In The Didascalicon, Hugh of Saint Victor says there are three obstacles to progress in learning — perhaps we might say three categories of obstacles — that students can come up against: carelessness, imprudence, and bad luck. He then goes on to share his solution for these three. I found myself wondering if it could really be this simple: only three? But the more I went around in circles, the more every obstacle I could think of fit into one of these categories.
So let’s go through them.
Hugh defines carelessness as omitting or learning less carefully what we are supposed to be learning. Hugh seems to be mainly addressing adult learning in his book, and it’s not like he’s one to rattle off a bunch of examples. The word itself is interesting, though, isn’t it? When we are not interested in something, we don’t care about it. We say I couldn’t care less and we mean we care so little that we don’t care at all.
Omitting and working less carefully are signs of a lack of care. There can be a number of reasons for this. We don’t care about what we’re doing in general. We don’t care about the subject or lesson specifically. Or there is something else we would prefer to be doing (care about more) at the moment.
Regardless of the reason, Hugh says the solution is “admonishment.” This seems like an oversimplification when dealing with children. I can see how Hugh could walk up to a college student and scold him for not caring enough and doing slovenly work or neglecting his studies altogether. But I don’t see admonishment alone working for most children.
Knowing that we cannot make all students care — in the Middle Ages there was the option of not being a student that weeded students like this out — I tried to think through what I have read all these years and what seem to be the best approaches (in addition to admonishment, of course) to careless children. Hat tip Charlotte Mason and Mystie Winckler:
- Choose living books. These are interesting and contain “vital ideas,” making it easier for children to care in the first place.
- Use age-appropriate short lessons. There is nothing that brings about a lack of care faster than going past the point where our students are engaged to the place where they are numb and can’t take in anything more.
- Vary the lessons. Sometimes we call this “alternation.” Schedule lessons for unlike subjects back to back because that is more refreshing than doing more of the same.
- Require excellence. Charlotte Mason called this perfect execution and she classified it as a mental habit. A corollary to this is only assigning work the student can reasonably do — we want it to be a challenge, but if we want to maintain that habit of perfect execution, the work we are requiring should be attainable — we challenge, but not to the point of crushing discouragement.
- Accountability. Students who get away with slacking will continue to slack.
About imprudence Hugh explains,
Imprudence arises when we do not keep to a suitable order and method in the things we are learning.The Didascalicon, p. 127
Hugh discusses order and method throughout the book. To get at what he is saying, let’s take an extreme example. Let’s say that on your first day in first grade, you were instructed to get out your textbook and do a page of complex division problems. We all know this is a recipe for disaster because this assignment disrespects the natural order involved in learning math. We may go fast or we may go slow, but either way we build precept upon precept, concept upon concept.
Ultimately, this means that a disorderly curriculum is an obstacle to learning.
I don’t think this post is a great place to discuss all the ins and outs of what Hugh meant by orderliness. However, here are some general ideas to consider when it comes to our homeschooling:
- Sticking with a curriculum is part of orderliness. I don’t mean that there is never reason to drop or change. But one notorious problem in homeschooling is constantly switching math curricula. The students ends up with big gaps because the scope and sequence (the order) isn’t identical from one curriculum to another. Choosing a good curriculum and then continuing with it over the long haul can be a strong point.
- Spine books provide context and context is a type of ordering. One thing I love about, for example, a history spine is that it naturally orders to the other books we’re using. So maybe we’re reading about Johnson in our spine and then later we start reading Life of Johnson and we have some context for it because of the spine.
- A timeline orders history without much effort. Having your students keep a timeline or a Book of Centuries can provide chronological ordering not just over a single school year, but over multiple years of school. Students may be allowed to enter whatever they choose on the timeline, and that may feel like disorder to some. But they will connect events and persons (a type of ordering ahem) to their places in time and in relation to each other if they keep these notes across many years.
- Chronological history study is a thing for a reason. I am not one to think every single history or literature book we read has to be from the same time period. Kids can figure out a lot. But chronology is a logical and natural way to order the curriculum. Going through a basic chronology two or thee times over the course of a child’s K-12 education is an orderly, sensible way to approach history.
- It’s okay not to follow every rabbit trail. Homeschoolers romanticize rabbit trails, I think. My opinion is those are good things to follow on your own time, but not in my class, thankyouverymuch. This may sound rude, but in my Plutarch class, for example, most rabbit trails are nothing more than a child caring more about their own thoughts than what they are learning. I would even go so far as to say they are thinking the easy thoughts instead of engaging with the more difficult thought Plutarch calls them to. It is an undisciplined moment and if allowed to follow it, they will miss the main wisdom in the reading. I am happy they are interested and connecting their reading to other things, but many times these trails are nothing more than the products of an undisciplined mind. As their teacher, I help them keep to the point, and I believe this is a huge blessing to them.
- Schedules and set school hours are also tools that offer order. Just like a well-ordered home has a place for everything (or so I hear ahem), a well-ordered school schedule also has a place for everything. Ordering the day for the child (especially younger children) provides support for learning.
There are a million other things that help order the learning environment, the curriculum, and even the child’s mind. I’m curious what you would add to the list.
Hugh says the solution for imprudence is simple: the student needs instruction. We do not leave him to his own devices. We take charge by giving him structure and assignments. We find him the right books or tutors. We make sure he is being taught the selected content rather than leaving him to wander on his own.
You have likely faced bad luck before in your homeschool. Hugh describes it thus:
Bad luck shows up in a development, a chance happening, or a natural occurrence, when we are kept back from our objective either by poverty, or by illness, or by some non-natural slowness, or even by a scarcity of professors, because either none can be found to teach us, or none can be found to teach us well.The Didascalicon, p. 127
This reminds me of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (which I wrote about in depth here), where William Kamkwamba wants so desperately to go to school, but the famine has eaten up his family’s finances and there is nothing left for his school fees. For some inexplicable reason, the school wants to be paid for all the terms he missed (that is never done here, and I was aghast), and so as he misses more and more, the cost of returning increases. It is a beautiful moment in his story when some people with means step in and finance his education, and enroll him in a school with more competent teachers.
Hugh says that when a student is facing bad luck, he needs to be assisted.
Assistance can take many forms; paying someone’s tuition is only one. Signing your child up for an online or in-person class because you know you are not the best teacher for a subject can be assistance. Taking your child to a doctor that can provide relief for an illness is assistance, too. Taking a child with needs to physical therapy also falls in this category.
When we are in need of assistance for our children, the main thing to do is pray. When we see others in need of assistance, prayer is still the first thing to do, but afterwards we may need to step in. I have encountered many homeschoolers who have homeschooled additional children for a period of time as a way of providing assistance to another family.
Troubleshooting in this context
One thing I like about this is that Hugh provides the solution, not just the problem. Is the child guilty of carelessness in his learning? He needs discipline. Is the problem disorderliness? He needs structure and teaching. Is the problem bad luck? He needs help, possibly a benefactor.
When things are going wrong in our homes, it can be useful, I think, to look at these categories and try to figure out which one our problems are in because that points us down the path to a solution.
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I’m saving this to really think about later. I noticed this book was on your summer Mother Culture reading list last year, and I sincerely hope there will be another list for summer this year.
There will be! I always have a goal of putting it out in May … but usually it’s June before I finish. 😉
We have spent a lot of the last lockdown year slowly trying to rid our house of clutter, as it is one of my major issues with organising my mind and our schoolwork. It is better but still a long way to go.
What you say about history is true. We have begun the discussion with our eldest about the need in the UK to take exams at 16 and what subjects she might choose. I mentioned that my history GCSE focused on the industrial revolution in England and she started to rattle off all the books she has read recently covering that period in different ways (history spine, science, biography of Shaftesbury), which filled my heart with joy because she does have that period connected mentally!
We’ve a long way to go but your article has inspired me to think through a lot more of our organisation over the summer break
I love the way the science and history connected like that. ♥
This is so helpful
There were a number of times when reading Hugh that I felt this simple clarity from his words. ♥