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Not Testing: Teaching!

When will we return to a curriculum geared to learning rather than test results? There’s a lot in the news these days about this question. Here’s what it means to me. We all know that children don’t learn well under pressure: insist on a child’s learning your way and the child shuts down.

Children learn best when they understand...

I vividly recall asking my mathematically gifted father for help with an arithmetic problem and ending up in tears when he insisted, “Write that down, write that down!” when all I needed to know was, “Why do the numbers work that way?” I wasn’t asking for the answer, only to understand it.

In the drive to compete with each other and with other countries and cultures, US public schools emphasize tests over mastery and broad comprehension. But what good are facts without a clear context? Context is what gives meaning to facts, which are only little points along the way.

Math is the issue that comes first to my mind. Why doesn’t everybody love math? Surely it’s because of the way math has traditionally been taught. Some schools do better now -- my granddaughter is learning estimating, and how to calculate area (length x width) in the fourth grade, but she goes to a private school.

Even as a child I wondered at the value of endless exercises in computation. I would look at a page of examples to be “done” and stare out the classroom window, exhausted just to think about it. Not until I became a Montessori teacher did I find an approach to numbers that worked for me.

I love it that Montessori presents the decimal system (in what grade did we learn decimals?) with golden beads and a few cards -- at age five! It also reveals clear patterns, such as the 9x table: 9, 18, 27, 36....add the digits and they always come out to 9. What a quick way to check multiplication!

This kind of discovery, with straightforward materials that help one think for oneself and at any age is brain food, not drudgery. Believe it or not, math becomes play when presented as exploration and observation. Shortcuts (like adding the digits as a way of checking) have the feel of invention, of discovery.

For Maria Montessori, math materials had to be physical -- a unit bead, a bar of 10 unit beads, a square of 100 beads (10 squared), a cube of 1000 (10 cubed). Such objects are easy to relate to, concrete, not just squiggles on a page -- those squiggles, those crooked lines called “1”, “2”, “3”... need time to acquire meaning. With them, a child can eventually say, “I know what 100 and 1000 mean, because I have held them in my hand.” The Banker’s Game, as it’s called, is a social event, too: children play it in small groups. And it’s active: children MUST get out of their seats to “go to the bank.”

But Montessori didn’t believe that her materials were the only way. She said to use nature for your materials, or whatever you have in your home. One approach I like is called casting out nines. How often have you added a column of numbers -- and then added them again and got a different answer? Casting out 9’s is an easy-to-learn alternative to re-adding.

Another method was created by Jacow Trachtenberg, a Russian mathematician in a Nazi concentration camp. He figured out how to process multi-digit numbers in his head by using the relationships between them, NOT just adding them faster and faster. His tricks are so simple, we should all have them at hand. Not only do they make calculations easier, they make them fast.

For young mathematicians, or children who are not having fun with school math, you might take a look at the Highlights Magazine’s Mathmania Series: game after game after game, and all with simple math in dimensions that traditional workbooks can’t seem to muster.

My high school geometry teacher (the first brilliant teacher I ever encountered) said he’d rather see a novel point of view than a correct calculation: the right answer could come later. That’s what lacks in schools geared to testing, a viewpoint that says, Stop teaching to the test and teach for depth of understanding, -- through math, but don’t forget to use music, art, and original materials as teaching tools also. Use materials created by real people, not by committees. Give children breathing room and the tools they need, and they will learn. All the R’s come along naturally when children love school.

Work As Play

I am in the Aran Islands, Ireland, visiting. Also visiting here is a young mother, Hungarian, with her three-year-old son, Shamu.

Shamu loves everyone: the two young Moroccan men, and Halal (female, Turkish, artistic), who are also guests. Then we have Marcus the donkey, Bran the Labrador Retriever, several chickens and three cats. There are also the four children of our host, Dara Molloy. And in the midst of all this is Celie, with Shamu. We are all guests of a nonconformist priest and his family, on this island off the windy and still chilly Atlantic coast. Together we live and make things work.

Lucky Shamu... the longer he is here, the less he depends on Celie. But Celie has encouraged this, first by bringing him to such a place and now by letting him go, bit by bit, as he gains confidence in this strange setting. Shamu for his part rarely fusses, willingly participates, loves to show off, but not too much, and takes his naps and bedtime in stride. He doesn’t wake up early, doesn’t go to bed late, eats what he is given, laughs, sings, relates to the adoring adults around him. Is this a naturally perfect child, or is it special parenting that leads to such perfection?

Actually, we are not guests, we are all volunteers, helping on this organic farm in rocky Ireland. So our days are filled not with touring but with work: feed the animals, see that everyone eats well (and cleans up). Pull weeds. Plant potatoes, tomatoes, and carrots. Wash communal laundry. Harvest kale, radishes, celery, and rhubarb from which to make meals that will appeal to all of our tastes, even if they aren’t perfect (no butter, eggs or commercially prepared meats for Abdulhoq, no fish for Celie and Shamu, high protein for me, etc.).

And Shamu helps. True, he is small, so he helps only a little, but he does help, even at age three. Three-year-olds in the Montessori classroom are taught to help in food preparation. One of the “games” consists in peeling and cutting up a carrot, then passing it around to classmates. In the kitchen here, Shamu cuts potatoes into reasonable cubes once Celie has peeled them. He wears an apron and hangs it up afterwards. Celie says he will probably attend a Waldorf school -- there are no Montessori schools near their home.

The secret to success here is that the process is natural. Celie presents food preparation not as an “experience” or even as a chore. It is a part of our life, it’s what we do. Like his experiences with the people and the animals, it is another way to live through work and play, -- one thing runs into the other.

Tess, Dara’s wife, when she removed the children from school to teach them at home, feared that she did not know enough of how to teach. What she learned, she says, is that she does not have to teach. The children are eager to learn -- all she has to do is provide the materials and be available for guidance as needed.

Rousseau would have loved it, I think: education as part of life, whether for little Shamu or for the older, home-schooled children, here on an organic farm, a stone’s throw from the ocean and under wind-swept skies: education as a part of life, another natural process, free and available for all who are willing.

Natural Notes - Stinkbugs at Home

You know those flat grey bugs you see on the floor or perched occasionally around the house, even in winter? They’re stinkbugs, and they only stink if you squash them.

Unlike flies and roaches, they don’t go after food, so they’re not apt to contaminate anyone’s plate. Unlike wasps and some spiders, they don’t sting, unlike mosquitoes, they don’t bite.

I’ve never actually smelled the famous “stink” because I’d prefer not to hurt anything that doesn’t hurt me. But since I was a kid I’ve heard about them and wondered if what I was seeing in the house was a stinkbug. They come in when it’s cold and go out when it’s warm, in summer, maybe even in spring.

So if you see one around the house and don’t smoosh it, no problem. It won’t stink. Just pick it up (bare-fingered or with a tissue, or slip a piece of paper under it), and gently let it out the door. It may come back, but you know it won’t bite.
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These articles provide information of a general nature only, and should be used only to supplement your knowledge. We hope you find the articles interesting, but cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any information contained in these articles. Nothing in these articles is intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. You should always consult with your own physician if you have any concerns about your own health or the health of your child.