Excerpt from my book Homeschool Teacher: A Practical Guide to Inspiring Academic Excellence

I DIVIDE LEARNING INTO TWO TYPES, based on the differences in the kind of retention we want students to have: automatic and thoughtful. Politicized educational theorists (both academic and homeschooling) often push us towards one or the other, regardless of the topic under study, but I see a critical role for both in the classroom.

I think of automatic learning as the subjects that require mastery and automaticity – as in the joke about “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” there is only one answer: practice, practice, practice. When I took the PADI Scuba Diving course in college, the drill drove me crazy. We did the same moves, over and over. And then over and over again. I dove occasionally for the next 25 years, without much deliberate practice of the skills, when one afternoon my regulator failed eighty feet below the surface. I did not have a single conscious thought about it – my left hand swept out without being told, scooped up my spare regulator, shoved it in my mouth, and pushed the button to clear the water out. The emergency – and it could have killed me – was over before I had the chance to think about it, before my diving partners even noticed I was in trouble. All that drill came back to me, and my hands moved automatically, without conscious direction.

Automatic learning applies to anything you need to know that has to be perfect. Times tables, addition facts, musical instruments – any subject where repetition will help you master it. Teachers deride “drill and kill” exercises for being boring, but practice is the only way to succeed at something like math facts or music and the only way to stay alive in scuba diving.

The problem starts when teachers use the same method of drilling facts for the thoughtful learning subjects. When history is dates, science is memorized diagrams, literature is descriptive terms, and writing is diagramming sentences, the students never have a chance to really understand.

I ask myself, do my children need to know this particular fact or skill in ten or twenty years? If the answer is yes (and they don’t already know it), then it needs to go in the automatic learning category and needs to be practiced, which usually involves nagging.

In contrast, we can never master the thoughtful learning subjects of history, literature, science, advanced mathematics, or writing. What we can do is revisit those subjects over and over in different forms, until we have knowledge approaching that of an expert, until we have truly mastered the vocabulary and the ideas. You don’t get those vocabulary words from flashcards, but rather from reading them, listening to them, speaking them, writing them. There is no set list of things you need to know for these subjects, despite what the purveyors of AP exam preparation courses would want you to believe.

Automatic learning subjects include early reading, math facts, musical instruments, handwriting, typing and keyboarding, and spelling. Thoughtful learning subjects include history, science, literature, writing, and advanced math. There is a slight bias towards automatic subjects in the first six years of school, and towards thoughtful subjects in the last six, but there is a place for both types of learning throughout elementary, middle, and high school. (And of course some topics have elements of both – think of the automaticity needed to operate a clutch, gas pedal and gear shift simultaneously on a manual transmission car, and the experience-driven, evaluative, thoughtful learning needed to make driving decisions.)

The automatic subjects are those where you learn the best and the fastest by doing the same thing over and over again; the thoughtful subjects are those where you learn the best by doing similar things over and over again, by reading different versions of a history, for example, or writing another paper. These are the subjects where you learn best by over-reading and retaining the gist of the idea. In science or history, for example, it is far easier to learn ten textbook pages’ worth of material by reading an entire book on the topic, rather than the ten dense pages in a textbook. The textbook may be helpful, but it will work better after students have some familiarity with the subject. All the “chapter previewing” in the world won’t help you understand a chapter on World War II as well as developing a basic understanding (and interest) through family stories, novels, and films, followed by a general-audience history book, and then (and only then) an analytical account such as you might find in a history textbook.

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Read more: Homeschool Teacher: A Practical Guide to Inspiring Academic Excellence by Kate Laird