5 year old boys and “A Well Trained Mind”

Earlier today I was reading the very good “Crunch Cons” blog over at beliefnet and the author, Rod Dreher was responding to a reader question about preparing to homeschool his daughter in a few years (the child in question was under 1 year). Mr. Dreher responded first by explaining that he and his wife were no longer homeschooling their son who is now six. Then he offered his wife’s advice on what to do if you’re planning on homeschooling. Now, before I get myself in trouble, I just want to say that I do not want to claim that I know what is best for the Dreher family or that they have made an error by putting their son in school. I am not privy to their lives and am willing to accept that this was the very best decision for them and their son. However, there were two red flags which I wanted to address, not in order to critique this family’s actions, but because they remind me of problems I have seen played out in other families and a general error in our thinking about kids and education which is pretty prevalent. So, I am writing this not to address the Dreher’s specific situation, but in order to make a couple of more generalized points.
The two red flags I saw were these: By way of brief (and I’m sure in no way complete) explanation Mr. Dreher says of putting his son in a private school: “we’d had so much trouble getting him to focus on his work at home“. Further down in her recommendations, his wife says “If you really want to read something I’d take a look at Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer’s books, which I found inspiring (and depressing because they made me more aware of the massive holes in my own education). She outlines a kindergarten curriculum that involves about 15 minutes of actual study per day.”
(For those of you who don’t know, Jessie Wise and Susan Wise Bauer are authors of A Well Trained Mind which is a guide to using a classical approach to education at home.)
Here’s the problem: a 5 year old who refuses to focus or co-operate with attempts to educate him/her is a perfectly normal child who will probably do very well with homeschooling. Too often we view a young kid who is not co-operative with learning as a sign that homeschooling isn’t working. I think nothing is further from the truth and know many kids (including my younger son) who did pretty much nothing for kindergarten (or longer) yet did just fine as they got older. The idea that a 5 year old should be doing anything more rigorous than singing silly songs, reciting the alphabet and learning to count to 100 is actually pretty recent and often developmentally inappropriate. If a young child simply refuses to cooperate or focus, more than anything I think that means wither they aren’t ready or the approach being used doesn’t work for him/her. Yet I have known several families who have abandoned homeschooling after just a year or two because they thought the fact that their kid wasn’t cooperating with attempts to educate him/her showed that they weren’t cut out for homeschooling.
I think part of the problem is that while we may see that socially schools are unhealthy places for our kids and that the results are mediocre, we often accept the way and rate at which they do things as correct. We assume that homeschooling’s magic isn’t in using a completely different approach to learning and education but in the fact that we teach our kids one-on-one. So, we worry if our 5 year old won’t sit still while we read a book or that our 6 year old won’t work on phonetic lessons because everyone knows that this is how children learn to read. And heaven forbid if our 4th grader doesn’t have their times tables down cold. However, none of these practices or time tables are based on any actual evidence that they are the “right” approach. It’s probably the main reason schools don’t work for so many kids – they insist on doing everything on some predetermined schedule in some predetermined way without regard to where the child is developmentally. Some 5 year olds will sit quietly while being read to, others will be practicing their cartwheels and not listen to a word you say. Allowed to learn on their own schedules, both will probably be independent readers by about age 8. Forced to work on someone else’s time schedule one of them will probably struggle with reading disorders created by being forced to do something they weren’t developmentally ready to do.
Which brings me to Jesse Wise and Susan Bauer Wise’s books. Now, don’t get me wrong. The Well Trained Mind is a great book in a lot of ways and the classical approach to education definitely has many appealing aspects to it. I actually use some of their ideas with my 11 year old. However, it is a very structured approach and I have never seen it work with a kid under the age of 9 or 10. I have, however, seen families become overwhemed, frustrated and demoralized trying to do it with their younger kids. What the Wise’s do not say is that although their approach is in many ways very traditional, it is an approach which in the past did not start until age 8, 9 or later. Their book takes an approach meant for older kids, reduxes it and attempts to apply it to younger kids without regard to their developmental needs and abilities aside from using less time. Not only that, but at the younger ages, they rely heavily on usborne books, which in my experience, are too simplistic and only mildly engaging. I have never gotten one that my kids did anything other than glance at briefly. I can see how any parent who is uncomfortable not having much or any structure for their young child and then tries to use methods like the ones outline in the Wise’s books will not succeed.
Which brings me back to why I wanted to post on this here, despite running the risk that it would look like I was trying to judge the Dreher family’s particular situation: we have been so indoctrinated by many generations of institutionalized schooling that it takes an enormous amount of self-confidence and self-assurance to stand your ground when it’s your kid who isn’t fitting into the accepted framework. Even more so when everyone around you responds to every challenge you face by offering the structure of school as the solution. I want to challenge people to think differently about how we educate our kids (especially young boys) and offer re-assurance to those who are struggling to stand against the current. The magic of homeschooling is so much more than just one-on-one instruction or even a more demanding curriculum. The magic of homeschooling is really in freeing ourselves and our kids to learn in an entirely different way. I would go so far as to say that when we educate our kids according to their particular temperament and developmental readiness, even when it means letting a young child do little or no structured work, we are coming as close as we are able to helping them learn the way God designed them to learn. And despite what Sec. of Education Spellings might have us believe, God doesn’t seem to intend for 5 year old boys to learn by sitting down and focusing on the work adults give them all that often.

6 thoughts on “5 year old boys and “A Well Trained Mind”

  1. your post made sense to me. gives me something to think about when my 14 month old reaches 5 years. He’s a busy boy..and I don’t expect that to change. 🙂

  2. Coming in on the late, but after reading your Sept 11 post, I scrolled down to this. It really strikes a cord with me, and our situation! I am struggling with whether or not to give up on public school yet. We put our son in half day, with reservations, and the idea that if it didn’t work out, we would homeschool anyway. But when do I make that call? I know my son learns well in groups, as opposed to learning one on one. But is it a matter of readiness? This makes sense to me. It also lightens my concerns about what he ‘should’ be doing/learning right now. I must ponder this perspective! I think I will be frequenting your blog!! Valerie

  3. Bravo! When I first started homeschooling my 6 y/o son last year, I rushed out and bought the Wise’s books for Language and history. Then I spent five months wondering why my son didn’t provide “intelligent” responses like those in the Wise’s scripted question-and-response lesson plans. He wasn’t answering because he wasn’t listening — and after nearly changing my mind about homeschooling I finally realized he wasn’t listening because the approach bored him.We’ve shelved the Wise’s books for now. Perhaps we’ll come back to them when he’s older, or perhaps I’ll just use bits and pieces of them to supplement the curricula I’ve put together on my own.Either way, I wish I’d saved my son and I the tears that we both shed over these books. But I’m so glad you wrote this — maybe you’ll save someone else that same frustration and self-doubt!Kate

  4. Hmmm…my kid isn’t doing well with one-on-one tutoring by a loving parent, so I put him in a school where a teacher will have to fight a million uncontrollable distractions to try to get his attention? And I think he’ll do better there? Yeah…I strongly urge parents of little ones, especially boys, to take an unschooling approach at least until age 5, and then gradulally work up from there. I remember one cirriculum I considered actually confessed that the whole goal of kindergarten was to slowly get the little ones to sit still for an hour (beginning with just a few minutes and working up from there over the course of a year). Yes, indeed! But I think too many people want their little homeschoolers to be show-offs: to show-off how great a parent they are by how well they can perform to inquiring relatives and friends. We, too, fight that mentality, but I constantly remind myself after family gatherings that my goal in teaching my children is not to win awards at dog-and-pony shows.

  5. Lovely post. I learned this the hard way with my now-9 year old son. Oh, the struggles I could have avoided. A book called _Teaching the Trivium_ by Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn has been helpful for me.

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