The Scope of Teaching
Let’s consider a simple act: writing a paragraph. From a teaching perspective we could consider it as having three parts:
- knowledge of what a paragraph is, parts of a paragraph, different kinds of paragraphs, and sentences, as well as the content knowledge the paragraph is meant to convey.
- how to write a paragraph, i.e., the skills employed in constructing a topic sentence and supporting sentences, how do indent the first line, how to space it, how to change one’s writing for the subject area and/or audience, etc.
- the strategies for when to make choices about knowledge and skills when multiple options are available.
You can see from this example that while teaching skills is an important part of homeschooling, it is not the entirety of the homeschooling curriculum.
Suppose the skill you’re concentrating on today is being able to write a question mark correctly. A question mark goes in a particular direction, and at some point, which direction this is must be learned. But making the question mark shape with a pencil or pen on paper is a skill unto itself. And usually, in order to get it right, students have to make a few. So often, these attempts are made in a session aimed at drawing a question mark, and question marks are drawn repeatedly.
But in the real world use of question marks, except for emphasis, we don’t usually find any reason to draw question marks repeatedly. We draw question marks to end interrogative question marks. So there’s another skill involved here: not just shaping the question mark so that it’s recognizable, but knowing when to use it (knowledge), and making it of a size to fit the context, neither too big nor too small (another skill).
This is an important point – that while it may be quite useful at times to focus on a skill in isolation, it is important (and usually requires additional, connected skills) to be able to employ that skill in context.
Skills may be of the sort that can be acquired quickly or they may take a longer time and more effort to acquire. They may be of a type for which some personal attribute makes a difference and can dramatically shorten acquisition, or they might just take the time they take. For example, a child with good hand-eye coordination may learn tennis with more facility than a child who is not quite as adept. But something like language acquisition takes a long time and a great deal of repetition even for students who may be gifted in languages. A language has thousands of words and idiom, plus pronunciation, grammar, syntax, etc. Even for a genius, there’s a limit to what innate ability can do, though it may speed vocabulary acquisition, make pronunciation easier, etc.
So one of the keys to teaching skills when a great deal of repetition is required is to find ways to make the repetition palatable. For example, finding multiple books with similar vocabulary can help the beginning reader practice word recognition over and over without becoming bored by reading only one book again and again. Doing simple addition with the grapes served for lunch and cherry tomatoes in the salad served with dinner can be a welcome change from doing page after textbook or workbook page of 3+1 = 4 1 + 3 = 4 2 + 2 + 4 etc.
Math problems with food, gardening, and other real world situations both offer children a change from the skill-out-of-context routine and show them the real usefulness of what they’re learning.
Learning New Teaching Skills While Using Old Ones
Once a student has acquired a basic level of skills, new skills can sometimes be acquired in context rather than through extensive repetition. For example, the child who is reading about a fat cat on a mat, may be able to pick up pat on the fly by sounding it out, without having to write it ten times and spell it out loud 15 times, etc. As a teacher, you can look for opportunities to vary the way in which you present skills, depending on the particular skill and the individual student.