Sunday, 13 August 2006

Good news for parents in search of real education for their children

Good news at the bottom of this post for parents of children who have a problem with learning. But first, a lecture (That's right, there's no such thing as a free lunch.)

"The hierarchy of knowledge is the most neglected issue in education."

Now just what the hell does that mean? Well, outside the Beehive and the bureaucracy (and the NZEI) everyone is aware of "the borderline illiteracy, the nonexistent math skills, the vast ignorance of history, and the lack of basic reasoning ability that characterize [thousands upon thousands] of students today. " You know about that bad stuff, right?

What if I were to tell you that the chief problem with education as it's presently delivered -- the prime culprit in the present-day crime of 'educating for illiteracy' -- is the failure to adequately address the hierarchy of knowledge. What today's educationalists most neglect, argues Lisa Van Damme (who runs her own private and genuinely good private school), is the recognition that knowledge and the acquisition of knowledge is hierarchical. Let her explain:
All abstract knowledge depends, for its meaning and validity, on other knowledge that sets the context for it. For example, algebra depends on addition, and calculus depends on algebra. The more complex the knowledge, the more extensive the knowledge that must precede it.

One major aspect of the fact that knowledge depends on other knowledge—the aspect most relevant to and most violated in education—is that more abstract knowledge depends on less abstract knowledge. This is
the principle of the hierarchy of knowledge.
She goes on:
A concept or generalization is more or less abstract according to its cognitive distance from the perceptual level. Concepts and generalization exist in a hierarchy, from the perceptual level to the highest level abstractions.

Highly abstract concepts presuppose a very long chain of prior conceptualizations. This is why, for example, so much knowledge must be gained for students to learn calculus.

Knowingly or not, parents encounter the issue of hierarchy all the time. When my daughter Lana was 2 ½ years old, I took her to the hospital to visit a friend of mine who had given birth that day to a baby girl named Talia. I told Lana, “Today is Talia’s birthday!” She looked at me with a puzzled expression and said, “She’s having a party?” I said, “No, it’s her birthday,” and stumbled my way through an explanation of what it meant for this to be Talia’s “birth day” and what the connection was between a “birth day” and a “birthday party.”

I quickly realized that it was impossible for Lana to grasp the connection between the birth of a baby and the cake, presents, and balloons, which to her were the essence of a birthday party. To do so, she would have to grasp, among other things, the concept of “birth,” which she did not yet really understand, the concept of a “year,” so that she could learn that the passing of a year marked the anniversary of a person’s birth, and the concept of “celebration,” so that she could understand why the anniversary of one’s birth is celebrated with a party, and so on. It was impossible for me to teach Lana a more advanced understanding of the concept of “birthday” given her context of knowledge—she had not formed and could not yet grasp the prerequisite concepts.
that's a very, very brief outline of the subject. On that more later. But now, here's the good news:

1) Lisa Van Damme's school, the Van Damme Academy, has a curriculum content and methods of teaching that fully recognises the hierarchy of knowledge in learning, and they report enormous success in actually educating their students, and teaching them how to learn. (Her students enter high school already having learned and retained much of the early high-school curriculum, and having developed a real love of learning.)

In their history programme for example, rather than teaching isolated facts that the student can only hold "because the teacher says so," history is taught in a manner that that allows the student to grasp and "integrate their knowledge of the major events and trends of history with knowledge from other fields and a wide range of personal experiences. Only then will they be able to form rational, meaningful convictions about politics [and much else]."

Now, for my New Zealand readers (who have already leaped ahead and realised that Lisa's Academy is in Laguna Hills, California) the really tremendous news is that the Van Damme Acedemy is now offering the first distance learning of its courses. Starting September 2006, their Remote History Programme kicks off.
This academic program, designed for students at the elementary school level, teaches the history of Western civilization, from the Ancient World, through the European Middle Ages, to modern America... VanDamme Academy invites you, whether you are a parent with one child, or a homeschool teacher with twelve, to learn more about this program now. (Parents and teachers should read "An Introduction to European History for Parents and Teachers.") For ongoing news relating to the program, please join the Remote History Program's Mailing List by clicking on the link below.

If you want more details of the history programme, the Anouncements page of the Van Damme Academy has a two-part audio outlining the school's unique history curriculum.

Now for the second piece of good news. I've referred before to Lisa's superb article on the hierarchy of knowledge in education, and I've quoted from it above, but up to now the only way you can access the full article is by paying a yearly sub to 'The Objective Standard' (which is, by the way, worth every penny).

But now, you can listen online to Lisa's speech in three parts delivered to homeschooling parents on 'The Concept of the Hierarchy of Knowledge.' As she says, it is one of the most important topics in education." Scroll down on this Announcements page to find the speech.


AUDIO: 'The Hierarchy of Knowledge: The Most Neglected Issue in Education,' and 'The Van Damme Academy History Curriculum': both can be found online at the
Van Damme Academy Announcements Page.

Education, Objectivism


  1. PC said...
    [... the prime culprit in the present-day crime of 'educating for illiteracy' -- is the failure to adequately address the hierarchy of knowledge.]

    I think that our eduction systems already doing that? Unless I have missed something here? High schools don't leap to teach calculus without introducing algebra to students.

  2. I think that I have to retract the comment I made above as I just realised that Lisa Van Damme curriculum programme is a montesorri one. That means that our education systems don't do montesorri teaching except private montesorri schools.

    "Lisa Van Damme"

  3. "I think that our eduction systems already doing that?"

    Sadly, they're not. The algebra to calculus example is one everyone can see, and was used to show what she was meaning. That same methododology should be applied accross the board.