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Children Should Learn From Real Things
“We older people, partly because of our mature intellect, partly because of our defective education, get most of our knowledge through the medium of words. We set the child to learn in the same way, and find him dull and slow. Why? Because it is only with a few words in common use that he associates a definite meaning; all the rest are no more to him than the vocables of a foreign tongue. But set him face to face with a thing, and he is twenty times as quick as you are in knowing all about it; knowledge of things flies to the mind of a child as steel filings to magnet. And, pari passu with his knowledge of things, his vocabulary grows; for it is a law of the mind that what we know, we struggle to express. This fact accounts for many of the apparently aimless questions of children; they are in quest, not of knowledge, but of words to express the knowledge they have.”Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 67-68
The human brain learns abstract concepts by first becoming familiar with it concretely. This requires the use of things–a very specific and scientific term 🙂 By “things,” Mason meant anything that can be experienced by the five senses. For example, a child must count objects and physically divide them (concrete) before they can understand how division works on paper (abstract). They must be exposed to words concretely, through copywork and word study, before they can compose their own essays. They must be familiar with dropping things from high places, constructing pumps, and cooking food before they will understand the formulas in physics, mechanics, and chemistry.
A couple of years ago, I read a BBC article explaining that cardiology students were failing to understand how a heart worked because they had never used or constructed a basic pump. Around the same time, I read an article about the NASA engineers that worked on the first space missions. These engineers would soon retire and NASA wanted the best-of-the-best to replace them. They picked the highest scoring graduates from the most prestigious schools in the world, but these new engineers just weren’t living up to the high standards set by the previous engineers; problems were not solved and new ideas were not birthed. These engineers were the top of their class; they were geniuses. So, what was wrong?
NASA sent out a task force to figure out what was different about the original engineers, and how they could replicate it in future generations. What they found was so simple it surprised them. Their childhoods were different. The retired engineers were allowed to take apart appliances and electronics, and were expected to put them back together. It was the act of putting them back together (problem solving, creative thinking) that nurtured their engineering mind. Most children today do not have that opportunity. They are too busy memorizing formulas, completing worksheets, and studying for tests.
It may seem obvious, but mechanical engineers must spend time tinkering with real things. Too often parents, teachers, and school administrators are focused on what can be tested and measured, putting way too much focus on abstract concepts and skills. When your child takes apart an old clock and attempts to put it back together, that is engineering. When your three year old sorts his M&Ms by color, that is math. When your child wants to see what will happen when they leave out the baking powder in muffins, that is chemistry. Sure, you can tell them what will happen, or watch a video. But if a picture is worth a thousand words, then real experience is worth a million. So much more can be learned from experiencing it with all five senses. Real, concrete, tangible things are far superior to descriptions, pictures, or videos.
For example: virtual puzzles on the iPad are a popular “learning” activity for young children. But what are children really learning from this activity? When they attempt to fit two pieces together that don’t fit, a beep sounds and the pieces fly back to the corner. The child learns that one piece cannot go there, but doesn’t understand why. On the other hand, if the child is working with a real puzzle they may try to force two pieces together but their hands will feel the incompatibility. If the child can force the two to fit, he will continue fitting pieces together until he realizes that it doesn’t look right. The colors and patterns don’t look like the picture on the box. So he must take it apart and figure out where he went wrong. This is the benefit of working with real things versus abstract or virtual “things.”
“Wait a minute,” you may be saying. “This all sounds good in theory, but does working with real things really make a difference?” As always, let’s look at the research:
A meta-analysis of 15 years of research on the advantages of hands-on learning, including 57 studies of 13,000 students in 1,000 classrooms, demonstrated that students in activity-based programs (programs that use “things”) performed up to 20% higher than groups using traditional or textbook approaches. The greatest gains occurred in creativity, attitude, perception, and logic (Bredderman, 1982). The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) also known as “The Nation’s Report Card,” revealed that teachers who conduct hands-on learning activities on a weekly basis out-perform their peers by more than 70% of a grade level in math and 40% of a grade level in science (U.S. Department of Education, 1999). (Source)
Children can learn mathematics and sciences effectively even before formal lessons if basic math and science concepts are communicated to them early using hands-on, concrete methods of teaching. Math and science are practical and object-oriented and can best be learnt through inquiry (Okebukola in Mandor, 2002) and through intelligent manipulation of “things” (Ekwueme, 2007). (Source)
With so many “things” available, how do you decide which to purchase and keep around? As with booklists, I include supply lists in the Curriculum Guides (the Early Years is the most extensive). But for now, here is a list to get you started:
- String or rope
- Paints + brushes
- Clay + tools
- Saved recyclables
- Old electronics (clocks, VCRs, remote control cars, etc)
- Tool set
- Wood scraps
- Stainless steel buckets
- Measuring cups
- Cloth bags
- Magnifying glass
- Aquariums (a few sizes)