Friday, October 11, 2013

Pegs, Memorization and My home

I have been following Afterthoughts' 31 days of Charlotte Mason 101.  I have read through two of CM's books and other interpretations of her writings, but I always appreciate being reminded of the basics.  Yesterday's post included some comments about how using facts as pegs is in direct opposition to CM's approach to education.  CM asserted that ideas are the only educators of students. This contrasts directly with a common interpretation of Dorothy Sayers' understanding of classical education.  Sayers asserts that young children are in the "poll parrot" stage where they love to memorize and later they will build context for those facts.  This topic of memorization of facts is one of the areas of disagreement in the classical education movement.  How much, what and when do you memorize?  Below are some thoughts as I grapple with this issue.

I have seen pegs (memorizing facts or quickly introducing concepts) work to draw students into a subject.  When children have heard the name or idea at one point, they begin to listen for it, build concepts around it and ask questions.  (Last week my 4 yo met a little girl named Juliet and immediately connected it with Julius Caesar who he only knows through a song). In my own life, I trace my interest in American history to a timeline play we did in 5th grade.  I know a little song that goes with each era and helps me to remember its general happenings. Honestly, it made taking AP history a breeze because I had a framework.

However, I am concerned that often we ONLY put pegs in and call that education.  I agree that memorizing facts alone, at any stage, is not education.  We all know that in memory work if you don't keep practicing you won't remember.  We need ideas, story and context, to truly help us remember and feed our brains - as CM advocates. Facts don't stand alone in our memory for long but that doesn't mean they can't play a role.

For now, I have decided that I will really focus on memorizing facts in the following situations:

1.  The concepts need to be firmly linked together for long term success.

For example, Christopher Perrin asserts that you should memorize the four principle parts of a Latin verb together - from the beginning.  Memorizing all the concepts at once - even if you don't understand them - helps them stay related in your brain.  Later you can fill in the details of how each one is formed and functions.  Just learning the ones that you "understand" will lead to confusion later because your brain will not as easily connect all the pieces together.  But when items are memorized together, they are organized together and it will help you better use and understand Latin grammar.

Another example might be learning phonics. Most good programs teach all the sounds of the letter when it is introduced so that students automatically think of all the options when they see the symbol.  Many of the exceptions that upset students are a result of not being taught all of the variations when they begin.

2.  To provide organization and highlight key ideas, people or issues within a subject so that it serves as a framework for the long term. 

I think there is a valid reason why many classical programs memorize a history timeline.  Now, how much information should be a part of that and the format is a subject for debate.  I do think that knowing some type of timeline has its advantages though.  Recently we read Little Duke.  It helped my boys immensely to understand that he was after Charlemagne (we had memorized a sentence about him and read a little bit) and before the Battle of Hastings (another memorized sentence and a bit of background info.).  Without that, it would have been a great story but wouldn't have been history for them.  Knowing their timeline helped to place the story in history.

I knew one middle school CM student who could tell an excellent history tale but she couldn't place that story in time.  As we talked, she had gotten lost in the details and never been challenged to see how it connected with the sweep of history.  I realize that CM has students create their own timelines and maybe this wasn't happening with this particular family.  I think that memorizing a few key dates, events and people in order, can be helpful to that process.  It is not the end - but a means to aiding understanding.

I really struggle with what to do with math and memorization.  At some point you need to know your facts but I don't think you start by memorizing them.  Montessori has excellent materials to help you visualize the math.  You can see why a number is called a square or a cube. Here I do think that memorizing should arise out of constant use of the basic facts.  But if it doesn't come naturally around about 3rd grade I do think you focus on it until you really get it.

Memorizing should be a jumping off point - not a destination. I think CM was surrounded by those who felt that memorization was good education.  She was reacting to that approach.

Honestly, for me, when I think about memorizing I am struck by the verse "Knowledge puffs up but love builds up" 1 Cor. 8:1.  I struggle with the fact that our education might be puffing and not building.  But if facts are being used to provide a framework for the meat of the story to hang on to, I think they serve a useful and necessary role.

We do memorize scripture but I know that I fall short on memorizing poetry and literature excerpts with my kids.  This might hinder them later in their writing career - so I am going to try to up my game in that area.  I am truly benefiting from memorizing mottoes (as my 4 yo tells me that "I focused on my job and did it right, mom!").  I think we will do better if some of these things are on CD so that I am listening to them instead of reading them.

I am still at the beginning of my journey but I do think there is some value in memorizing but not as an end and not to the point where it overshadows poetry, literature and other parts of the curriculum.  It may not be totally in line with CM, but I think it is in line with my goals for educating my children.

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