the first few times through. Now the thing is that I don’t recall Nebut in any other story of hers. And this story has several lines of text per page. Obviously, they eventually follow along with the words and are able to pick them out of several lines of text. And that’s not just words that they encounter all the time but ones that they don’t encounter in other books.

Even though we talk about unschooling regularing in this blog, it is worth noting that she’s had no formal instruction on either phonics or whole language structures. And not only has she developed recognition of words but a concrete sense of how they ought to sound to the extent that she’s confident enough to correct an adult. What she knows, she has learned from us reading to her, looking at books herself and from questions she has asked us 🙂

Repitition on their own terms

Many experts will tell you the importance of repitition for a child learning new things, but few will tell you to leave it on their terms. How many times have we inwardly sighed at yet another request to read a particular story for what seems like the 2437th time?

This is highly important for a child. It is their own scientific process and discovery. Is it the same each and every time? Their brains work and develop as they familiarize themselves with the story or activity, anticipation is heightened, memory is strengthend. New concepts are discovered and learned as, yes, the exact same activity, done for the hundreth time, yields a new observation.

A year or so ago, Emma could not get enough of the movie Finding Nemo. She had it memorized, then dropped her interest. Recently, she because interested in it again, but this time, she is watching other sections of the DVD, different commentaries. Now she can explain, briefly and simplistically, the process of computer animation. She has realized how the people who worked on the film had to practise over and over again, not getting it right the first time. This has been important for her because she has become frustrated with not being able to do some things “right” (in her mind) the first time. Also, as she has grown, her vocabulary skills and understanding of some words has increased.

In other words, a year later she’s getting a whole lot more out of it. Even though it seems like there is no point when she still has the dialogue memorized.

As adults, we frequently watch our favorite movies over and over, read well-loved books, participate in all kinds of repititious and joyful activities. Why not let the kids?

Emma’s learning notes – January

I decided to keep better track of what Emma is learning, since we are taking more of a full-on unschooling approach with her. This means instead of us deciding on what to teach and when to teach it, we listen to her and answer whatever questions she has, letting her follow her own interests. I’m noting it here so you can follow along and see how it works in practical application. (I may need to make a new category.)

Since November or so Emma has followed her own curiousity and learned about:

– making her own bouncy balls
digging for dinosaurs
– investigating whale brains when we went to the provincial Museum. The helper declared that nobody had ever asked her about whale brains before, especially a then-four-year-old.
– exploring the human body with the visible woman, complete with baby, and knowing at least half or more of the parts and where they go. This lead to:
– watching A Baby Story and talking about childbirth, including her own
– sending e-cards
– skip-counting to 100 at night to fall asleep. She starts and the parent (usually it’s Ron’s turn) does all the even numbers, including the tens, which she has trouble with.
– making her own audio files. This includes starting the computer, logging into my profile, firing up Audacity, adjusting the mike, recording and playback. She doesn’t know quite how to save yet as her typing skills aren’t developed enough.
– putting on plays and ballet recitals, combining famous dances and storylines. The rest of us have to sit on the couch and applaud. I must say, she curtsies quite well.
– dictating stories for me to write down. I’n sure an email account will soon follow.
– the knowledge that French, Spanish and English are different languages. Plus words in French and Spanish.
– making snowflakes

In the past, she has asked to “play school” at home, getting ready and toting a backpack from one room to another. Last week, she asked to play school, so I suggested she get dressed. “Oh Mommy,” she said, “I can stay in my jammies; I’m homeschooled!” The indoctrination has begun.

Her vocabulary has also taken leaps, as we have never spoken down to her. New words include: magnificent, amazing, adorable, interesting, imagination, fantastic, wonderful – and probably more.

She seems to have backed off a bit on her interest in Egyptology and film commentaries, and we still read a pile of books to her every day. She is also recognizing more words.

Emma turned five in December.


Our almost 5 yo daughter has taken to writing things over and over again. Somedays there will be pages and pages of words. Some she writes with letters that are 2 inches high. The words she likes to write most are DADE, MOME and EMMA. She has been writing her name the longest. Sometimes when she writes her name she forgets one of the Ms and you will see it written above or below the EMA. One night a couple weeks ago, she had a paper on which she had already written MOME and DADE. I watched her add her name to it. She realized after writing the E that she had no room to write the 2 M’s and the A. I was amazed to see her write her name backwards writing the M next to the E, then another M next to that and finally the A.
Continue reading “DADE, MOME, AMME”

Homeschooling Your Baby or Toddler

Homeschooling your baby or toddler is easier than it sounds, and you don’t need fancy or expensive curriculum. It just means
doing those things that you would normally be doing with them anyway,
except in a concientious manner.

Here’s some ideas to incorporate into your daily adventures with your little one.

Continue reading “Homeschooling Your Baby or Toddler”