Archive for Education Methodologies

The Excellence In Education College Preparatory English class

Dear Homescholars, Parents and lovers of the spoken and written word:

The Excellence In Education College Preparatory English class will meet again, both online and traditionally, on Thursdays from 2:30 to 4:00 in the large classroom at EIE starting Thursday September 11, 2014. Please see our new video about the class: and perhaps “like” our new Facebook page:

This class is open to students of any age who are ready to work on college-level English and may be taken repeatedly as it is different every year. If you have taken the class before, please share your experiences with others, and you are welcome to join us as an advanced student as we explore new ground. Parents are always welcome.

Thomas Paine
We covered a great deal last year including three Shakespeare plays (Twelfth Night, Much Ado about Nothing, Henry V) together with some Jane Austen, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse, Abraham Lincoln, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jerome K. Jerome, Maya Angelou, Bertrand Russell, David Berlinski, Thomas Paine, Douglas Adams, Kenneth Grahame, Stephen Hawking and many other greats (not to mention Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Klingon version of Hamlet).

We engaged in debates, recitations and lectures and were inspired by some of the greatest writers and orators of the English speaking world.

We read and studied papers in scholarly journals and practiced both writing and speaking in formal academic English.

And we had fun!

practice book coverThe class uses the text: SAT, ACT TOEFL College Prep English but will cover many other things as well, to be determined by the interests and inspiration of class members. Writing and speaking skills and techniques for the felicitous presentation of cogent and compelling prose will be covered together with advanced vocabulary, language usage, comprehension, grammar and style that will serve students well in college and college credit examinations. Class members will study and emulate the work of the masters of words and will prepare and deliver scripted and improvisatory oratory in lecture, debate, interview and dramatic settings with a view to wielding language effectively.

To register or inquire:
Callback message: 323 432 7128

Abacus CPE Page

Comments off

Speaking Music As a First Language

Music Made Difficult — how traditional music lessons may hamper a child’s ability to “speak music” as a first language. Here are some alternatives.  See our Music Class Video

K. Titchenell

The delight of pushing the key and hearing the note has always enticed children to the keyboard. Time spent with parents and siblings playing “find the note” or “follow the leader” on the keyboard can be a wonderful learning experience and often reveals innate intuitive musical understanding in a toddler. If given the opportunity and a benign and nurturing musical environment using strategies such as those suggested below, this potential talent can unfold into a wonderful musical facility. A child can actually master music and delight in it while never sitting down to practice except when inspired to do so. Family music sessions can become the high point of the week’s homeschooling.

Unfortunately, all too often, in an earnest effort to do what’s best, parents unwittingly cause these childhood musical potentials to remain unrealized. On the advice of music teachers, children are funnelled into lessons where their joy and creativity are sedated by baffling and discouraging scales and exercises and where they encounter perverse emphasis upon interpreting notes on a five-lined staff – as if the sounds in that young head were not good enough and the keys played had to be dictated by long-dead masters. Indeed, one tenet of old-school music pedagogy is that the student be prohibited from playing music without reading it from a score. Forbidding children from playing anything but what is read from the page is very like preventing an infant from talking until he/she can read! Musical and verbal ability can progress side-by-side, as soon the child can hear words or notes – but one must avoid pitfalls that can so easily destroy delight in making music altogether.

Far too many adults (I’m sure you know at least a few) associate music education with drudgery – onerous hours of mindless repetition mandated by directives and enforced with a practice schedule. Of these aspiring musicians, a large number eventually reject music altogether and refuse to revisit the subject (indeed had Paul McCartney and Elvis Presley heeded the disparagement of their music teachers, we might never have heard of them). Some conclude with ill-deserved confidence, that they are utterly lacking talent, thus making easier the decision to abandon music study. They are missing much, and the music world may be a poorer place without them. There are also a large number of “classically trained” musicians whose ability to play any music in front of them does not come close to compensating them for their inability to play anything that isn’t, who envy those who can instantly play songs they have heard and which come up in conversation.

Is learning to read music the best path to music competence?

The important question rarely asked is “Should I teach my child to read music?” Reading music was a very important skill in past centuries when no sound recording existed and every well-bred young lady was expected to provide music, singing and performing on the harpsichord or piano in pursuit of a husband. Realizing the notes on a page through the keyboard, voice or other instruments was the only way in which recorded music could be heard or enjoyed. (Of course wonderful oral traditions existed too, but a record is often lacking.) Does it not seem strange then that, in an age when technology that can render music, both from a page and from a recording, is universally accessible, that we continue to insist on restricting music lessons to a plodding, unimaginative and largely anachronistic process of reading notes? It may indeed be true that the aspiring classical concert performer is better off treading the established course to technical competence (it would certainly be demanded of one by the classical musical establishment) but is that sound justification for inflicting this regimen upon the other 99% of music students whose goals may involve more popular channels or even music for pure enjoyment?

Music consists of sound, and playing by sound is so natural for children. Is it wise to prohibit playing for sound in favor of the study of purely mechanical tasks? Would the conscientious parent really rather confine the child to doing what a computer chip can do instead of exercising his or her own God given creativity? It’s actually much more rewarding for a child to be able to play whatever music he or she has heard or invented than to be able to read fluently from the printed page. In general, younger children pick music up very quickly. By focussing upon the creative aspects of music and ignoring the complex and confusing but purely mechanical factors in music instruction (notation, scales, the multitude of keys and key signatures), a child can touch and feel the music directly, create it and delight in it.

What can be expected from an alternative homeschooling approach to music which encourages creativity?

Some students are introduced to music in a more organic and natural way and most of those with whom an auditory alternative approach has been used can play tunes they know but have never played before, by ear, sight unseen, within a few months. Within a year they can play and harmonize most common folk melodies or popular songs – but far more importantly, they can play the music in their own heads, can improvise never before heard music and render it fully. Later, more advanced study may perfectly well include writing and reading in standard music notation (though many in pop, rock, country etc. never resort to the musical staff nor feel a need to). After the real danger of turning the child away from music has been averted, anything is possible, including the study and performance of great works of the classical repertoire.

Fostering a child’s innate musical abilities

While any computer can play notes, only a human can realize that numinous creative flow, that God-inspired energy. Children can so often do this in ways that their elders cannot. Just as children can learn a foreign language as a native while adults, reading texts and studying grammar, often fail to do so even after many years of study, children can learn also to speak music as a first language with ease. In both cases it is a grave mistake to wait until they can read or to force them to do so.

There follow some basic approaches to introducing children to music. Some of these require fundamental musical knowledge which can often be acquired from books and videos or it’s usually fairly easy to find a friend or fellow homeschooler to who can offer assistance when needed. But be careful not to let anyone tell you that there is only one right way to do it. Help your children find the learning style that works best for them.

Basic concepts:

To be avoided:

  1. Don’t refer to notes by their keyboard note names (C,D,E…). These are specific to one key. It’s better to use something universal that works in any key.
  2. Don’t write music down in any form initially – visual information is not best for young children and is often only second best for older students. Use sound recordings, MIDI, MP3. Get kids to hear it, feel it, imitate it and play it over and over again.
  3. Don’t restrict students to a piano. Electronic keyboards are cheap, portable, perfectly good for learning theory, may be used with earphones when silence is required and most of them can transpose your playing into any key.
  4. Don’t worry about getting a touch-sensitive keyboard. They’re nice, but unnecessary. Bach didn’t use one.
  5. Don’t worry about what’s right, usual, or what the composer intended. Find what sounds good to you and the kids.
  6. Don’t force kids to practice or to work on their own unless and until they prefer to do it on their own.
  7. Don’t discourage children from reading music if they evince interest in doing so. Give them whatever they’re ready for.
  8. Don’t require a specific amount of practice time. There is a difference between a goal to spend an hour and a goal to learn something. It’s easy enough to make an hour go by if that is what is demanded but it doesn’t necessarily accomplish much. Let kids set their own goals and meet them.
  9. Don’t discuss this with a piano teacher unless you are prepared for an argument.

Useful approaches:

1. Start early. Let kids touch the keys and hear the result as soon as they can touch the keyboard. You can hold or mount a stick across above the keyboard to keep a toddler from being able to strike the keys with too much force.

2. Get kids to listen a lot to simple music they would like to play!

3. Do yourself what you would like your kids to do.

4. Always have a keyboard or other instruments handy. Take one along on picnics, when camping or visiting friends. At less than $60, it’s reasonable to own several keyboards (see resources below).

5. At home, always have the keyboard out in a central place, inviting anyone to sit down and play (earphones may be advisable for when the baby’s sleeping).

6. Imitate what you hear and get children to copy you.

7. Show good finger positioning and play games with using all of the fingers with equal pressure and speed up and down the keyboard – slow, fast, galumphing.

8. Practice conducting (moving, waving, winking, tapping, whatever) the music you hear and get them to follow. Find the strong beats and the weak ones.

9. Get kids to know the scale and get a feel for scale degrees.

10. Refer to scale degrees as simply 1,2,3… (do, re, mi… works fine too if you prefer.) Later they will be able to apply this to any key.

11. Just choose one scale to begin with. All white notes (C major) is fine. Some people like all black notes (almost) using F# (G-flat) which is also fine.

12. Practice putting well-known tunes into numbers (Yankee Doodle: 1 1 2 3 1 3 2 5. The Barney theme (This Old Man): 5 3 5 5 3 5 6 5 4 3 2 3 4)

13. Teach the simple, easily played chords in the scale you have chosen, starting with the I,V and IV chords (tonic, dominant, subdominant, Roman numerals are commonly used for chords to avoid confusion), moving on to the II, III and VI chords, all in major and minor and seventh forms.

14. Show kids how chords appear in multiple inversions and how fingering convenience and sound and are often a trade off – with the former being more important for beginners.

15. Demonstrate different accompaniment figures, chord patterns, arpeggios, Alberti Bass. Jingle Bells is good for that.

16. Play listening games. Identify the notes, chords and chord progressions you hear. In a restaurant a child calls out “That’s a major VI chord going to a II, just like “Angels We Have Heard on High” right?

17. Show kids that the notes in the melody dictate what the chords will be and that it’s really not hard to choose the right one. If the difference can’t be heard, it doesn’t matter which one you use.

18. Show embellishing the melody with thirds or sixths as dictated by the harmony.

19. As needed, show kids the relative minor (A minor if you’re working in C) and how the minor often wants notes of the scale sharped in melody and harmony.

20. As needed, show kids the scales in keys closely related to your home key (in C, that would be G major, F, etc., and explain that in each of these, you just start your scale numbers, 1 2 3…, in a different place.)

21. After kids have acquired musical understanding and keyboard proficiency (and particularly after they have composed music they want to share), then it may be time to teach them to write music. With the musical understanding they have, they will probably find writing music very easy. It is often quite challenging for sight readers.

22. Occasionally a harmony or, more rarely, a melody may defy auditory analysis. Then it is permissible to cheat by finding and referring to the score. It’s usually quite easy to find a MIDI file online that can be imported into a music composition program, examined, and played slowly one voice at a time.

23. Advanced students may want to learn all of their skills in each key in the circle of fifths. Pick a simple and then a complex piece that can then be modulated around through all the keys.

24. As with any homeschooling subject, be an intellectual role model for your kids. Your studying and practicing makes study and practice something that kids will respect and naturally want to do.

How to start:

For those with limited musical backgrounds there are numerous books and videos to refer to or even electronic keyboards with dozens of tunes built in and keys that light up to indicate what to push. Harmony is often available with a single keystroke, but it’s still useful to know how to finger the chords. It’s nice if one can find someone to help with basic concepts, but beware of any who tell you that you’re doing it all wrong. Finding the way that inspires your children, the one they enjoy is always first priority.

Some alternative music methods exist but homeschoolers can simply invent their own.

The failings of traditional music pedagogy have been noted and supplanted in some quarters, notably by Shinichi Suzuki with his music methods and Scott Huston (The Piano Guy on PBS). Both of these strategies are generally condemned by traditional music teachers and disparaged as “playing by ear,” a phrase often laden with venomous disdain and contempt. The Suzuki method focuses on factors observed in native language acquisition and does attempt to teach the student to learn to “speak music” as a first language through listening. Huston’s approach also simply bypasses and simplifies traditional notation. There are many other alternative music methods and we have made a collection of these (, but the homeschooler can often come up with something individualized that will suit the learning style of the child or children. Use what the child is doing naturally, build on it, present more similar pieces. Help the child pick things out.

Old-style music notation may be unnecessarily and absurdly complex, but, despite preferable alternatives, it is likely to continue to baffle students for years to come.

It might be hard to believe, but a few minor changes to the way music is written would make reading it far easier. However, any attempt to simplify the process is met with heated resentment from musicians trained in the old ways. For example, the left hand of the piano score could be written to read just like reading the right hand – with identical correspondence between notes on the staff and keys on the keyboard thus reducing complexity by half. Similar changes in notation would make reading for many instruments identical, allowing, for example, any violinist to pick up a viola and read for it (by using the mezzo-soprano clef for viola music instead of the alto clef). Far more radical (and far simpler) forms of notation have been proposed but, in the face of opposition from old school pedants who would lose the advantages that laboriously acquired mastery over the standard arcane and difficult medium has granted them, these have no hope of achieving acceptance. Some have also been patented which also does nothing to promote acceptance. Much like alternatives to the QWERTY keyboard, a medium will not become generally available if only a few people can use it, and few people will learn to use it if it is not generally available. Pedants can rest assured that ill-conceived and largely incomprehensible standard musical notation will continue to baffle students for years to come.

Which approach to music is best for you?

The argument is often made that playing by ear at the beginning may hamper a student in his/her ability to become a proficient music sight reader at the keyboard. This may indeed be true, though there are certainly some who do both very effectively. There is also the argument that bad habits acquired in the absence of a diligent teacher can be very hard to correct. This may indeed be grounds for vigilance if concert performance is the goal, but this danger is clearly minor when compared with that of discouraging the student from pursuing music altogether.

The question that needs to be asked is: what is more important, the ability to render written music on a grand staff instantly into a polished performance or the ability to know what one is hearing, recognize melody and harmony being used, learn from it, play it, manipulate it, improvise upon it and enjoy it? The answer to this probably depends largely upon what the students would like to do with the music. It must be noted that a large percentage of popular musicians have not been taken through the classical sight-reading approach and may indeed have terribly bad habits (or at least unconventional techniques). One might even surmise that, had they been put through the traditional music mill, in many cases they would not have achieved the mastery and recognition that they have.

Music study and practice — making music together can be one of the central foundations of homeschooling.

Music can be a wonderful family activity. When kids can imitate and improvise, music sessions become a delightful variation on game night. Those children who listen to music frequently can often astound parents with their ability to recognize a piece by its first note (without being aware of it, many children possess perfect pitch.) Playing “Shakespeare quotes” can alternate with “name that band/nursery rhyme/symphony/musical/composer,” playing rounds together and writing music together. That is homeschooling at its best.

Further information on musical concepts, example pieces, sources for teaching methods, inexpensive keyboards etc. is available at:

Comments off

Stephen Fry on Dormschooling

Fry shares some wonderful insights into spontaneous emergent education.

Stephen Fry on dormschooling

Comments off

An Internationally Recognized Professional Diploma for the minimal cost of an examination? Yes!

Abacus Educational Services is arranging for fully accredited examinations to be offered in Southern California and will be helping applicants prepare for them here and elsewhere.

Uncollegians, homeschoolers and other varieties of autodidact have learnt that getting an education is free! It is only obtaining an officially sanctioned diploma which costs — and indeed, that cost is immense.

What if it were possible to turn that freely accessible higher education into an internationally recognized degree simply by taking an exam? Well, it is possible up to a point.

Trinity College London ( has for many years been offering credit by examination in over sixty countries through its international examination board, including nine levels of certificate programs for primary and secondary students, and three professional diplomas corresponding to undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate university degrees.  These are fully accredited in Great Britain and widely recognized and accepted around the world.  Typically, local teachers and schools may thus prepare their students to earn internationally recognized distinction through examinations administered by visiting Trinity College Examiners. The examinations are face-to-face and rigorous and the applicants upon whom those professional diplomas are conferred, as Associates, Licentiates and Fellows of Trinity College London, may proudly place ATCL, LTCL or FTCL after their names.

It seems inevitable that institutions like Trinity College London will proliferate and eventually provide generally accessible official recognition to those students who prefer to study outside the loop.  Abacus Educational Services has been offering English Writing, Music Theory and Speech Classes to homeschoolers and uncollegians for over ten years and is now specifically helping students to prepare for the Trinity College Exams.

The advantages of the Trinity College Academic model

  • Applicants need only pay a reasonable fee for the examination.
  • Preparation for the exam need not take place within any specific institution.
  • Exams are open to all, regardless of background and geography, provided that enough applicants are prepared to sit the exam in a specific subject and location to justify a visit by the examiner(s).
  • Diplomas are highly rigorous and thus fully accredited in Great Britain and recognized worldwide.
  • A Trinity College grade level certificate is a significant and unusual mark of distinction on a college application.

The downside of the Trinity College Exam

  • Trinity College is an arts college and their curricula cover largely the performing arts including music and theater. However, they do also have a wide range of programs in English language communications skills.
  • Trinity college diplomas, though highly regarded internationally, tend to be evaluated unpredictably bu US institutions as there are no uniform admissions policies in the US.

Our immediate goal:

To help uncollegians and other out-of-loop learners in Southern California and online to prepare for the exam in English Communications, Music Theory and Theater subjects and to host the exams here.  Abacus Educational Services has many resources including online classes and online tutoring to assist applicants prepare to take these examinations with confidence here or elsewhere.  If you may be interested in participating or learning more, please join our contact list.

Longer term goals:

  • To encourage programs similar in structure to those of Trinity college but with wider ranging curricula.
  • To help establish US recognition of such degrees and of credit by examination in general.
  • To encourage life-long study and alternative approaches to education.

Parties interested in participating or learning more, please join our contact list.

Leave a Comment

Mission of uncollege — suggestions

On 10/8/2011 7:44 AM, Priscilla Sanstead wrote:

What is our mission? What are our values?

These values may not be universally shared, but I hope everyone will give them due consideration:

  1. We should spread the word that excellent education is now available to anyone dedicated enough to seek it out.
  2. We should help create and collect resources and establish support communities to aid those who want an education to acquire it outside of sanctioned academia.
  3. We should help to promote learning and the value of education (particularly in the US where it is fashionable in popular culture to subject erudition to mockery and ridicule).
  4. We should call into question the value of traditional university education, particularly when it is out-of-date, entirely theoretical, contrived, and irrelevant.
  5. We should, where appropriate, attempt to discredit traditional degrees whose value is increasingly questionable in an environment in which the use of cyber-pseudepigraphy — thesis and dissertation sales and custom ghostwriting — are reducing the conferred degrees to an expensive commodity of no educational significance (a fact assiduously ignored by academia).
  6. We should help the world to recognize the fact that higher education is not only not worth the price, but it is largely for sale — and is therefore one more rift forming between rich and poor.

Of these points, I think that number three is the most important.  An appreciation not only of science and technology but of languages, cultures, philosophy, history and the arts is sorely needed in our fractious society.

I fully expect the suggestion that traditional degrees be discredited to be disputed and, indeed, it should probably not be among the stated intentions of uncollege. On the other hand, it is an elephant in the room that universities are trying hard not to see and I’m not sure we should assist them in their efforts to appear oblivious of the ubiquity of cyber-pseudoepigraphic practices. This is indeed a significant factor in higher education that should be subjected to some scrutiny and should be considered by students trying to determine the best way to acquire an education — students who, whether or not they engage in such practices, will very probably be competing against those who do.

Leave a Comment

Education can work better outside the classroom

This blogging thread ( was initially a teacher’s response to a list of student criticisms which then received a response from Dale Stevens, one of the leading voices of the movement and a 19-year-old college drop-out who speaks and writes far better than do most high school teachers, one of whose speeches to a university audience has been posted in our classroom.

Please read the postings. How many SAT grammar and style errors does the teacher make?

I could not resist adding a comment of my own:

This is an interesting discussion with many excellent points made, but to the homeschooler/unschooler, repairing or improving the existing system really seems rather pointless.

Dale’s response it spot on, particularly his contention that everyone involved is responsible for the education that takes place, and that alternative approaches to education may well marginalize the traditional teacher and classroom.

Those who have seen education at its best cannot but despair of ever achieving anything remotely comparable in a traditional classroom. The Learning/Time quotient in a truly benign educational setting is orders of magnitude greater than the best levels encountered in public school and is achieved without the onerous hours of confinement, drudgery, busywork, waiting in line, and the “being mocked for being smart” that characterize every day of school.

It is not at all uncommon for homeschoolers to start taking college classes at age 9 or 10 (if they see college as having any value to them) and to test out of highschool requirements as soon as they reach the age limit (passing The California High School Proficiency Exam (CHSPE) is the legal equivalent of a high school diploma and homeschoolers routinely breeze through it — often despite unfamiliarity with standardized testing.) My daughter celebrated her high school and community college graduations simultaneously at 16.

This extremely effective learning process is certainly not to be found universally in homeschooling environments, but drudgery and mediocrity do definitely seem to be all but obligatory in public school education and it would be very difficult to do worse with an alternative approach.

It must be clearly understood, however, that many of the shortcomings of education stem from the constraints within which the teacher must function. Even a superb teacher cannot accomplish much under these conditions and most teachers remain utterly oblivious of what could be achieved were these constraints lifted.

The mass production classroom system is destined to provide only minimal value and to do so at enormous expense in money, time, misery inflicted and in the lingering damage to poor young minds that might, given a tiny fraction of those resources, have blossomed and developed in amazing and unexpected ways. The unexpected is virtually extirpated by public schooling.

As Dale points out, there is an immense field of alternative approaches to education that will permit the aspiring learner to bypass the plodding quotidian regimentation of public school. My preference is the small 4-8 student mixed-level collaborative homeschooling semi-virtual environment but there are many other scenarios that may be equally effective.

Leave a Comment

Collaborative Learning

Fry speaks on learning outside the classroom with fellow students in a collaborative homeschooling (or dormschooling) environment and with enthusiasm for the learning process.

Watch the entire lecture:

Leave a Comment

EIE Homeschooling

The McDonalds had a farm and children had they three.
They taught them as they had been taught — from bell and classroom free.
They did not send them off to school, but taught them ‘neath a tree.

With a moo moo here, and an oink oink there, the knowledge seeds they sow.
From book and brook and fruit and flute they learn all one need know.
Their school is not called E – I – E, but E – I – E – I – O


*   Excellence In Education Homeschooling Resource Center

Comments off