Saturday, July 17, 2010

Reflections on AmblesideOnline YR2 - An Intelligent, Sequential, Integrated Curriculum

On the Bank of the Seine, Bennecourt, 1868, Claude Monet

I first heard of an 'sequential, integrated curriculum' earlier this year when I read an article titled, Is Sequencing and Ordering the Curriculum Important for Scaffolding Learning? by Dr. Carol Smith in a back issue of the Winter 2007 Parents Review.

The article is long and delves into the work of a Russian educational psychologist, Vygotsky, and his concepts of thought and language. Maybe more than you really need to know, but there is much else in the article that is helpful to a homeschooling mom like myself. Like the six steps of narration and the 'Grand Conversation' involved, the safe learning atmosphere that values what the child says, and the idea of this 'sequential, integrated curriculum'.

Here are a few quotes from Dr. Smith in the article, except where he quotes CM as indicated:

First, a note about scaffolding. This term is generally used in an instructional sense--in the support a teacher gives in daily lessons. I want to extend this concept of scaffolding to the curriculum because I view a sequenced, integrated curriculum as a scaffolding support for students. Although scaffolding was not a term used in Mason’s time, I believe she understood this concept very well.

...we want children to have access to a curriculum that can be adequately scaffolded and to instruction that is scaffolded and sequenced so they can reach the new learning and integrate the new learning onto their previously laid layers or prior knowledge. If children are not taught in such a way that they can properly lay their bricks to build supported knowledge, then there are consequences: their learning becomes patchy and fragmented.

Mason (1954) says, “The shallow child guesses the riddle and scores; and it is by the use of tests of this kind that we turn out young people sharp as needles but with no power of reflection, no intelligent interests, nothing but the aptness of the city gamin” (p. 55).

Disconnected learning frequently prevents children from gaining understanding and wisdom from their learning. The learning isn’t organic and living. For example, they cannot see how their personal actions are connected to the larger community. Or, they may not understand how their lack of care for the environment affects everyone.

The general curriculum sequenced around history provides the basic structure and sequence for learning to occur. The integration of the curriculum, done by correlating (whenever possible) ourstory with literature, other histories, poetry and other subjects provides children with the structure to make cross disciplinary conditions and, following the sequence of ourstory and general history, allows students to interconnect subjects using a proper sequence.

Sadly much education today does not use an integrated and sequenced curriculum. Unit studies and separate subjects (departmentalization is the common educational jargon) are taught. As a result, children frequently build separate rooms, learning one subject with little ability to relate it to another and are building a patchy education. I believe Mason designed her curriculum to precisely avoid this fragmented, fragile, patchy learning and that one of our important responsbilities as educators in helping our children build a more robust and
satisfying education is offering them a sequenced, integrated curriculum.

Woman with a Parasol: Madame Monet and Her Son, 1875, Claude Monet

Having come to the end of YR2 of the AmblesideOnline curriculum, my thoughts were drawn back to this article. In fact, it explained exactly what we experienced over the past year.

Our Island Story walking us through the history of England while selected chapters from A Child's History of the World filled in pertinent historical events. Trial and Triumph revealed the trying times of the martyrs whose lives were interwoven with the rule of these Kings of old. Stories like Little Duke and Door in the Wall and Otto of the Silver Hand bringing in intimate knowledge of how children lived in this long-ago world. And Robin Hood along with the others putting them in touch with language and further depiction of the times in which they lived (and a whole lot of laughs!). The art of Raphael Sanzio with paintings of knights and dragons further enhanced these times in our minds .

Would my 2nd grader be able to explain all that? Definitely not. Will she remember the names of all the Kings and Queens in order, the formalities of the feudal system, or the exact date when the printing press was invented? No way. But those are facts she can look up on Google in an instant. Why fill a brain with mere facts when there is so much more?

I believe as she progresses through Renaissance, Reformation, Revolution and beyond to return to The Middle Ages again in YR7, she will have a deep pool of intimate understanding about that time to draw upon. What mattered to people then? What were their fears, joys, frustrations, struggles, hopes and why? What was daily life like and how did people interact? What were the decisions they grappled with and how did their beliefs affect their choices and the way they lived and treated others? What was it like to be human then? And
how does that matter to me, here, today? What do I think of it? So much more.

One of the greatest points I have to point out about the AO curriculum, and I believe this is key to CM, is that the curriculum leaves the learning up to the child. It placed her there in the midst of it as an observer experiencing the time period as it came to life through vivid descriptions within the story of characters who drew us in and who we came to know intimately over time. Our brief discussions arising from her narrations as well as Hillyer's Child's History of the World provided just enough non-intrusive scaffolding so that connections were striven for, chewed on, contemplated and thought upon - by her. And because there was enough left unsaid - out of a simple trust of her intellect and her natural desire to want to know, understand and connect what was presented to her - she owned what she learned. And I wasn't overburdened with having to come up with fantastic lesson plans, it was all there for us.

Did I understand anything about a
sequential, integrated curriculum when I chose AO? Not at all. In fact, I only chose AO because it was free and it was CM and a friend was also using it.

If I was better educated and more knowledgeable about books, might I choose a different schedule and different books than those on AO? Maybe.
I'm not so I can't say.

What I do know is that the more I read and learn, the more I recognize the aspects of AO that are so very true to CM's philosophy and intended methods. Will next year or the year after be the same? I can only speak to YR0-3, but I can tell you we are excited for what is in store for us next year! A banquet no doubt.

I marvel at Mason’s depth in understanding human learning, and I think that years from now, when we have gone deeper and deeper into pulling back the layers of her educational philosophy and pedagogy, we will see the richest and most comprehensive view of education both philosophically and practically that has ever been written. ~Carol Smith


  1. About to start year 2, for the fourth time! Reading this blog post reminded me of why I am still looking forward to this year. It will be all new to my 7 yo son. He was not even two the last time I did year two. Let the banquet begin!

  2. This is lovely! Charlotte called this relationship-building learning "synthetic" learning, and you are quite right--the real work is done in the mind of the child/learner, and not by the teacher, who merely serves up the banquet.

    I agree with Dr. Smith, too, that CM has articulated one of the deepest, profoundest, and most complete methods of education that history as ever seen.