Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Elemental Science: Love it, hate it!

covers This is just a preliminary review. 

Full disclosure:  We haven’t used this curriculum yet; I  plan to use it next “year” (starting in the summer), but I thought I’d talk about it anyway, after a couple of months of looking at it and mulling over it, since a lot of homeschooling parents are wondering.

Why did I choose Elemental Science? 

I hope it will give us the freedom to explore what interests us and not spend too much time with what doesn't.  It fills in gaps I wouldn't be able to cover myself and lightly directs your reading so a non-science-based parent like myself can learn right along with the kids.

Capsule overview:

Pros – It follows the 4-year Well-Trained Mind cycle; it is "light" but thorough at the same time.  I have heard great things from parents using it - ie their kids love it and come to enjoy science.  As a "skeleton" curriculum, it allows parents to use their own creativity to choose additional readings, colouring pages, experiments, field trips etc.
image Cons – The books it uses are not necessarily living books in the Charlotte Mason sense, ie Story-of-the-World type books that you can curl up and read together;  it uses Kingfisher and DK books, which not all parents love because the information is too chopped-up and presented in a flashy manner.  Oh... and overall quality is terrible.  More about this in a second.

First, more of the positives: 

This book looks great!  Cute pandas, slick cover – all very nice touches.  It appears to be a lively, well-thought-out approach to science at a first- or second-grade level.  There’s a great mix of hands-on activities, prescribed and recommended readings, and additional enrichment activities.

Unlike Living Learning Books Science, which we’re using this year, Elemental Science offers no suggestions for related fiction, which I’ve enjoyed this year.  I hope to continue bring those selections home from the library to complement our non-fiction reading. 

The author of Elemental Science avoids recommending specific nonfiction books on each topic, saying that libraries’ selections can vary.  That is true, but I have enjoyed the lengthy booklists this year, and will probably reuse them next year.

I like how self-contained the program seems.  The student workbook offers all the pages you’ll need for activities related to each week’s learning, including narration, experiment pages, habitat study and more.  I also got the optional lapbook kit, so that should give us an opportunity to do more with the material.

So what are the cons?  

The biggest con, in my opinion, is that although the book is slick and shiny and nicely self-published, it IS self-published, which means no editing staff, no art staff... just the author herself.  Which means the overall quality, as I mentioned, is tragically lacking.

Okay, let me vent for a second:  Aaagh!  Where to begin??? 

correctedThe book is full of typos.  I am ashamed to call it an “educational resource.”  , but this is clearly the BIG downside of self-publishing your own curriculum:  nobody has to proofread it.

The book is FULL of typos; absolutely reeks of them – I am ashamed to call it an “educational resource.”  I’m just grateful Naomi won’t be reading from the parent’s guide directly.

They are on the back cover (above – but one of my corrections is tongue-in-cheek!), they are inside, they are everywhere.  The author seems to have absolutely no idea what to do with punctuation, and I say that as kindly as I possibly can.  Many, many pages are filled with inconsistencies - apostrophes are the worst. 

 corrected2The author clearly has no idea what to do with an apostrophe, and instead of applying scientific rigour and learning the RULES of apostrophes, she just seems to stick them in at random:

  • “When you observe an animal in its’ habitat…”
  • “Giraffe’s are the world’s tallest animals.”

Other punctuation isn’t much better:

  • “If you want to supplement this curriculum with other books by all means, do!”

And sometimes, there are just plain old uncorrected typos – lots of them:

  • “you feel the resources are to ‘easy’ for them.”
  • “Simply used the following books instead…”
  • “Then stick picture of what was studied…”

I'm not questioning her ability to educate - just to punctuate.

And then there are the poems.  I LOVE the idea of using poems to reinforce basic learning, like characteristics of each type of animal.  But what the author calls “poems” are homemade doggerel that don’t scan and may completely destroy what you’re learning with your children in language arts.

I love rhyming poetry and doggerel, the tackier, the better.  But some of the ones in Elemental Science are just groaningly bad:

“Fish live in water and have skills

Like breathing through their gills

Fish have skeletons so strong

If you say they don’t lay eggs, you would be wrong.”

OR, from the Human Body Poem:

“My skeletal system holds me up,

My digestive system takes care of what’s on my plate and cup.”


I’m going to have to write some better ones myself because it’s simply not true that just because two words happen to rhyme, they’re a POEM.  I simply can’t expose my children to “poetry” this terrible.

art1 Finally, and this is more minor, some of the art provided is just plain bad, like the human body outline that kids are supposed to paste organs onto.  The plant drawings are similarly awful; I may Google better images rather than use the ones provided.

Am I being unnecessarily cruel?  I don’t think so. 

Is it reasonable to expect articulate language even in a science teacher’s guide and workbook?  Yes, I think so.  I hope so.

art2If I’m going to throw away textbooks and go with a living-books education, it’s because I believe textbooks are stultifyingly awful, and because I have higher standards for my kids’ education.

I really believe Elemental Science could very well offer that higher standard in terms of approaching science at a grammar-stage level.  That’s why I intend to use the program next year. 

But I would implore the author, if she wants to be taken seriously, to not simply invoke the Well-Trained Mind (as she does in the first sentence of the introduction) without first espousing the principles of finely-tuned, precise language, so firmly espoused by the proponents of classical education. 

It’s what we may hope for for our children, but it ought to be what we demand from ourselves as educators and from the people who create the learning resources we study from with our kids.