Reviews: How Children Learn

January 01, 2002 6 min read
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KINGDOM OF CHILDREN: Culture and Controversy in the Homeschooling Movement, by Mitchell L. Stevens. (Princeton, 238 pages, $24.95.)
Of all the social movements in America over the past 30 years, few have been as dramatically successful as the rise of homeschooling. In the early 1970s, only a few thousand children nationwide were taught at home. Today, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the homeschooling ranks stand at more than 1 million. The public’s attitudes toward homeschooling have changed, too. Where people once considered their homeschooling neighbors overprotective oddballs, nowadays they are more likely to think of them as perfectly fine, if somewhat zealous, parents.

The greater acceptance of homeschooling, Stevens argues in this revealing book, reflects a heightened awareness of each child’s individuality and the inability of the average school to address uniqueness. Homeschooling parents, the Hamilton College sociologist writes, merely take this view to its superlogical extreme: Since they know their children’s needs better than anyone else, they should be the ones to teach them. Indeed, most believe they are the only ones who can do the job.

This does not mean, however, that all homeschoolers are alike. Stevens, who spent much of the 1990s interviewing and visiting a wide range of homeschooling families, divides them into two broad groups: Christians and progressives. Christian homeschoolers, the larger of the two contingents, mostly identify themselves as conservative Protestants. Believing that children —all people, for that matter—are susceptible to sin, they emphasize the need for the loving and protective “authority of parents. Their guiding belief, Stevens writes, is that children “are divine lights, but they should not be allowed to burn uncontrolled.”

The progressives, on the other hand, are an inclusive lot with Jews, liberal Christians, Taoists, atheists, and others thrown into the mix. What unites them philosophically is a belief in the innate goodness of children. Hence, they typically downplay authority in favor of freedom. Because children are naturally curious, these folks argue, they should be encouraged to pursue their passions, whatever they may be—science fiction, algebraic equations, insects, horseback riding. The parents’ job is to nurture children’s inherent talents and interests.

As different as the two groups may be, they share key perspectives. Both believe, for example, in the sanctity of the child. And learning at home, they argue, is natural, while attending school is not. For the Christians, this sense of homeschooling is embedded in what they refer to as the “biblical chain of command,” where the child sits at the right hand of the mother, who, in turn, sits at the right hand of God. The progressives’ belief is rooted in nature itself. They consider the child as analogous to a seedling that can only flourish in the most nourishing, sun-filled environment.

Stevens is rightly skeptical of both rationales. Mothers, he points out, oversee most homeschooling. To call this the only natural way to educate children, then, is to suggest, à la the 1950s, that a woman’s place is in the home. He also asks whether it is really natural, let alone emotionally healthy, for children to be in their parents’ company virtually around the clock. Many present and past cultures, he writes, would consider this arrangement more obsessive than ideal.

Although Stevens is not convinced that this exhaustive approach to parenting is the right one, he clearly respects the homeschoolers and their movement. He sees it as a vital force in American education, compelling us to ask hard questions about the impersonal nature of school and how we want to raise our children.

OVERSOLD & UNDERUSED: Computers in the Classroom, by Larry Cuban. (Harvard, 256 pages, $27.95.)
Billions of dollars have been spent outfitting schools with computers and linking them to the Internet, but the new technology, Cuban argues, has done little to transform classroom teaching and learning. Indeed, after studying a number of schools in Northern California’s Silicon Valley, the Stanford University scholar found that teachers, with few exceptions, still work as they always have, presenting lessons and directing discussions from the front of the classroom.

Why, Cuban wonders, have teachers been so resistant to change, refusing to give up traditional pedagogy in favor of approaches that integrate new technologies? Some critics blame technophobia, but this, the author reveals, is simply not the case. Although most teachers embrace technology, they tend to use it for preparation—to gather information, make up study guides and tests, keep track of grades, and the like—not for in-class instruction. Some of the reasons for this are rooted in practical concerns. Many, for example, told Cuban that they are at a loss when computers unexpectedly crash and disrupt a lesson. But the principal reason, Cuban discovered, is more philosophical, especially at the elementary level. Teachers, he found, like human contact. They want to form emotional bonds with students, and such bonds, he writes, “seldom evolve from child-machine interactions.”

Policymakers and school officials have convinced nervous parents that their kids need technology-laden classrooms and computer-based instruction if they are one day to succeed in the marketplace. But most people, Cuban points out, only use computers for simple tasks such as word processing, Internet access, and e-mail, which can easily be learned and performed at home. The bottom line, he tells us, is that the massive investment in new technology is unlikely to transform classroom instruction any time soon. And that, Cuban suggests, may not be such a bad thing after all.

THE PASSIONATE LEARNER: How Teachers and Parents Can Help Children Reclaim the Joy of Discovery, by Robert L. Fried. (Beacon, 282 pages, $23.)
Five years after the publication of his well-received The Passionate Teacher, Fried, an education professor at Northeastern University, has written a companion book focusing on the student. Like the earlier volume, his new book is full of enthusiastic, if somewhat pat, statements such as, “Learning is one of the most fascinating and rewarding activities for human beings” and “Learning is as natural as breathing.” But if such statements are true, why do so many children lose their passion for learning sometime around the 4th or 5th grade? Fried, like many progressive educators, blames uninspired instruction and an unhealthy emphasis on competition in the form of grades. No longer intrinsically motivated, many youngsters, he writes, simply tune out.

For Fried, student boredom is the classroom’s dead canary—an indication that something is seriously wrong with the atmosphere. There are many causes for boredom, he writes, but often it is a direct result of “a teacher expecting the whole class to do something that only a few are likely to find interesting.” Teachers can help students retain—or rekindle—their passion for learning by, among other things, giving them choices about what and how they study.

For the most part, Fried’s reflections are dead-on, though some readers may take issue with his belief that learning should always be a joy. After all, many things worth knowing—math facts, verb conjugations, a challenging piece of music—require tedious practice that must, at times, be stoically endured.

—David Ruenzel


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