If Skills & Subjects Are Different, Why Do Schools Treat Them the Same?

by ChristinaPilkington on June 8, 2011 · 0 comments

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There’s a big difference between history and math, and it’s not just a difference between stories and numbers.  There’s also a big difference between reading and science or geography.

Reading and math are skills. Think of them as analogous to learning to talk or how to ride a bike. Almost all kids learn how to talk, but there is a wide range of ages when they become proficient at it. But, if you met two adults for the first time, you’re not going to tell which person starting talking at nine months old and who didn’t speak well until they were 3 ½.

Each person approaches talking, walking, jumping, skipping and many other skills in their own way and in their own time. Yet, for some reason, many people believe skills like reading or doing math are somehow different, that they are subjects to be taught instead of skills that people approach in developmentally different ways.

Just as babies go about walking and talking in many different ways, so will young children learn how to read and understand mathematical concepts.  Learning how to read or do arithmetic usually only becomes problematic when people decide ALL kids must learn to read in the
same way, or learn to add or divide or other such skills.

So if it’s true that reading is a skill that’s very individualistic and will only happen when a child is developmentally ready, whether that’s at age 3 or age 12, why do schools continue to treat reading as a subject instead?

They do this because they are set up using a factory-model approach to learning. All children are the same, all kids of the same age must be shuffled through grades systematically, and at the end, they should all turn out the same, too. They also need to read as soon as possible because for this system to run smoothly, children need to spend a lot of time reading on their own instead of being read to. They also need to understand math facts quickly so they can do math worksheets and books on their own, too.

So what can we do to make sure to honor our children’s own unique developmental timetables?  How can we respect their need to approach skills like reading, writing and math in ways that make sense to them?

Minimize the pressure others mown. ay place on your child to learn these skills quickly. Whether it’s grandma, a next door neighbor or a teacher, be prepared to experience some expectations from others to keep your child “at grade level” in reading, writing and math. It’s tough to stay strong in the face of such overwhelming pressure, but your child needs to know you respect his need to learn at his own pace. Let him know that you’re always there to answer questions whenever he feels ready to learn a new skill. Help him know what to say to other adults who want to press him into learning a skill before he feels ready.

Read, write, and use numbers often on your own.  Children, especially younger children, want to do what their parents do.  They watch the adults in their lives closely, so be sure to model the skills you’d like your children to have someday.  Read your own book next to them while they play, let them see you working on the budget, or figuring out how much time something will take, or writing an e-mail. When they can see the power and pleasure that come from reading, writing and figuring out how to use numbers, they’ll want that for themselves, too.

Let them tell you when they’re ready to learn a new skill. Sometimes this will come in non-verbal ways. You’ll notice them asking a lot of questions about words or numbers, or wanting to write words. Take things slowly. Let them decide how much they want to practice. When your son asks you what a word says, tell him. For goodness sake, don’t ask him to sound it out. If he wants to know the sounds in a word, tell him, but otherwise just say the word. Give him the answer he wants. When you sense resistance, please back off. He might not come back to reading for another few months or even longer, but when he does he will approach it with greater ease and enjoyment than if he had been forced to “practice” reading every day.

Focus on subjects not skills. History provides us with a million great stories to share with kids. Most children love to do hands-on projects and get messy, so science experiments, art and cooking are great subjects to explore. My daughter loves geography and learning how people in other countries live. There are infinite topics in the world to be explored. Focus on interesting things to learn about instead of stressing about reading, writing and math. Find out what excites your kids and spend time doing those things. Then, as you see signs that they might want to try out reading, writing and math, introduce them gently with things your child already enjoys.

Honor and respect the skills they do have.  You don’t have to be like schools.  You don’t have to believe that reading, writing and math are the most important skills in life. Yes, they’re useful and help you accomplish many other things, but to many adults the skills of making music, or art, or caring for babies, or cooking or drilling or running are much more useful in their daily lives that those other skills.  Really look at your child and know her. What makes her special?  What can she do well?  Does she know you think she’s amazing at what she does best?

How big of an importance do you place on traditional academic skills?  What other skills are important that schools do not highly value?

I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below or send me an e-mail at chris@christinapilkington.com. If you’d like e-mail updates of the latests posts, just type your name and e-mail in the box at the right hand corner of this page. Thanks!

Photo Credit: flickr./com/photos/amanda munoz

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