Friday, October 8, 2010

Knowledge means patience

Before we moved to Australia many many years ago, my mother found out what the Australian curriculum was for my grade (I was just starting Primary-1 at the time but, according to the Aussie system, should have already been in Primary-2). She drilled me in the subjects for the handful of months before our move. That meant that my first full year at school began in Primary-3, because I left Malaysia before completing Primary-1 and passed the Primary-2 exit exam that the Australian school set for me later on that same year.

While that might seem laudable, it wasn't. I hated studying with my mother. She was so unbending and physically abusive that the servants used to comment that I couldn't possibly be her natural child. I used to get caned and slapped across the face for the slightest mistake (even colouring over a line!) and any result less than 100% promised further dire consequences from both parents. (Make no mistake, Asian parents carry grudges. And they are overwhelmingly immature.)

As I look back on those years now, I think the key was one word: knowledge. Neither of my parents completed high school. Did my mother even understand what it was she was trying to teach me? I don't know. What I do know is that her philosophy always was: if you get something wrong, it's your fault.

My philosophy, when teaching my own children, is the complete opposite. If they get something wrong, it's MY fault. My fault for not finding an approach that somehow clicks in their brain. But I can only take that tack if I understand the subject matter myself.

The Wast arms himself with tools in Mathematics by knowing what the Greek roots for words mean (milli, kilo, centi, deci). Little Dinosaur does the same thing for the names of calendar months by understanding some rudiments of Latin (octo, sept, deci). I constantly ask them WHY. Why does three-sixths equal one-half? Why do we say "a quarter past the hour"? Why can you jump higher on the Moon than on Earth?

My mother didn't care about the why. All she was interested in was the mark in red at the top of the exam paper and if it wasn't three figures, or near as dammit, then I was in for a whole world of hurt. This is not the way to educate. If anything, this is the way to turn children away from learning rather than towards it and I want my children to be learning, to find joy in the expansion of knowledge, till the day they drop. But I can only do that if I exert myself to understand the topic to such a degree that I can quickly come up with several ways of teaching the same concept. (Kids' attention spans are short and it's important I keep them engaged while trying to explain something.)

Of course there are days when I get frustrated, when I'm tired or angry about something. But both children are picking up things with such admirable speed, that I can afford to give the kids the day off when I start feeling like that. It's wrong for me to take out my own frustrations on them, especially when it could have such a long-term effect on their psyches.

Shouting at kids isn't enough. Hitting them. Humiliating them. None of that will help put actual knowledge into their heads. Data yes, knowledge no. If your own range of knowledge is small, then you teach small and mean. But if that range of knowledge is large, and willing to get larger, then you can teach large and generously. And your children will thank you for it.

* Kaz Augustin is an homeschooling parent who knows when not to. You can find her website at She has a food blog at and she's also on Facebook and Twitter. Just look for "ksaugustin".


Maria Zannini said...

I'd hate to think how you would have suffered had you had a learning disability.

My husband is slightly dyslexic. He hated school and was always goofing off. One day the whole school was given a mandatory IQ test and he scored higher than anyone else.

Greg is a certifiable genius (as opposed to me who is just certifiable). :)

To make a long story short, his teacher realized what she had on her hands and made every effort to teach him so that he could reach his potential.

For every bad teacher in the world, there are some good ones, teachers who won't give up on the students who 'can't' be taught.

Glad you survived.

Charles Gramlich said...

Teaching is not as easy at it seems to outsiders. It's not an exact science, and it requires a lot of emotional openness.

Jewel Amethyst said...

There is no one size fits all method of teaching. Pupils are individual and learn differently.

Look on the bright side, you've broken the mold and now can have an open mind when it comes to teaching your own kids.

Kaz Augustin said...

@Maria: It sounds more than a tad arrogant, but I've always remarked to J that my fate would have been something even more terrible if I hadn't been halfway intelligent. Good on Greg's old teacher!

@Charles: Very nice term, Charles. "Emotional openness". If you don't mind, I'll keep that one. :)

@Jewel: Ah Jewel, you always manage to find the silver lining, don't you? ::grin::

Liane Spicer said...

The ruler and the strap were essential teaching aids when I was in primary school, but I don't recall my parents resorting to those methods. My mother was unbelievably patient - until my younger brother came along and tested even her forbearance. But at school we lived in fear of the big ruler. I think our entire motivation then was avoiding the 'licks'.

Thankfully for our children, teaching methods have evolved since.