These days when many educators share what young people will need, the list is filled with what has been called “21st-century skills” including things like digital literacy, creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking. Many of these same experts agree that due to the rapid pace at which technology changes, a lifetime love of learning will also be crucial for the future success of today’s students. While we agree that these skills will ultimately be important for an individual's success, we believe that a solid foundation of knowledge is important before students can truly leverage these higher-level skills. These are not the building blocks to place at the very base of their academic foundation.
Children need and love knowledge. Their minds are primed and ready. Students thrive when first they are allowed to take in tons of information - knowledge about people, places, dates, vocabulary, and facts in a wide variety of subjects. Dorothy Sayers, author of The Lost Tools of Learning, and a favorite among the early pioneer-teachers at Brookfield Academy explains it well. Sayers observed that learning by heart is easy and even enjoyable for young children. The elementary school-aged brain has a great propensity for memorization and recitation. Not only are these young scholars good at it, but it is also good for them, building confidence in their abilities and bringing them the joy and wonder of learning. In elementary school, children also have strong observation skills - educators must take advantage of this time and flood them with opportunities to notice the patterns, the beauty, the facts, and marvels of the world around them, through literature, science, math problems, history, geography, language, and the arts. Knowledge is the foundational piece that they thrive on while at the same time, preparing them for critical thinking and many other skills they will eventually need as they grow. But working on skills in a vacuum without first building a strong and vibrant body of knowledge to access is not only less successful but less engaging as well.
At Brookfield Academy, we teach phonics, spelling, vocabulary, grammar, and math facts - and ask our students to commit much of this to memory. It creates excitement and a sense of accomplishment. Their confidence blossoms right before our eyes and the learning and the work it requires become a source of pride.
Giving children strong grammar skills helps them understand how language works, how ideas are organized, and ultimately how to write clearly. Learning phonics and accurate spelling at a young age doesn’t stifle creativity, it starts good habits that will remain strong throughout life. A well-developed understanding of how to use language with precision along with a strong vocabulary does not hold back a child’s ability to be creative as many believe, but, in fact, supports them and provides them with more varied options for putting together a well-written sentence and greater nuance in their word choice - in general, more potential for creativity.
Grammar, phonics, and good literature are the beginnings of a powerfully strong foundation for learning and growing, creating and clear thinking. We may mistakenly perceive them as too challenging, too demanding for young minds, but children soak in these lessons, feel excited at their accomplishments, and over time, grow in confidence and skill. They are building a foundation for life.