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60: Start Early: Smart Content Makes Kids Smarter



Don’t waste their time.

Teach them something!


Here’s my favorite story of educational nitwittery.
Told that first graders should learn the names of the oceans,
a gang of principals and superintendents objected:
why would children need to know that information???

My mind runs in the opposite direction. What don’t they need to know?
What couldn’t we teach them, with just a little effort and ingenuity?
I say: just about anything you can teach to ordinary, middle-IQ adults, you can teach to a first-grader.

What follows is a quick inventory, with few details, of the many kinds of knowledge that you could teach to young children.
Ideally, the same topics would be revisited again and again, next month and next grade, with greater detail on each pass. 

Completeness is not the point. Let’s say a family is visiting a famous monument. Typically, the parents would mention a few details. They shouldn’t try to teach the history of the war. The goal is to plant seeds, to start conversations.

House Rules: Teaching something is better than teaching nothing.
Starting anywhere is better than not starting.

LEVEL I: Get Them Thinking 

1. DIAGRAMS AND SIMPLE MAPS. A diagram of the classroom, a map of the school grounds -- conceptually they are the same. The concept of scale--let’s say you have a diagram where 1” equals 1’--is easy to grasp if you can see and measure the distances. 

2:  GAMES AND RULES. Point out that football, basketball, and baseball are played on a precisely laid out fields or courts; and each sport has its rules. Consider that even simple games like tic-tac-toe, checkers, Bingo, dominoes or Go Fish have their rules. Explore the concept of structure and of working creatively within rules. On another occasion, you can segue to street signs and traffic lights: highways work only because people are all observing the same rules.

3.  RIDDLES AND PUZZLES. One plus two equals what?--we call that a problem. A riddle or a puzzle adds extra dimension: there’s something hidden that makes the simple seem complex. For example, the Riddle of the Sphinx: what walks on four legs as a child, two legs as an adult, and three legs in old age? Find simple riddles, puzzles, and mazes to pull kids into the pleasure of solving a mystery. Also, there are knock-knock jokes, where the second question (“Sam and Janet who?”) poses a riddle of sorts.

4. GEARS AND CLOCKS. Everyone is in awe of the tiny parts inside a watch. Compare those tiny parts to the big gears in, for example, a winch; and point out that it’s all the same thing: ways of moving energy around. The spring, for example, is stored energy, like a battery. A clock has the special function of “keeping time,” which it does by ticking in a steady, regular way, day after day. 

5. DICE AND PROBABILITY. The nice thing about a single die in that there are only six sides and six numbers. You can make a chart that shows absolutely that each number has a one-in-six chance of coming up on top. Maybe a year or two later, you can tackle two dice where you have many more possibilities. One interesting phenomenon is that two sixes and two ones are very rare combinations, whereas sevens are common. You can show all of these things on a chart.

6. A PICTURE OF ANYTHING. Find a really beautiful picture of a place, a building, a monument, a battlefield, a river, ANYTHING as long as it’s an interesting picture, and then give a few details. Invite the children to walk around inside this picture, and observe all the details. Who was there, how did it come about, why is this considered a big deal? Let’s say that you have a picture of the Liberty Bell. Tell how big it is, where it is exactly, why is it so famous, where did that crack come from, how do people make bells like this? A teacher with imagination and knowledge can take almost any picture and open up a new world.

7. BY FOOT, SAILING SHIP, HORSE, TRAIN, CAR, OR PLANE. Talk about transportation over the centuries. Note how important the horse was in many different places and cultures; and the sail boat. Show  Roman armies marching and armies in the American Revolution -- almost nothing has changed. The best armies could move about 30 miles a day or, if the terrain was bad, only 20 or 10 or 5 miles a day. All this is good preparation for understanding the huge distances in the Revolutionary War, and communication problems generally for the early colonists. Simply for the congressmen to reach Washington, D.C. was a struggle. On the other hand, if an army moves a steady 30 miles a day, then five weeks later, they have advanced about 1000 miles, a huge distance. Trains didn’t appear until the 1800’s. Cars and planes, both dependent on the gasoline engine, didn’t really appear until the 1900’s. Kids need to be told this stuff. 

8. EASY AESOP’S FABLES. Remember the crow figuring out how to drink the water in the jar? People are still fascinated by the crow’s cleverness. How about teasing this dilemma for a few days. What can the crow possibly do? Let kids offer their own theories. Pick a new fable each week and have fun with it. I suspect that Aesop teaches more real critical thinking than the contrived discussions often used in public schools.  

IN GENERAL: if things are explained in simple, common-sense ways,
then the slower children can learn as much as the smarter kids. Knowledge doesn’t become obscure unless you explain the mathematics or start giving too many details. For a kid, every subject is very much like cricket for most Americans. It’s weird, strange, and who cares? Now, if you want to pull American adults into the game of cricket, you had better go slow. Start with the most basic facts. I’ve seen or heard cricket discussed 50 times, and I still have no idea what those people are trying to accomplish. Now, if somebody with a diagram of the field would show me the distances involved, the number of people on a team, and explain what their responsibilities are, I might get it. Same with every sport for new spectators--you start with the basics. And that’s how you teach every subject to kids.

The problem with many schools is that they have abandoned facts and knowledge.
They don't really try to teach very much. To justify this,
they have lied about what kids can do.
In the process, they have warped everyone’s sense of what is possible. That’s the thesis of this article: FAR MORE is possible than we normally assume.
Let’s push the actual limits.

We often hear what sponges little kids are. They can soak up anything,
if given the chance. Furthermore, kids are physically smaller, more docile, more impressionable, easier to instruct in those first four years than later on. All of this openness and curiosity is often squandered. Instead the kids are pushed along, illiterate and bitter. Then they really are hard to teach.

Also, kids are genetically wired to learn a second language with greater ease than later in life. Naturally, the Education Establishment banished all foreign languages from the early years. That’s the pattern across the board. It’s sick and wasteful. 

LEVEL II: More Thinking

1. LOCKS AND KEYS. Ever since people had houses and possessions, they tried to find ways to keep them safe. Show the children some early locks and great big keys. For travel on stage coaches and ships, people designed strong boxes, now called safes. Ingenious hidden mechanisms are a common features in movies. If you have a cutaway model of a lock (or picture), most kids will enjoy seeing how it works. 

2. CIRCUITS AND ELECTRICITY. An electrical circuit is a special kind of diagram or map. It shows how electricity moves around in a circle. Compare a circuit showing electricity’s flow with a map showing traffic patterns. My favorite circuit remains the humble flashlight: you can easily understand the three parts of the circuit or the actual object: power (battery); bulb (resistance), and on-off switch.
3. MONEY AND STAMPS. The common denominator is that a piece of paper  stands for wealth. You could also show checks, stock certificates, coupons, gift certificates, IOUs, movie tickets, etc. All of these are solutions to the problem of people not wanting to carry wealth on their person. Just as you would not want to paste a quarter on an envelope,

4.  THE ANIMAL OF THE WEEK  BLITZKRIEG.  Find a picture of a lion, or film clip. Focus on this one animal and tell as much as you can: where they live, how long they live, how heavy they get, why the lion is called the King of the Jungle, how a lion in the jungle is related to the cat in someone’s house. Lion, mouse or shrimp doesn’t matter. The point is to pick something specific and really wallow in it for a half-hour.  Use lots of visuals. The real point is to get the children thinking about THE MANY KINDS OF INFORMATION they might learn about any animal, any plant, any situation. Then, you could tell the children to pick their favorite animal and find all that sort of information about this or that animal. They would have a road map for a one-paragraph report or, in later grades, a 10-page report.

5. MACHINES AND MOTORS. There are so many clever mechanisms going back many thousands of years: plows, water wheels, bows and arrows; grinding mills, devices to keep time; saws, catapults, steam engines, gasoline engine, jet engine. All illustrate human ingenuity. All are labor-saving devices. All are today created by complex manufacturing operations. A vacuum cleaner might contain many hundreds of unique parts--each has to be designed and manufactured. This is a good opening for explaining what engineers do. Basically, they build things that don't fall down or stop working.  

6. WHAT IS BIOLOGY, CHEMISTRY, PHYSICS, ETC.? What sort of questions are studied in each subject?  Tell the kids what the professionals in each field do all day. Mention all the fascinating problems that need to be solved. Teach the subjects indirectly by explaining in very concrete terms what, for example, several different physicists might be doing that very day. 

7. ADVANCED AESOP’S FABLES, MAXIMS, POOR RICHARD’S ALMANACK. All of these are expressions of wisdom and smart reasoning. Why does a stitch in time save nine? What’s it mean that a rolling stone gathers no moss? Also consider literary bits that are logically interesting. For example, when Mark Antony says, “Friends, Romans countrymen, lend me your ears, I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him,” this is fascinating because he is there to praise him! (Wikipedia explains all the rhetorical devices.) Markham’s “Outwitted” is another great example:

He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.

LEVEL III: Advanced Thinking

William Blake talked about seeing infinity in a grain of sand. That’s the basic idea here -- you pick up something simple, an everyday object, and you see as much in it as possible. Encourage children to go behind the familiar surfaces. How was this thing made? How many different people contributed to this thing? Here are some examples:

1) CLOTH AND WEAVING. Most fabric is put together pretty much the same way: threads crisscross, passing above and below each other.  Find some burlap or coarse fabric (or look at somebody’s shirt under a magnifying glass), and let everyone examine the construction. But how is this done? Give pieces of string to your students; and let them weave a small piece of cloth by hand. Then they will really appreciate the genius of inventing a loom. They will really appreciate seeing how large industrial looms make huge pieces of cloth.
2) MOLDS AND CASTING. Almost all the visible parts in a car, kitchen appliance, or consumer electronics product started as an original that somebody carved or otherwise shaped. Molds are made of this object. Then metals or plastics are put into the mold; and millions of copies are made of that original carving. We should be appreciative of the complexity of everything, and the elaborate chain of events that makes a plastic toy possible. Also, it’s historically fascinating that people were molding coins, jewelry, weapons, etc. many thousands of years ago. Explain that you can use the ground, ordinary dirt. Shape a hole in the dirt; pour molten metal in that hole; let it cool; and you will have metal cast in that shape, whatever it is. The result might not be perfect by today’s standards but it can be used as a spear, knife, scraper, etc.
3) INDUSTRIAL PROCESSES. Explain how factories make various simple objects, such as a straight pin, paper clip, spring, ballpoint pen. Explain how parts are brought together and assembled to make a mouse trap. The most common products are often the ones with very interesting stories. For example, how do they make a lead pencil? In a room full of adults, you might not be able to find the answer. But once you see the steps (in an encyclopedia, for example), you think, well of course, how else could you do it? 

 4) PLATE GLASS AND PAPER. Many things we take for granted are the ones that would most astonish a primitive society. Humans have been making glass for many thousands of years. But to make glass perfectly clear and smooth -- that’s a modern miracle. Similarly, it’s fairly easy to make primitive paper. You chop up almost anything -- old clothes, newspapers, grass -- and grind it into a pulp, pour it on a flat surface, press it flat, and let it dry. That layer is paper. For artistic purposes, you might get something beautiful the first time. But to make ordinary typewriter paper, so thin, so consistent --that’s a modern miracle.

5) SODA POP.  Children handle things every day, such as soft drinks, that are absolute miracles of industrial ingenuity. First, you have to make the drink absolutely the same every day in large batches. Then you have to put it inside a container and seal that container so that the carbonation is sealed in. Discuss the concept of quality control -- creating a product that is a same year to year, and it might have to reach a store through extremes of weather. There are many great videos and movies (as seen on the History Channel, etc.) that tell the story quickly.  
6) SCALE MODELS. Children love toy cars, miniature furniture, etc. These provide a simple way to study the concept of scale. How many feet of car have been reduced to how many inches of model? Once this concept is discussed for a while, children could take graph paper, create a grid out of string, and reproduce a large picture on the graph paper, one square at a time. That this project would be done roughly and primitively is not the point. That it is done at all will teach a great deal.

7) MUSIC. Point out that every human voice, every machine, and every musical instrument can make thousands of sounds. But it turns out that most of these sounds don’t go together very well, and we call them noise. So you get to the concept of harmony, i.e., sounds we like to hear. Many in a row we call melody. The history of music is a story of attempts in different cultures to create scales and chords that the ear enjoys. Chinese music, Arab music, and Western music found different ways to do the same thing. At some point, you explain the keyboard on the piano -- that each C is a doubling of the frequency of the previous one. And all the keys in between are tuned to be harmonious intervals.

8)  DRAWING TECHNIQUES. Find a comic book or cartoon, and explain to the children how shapes -- or the illusion of shapes -- are created on a flat surface. Explain shadowing and cross-hatching. The goal here is to teach the children how to draw an apple without drawing the outline. That’s how everybody wants to start. You say, no, do it by drawing the shadows around the shape, and the highlights on the apple. Make the eye see the apple the way we see it in nature. This might be a nice springboard to explaining art and design on the computer.

9) PROGRAMMING.  Everybody has seen coin counters, where pennies, nickels and dimes are separated. In a rather simplistic way, this is like computer programming. Each coin is routed one way of the other; in computer chips, electricity is routed one way or the other. There are also parallels with water pipes, faucets, and valves. By talking about the coins, the flow of water in pipes, the flow of electricity in a circuit, you can introduce the idea of a decision tree, of something being right or wrong, on or off, yes or no. I think the average person is still stunned to find that all computer chips do their magic by making lots of dumb yes-no decisions very quickly. So you could keep the discussion very primitive and still be teaching important truths about the most complicated things in our lives.

10) THE AIRPLANE WING. A flat wing won’t fly. Planes are able to fly because the wings are curved, and reduced pressure is created on the upper surfaces. In effect, a vacuum pulls the wings upward. The faster the plane is moving, the greater the lift, and that’s why we see huge jet planes able to fly with very small wings. You can show this with drawings and film clips. You can also make a primitive model that you put in front of a fan, and everyone can see the wing try to lift.
11) TUNNELS. Fairly early in life, every child goes through a tunnel under water or through a mountain. We go through a long tube; we all wonder how it got there. History Channel, etc. have wonderful material about the construction of the tunnel under the English Channel, the largest tunnel through the Rockies, and other extraordinary achievements. Everything is done on a massive scale, with monster machines. Even young children will appreciate the challenge.

12) GENERATORS AND TRANSFORMERS. There’s no question that electricity can get complicated very quickly. So don’t let that happen. Just point out that if you rub your clothes together, you can generate a spark, which is electricity. When you move one magnet around another magnet, you can generate current. That’s all a generator is. Meanwhile, transformers are ways, most often, of taking powerful electricity and making it weaker. Almost every child has seen a transformer on a pole outside the house, or used with the computer, or in the back of some electrical product. The point is that the 110 volts coming out of the wall is too strong for many components inside the product, so the engineers step the electricity down from 110 volts to 12 volts, so the parts run cooler and there is not so much chance of fire, etc. How is this done? You just place the wires close together, amazingly. The powerful flow in one wire will introduce a  weaker flow in an adjacent wire.

13)  LANGUAGE AND CODES. The basic theme here is that one thing represents another. For example, Morse code represents individual letters. Sheet music represents the notes on a piano, etc. A code used by spies might represent the individual letters. Similarly, the words of one language could be said to represent, or be code for, the words in another language. So you have the related concepts of translation or cracking a code. Note that with a mysterious object like the Rosetta Stone, the two concepts overlap exactly.

14) BUSINESS. Almost every day we are in stores with more than 500 or even 5000 separate items for sale. Every one has to be designed, manufactured, presented in a catalog to the store, so the store will carry the product for consumers to buy. Running a business is a vastly complicated process, and a gift to consumers by our free enterprise system. If stores didn’t hope to make a profit, why would they bother carrying the product, or bother to open in the first place? Successful retail operation requires a constant attention to detail -- sometimes this simply means that the clerks are constantly polishing and repositioning apples in front of a fruit market.  
15) THE STOCK MARKET. At least in a small way, the buying and selling of stock could be explained. A company starts; it issues stock (basically asking the public to lend money to the new company); and as time goes by, people buy and sell the piece of paper that represents this promise to pay issued by the company when it started. If the company is doing well, investors hope that the stock will become more valuable, both because of dividends and increased demand for that stock. If you can make this real with a few simple examples, children will be able to generalize. I always thought that the excitement and uncertainty of Wall Street could be replicated, to some degree, in the classroom. I believe there are simulations available. I can propose one myself. The key thing is to keep it really simple, and to build in risk. 

The point, in all of these suggestions, is to use anything at hand to jumpstart the minds of students. Completeness is not a goal.
Mastery is not the goal. People go to school for years to become experts in each of these areas. The point is to help the children become what might be called fans, knowledgeable spectators, informed observers. 

You don’t have to go mountain climbing to know something about what a person is doing on the side of a mountain.
The more you know about what that person is doing, the more you appreciate the skill and bravery you are witnessing.

The problem in our culture is that children hardly see what is going on around them. They take so much for granted, and don’t appreciate all of the genius that goes into giving us the life that we enjoy.

To a great degree, public schools stopped teaching.
John Dewey and all of his group stressed the importance of social engineering, and didn’t seem to care if children learned anything.
That might not have been the official doctrine. That’s just how it worked out in thousands of classrooms.

Perversely, teachers probably have to work harder teaching nothing than they would if they simply try to teach something.

If an audience is enjoying a movie, they will sit there quietly having a good time. But show the audience a bad movie, and you will see a lot  of restless people, chatting, booing, and leaving.
Little kids aren’t allowed to leave. This shouldn’t be exploited but capitalized upon. Use the time to maximum advantage by teaching them so they want to be there.

To recap: don’t waste their time, teach them something. 



Seen on an internet forum:
"My daughter is a typical gifted kid with lots of energy, questions, and over-excitability on just about everything. She used to complain a lot that school is not challenging enough and used to worry about world problems such as poverty, hunger, war, environment and all of the above...”
Sad commentary. Instead of teaching these kids useful information, they are kept anxious and crazed. Not a good state for learning.
World problems? Really?!? 

Bloom's Taxonomy
 Update on June, 2014 
 I recently published a piece on Bloom's Taxonomy,
saying it was a nuisance and should be ignored.
 I realized that this article contains no reference to Bloom. 
 But the truth is, this article here is the perfect rebuke to Bloom's Taxonomy.
Just start teaching stuff and getting children to discuss it.
That's how education always worked.
Oh, look, a worm. How does it move? How does it live?
Then you compare its life to that of a snail or a beetle.
 On the other hand, Bloom's Taxonomy makes teachers and schools
waste a lot of time on plotting the perfect presentation
of some little wisp of information they've decided to teach.

© Bruce Deitrick Price 2012