Q&A with author Susan Wise Bauer, whose bestselling resource The Well-Trained Mind came out with its Fourth Edition this August!
- What about this book sets it apart from other homeschooling texts?
I think it’s our commitment to offering both a big picture vision of the purposes of K-12 education, along with plenty of nitty-gritty details.
Back in the early 1970s, when my mother started home educating us (that’s my brother, my sister, and me), there weren’t that many curricula choices—no conferences, no used curricula sales, no support groups, and not that many educational publishers who’d even agree to sell teacher’s guides to parents.
Now, there are ZILLIONS of curricula. So many options, so many methods, so many extracurricular activities, so many pros and cons… parents who decide to home educate are drowning in choices.
The only way to make intelligent choices about curricula is to know where you’re headed—what your goal is. The Well-Trained Mind lays out a very clear goal for your graduating senior. Classical education is centered around the trivium, which is not just a pattern of K-12 education, but a life-long pattern of learning: Learn how to find the information you need; learn how to evaluate its value; and then, make up your mind about it. So the goal of classical education is to graduate a student who knows how to locate important knowledge, analyze it for truth and falsehood, and then express an intelligent opinion about it.
That’s a student who’s ready to head off for college.
Knowing that you’re aiming to shape those particular qualities in your graduating senior helps you to make intelligent decisions about what (out of the huge teeming mass of available resources) you’ll buy, use, and focus on. That’s a big part of what we offer parents.
But at the same time, we give practical, down-to-earth, day-by-day details. It’s wonderful to have lofty goals for your student, but what grammar book, which math program, what science text do you use? How much time do you spend? How much work do you expect your second, fifth, eleventh-grade student to do? How do you teach phonics, award grades, tackle ancient history, fill out a transcript? We give specific details on how to do all of those things. You don’t have to follow our lead in these details; you can choose to do things your own way. But we’ve provided concrete, hands-on guidance in case you feel adrift.
- What are the key differences in the revised fourth edition of The Well-Trained Mind, and why are they important?
All the recommendations are updated, of course. Books and curricula go out of print (particularly elementary ones—they seem to get outdated very quickly) and new ones are published, so we’re always looking for resources that are both good and easily available. We’ve updated the recommendations in each edition of The Well-Trained Mind, but this fourth edition also has four major changes from earlier editions.
First, the fourth edition pays attention to how recommendations might differ for children with processing and learning difficulties. It seems that these children make up a much higher percentage of home educated students than in previous years. As home education has become more visible and additional resources have become available, many more parents are reacting to very individual needs by choosing to remove struggling children from the classroom entirely. So we wanted to give more guidance on evaluation, adapting the classical curriculum, and alternative recommendations—some of which are in the book, but more are online at our new website, welltrainedmind.com.
Which leads me to the second major change…
We’ve shifted quite a bit of our information online. We started with the quickly outdated appendices (lists of publishers and suppliers, home school groups, and so on), but we’re also now including alternative recommendations online. In the book itself, we list our top picks for all the different subject areas. But there are many more books, programs, and resources that are compatible with the goals of classical education! So on our website, we’re listing great resources that we found too complicated, expensive, specialized, or quirky to recommend in the book, but which have enthusiastic support among many veteran home schoolers. Plus, we’re offering guides to online enrichment activities, apps, and other web-based learning tools.
Third—we’ve completely revamped our maths and sciences chapters. Classical education has often been criticized as stronger in the humanities than in the maths and sciences. Working with highly qualified experts and experienced teachers, we have overhauled our approach to provide a much more rigorous and coherent maths and sciences education.
And finally…in response to our readers, we’ve reorganized chapters into two parts—first, how to teach a subject (methods, goals, expectations, etc.); and second, what resources to use (recommended texts and curricula). This makes the book even more flexible, since parents can use the principles of teaching even if they choose to use other specific texts or programs than the ones we suggest.
- What strategies might best serve parents and educators when it comes to preparing students for standardized tests?
The first strategy: Realize that a standardized test has almost no relationship to real education.
Standardized tests are the ultimate expression of the artificiality of our education system—and that system has little to do with the goal of classical education, which is to guide a young mind (and personality) towards mature, thoughtful self-knowledge and self-expression (a goal that requires a great deal of knowledge about the outside world). Standardized tests don’t necessarily measure the child’s knowledge or skill; they may not coincide with what you’ve been working on; and they require specific test-taking skills that your child will have to practice when he could be doing something else with real learning value.
But…for home educators, standardized tests are a great equalizer. Because grading standards vary so much from school to school, standardized test scores have become the ultimate proof that you’re doing a good job educating your child. Students with a good grounding in the foundational skills of reading, writing, and mathematics generally test well.
So that’s your first task: concentrate on those core language arts and mathematics skills.
Second, practice test-taking. Even if your state doesn’t require yearly testing, take the tests anyway. (We have a list of the different tests and how to take them—you can administer some yourself—in The Well-Trained Mind.)
Tests are a reality of educational and professional life (you even have to take a test to get a driver’s license), and constant practice will eventually dull test anxiety. Plus, you can use the test results to target weak areas that need more study, as well as to praise the child when scores show that he has made progress. If the child consistently tests poorly in a particular skill, you might want to consult a professional evaluator to see whether the child has a learning problem, or simply needs more time in that area.
Third (an important corrective), don’t put too much weight on the results. Even at its best, standardized testing is merely a tool for evaluating instruction. It should be used to plan the next step in the educational process, not to “evaluate” the student’s intelligence. Never make an important educational decision on the basis of one test.
And finally: If we’re talking SATs or ACTs, study directly to the tests. No matter how much actual education has been going on, that may not translate into test results. Getting an approved study guide and sample tests, and spending three to five hours per week working on particular test-taking skills, is the most productive and effective way to raise scores.
Could the student be doing something more worthwhile—like reading, or writing, or baking bread, or contemplating the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius?
Absolutely. But part of adulthood is learning which hoops to jump through (because they’ll get you closer to what you really want) and which to disregard. Standardized tests are one of those hoops worth jumping through.
Just remember that they’re hoops.
- There is a wealth of advice in THE WELL-TRAINED MIND, but if you could give parents and educators just one piece of advice, what would it be?
Okay, that was a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy joke, but it’s also true.
At the Well-Trained Mind Press, where we publish resources for home educators, we are constantly reminded, by the parents who call us for advice and assistance, that educating your children is an incredibly fraught business.
It’s fraught because parenting is fraught. If you’re a good parent, you rarely feel that you’re doing an adequate job. You’re painfully aware of all of your inadequacies and shortcomings. That’s because parenting is one of the most difficult and vital tasks on earth. Of course you don’t feel that you’re doing it well.
(If you think you’re doing it well, you probably have very young children. Wait until they’re twenty.)
When you home educate, schooling gets all tied up with parenting: It’s so very difficult to do it properly. And it’s so hard to know that you have done it properly.
I understand that. My children are now 25, 23, 19, and 15. I can see a little more clearly (at least for the older kids) what I did wrong. And I can tell you that every decision I made that I now regret, I made out of fear: that they wouldn’t achieve enough, get into college, get jobs, be okay.
Looking back, I can tell you that every decision I made out of fear was a wrong decision.
You’re nurturing a person. People are unpredictable, surprising, perplexing. There’s nothing that you can do to guarantee that they’ll turn out “right.” (Conversely, when they do turn out “right,” it will probably have much less to do with you than you now think.)
Educate to the best of your ability. Make sure they can read and write and calculate well. Breathe. Don’t be afraid. Enjoy your days.
Do your best. And don’t panic.