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Review: Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning


Homeschooling is, when you get down to it, all about learning.

That is one of the reasons I picked up Make It Stick:  The Science of Successful Learning—I needed to understand how to make learning work better in our homeschool.  Now I am recommending it to everyone.  Based on research, this book is full of surprising and practical insights.  If you read only one book about homeschooling next year, let it be this one.

Make It Stick is based on three common-sense premises,

  • learning requires memory,
  • learning is needed throughout life, and
  • learning is an acquired skill.

One of the book’s primary points is that learning sticks better if it takes effort, even though it seems that low-effort methods of studying like rereading and highlighting seem so effective.  Retrieving things from our minds, organizing them, and expressing them in our own words—what Charlotte Mason calls ‘narration’—is one of the most effective ways of learning, and it also takes enormous effort.

Another point that made me nod my head:  we all are poor judges of when we are learning well.  Generally we don’t really know what we don’t know, and this is true for our children as well.  Testing in the homeschool is not primarily about determining marks; it is about discovering what our children do and don’t know so that we can help them increase their understanding of the subject.  Of course, especially in the high school years, marks can be necessary.

Review needs to be spaced and never quite stopped if you want to keep knowledge in your children’s brains.  Things they are currently learning should be reviewed often, and things they know well only a few times a year.  But rereading is one of the least effective methods of review.  Recalling, building new connections, organizing the material, and extracting underlying principles are much more effective ways to strengthen knowledge.

Every time you learn something, you change your brain.  The goal in effective long-term learning is to change the brain permanently.

All new learning requires a foundation of prior knowledge, and the more you know the more you can learn.  That is, perhaps, why some of the most successful homeschoolers spent so much time as children learning information—from books, sand piles, pets, adults, innocent mischief, and just watching the world—rather than focussing on academics.

I was very frustrated at the beginning of this book.  Somehow I couldn’t quite grasp what the authors were saying, and each time I almost understood it they moved onto something else, only to come back to each idea from a different angle later on.  Then I realized that this was an example of the difficult, interleaved learning that research had proved to be the most effective and that the authors had painstakingly built into the book.

Make It Stick ends with a very practical chapter that sums up most of its ideas, but I encourage you to read the entire book if at all possible.  Going through the effort will help you understand the concepts thoroughly and make them stick in your homeschool.

This book is one of the best I’ve read about learning.  Yes, there are other good ones that contribute to the discussion, including Smarter, Faster, Better by Duhigg, Blink and Outliers by Gladwell, Deep Work by Newport, Grit by Duckworth, and, of course, anything by Charlotte Mason. There is research about how being emotionally involved helps learning, and about the effect of intuition and habit and character.  Make It Stick, however, is the most practical for those of us involved in the important daily business of teaching our kids.  I highly recommend it.

More information about Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel, as well as related links, is available from Harvard University Press; discussion questions and more are available at the Make It Stick website.


Here are some of my other articles on learning:

80% Passing Grade—Learning for Mastery

Learning for Mastery—Some Practical Issues

Learning Skills Little by Little and Day by Day

and here are two for when learning is not working:

Overwhelmed, Underchallenged, Unmotivated, Disobedient, or Just Plain Lazy?

When Your Teen Can No Longer Focus


Disclosure:  I borrowed this book from the library and then put it on my wish list to own. I am not compensated for this review and have expressed my honest opinions.

A Rare Stay at Home Day

The view from our window.

The view from our window.

Stay at home days have become rare treasures in our life, but Monday was one of those, a beautiful gift from God.

The outside world was piled high with fluffy snow.  School children had a snow day, but we did a wee bit of math and spelling beside the cozy fire.

Then dozens and dozens of starlings dotted our road, pecking at the salt.  Occasionally they flew off to huddle on the hydro wires or decorate the bare maple across the way, but as we watched they always swooped back down to peck at the salty asphalt.

Our curious rabbit Bunbun got her fourth bath.  When she dipped her inquisitive nose into the water she sneezed, but other than that and having her tummy towelled dry, she enjoyed her spa.

The girls decorated our house for Christmas.  Our home is too small—or too full of people and books—for a tree, but that constraint encourages us to be creative.  Most years the result is pleasant, and this year we may actually have attained elegance, at least in the windows.

I wish you many happy moments during the Christmas celebrations.  May you have the time and energy to notice them, enjoy them, and thank God for them!

And another window.

And another window.

Review: Waves of Mercy by Lynn Austin

BHP_Waves of Mercy 7.indd

It is 1897 in Holland, Michigan. Socialite Anna Nicholson has fled there to work through her feelings after being jilted by her Chicago fiancé for attending the wrong church.  In a different part of town, Geesje de Jonge has been asked to write her story for the 50th anniversary celebrations of Holland.

As Anna ponders her future and wonders about her past, she meets Derk Vander Veen who works at the hotel and is studying to become a minster.  She discovers the Bible, and her mother discovers Derk….

Geesje looks back to persecution in the Netherlands as she begins to pen her story of immigration, pioneering, and settling into a new country.  That is the official version, but there is more, her first love, unimaginable tragedies, God’s love expressed in everyday ways, and her growth in faith and joy as she learns to rely on God.

Then Austin weaves these two women’s tales together in a plot that is almost unrealistic, but somehow it works, perhaps because the story is so compelling and the characters are so believable.   Especially Geesje.  Another reason it works is because of the struggles Geesje faces as she learns to live closely to the Lord, universal struggles echoed in Anna, Derk, and each Christian reader.

With biblical wisdom and compassion, Austin stresses the distinction between love as an emotion—a gift that fills one’s world with the miraculous—and love as a verb—a choice to love, one loving action at a time.  She shows that, in the end, it is not human love that matters most or that lasts the longest.  God is the one who always holds onto us, and none can pluck us out of his hand.

Throughout, Austin also discusses God’s purpose for our lives, and the simplicity of Geesje’s conclusion belies the lifetime of learning that led up to it.  Geesje tells Anna:

Often, it’s not one great, dramatic thing that God asks us to do but hundreds of little everyday things.  If we want to be used by Him, if we’re ready to be used and aren’t all tangled up with our own plans and projects, He’ll show us the work He has for us.  He sees your heart, Anna.   You can trust Him to direct your path.

Like all Lynn Austin novels, this quality story of emotion and faith is full of substance.  Recommended both as a good read and as a gentle reminder of our good God.

Besides her novels, Lynn Austin has also written a devotional, Pilgrimage (link is to my review), in which she struggles with the unwanted changes in her life and comes to a renewed trust in God.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from Graf Martin and Bethany House and, as usual, am not compensated for this review.

Under the Butternut Trees

I spent much of my blogging break working busily ‘as unto the Lord’ in the kitchen, the garden, the car, and elsewhere, but some of the best hours were spent under our butternut trees.

It was my favorite spot this summer, a place of open-eyed prayer, read alouds, chats, and much-needed rest.  It was a summer of learning to live more deeply, of learning to receive God’s good gifts more consciously, noticing and accepting and enjoying them.  And my chair under our butternuts was a place of pondering, a place to regain strength, a place to watch the moon and the stars and the bats, to chatter with precariously perched squirrels, to ponder sermons, to spread before the Lord, like Isaiah, the suicide of a child’s friends’ friend.  It was a place where everything happened, and nothing.

Here we explored with the Swiss Family Robinson, adventured with The Sea Islanders, sailed Two Years Before the Mast.  Here I struggled with Calvin; was re-acquainted with the humble clarity and godliness of C.S. Lewis; encountered Wendell Berry, the first poet I can recommend unreservedly; learned how people change and grow; thought about science in history and in current philosophy; and pondered the frailty of human beings.

Now the lawn chairs are put away and the living room fire roars.  It is too snowy to sit under the butternut trees, even wrapped a blanket.  Yet the open-eyed prayer continues, with gratitude for increased stamina, less dizziness, the ability to think, and no pain…and with deepened concern for others who suffer in any of the many ways we humans suffer…and with the constant quest for wisdom to know how to live each day.

May God bless you and your loved ones, daily convince you of his goodness, and fill your lives with gratitude.

Thoughts on Finding God in the Hard Times by Matt and Beth Redman

finding God in the Hard Times

We all face hard times sooner or later, and they can seem unbearable and never-ending.

One of the crucial questions we face then is, “Can we still praise God when life is hard?”

“Yes!” exclaim Matt and Beth Redman who wrote the song “Blessed Be Your Name.”

With numerous references to the Psalms of lament, the Redmans show that worship is a choice, based on who God is, not on our life’s circumstances.

Modern Christian praise music doesn’t say much about suffering, which is one of the reasons the Redmans wrote their popular song.  They became convinced that the church needs lament music for times of communal sorrow and also to identify with those who are suffering.  The church needs to learn, again, to be honest about suffering in a biblical way.

Finding God in the Hard Times, earlier published as Blessed Be Your Name, “provides the reader with the tools for lament—how to mourn in the presence of God.  The book is, in effect, a framework of Christian thinking to help us filter and view life’s pain.”  The Redmans want to show, in their song and in this little book, that, “come pain or joy, to worship God is always the best decision to make.”

You see, the enemy tries to use bad circumstances to contradict the goodness of God in our minds and hearts.   Sometimes we live in a deep tension between what we know about God’s goodness and the pain and horror that seems to contradict it.  When the enemy tempts us to doubt the goodness of God, the solution is to open the Bible and read, to study what it says about His faithfulness, and to cling desperately to him.

In five short chapters we learn about the choice Christians can—and must—make, to praise God  even in hard circumstances, just as Jeremiah did in Lamentations and as David did in Psalm 13.  We must encourage ourselves as David did in Psalms 42 and 43:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,

and why are you in turmoil within me? 

hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

my salvation and my God.   

The New Testament, too, discusses suffering extensively, again with an undercurrent of hope.  Although we will not always understand the meaning of our suffering, we do need to realize that God uses it in our lives to teach and train us.  Without understanding the ‘why’, we can still turn to God, in both song and prayer.

Strangely enough, we not only have difficulty praising God when life is hard.   Many of us also tend to forget him when things go well!  This should not be.  Instead our lives should overflow with gratitude, and that, too, is a heart attitude that requires training and discipline.  We must learn to recognize and respond to the many kindnesses, small and great, that God pours upon us.  The Redmans guide us in this as well.

Really, what it all comes down to, the Redmans remind us, is recognizing God’s sovereignty.  If God does truly love us and if he is powerful enough to shape our lives for our good and his glory, praise during hard times begins to make sense.  Somehow, in ways that we, like Job, cannot understand, it is all good.  And thus we can praise God because of who he is no matter what is happening in our lives.

This little book contains questions for reflection, a discussion guide for small groups, and a complete list of Bible references, printed out, that were used in the book.  The authors say, “We hope these verses will propel you to further study, and to worship.”  That, to me, sums up their goal in this entire book.

Finding God in the Hard Times will bring comfort and clarity to those who read it and even more to those who use it as an impetus to turn to the Bible. For, especially in hard times, we cannot be reminded too often to turn to God and his Word.  This book is that kind of a reminder, summarizing aspects of the Bible, encouraging us to read it more, and reminding us that God is with us.  Recommended.

Related Resources (not mentioned in Finding God in the Hard Times):

The Heidelberg Catechism, one of the greatest confessions of Reformation times is devoted to answering the question:  What is your only comfort in life and death?  This topic is explored in question and answer format in a themed guide to the Bible.  I highly recommend it to help you make sense of the hard times, the good times, and the meaning of it all.

A few weeks after I read this book, I was at a service where the Redman’s song “Blessed Be Your Name” was sung.  It was moving, indeed, but I still prefer the Psalms themselves. Our congregation uses the beautiful words found in the New Genevan Psalter, and there are many other sung versions of the Psalms, including some of our greatest hymns (e.g. those by Isaac Watts, or Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” based on Psalm 46).

For training in gratitude, even in hard times, see One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp (link to my review).  You will discover that learning to notice and be grateful for good things leads to acceptance and even joy.

If, in your hard times, you are struggling with a victim’s attitude, this review of Mindsight by Siegel may encourage you.

Note:  The above review links to some articles I wrote while struggling to make sense of suffering.

For more encouragement see Raising Homemakers, Titus 2 Tuesday, Tell it to Me Tuesday, Finishing Strong, and Trivium Tuesdays.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from Graf Martin and Bethany House and, as usual, am not compensated for this review.

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