Many people who talk about “culture wars” are like bulls distracted by a red cape: aiming at the wrong place entirely. They’re looking for certain results instead of methods; at ends rather than means. This way leads to confusion.
A growing body of research about education is finally paying attention to the crucial role of the first few years of a child’s life – during which the child’s brain is developing rapidly, and the role of family behavior usually dominates other factors to a very large degree. For instance, the 30 million word research finds that when children hear lots of interactive speech from their parents or other caregivers during their first 3 years, they tend to do significantly better on IQ tests – a difference which persists in later years. During the first 12 or 18 months of age, children usually speak little, but being spoken to has a very important impact on the development of their brains.
Some in the home schooling movement (which attracts people from all over the cultural, religious, and political spectrum) have discovered this ancient wisdom. Within the movement, there are all sorts of vigorous debates about how to home school – which curriculum, whether to use a curriculum, and so forth and so on. But in the midst of this creative ferment, home schoolers adapt and grow and improve.
In a recent court case, HSLDA actually argued that home schooling is itself a different culture – and I can’t say that they were entirely wrong. I think that home schoolers are inventing and re-inventing a culture where parents play a far more direct role in education than has been the norm.
This insight goes beyond home-schooling itself. When you speak with people who are “good at math”, and those who are not, you’ll find a cultural difference – in their youth, somebody (usually a parent or sibling) taught them some math skills – not just “how to count” but the secret tips and tricks which speed the processes of addition, multiplication, and so forth. This is usually a subtle ongoing process, part of the family habits and traditions. Those who fear math often think that their problem is an inability to memorize facts and procedures. Those who love math focus on understanding, not memorization. These ideas are seldom formally taught, and rarely taught well, in schools. They’re passed along informally to one’s descendants, along with the family’s favorite recipes and games and history. They’re part of a rich heritage of math culture. Children who learn these by age 6 usually do significantly better in math, even in their teens.
Most American parents have been steered away from this intimate interaction with their children. They trust the school to do the heavy lifting, but historically much of the important work is done by parents and this informal and rarely-articulated process is actually what is meant by “parental involvement.” Academic researchers sometimes pay homage to parental involvement, but are slowly discovering what it is.
Recently, it was reported that having two or more bookcases at home is a very good predictor of a child’s success at school. What does it mean to have two bookcases at home? A government program to ship bookcases to every family – “to improve access to bookcases” – probably isn’t going to create a literate generation.
Around the world, the catch-all measure used to proxy for parental commitment to education is the number of books in a child‘s household. This measure predicts student educational outcomes better than class sizes, or expenditures per student, the length of the school day or better class monitoring. Hanushek and Woessman have found that among 27 rich countries, the United States sees one of the strongest relationships between parental book ownership and child learning outcomes. In the U.S., kids from homes where there are more than two full bookcases score two and a half grade levels higher than kids from homes with very few books.
Why would any family choose to buy multiple bookcases? To fill them with books. Why buy so many books, when a few pretty coffee table books would be enough to amuse and impress one’s guests? Usually, because one enjoys reading. If one enjoys reading, and reads often, one’s children will notice – and they’ll want to do it too. They’ll probably learn to read fluently; they’ll read a lot. Even if children don’t read until later, literate families tend to talk quite a bit; they tend to be articulate. Their children tend to learn. All this is a way of saying that the family culture encourages reading, and that reading is a great way to learn that which can be learned from books.
But our education researchers can’t exactly say that, because there’s no meaningful way to get from there to a government program to employ lots of bureaucrats and boost government spending, is there?
If you – as individual parents – build a family culture where learning often happens at home, and where you play a vital part, perhaps you’ll have less to worry about as your children meet new people and new ideas.