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By Hal & Melanie Young
The grandfather next to us at History Day was skeptical. “That boy’s too young to know
about that!” he muttered. “It’s a shame how parents do everything for their kids these
It was our son Caleb he was talking about! He was only about five years old, but he stood
up there like a man, showing off his salt map and talking intelligently about the Battle of
Bull Run. When the history fair was over, I encouraged the old gentleman to go talk to him.
He set out to quiz our young student, but soon he had to beg Caleb to stop explaining the
You see, Caleb had actually visited the Manassas battlefield, and had stood in the exact spot
where General Bernard Bee had shouted at his nearly-routed troops, “There stands Jackson
like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!” Caleb and his brothers had acted out the
battle while re-living it in their minds—and they’d never forget it.
That was years ago, but we remembered it recently when our friend Caryn Hommel asked
us to review her new curriculum, Excelerate Spanish. It is based on Total Physical Response
a method that uses movement and acting out stories to increase retention.
Research shows that when you study language academically, a small part of your brain
responds. When you move in response to the language, more of your brain is engaged.
When you emotionally respond, such as when you hear a story, then your brain is hugely
responsive. The greater the perceived need for the knowledge, it seems the harder your
brain works to learn it. We were stunned to find we could understand a short story in
Spanish after the first lesson.
That’s why hands-on learning is so important. We love reading, and you can learn all sorts
of things from a book, but for difficult subjects, or for things you really want to remember,
it’s hard to beat actually doing something hands-on to make learning “sticky.”
So, how does that work? How can you help your children remember more of what you’re
Let’s look at history. The way we learned was by reading summaries of the facts in
textbooks. It was so boring we were lucky to remember the facts long enough to parrot
them back on the test. When we as parents start out with biographies, though, we engage
our children right away in the lives of real people. If we take it a step further, and
encourage them to narrate what they’ve learned, it’s even better. What if it went further
still? Hal came home from work one day to find our boys spread out on the floor with a
mountain of blankets and every LEGO man they could find, acting out the Battle of
Thermopylae Pass. It’s funny how we all remember that name and the details of the battle
even though it’s been fifteen years.
Well, what about math? Even in the earliest years, explaining math concepts in terms of real
objects makes the ideas much easier to learn. You can do that yourself, of course. It’s easy
to teach one-to-one correspondence by asking your children to put a fork by each plate. A
math curriculum that uses manipulatives makes it natural to keep using hands-on lessons
through elementary school, but texts usually drop that in the 3
grade. Some of the
really difficult concepts that you learn later, though, are easily understood in a real world
context. Using pizzas, cakes, or pies to teach multiplication and division of fractions makes
those ideas as easy as, well, pie! Even high school students can benefit from understanding
real-world uses of algebra and geometry. Learning about similar triangles may seem
pointless until you see how the ancients used that principle to measure the height of
pyramids or the distance to ships at sea.
We all think about field trips when we consider hands-on learning. They’re great
opportunities, but it’s not enough just to show up. We were visiting a Titanic exhibit once
when a school group came in. They raced through the museum, stopping to hit at anything
that looked interactive. Did they engage in learning that sticks? No, they didn’t engage in
learning at all, except by pure accident. Don’t allow this. Instead, prepare your children for
what they’ll see, helping them to understand the context. Talk about proper behavior and
tell them you expect each of them to have at least one intelligent question to ask the
docent. Watch the introductory video if there is one; then take your time going through the
exhibit, discussing what you are seeing. When you get home, have them show Dad or the
grandparents what they learned through a skit or project. That kind of learning never goes
When you first start out homeschooling, you worry a lot about keeping up. Recently we
were chatting with a new homeschool mom who said she was so worried that if she took
time off for projects or field trips that she wouldn’t finish the books, and her children
wouldn’t be successful in life. We have family in Asia, where academics are very highly
respected. Their students go to school all day, and then come home to be tutored. When
you think about it, though, America, not Asia, has traditionally been the center of innovation
and entrepreneurship in the modern world. Why is that? We believe it’s because American
children have usually had time to think and play, time to be inventive and to do real things,
and time to take their learning and put it to work. Entrepreneurship is learned by running a
lemonade stand, cutting grass for the neighbors, or working in your family business, rather
than in business textbooks.
If we want an education that sticks with our children, we need to look for opportunities to
put learning to work. We need to relate it to the real world. We need to get out and look at
that world. It’s scary, sometimes, setting down the workbooks and just taking the day or
the week off to do something different, but often it’s what takes place on those days that
gives your children a hook upon which to hang the book knowledge. It’s learning that lasts.
Hal and Melanie Young are the authors of the Christian Small Publishers Book of the Year,
Raising Real Men, and the new My Beloved and My Friend: How to Be Married to Your Best
Friend Without Changing Spouses (preorders are being taken). They are the parents of six
real sons and two real daughters and are popular conference speakers internationally. They
live in noisy familial bliss in North Carolina. Join them on their blog at
www.RaisingRealMen.com and at www.Facebook.com/raisingrealmen and
Davidheiser, David. “TPR Storytelling with High School and College Students.” TPR
Storytelling with High School and College Students. TPR World, n.d. Web. 07 Oct. 2013.
Copyright 2014, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in
the Annual Print 2014 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education
magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and
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