Teach Your Children Well

by Sarah A. Hoyt

This post is about learning.  It is not about schools, as such, though they are part of learning – it is about teaching and learning, though, the passing on of our civilization as it’s been passed on to us.  

In that respect, and as far as that goes, it is about writing too.  It is about every craft and everything – because it is about civilization and what is at the base of it.

I don’t know when I realized that not only weren’t most schools doing their job, they were going out of their way to not do their job and trying their best to keep kids from learning.  I think I started suspecting it as far back as elementary school.

Look, it was not much further than first grade when I had to teach Robert about spelling and grammar.  He went into school having taught himself to read, and clearly they weren’t teaching him to write.  Then I had to teach him long division – which because it is done with different symbols, etc, in Portugal means to this day he’s still doing long division by the archaic Portuguese method.  Then there was Marshall and multiplication tables.  It seemed like they weren’t teaching him to memorize them but expected him to know them.  He was doing okay – he’s good at calculating things in his head – but he was way too slow.  Teaching him by rote was like a revelation to him.  And there was, of course, the fact that Marshall has sensory issues which make him slow at reading and writing.  Or did.  The doctors gave us this list of exercises for him so complex that I didn’t get them, and I was supposed to give them to him.  They bored him stiff, so I had to chase him all over the house to make him do them.  And the more I thought of it, the more I REMEMBERED being so slow at reading and writing that writing my name (on average two surnames longer than my classmates) seemed like unusual hardship.  I remembered only the relatively lax village school saved me from having incomplete’s on tests because I was granted another half hour as a matter of course.  Yet by ninth grade, I was writing and reading faster than everyone else.  In between lay years when my father – who from his stories had the same issues – made me copy two pages of text an evening.  It seemed logical: I want the kid to write faster.  You do things faster with practice.  So I made him copy stuff (oh, the crying and gnashing of teeth) and I made him read aloud to me when I was cooking.  Within a year he was faster-than-age-norm.  His spelling and grammar improved, too.

Then came languages.  I’m not a natural foreign-language-learner.  I’ve seen what that looks like.  Drop my brother into a country whose language he’s never heard, and he emerges in two days, talking like a native.

I learn languages like I learn everything – slowly and with a ton of work.  I will forever be grateful to my first English teacher because after my first week in the class, when I’d been ignoring her because I had other priorities, she called me to the blackboard to conjugate to be and then, discovering I had tuned out the whole week, asked me vocabulary questions.  I knew nothing.  The humiliation was horrible, and I refused to be humiliated again.  I spent the weekend catching up and, because I knew the woman was clearly vindictive and capable of calling on me at any time, I stayed on top of the material.  I strongly suspect if that hadn’t happened, I’d never have been enamored of English, never have gone on to be an exchange student in Ohio… which means I wouldn’t be here today, posting this for you.

So when Robert just couldn’t seem to learn French, I thought “Well… he really doesn’t have a talent for language.”  And then one summer I looked at what he was actually doing in school.  He had three years of French then, had passed, but knew nothing.  There were French magazines and French games and pat phrases they learned.  NOWHERE was the basis of the language: verbs, vocabulary lists.  Part of this is because the taboo of translation.  Yes, yes, I know.  Some people learn better by total immersion.  People like my brother.  The problem is most people are NOT like my brother.  Most people need to know vocabulary and the structure of the language.  The other problem, of course, is that classroom (or even Rosetta Stone) is NOT total immersion.  You’ve not in the country, you don’t do everything in that language.  The other problem is that unless the person is already a linguist, acutely aware of the structure of languages and where the pieces go, teaching by total immersion… uh.  Find person who came into country as illiterate immigrant.  Now talk to them one or two years later.  That’s total immersion.  (The Columbian exchange student who came to the High School I did, speaking no English, by the end of the year could understand and make himself understood…  After a fashion.  Dan and I still talk about “Ricky English.”  For instance, he often said “You need go for store?” Understandable, yes.  Enough to allow him to function had he stayed here?  No.)

Of course by now you probably know I initiate wars of terror on my children in the name of learning at the drop of a hat – so yeah, Robert learned French that Summer.  The next year he read Dumas in French.  Which the teacher would say “see, that’s how you learn.”  BUT by then, he had memorized endless lists of vocabulary and been quizzed on irregular verbs, apropos nothing in the middle of the grocery store.

I thought about this because of my discussion with RES in the comment thread that will not die, about there being a distinct lack of knowledge of how to do things – even – particularly basic things.  My post cannibals was predicated on the belief that people know how to do things, but cut corners for profit or power, and of course that might be true in some cases, but I think it’s also not true in a lot of them.  This is my experience only, but I’ve found one good handyman in my married life, who knew how to do things I couldn’t figure out with a book and twenty minutes.  He’s dead (and sorely missed) now. Everyone else I’ve paid to do stuff because I didn’t know how, or didn’t have the time, the job was either so shoddy (tiles in the bathroom falling off after a week) I had to call them to redo it, or I had to bring out the encyclopedia of home repair and figure out how to fix it, or I had to live with an uneven kitchen floor.  Considering we buy fixer uppers, that’s a lot of instances, and while they’re not “data” they are significant.  I’ll add that most of these people were eager, honest and highly recommended.  And their work was OKAY.  Just okay, though.  Nothing a talented amateur couldn’t do.  (I’m not sure about talented, but I grew up as my grandfather’s carpenter “boy” so I’m not 100% amateur.  Just a very green beginner.)

This is not meant as an indictment of my kids’ teachers.  The school from which the younger just graduated was extraordinarily good.  When we transferred him there for the final two years, I was shocked to find there are still schools where the teachers love to teach and will learn stuff to teach if they have to.  BUT this is rare, now.  And part of it, I wonder if it is because these teachers don’t know how to teach.  They, themselves, weren’t taught as such.  They were just given principles that should work.

And then I thought about all the things I have had to learn to do, because not only was I never taught them, but there is no one around to teach me.  Stuff like proper ironing, or how to cook some things from scratch.  I find myself going to books pre World War II.

And then it hit me.  I have a theory.  I could be wrong, I often am.  BUT I think this is what happened to our civilization, causing the thread of learning and teaching to unravel.

Humans have always learned best as RES mentioned: apprentice, journeyman, master.  Even in the home we learned that way.  Daughters would be given simple tasks in the kitchen to keep them quiet and out of the way, then they learned those tasks and were useful at them, and learned a little more… and on.  Boys (and odd girls like me) followed father (or grandfather) around in the workshop.  They learned to hammer things in.  (For a long while I was nail-girl.  Yep, my job was to hold nails and proffer one when my grandfather called for it.  Only I wasn’t called nail girl, I was called “rapaz” – boy, synonym wiht apprentice.)  Eventually, at the end of this, when they were good at the simpler stuff, they learned the formulas for making varnish.  (School interfered.  I never did.)

This was the natural way of learning for rural, traditional communities.  One of the reasons sons used to follow fathers in the trade was that they already knew something.  This was not always so, though.  Both my grandfathers were carpenters though they both came from wealthy families who – for different reasons – chose to apprentice them to craftsmen.

Schools naturally taught the same way.  The kids lucky enough to go to school were taught by rote – that is, in simple tasks of repeating and memorizing.

Then came the twentieth century, the world wars, rapid industrialization, population mobility…

Part of it was the sheer disruption most of the world experienced, not just in the devastated countries.  But there was more – there as a need to teach people new things, very fast.  How could you be an automobile mechanic in the twenties by learning from your father?  Your father had never seen a car.

This gave rise to an industrial process of education.  Or rather, it cemented it.  The process was in place from the time of early industrialization and early nation states.  It created tenders for textile mills (more or less.)  But now, “experts” fanned out into the world to learn “best teaching practices.”  I.e. how to learn and how to teach.

And that’s where things went wrong, because humans aren’t all alike.  Anyone looking at me, plodding through verbs and conjunctions and coming out with errors will think “that’s no way to learn a language.”  Anyone looking at my brother emerging from a country in two weeks speaking like a native down to puns and word games will go “that’s the way to learn.”
One thing they missed – until I have his brain, I can’t learn as he does.  After the rote (after the first year, for English) I will profit from total immersion.  BUT the rote has to be there at the beginning.

The processes they replicated from language to learning to read were all for “exceptional readers” which… don’t work for normal human beings.  Rote works.  Rote is of course boring for the exceptional.  It is also – I think – boring for the teachers.

So they tried to make the exceptional work for everyone…

There are other issues there, of course, issues we won’t go into because I could be here all day.  But the thing is, for a while the sheer inanity of the process was masked by parents like me: parents who knew how to learn, knew how they learned, and while feeling guilty about it, took the kids aside and taught them by the age old method.  There were even some teachers who did (though I think administrators have run most of those out.)  But we’re now in the second, third, fifth generation past that, and people don’t know how to teach except by trying to teach kids (and adults) by methods that never worked but for a few exceptional people.

And we’re seeing this in all crafts – ALL crafts…  And the arts too.  There are things you can learn if you have a passion for them and you apply yourself.  Most things you can learn.  Heck, I’ve taught myself this writing thing.  But it’s not as easy to learn as if you were properly taught.  And it will leave holes.

I almost cried reading Heinlein’s bio, at his early editors and the time they took to teach him his craft, to guide him, to make him get a sense of what story was.  I got the same, of a sort, from reading Dwight Swain’s Techniques Of The Selling Writer.  But it was slow, plodding work and no one to tell me if I’d interpreted the instructions wrong.  Editors now expect you to come to them KNOWING.  And if your first book doesn’t take off, you’re out of there.  Because… you’re supposed to be a natural genius or nothing.  They’ve forgotten that people NEED to learn.  Even geniuses.  Perhaps there is somewhere, remote, a naturally gifted author who comes out of the gate good enough at all elements of writing.  No, wait, I know there is.  I just can’t get him to finish his d*mn book.

But that person would be “good enough” but not nearly as good as he could be… if he were taught.  Mind you, I think his arc would be more like my brother’s with language, but he still needs to have an arc.  And that person is one – ONE – I’ve met in a lifetime of tutoring fledgelings.

The myth of the genius, of the person “born knowing” is just that.  It works in movies and books and we – all of us – have forgotten it is not true.  Don’t fall for it.

Now… the internet is taking care of some of that.  People who are desperate to learn something can research it, find the old processes, practice it, talk to those who do it.  And that works fine for those of us who have a passion and a need to perfect a certain craft…  But what about the others?  What about the people who never even are taught to READ properly.  And don’t tell me they’re not capable.  One of the girls in my elementary school class was mentally impaired, probably at about six years of age for life.  She learned to read and write: clearly.  Yes, there will be extreme cases who can’t, but the vast majority of people are more than smart enough to learn to read and write – if they’re taught.

And what about the manual crafts.  It’s getting harder and hard to even find someone willing to do things like snake a pipe, even though it pays.  And part of it might be the perception of “menial” labor.  But part of it seems to be not knowing how, and not knowing how to learn.

We can’t afford this waste.  We can’t afford not to pass on the civilization bequeathed to us.  Things will only fall apart faster, unless we learn to teach and learn again.  In that respect, the thing that’s heartened me most is the parents in homeschooling and how homeschooling is becoming a movement of massive proportions.  They threw out the supposed best practices, and they’re just teaching their kids.

I think the indie movement will provoke a similar move in writing.  People will be able to “apprentice” by seeing what sells (not to distributors, but to the public) and then wading in and doing it themselves.

I don’t know enough to know what is happening in other fields, and whether technology is forcing us past that “don’t know how to and can’t learn” thing.  I’m sure commenters will inform me.

I just know that – barring brain implants for learning, and I wouldn’t count on them – it’s a civilizational hurdle that MUST be overcome.

Let’s figure out how.  Let’s get ’er done.


  1. Besides the schools not teaching the facts/knowledge well (if at all), the schools don’t seem to be teaching “standards of behavior”.

    While the standard response to my comment seems to be “that’s the parents’ job”, I’m not sure if the parents are doing it. [Frown]

  2. There’s also the whole passive learning thing that’s been going at schools, jobs and homes for years. No one is taught (or encouraged) to used their imagination or critical thinking.

    1. Mike, do you remember my blog invasion? Those kids were IB and “gifted” and I later found out one of them was the Valedictorian of the class. They couldn’t THINK. Forget passive learning. to discourage bright kids from using their brains to that degree, staggering “backwards” skill in teaching is called for. They taught the kids NOT to think.

  3. Maybe if we (as a culture) start by valuing the amount of effort and intelligence required for the skilled trades as well as for the life of the mind, things will start to improve. That and find a way so that everyone who can be is functionally literate by the time they leave the 6th grade and functionally numerate at the end of the 8th grade.

    1. The functionally literate/numerate will take rote and whining kids who don’t “love” school. Not that I disagree with you. I completely agree. My elementary school class left literate, numerate and with rudiments of history — and our elementary finished in fourth grade. In FORMAL education my mom has fourth grade — she knows (still and is still functional at it) algebra and geometry, enough geography to place any country on the map, is completely literate and numerate and has, on her own, acquired a widespread knowledge including economics, mythology and rudiments of French (more rude than ments. She delights in mispronouncing it.) Yeah, she’s smarter than the average bear but neither her level of formal schooling NOR her literacy are unusual for her generation in Portugal. And look, in nutrition and all, these kids were far less prepared (WWII and rationing) than our kids are and most of them went home to brutal manual labor (my mom gleaned — is that the term — coal from beside the train line, to keep her family in cooking fuel. This involved walking barefoot for MILES. No, her family SHOULDN’T have been poor. It’s insanity that would take too long to explain. JUST trust me.) If they could learn that much, our kids can learn that much by fourth grade. BUT it won’t be “fun” — until they learn that learning can be fun, of course. And then it is.

  4. It’s a problem I keep hitting in writing fantasy. I was ‘taught’ to be a hunter-gatherer by my dad as a kid, he learned most of it by spending his childhood holidays with Basotho herd-boys, who in turn learned it from the San Bushmen. It’s a wider skill-set to inherit than most, but I keep hitting up against (and Lou was very good at pointing this out) the fact that the average teenager has no more idea how to scale,gut and fillet a fish, pluck and draw a bird or to skin and gut an animal than I have of how to moonwalk or send SMS’s :-). I’ve met a succession of people who want to be self-sufficient… who read and study and try… and just need a tiny bit of mentoring to fly. But without it they miss those crucial essential steps (like with cooking where you learned by watching mama… try doing it when you’ve never had that). I am convinced a lot of urban poverty is caused by ignorance, not insufficient money.

    It’s plainly an issue with writing (and therefore reading) where no amount of determined study can make up for the occasional pointer. I am still very grateful for the bits I’ve got, and I still keep getting. That doesn’t happen with a lot of editors, but I’ve had useful feedback from Eric, Jim Minz (to my surprise, to be honest) and Lou Anders. All things that were easy to do, once I knew I had to do them and how… Oh and Misty told me to not use so much passive voice (she runs at 13%, I run at 3%) proving even those who can’t do, can teach.

    1. I’d say you’re right about urban poverty – and that it’s the most difficult kind of ignorance to overcome. If you know you don’t know something, you can find ways to learn. If you’ve got no idea there’s a gap in your knowledge, you don’t realize you need to learn.

      I flailed about trying to learn from published authors I liked and from my own messes, but I didn’t really take off until I started getting pointers from you, Sarah, and many others. Like you said, all simple things once you know they’re needed and how they work, but you need to know that first.

      And I would have no idea how to kill a fish or an animal, much less turn it from “dead thing” to “food”. Suburban brat. The steps between farm or ranch and packaged food in the supermarket might as well be magic for all I know how to deal with them.

    2. I to grew up hunting and learning that stuff by osmosis, and was doing things like picking mushrooms to sell before I was old enough to go to school. Consequently I know where you a coming from, I say something to somebody like, “slice some chunks of that liver off and toss it to the dogs” and they give this blank look and ask, “what’s the liver?” On the other hand there are pieces of urban common knowledge that I am just as totally ignorant of. We all have blind spots, recognizing them in ourselves and others is important.

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