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My Children Teach Themselves

By Dr. Arthur Robinson
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #6, 1994.

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Dr. Arthur Robinson


Ten years ago my wife Laurelee and I decided to educate our children in a homeschool rather than a public school or a private school. Of special concern to us were the following facts:

The social and religious environment in most schools in America has deteriorated to such a level that it is a threat to the spiritual, moral, and mental health of each child who is forced to participate in it.

The level of political and secular humanist indoctrination in American public schools has risen so high that it is very difficult for any child attending public school to emerge with an understanding of historical and religious truth.

Irrationalism has become the norm throughout American schools. It is therefore very difficult for children who attend those schools to learn how to think -- rather than to simply believe whatever propaganda is being disseminated at the moment.

The academic quality of most schools has deteriorated to the point that American students are literally the world's largest group of dunces. In test after test of academic abilities, American students score last or near-last in comparison with students from the other twenty or so advanced countries.

It is, of course, possible for a child to emerge from an American public school with good academic training and a good spiritual and moral outlook. With increasingly rare exceptions, however, students who achieve this do so in spite of the school rather than because of the school. The overall performance of American children who attend public schools is very poor.

Even when American public schools of the past are used as a standard, current schools are an embarrassment. Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores have deteriorated so much during recent decades that the tests themselves are now on the verge of being changed. The American educational establishment is determined to change these tests, so that continued comparisons with past performance will not be possible.

Even the SAT tests themselves are being used as tools for social engineering. "Politically correct" questions are being asked about "socially responsible" reading passages. In some cases the student must give an answer that he knows to be false or misguided in order to please the social engineers who designed the tests.

As a result of these facts, hundreds of thousands of American families have chosen to educate their children at home. Home schooling is rapidly becoming a major force in American society and has become a significant embarrassment to the public school establishment.

Moreover, families who have chosen this path are clearly achieving some of their objectives. In particular, they are succeeding in partially isolating their children from the social and religious decay that is pervasive in American public schools. They are also strengthening their families by keeping children and parents together rather than allowing them to be physically and mentally separated by the State.

There is a growing possibility that, if the homeschooling movement continues to expand, it may become the most important single force in American public life.

In order for this to occur, however, some current weaknesses in the homeschool movement need to be corrected. Aside from the obvious legal problems and other difficulties that have developed as the public school establishment attempts to protect its decaying monopoly, these include:

Homeschooling is very difficult for parents whose circumstances prevent at least one dedicated parent from giving a very large percentage of his or her time to the homeschool. While it is fine to argue that a family should always include one full-time parent in the home with time to teach the children, many families find themselves in circumstances which do not permit this.

Many parents themselves lack the education that they so earnestly want for their children. As a consequence, homeschooled children have a difficult time rising above the level of academic achievement of their parents. This is true of many homes in which both parents are college trained and may even have advanced degrees. A large fraction of college graduates, for example, are not trained to do simple calculus -- a level of academic achievement easily possible for most properly educated sixteen-year-old children. Even parents holding doctoral degrees in mathematics and science are often poorly educated in literature, history, and the foundations of our civilization.

The average level of academic achievement in homeschools at present looks good only when compared with the disastrously poor results currently the norm in public schools. While it is true that SAT scores are a little higher for homeschools than for public schools, the average public school child comes from a generally poorer home environment and a school environment that is not conducive to learning.

We Need Higher Hopes

Some parents react to these difficulties with various forms of resignation. They hope that more families will find a way to rearrange their lives for homeschooling. In their homeschools, they emphasize subjects such as spelling and grammar and spend less time with difficult subjects such as mathematics and science. They hope that by the age of 18 their children will be strong enough to resist the evils that they encounter at the universities, or else they deny the children a higher education and direct them into occupations where that education is not required.

They are comforted by the fact that they have achieved slightly higher educational performance than the public schools while, at the same time, sparing their children the depravities of the secular world for at least part of their formative years. These are dedicated people who are doing their best for their children. I believe, however, that they should be thinking beyond the current homeschool situation.

In order to take our country back from the evil that is destroying our society, we must do more in our homeschool movement than we are doing now. Our children must be not a little better educated when compared with those in the public schools -- they must be so much better educated that they are entirely beyond such comparisons.

Our children must be able to think -- and to think so much more effectively than their opponents that they are able, in one generation, to become such a superior force in science and engineering and in industry and government that they dominate American society.

Our children must be such shining examples for the homeschool movement that the majority of American families demand the same quality for their children.

Our children must be such superior performers in America's colleges and universities that they not only resist the corruption in those institutions -- that they destroy, by their example, the corruption itself.

Interesting rhetoric, you may say, but how can this be done?

I respond, it MUST be done, and, for the remainder of this article, I describe an experiment that indicates the beginnings of a way in which it may possibly be done.

How It All Began

Like most successful experiments, this one reveals only part of the truth and suggests further experiments that may be worthwhile. Also, like a great many experiments that point in a different direction, this one was done by accident. If it ultimately proves to have been worthwhile, then the credit belongs to the Lord -- not to the participants.

As our children reached school age, my wife Laurelee undertook their instruction. A highly educated scientist herself, she understood what they needed to learn, but she had no experience in teaching children. Moreover, she worked virtually full-time with me in our research work; she was still bearing new children and caring for infants; and she was carrying out a significant amount of farm work in addition to the usual household chores.

As an aid to her growing homeschool (all of our children have been entirely homeschooled), Laurelee purchased educational materials and curricula from a wide variety of sources. These she melded into a curriculum along with a large amount of Christian materials that she purchased. (She purchased so many Sunday school materials, that the people at the local Christian bookstore thought that we were operating a church.)

Not knowing whether or not these materials would be available to us in the future, she created an entire twelve-grade curriculum for each of the six children and obtained all of the necessary materials for that curriculum. These she organized meticulously in the order that they would be used. That curriculum occupies the equivalent of about five large filing cabinets and is in perfect order.

This effort, in degrees that vary according to the resources, education, abilities, and motivations of the parents, is one that is being undertaken today in tens of thousands of homeschools across America. It is being made increasingly effective by the growth of many excellent businesses that supply materials and curricula to homeschools.

Laurelee's effort was truly outstanding. It allowed for every academic eventuality and it utilized the very best materials available. It even included life insurance on me, so that she would be able to continue the homeschool in the event of my death. Her plan had only one flaw-a flaw that neither she nor I ever considered. The plan assumed that she would be alive to teach.

Six Children Who Teach Themselves

When Laurelee died suddenly four and a half years ago, after an illness that lasted less than 24 hours, her class contained Zachary, Noah, Arynne, Joshua, Bethany, and Matthew-ages 12, 10, 9, 7, 7, and 17 months-a class now without a teacher.

As I assumed her work, including cooking, laundry, and other household tasks, and continued the farm and professional work without her by my side, there was no possibility that I could even read the curriculum that she had so carefully created -- much less have the time to teach it to the children. Friends tried to help, but the problem seemed to be intractable.

What happened then, with the Lord's help, was remarkable. Gradually, over the next two years and building upon the environment that their mother and I had already created for them and some rules of study that I provided, the children solved the problem themselves. Not only did they solve it themselves, they created a homeschool that, in many ways, points toward answers to some of the difficulties enumerated above.

Gradually, with occasional coaching and help from me, they created a homeschool that actually needs no teacher and is extraordinary in its effectiveness.

In judging its effectiveness, I have some experience for comparison.

I, myself, was fortunate to attend one of the finest public schools in Texas -- Lamar in Houston -- during the late 1950s when public schools in America still retained reasonable standards. I performed well and was admitted to every college to which I applied -- including Harvard, M.I.T., Rice, and Caltech. After graduating from Caltech, I obtained a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California at San Diego and was immediately appointed to a faculty position at that University. There I taught introductory chemistry to 300 students each year and supervised a group of graduate students.

I can honestly say that the six Robinson children in our homeschool are, on average, at least two years ahead of my own abilities at their ages and have a far higher potential for the future than did I. Moreover, by the age of about 15, they are surpassing at least 98 percent of the college freshmen that I taught at the University of California at San Diego.

The oldest, Zachary, who is 16, is already completing a math and science curriculum that uses the actual freshman and sophomore texts from the best science universities in America. Last October he took the Scholastic Aptitude Tests for the first time (the PSAT). His scores of 750 in math and 730 in verbal for a sum of 1480 (and a NMSQT score of 221) were above the 99.9 percentile among the 1,600,000 students worldwide who took the test. The other children are, for their ages, performing at least as well.

During the past four years, I have spent less than 15 minutes per day (on average) engaged in working as the children's teacher. They are teaching themselves.

Moreover, each one of them has spontaneously, without suggestion or demand from me, taken over an essential aspect of our farm and personal lives. They do all the work with the cattle and sheep; they do all the laundry, cooking, and housework; and they are working beside me as Laurelee used to do in the scientific research and civil defense work that is our ministry and our professional life. One by one, my tasks just disappeared as the children assumed them.

In general, they prefer to work independently. They tend not to share tasks and have not divided them as one might expect. For example, 11-year-old Joshua is the cook-and already a better cook than I. Zachary does all the work with the cattle (about 30) and the chickens; Arynne cares for the sheep (about 100); Noah is in charge of all farm and laboratory repairs; and Bethany does the washing and teaches Matthew. Some tasks are shared, such as house cleaning, sheep shearing, and watching over Matthew.

This sort of extracurricular work is especially valuable as reinforcement for the homeschool. While self-confidence can be built somewhat in sports or other "activities," the confidence that comes to a child from the knowledge that he is independently carrying on an activity that is essential to the survival of the family is valuable indeed.

It is important, however, not to take advantage of this situation. The development of a young mind takes place in a few short years. A parent must always make certain that the children have more than enough time for their academic studies and for essential recreation. When children show an aptitude for productive work helpful to the parent, there can be a tendency for the parent to let them do too much. This can deprive the children of mental development necessary to their own futures.

I generally consider each child's time to be more valuable than my own. If I provide them the time for optimum development and direct them to the necessary tools, then each of them should be able to surpass my own abilities and accomplishments. If they do, then my goals for their academic work will have been fulfilled. Remarkably, they have spontaneously responded with efforts that provide me also with more time for productive work.

Our home is not as neat and clean as some, our spelling (including mine) is not all that could be desired, and our traditions have become somewhat unusual (they leave the Christmas tree and nativity scene up for six months each year-from December through June), but these children know how to work and they know how to think.

Their homeschool is a success. This school is entirely self-taught by each student working alone. It depends upon a set of rules that can be adopted within any home in America. As their parent, my sole essential contribution has been to set the rules under which they live and study.

How the Robinsons Do It

For those who consider adopting these procedures, I offer the opinion that they will work in any home and with any children, regardless of ability. Obviously children differ in innate ability. I believe, however, that these rules will achieve remarkable results with any child when compared with other alternatives.

These are not, however, "suggestions." They are rigorous requirements. I know what has happened here. I do not know what would happen in different experiments under different conditions. If, therefore, these suggestions are all followed in the same way, I expect the same result.

No TV. There is no television in our home. We do have a VCR. As a family we watch a video tape approximately once every six months. Television wastes time, promotes passive, vicarious brain development rather than active thought, and is a source of pernicious social contamination.

Most American children are addicted to TV. Their brains spend four hours or more each day learning bad, passive habits from the TV and another few hours (if they are fortunate to have good activities, too) unlearning the bad habits. Then, if there are any hours left, they can make positive progress.

Moreover, when TV is used as a tranquilizer, it can mask other problems that should be solved early in life. Children need to work out the ways in which they interact with other people. Even though their behavior while doing so may be more distracting than their behavior when pacified by a television set, the TV may be retarding this aspect of development which is then undesirably transferred to the classroom instead.

No Sweets. The children do not eat sugar or honey or foods made with these materials and have never done so at any time in their lives. Sugar alters the metabolism in such a way as to increase the probability of diabetes, hypoglycemia, and hyperglycemia, and immune deficiencies that can lead to cancer and other fatal illnesses at a later age. Most importantly to a homeschool, sugar diminishes mental function and increases irritability and mental instability. Most children are able to learn regardless of these effects, but why burden them with this disadvantage?

These points about sugar have been expanded upon in several texts that may be available in your library. I recommend these books: Sweet and Dangerous by John Yudkin, Peter D. Wyden, Inc., 750 Third Ave, New York, NY 10017 (1972); Sugar Blues by William Dufty, Chilton Book Company, Radnor, PA (1975); and Food, Teens & Behavior by Barbara Reed, Natural Press, PO Box 2107, Manitowoc, WI (1983). These books contain a substantial number of appropriate references to the scientific literature.

Though Laurelee and I (both sugar addicts) established this rule, it is now out of my control. Two years ago, when some visitors whom we greatly wished to please came for dinner, they brought sweet rolls and donuts. I suggested to the children that they should eat just one so as not to offend. They all refused.

Five Hours, Six Days, Ten Months. Formal school work occupies about five hours each day-six days per week-twelve months per year. Sometimes one of them skips his studies for the day as a result of some special activity, and we take an occasional automobile trip. With these diversions, their actual annual school time occupies about ten full months of six-day weeks.

School First. These five hours each day are the most productive hours-the morning and early afternoon. As soon as they wake -- and with time out only for breakfast and milking the cows -- they study. Each has a large desk in the school room. My desk is also in that room. I try to do my own desk work during the same time, since my presence keeps the school room quiet and avoids arguments about noise.

Phonics. The five older children were taught to read with the phonetic system -- learning the individual sounds of our language. Laurelee taught them all. Matthew (five years old) is currently learning to read by phonics. The children are teaching him.

Lots of Good Books. The teacher-presented materials that Laurelee obtained are not used, but the history, science, and literature books that we accumulated, which include a good selection of classics, are essential to the curriculum.

Saxon Math. Each day, before beginning any other work, each child (except Matthew) works an entire lesson in the Saxon series of mathematics books. This usually involves working about 30 problems. If the 30 problems seem to be taking much less than two hours each day, we sometimes increase the assignment to two lessons or about 60 problems per day. If the lessons seem to be taking much more than two hours, then we reduce to one-half lesson or about 15 problems per day. This is an excellent series of texts. The children work their way through the entire series at a rate that finishes calculus, the last text in the series, when they are 15 years of age.

They grade their own problems and rework any missed problems. They must tell me if they miss a problem and show the correctly-worked solution to me. The younger children tend to make one or two errors each day. As they get older, the error rate drops. The older children make about one error each week. On very rare occasions, perhaps once each month, an older child will actually need help with a problem he or she feels unable to solve.

This emphasis on math with the help of the excellent Saxon series teaches them to think, builds confidence and ability to the point of almost error-free performance, and establishes a basis of knowledge that is essential to later progress in science and engineering.

It is also absolutely essential preparation for the non-quantitative subjects that do not require mathematics. The ability to distinguish the quantitative from the non-quantitative -- the truth from error -- fact from fiction -- is an absolutely essential requirement for effective thinking. Otherwise one will tend to confuse independent, truthful thought with opinions based upon falsehoods and propaganda.

Our society is filled to the brim with public school graduates who imagine that they are independent thinkers when they actually are programmed to believe anything they perceive as fashionable. This cult-like behavior is not limited to graduates in "soft subjects." Many people supposedly educated in the sciences and engineering also practice this ritual of non-thought.

I believe that much of this difficulty stems from poor early education in mathematics and logical thought. It is essential to understand that physical truths are absolute and can be rigorously determined. This must be learned by actually determining absolutes. Mathematical problem solving is an excellent mechanism for doing this.

Grim examples of failures in this area are everywhere. Earlier today, for example, a local bureaucrat telephoned in an effort to get my help in fashioning a community compromise on environmental issues between the solid citizens of this Valley and some pseudoenvironmentalist political agitators who have been disrupting the community recently.

During the discussion I mentioned that the agitators had filed a document with the federal government that contained a graph condemning the local lumber industry for destroying local game fish. Actually there was no correlation between fish population and timber harvest. The agitators had created a correlation by leaving out about half of the data for the last forty years -- the half which proves that their premise is false.

"Oh well," the bureaucrat replied, "we all do that sort of thing."

An Essay a Day. After completing the mathematics work, each child writes a one page essay about any subject that interests him and gives it to me. Some of the children enjoy writing these essays more than others. The remainder of the five hours is spent in reading history and science texts.

I read these pages and mark misspelled words and grammatical errors that the child must then correct. Sometimes I fall many weeks behind with these corrections, but the children just keep writing.

There is an unusual bonus in these short essays. Sometimes the student will write things that he or she would not (and sometimes should not) say to the parent otherwise. These essays have educational value, and they also open a new line of communication with the children.

College Level Science. Zachary (16 years old) has a more rigorous curriculum, since he finished calculus about a year ago. He is working his way through freshman and sophomore college physics and chemistry texts in the same way that he previously worked his way through Saxon math. After those years of self-taught math, he has simply gone on to self-taught science -- and in the toughest college level texts that I was able to obtain. His mind has become used to the fact that there is nothing in the well-known sciences that he cannot understand and learn and no problem that, with a proper book, he cannot work correctly. His error rate is negligible.

No Computers. No child is allowed to use a computer until after he or she has completed mathematics all the way through calculus. (At one point Saxon calls for a little use of the hand-held calculator. I permit this, but only on a very few occasions.)

Constant Recreational Reading. Since they have no television, the children are prone to spend a substantial part of their non-school hours reading. They read whatever interests them from our library -- which Laurelee purged of all books that she thought it best for them to avoid. By recreational reading, the children pick up most of their vocabulary and grammar and most of their knowledge about the world. Regarding current events, they do not listen to the radio, but it has become increasingly difficult to maintain control of my copy of the Wall Street Journal.

No Formal Bible Teaching. The Bible is not a required part of our formal curriculum. We have a family Bible reading before bed each evening, and we discuss elements of Christianity as they happen to arise in our everyday lives.

Like Isaac Newton, no one in our family ever questions the truth of the Lord's Word as provided to us in the Old and New Testaments of the King James Bible. We only seek to understand these truths by repeated reading. That reading is rarely accompanied by interpretive comment. Each of us must understand these things for himself and build his own relationship with God.

What We Leave Out. This curriculum is important for what it contains and also for what it does not contain. It contains about two hours of math or science problem-solving followed by about two hours of directed reading and a short essay each day -- all self-taught by the student.

What it does not contain is also very important.

Although the children take piano lessons and engage in a rich variety of extracurricular activities oriented around our farm and laboratory, their formal curriculum consists of "reading, writing, and arithmetic" and nothing more. It also essentially has no teacher -- a fact that I have come to realize can be an advantage.

Learning to Think

The brain is never asleep. It continues to work and think 24 hours per day. If a brain gets used to the fact that it will actively work math problems for two hours at the same time each day and that it can understand and work those problems without error, it will also allot a significant part of its time during the other 22 hours to thinking subconsciously about mathematics. In this way understanding and performance are reinforced.

Each additional subject that is added to the curriculum creates a demand upon the brain's 24 hours of time. If an unnecessary subject is added, it wastes not only the curricular school time, but also a fraction of the extracurricular time. It is therefore important to be very careful not to add unnecessary subjects.

Our public schools and also many of our homeschools have so many subjects in their curricula that the children's brains do not have time to give adequate attention to the fundamentally important subjects.

In the formative years, it is absolutely essential that children learn how to think and how to learn independently. They have a lifetime to accumulate facts and will do so more effectively if they acquire a correct foundation -- not of facts, but of ability to read, think, and evaluate for themselves.

The ability to think is the most important. A very large percentage of our public school graduates lack the ability to think. Most of them can, however, articulate acceptably. When we give the brain a small number of the most important tools to learn and use, we give it an opportunity to learn to think.

Always remember that when you add a subject or activity to a child's schedule, you are subtracting from the time for something else. Is it really more important, for example, for the child to learn a foreign language than it is to learn error-free applied mathematics?

The Experiment Works

In this experiment, I have watched a group of children educate themselves in a far superior manner than I could have done for them if I had spent every waking hour teaching them in the usual manner. I am convinced that, had I done so, their progress would have been far less.

Although I have occasionally helped them with specific questions, that help has been so infrequent that they would have advanced almost as far if I had not helped. Moreover, the level of academic accomplishment that they have achieved is truly extraordinary.

Children learn by example and by doing. They do not learn effectively by being lectured to or by vicarious involvement as in television viewing. Our educational method works, and it involves almost no parental time once the school room and curriculum have been provided and the rules have been established.

Dr. Arthur Robinson and his six children are presently working on developing a directed, self-teaching literature curriculum that they hope "will do for the teaching of literature what Saxon did for the teaching of math." To keep in touch with this project, you may contact them through the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, PO Box 1279, Cave Junction, OR 97523.


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