Sunday, March 23, 2008

Is all the coddling hurting our children academically?

I saw a post by Henry Cate on Why Homeschool this morning that resonated strongly with me. Henry and Homeschool Buzz both focus primarily on the difference between the Finnish and American Educational systems.

Rightly so, as the The Wall Street Journal says:

"Finnish teenagers are among the smartest in the world. They earned some of the top scores by 15-year-old students who were tested in 57 countries. American teens finished among the world's C students even as U.S. educators piled on more homework, standards and rules. Finnish youth, like their U.S. counterparts, also waste hours online. They dye their hair, love sarcasm and listen to rap and heavy metal. But by ninth grade they're way ahead in math, science and reading -- on track to keeping Finns among the world's most productive workers."

However, what struck me almost more than the educational differences, were the cultural differences between the Finns and the Americans. I truly think that is what accounts for the difference in the educational systems and student achievements.

The Wall Street Journal leaves, to my mind, a telling issue to the end of the article.
Once school starts, the Finns are more self-reliant. While some U.S. parents fuss over accompanying their children to and from school, and arrange every play date and outing, young Finns do much more on their own. At the Ymmersta School in a nearby Helsinki suburb, some first-grade students trudge to school through a stand of evergreens in near darkness. At lunch, they pick out their own meals, which all schools give free, and carry the trays to lunch tables. There is no Internet filter in the school library. They can walk in their socks during class, but at home even the very young are expected to lace up their own skates or put on their own skis."

I've only lived in the US for 8 years and I am constantly struck by how babied American children are. I am always hearing of 5 and 6 year olds whose mothers still choose their clothing for them and dress them. I find it mind boggling that children that age aren't already making their own daily clothing choices and dressing themselves. I started expecting my children to help dress themselves by the time they were 18 months. By the time they were three I expected them to dress themselves, I only helped with the odd button or buckle. I provided gentle advice on clothing combinations that, as pictures from those years will show, was generally ignored.

We've been allowing our children to walk around the inside of part of our neighborhood for the last 8 or 9 months (they turn 7 in 2 weeks). Our rules are that they have to remain on the private roads and they have to be together, no solo jaunts allowed. I've lost count of the number of disapproving looks and comments we've received.

My list could go on and on, but this post is not about how we, as a family, do things.

I don't think we can expect our educational system to change, or our children to accept more responsibility for their own educational achievements until we, as parents, start realizing that children are far more competent than we give them credit.

I think that the need to coddle our children results in the craziness we see in the schools today. Everyone is so worried that their children will miss out on something that they have them doing tons of different subjects and extramurals. The problem is that the children end up knowing a very tiny bit on many subjects, but know nothing in depth.

This makes for intellectual laziness. The Finns on the other hand, do fewer subjects and almost no extramurals, but what they do do, they study in depth.

I have no experience with American High Schools but have watched two babysitters go through university. I've been struck by the amount of multiple choice exams they have. I cannot understand how you can examine someone's knowledge of a subject fully if you don't have them write about it. I've even seen a Philosophy exam done as multiple choice and not essay. That blew my mind. There is no way you can test knowledge on this subject with multiple choice, not, that is, if you want the students to have an in depth knowledge of the subject.

"Finnish high-school senior Elina Lamponen saw the differences firsthand. She spent a year at Colon High School in Colon, Mich.,................ History tests were often multiple choice. The rare essay question, she says, allowed very little space in which to write. In-class projects were largely "glue this to the poster for an hour," she says. Her Finnish high school forced Ms. Lamponen, a spiky-haired 19-year-old, to repeat the year when she returned."

I am so glad that homeschooling is an option for our family. This allows us to follow our own educational philosophy. Marc and I are firm believers in depth over breadth in education and have started this with our first graders.

This year, our focus has been on reading, handwriting, spelling, grammar and arithmetic. Anything else we do is for fun. We believe that children who are strong readers and who are able to communicate fluently and easily through the written word, will be easier to educate than children who are not.

I am constantly amazed at the homework I see my friends' children bring home from public school. They expect first graders, who are barely reading or writing, to write creative stories. They allow invented spelling. I think it is just too difficult for a child who can barely form the letters and who can't spell to write creatively as well. We're leaving creative writing until the children can handwrite and spell automatically and after we've taught them the basics of structuring essays.

That's not to say they don't write stories, they do, but on their own time, not as part of school. They write for the love of writing. They get around the handwriting issue by writing in NeoOffice as typing is currently easier for them than handwriting. I'm a martinet about spelling. I expect the children to use a dictionary to ensure their spelling is correct. Some might think I am harsh, but I worry about allowing misspellings without corrections. I think that if you misspell a word without a correction, you hardwire the incorrect spelling into your brain. I'd much rather the children hardwired the correct, than the incorrect spellings.

It's tough following a "depth, not breadth" educational philosophy as there as just so many, neat and interesting activities we could sign up for. But we hold firm. We're using these early elementary years to give our children a solid foundation in the basics and to allow them lots of free time to nurture their creative juices.

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