Friday, March 23, 2012

Homeschool Review: Switched-On Schoolhouse

I have been asked twice recently for my thoughts about Switched-On Schoolhouse (SOS), and realizing that I have a lot to say on this subject I figured I should just write it out on my blog.

We are finishing up our second year of SOS. I have an 8th grader, 7th grader, and 5th grader. ( I also have 2nd and 1st graders who use A Beka). SOS has pros that work well for our family and some cons that I also feel I should mention. 

I love the automatic grading. My kids get instant feedback so they don't have to wait for me to grade their work. It can be overwhelming having to teach 5 different grade levels, so SOS has been a life saver in that respect. I love the calendar feature. When I set up my school calendar, I tell it what days we will have school and what days we will have off.  In this way, their work is automatically distributed across the calendar days and I can know with a quick glance if my children have done all their work for the day. This type of lesson planning REALLY reduces my stress. I am doing a 30-day trial of time4learning with my younger boys, and I miss this feature terribly. 

When I think of an electronic form of learning, I think "multiple choice" is the only option.  SOS has done a great job of incorporating different types of questions so not everything is multiple choice.  Some answers are "fill in the blank", matching, or even short answer/paragraph (that would be parent-graded).  Special projects are assigned, and more are available, so that children get lots of writing practice.  The fill-in-the-blank type responses pose a problem, however--what about when kids don't enter the exact answer, but their answer is correct?  The program marks it wrong.  (There is an "easy spelling" feature that allows the teacher to accept answers the computer recognizes as correct, but spelled wrong, and even allows the teacher to deduct a percentage for spelling errors.)  My kids get very frustrated when their correct answers are wrong or when they can't find the exact wording the program is looking for. Sure, I can override the grade, and I do, but it takes time and is a distraction. It bothers my kids, even though I've tried to help them "get over it".  (My friend Devona also has used SOS with her children and has found that grammatical and spelling errors in the lesson itself are also a distraction and tend to reduce the quality/feel of the program!  My kids don't pick up on those as often, so what does that tell you?  Haha.)

I love the messaging system in SOS. If my kids are struggling with a particular problem, they can easily send me a note on that problem and I can address it for them. This proves very useful in the situation of errors in the program. I love the amount of control the teacher is given. I can set the grade range, I can set how many tries a child is given to get an answer correct, control if their quizzes and tests are open book, etc. There are so many options, it's wonderful. I love being able to create "custom subjects" for our courses that are outside of SOS. In this way, my children are reminded to complete their other assignments, and I can track their progress and scores all in SOS. 

There is a wonderful support group on yahoo that is full of knowledgeable ladies who have been using SOS for years. They have helpful tips, insight, and can answer almost any question! (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/SOShomeschool

Ok, now for the big cons. I really think the curriculum has some issues that don't work so well for our family. One of the strengths of the curriculum is that the children can work independently most of the time, which I desperately need them to do. On the flip side of this, when they may need more help it is harder for me to "step into" their curriculum and figure out where they are. I have been disappointed with the quality of the lessons sometimes. History and Geography leaves much to be desired--especially geography. I would think with a program so wonderful as SOS that geography would include MANY clear, beautiful maps, with lots and lots of drills. It's confusing, even for me, and my children have never done well on their geography lessons.  The maps are cluttered, the image quality is poor, and there are not enough drills (and linking to websites outside of SOS don't count-that really frustrates me!). I don't like that the scope and sequence of history/geography seems to be opposite years of other major curricula, especially 4th grade.  I am only now realizing that my 5th grader does not know his states and capitals, which he should have learned in 4th grade.  Major oops! 

The children actually need much more of my time and attention than seems on the outside. If I could sit beside them on a regular basis as they complete lessons, they would get much more out of it. Instead, my kids have quickly learned how to skim an article to get the right answer (which may come in handy when they do the Scientific Reasoning portion of the ACT, but who cares???) and retain little of what they have read. Sometimes they have completed their lessons in less than 10 minutes!! (This may be a parenting/supervision problem...more on that in a minute). They should be taking notes, however my efforts to get my children to take notes from their curriculum have been in vain. Perhaps this is a discipline issue rather than a curriculum issue, but like I said it causes the curriculum to not work well for OUR family. I don't recall needing to take notes in 5th grade. My children need more practice at what they are learning, but I feel powerless to help them get what they need. If my 8th grader can finish his work in less than 2 hours each day, he obviously needs something more. But what? And how do I motivate him? In his mind, he is "done with school". It can be incredibly hard to convince a child to write more than, or do more than, what is required. Finding incentives that don't smell like punishment is a problem. 

After the first year of SOS I noticed that all three of them had their math scores slip on the Iowa standardized test, so I switched to Teaching Textbooks for math this year. My 8th grader has done fine with SOS these past two years, mostly getting A's, but retaining little information so that if the tests/quizzes are not open book his scores are barely above a 75% accuracy. What one parent suggests as a solution to this is tell the children that if their score is below a certain percentage, the lessons will be cleared and reassigned. Unfortunately, the bitterness that bred in my children was too much to bear. I finally decided that if I marked the quizzes and tests as "open book", and my children have to repeatedly exit the quiz/test to look up the correct answer, this combing through of the lessons would possibly help them remember things more than the first time through.  In nearly every subject and every unit, they take two tests (I have the option of assigning an "alternate test").  So if they have to look up an answer a THIRD time, then they are really understanding it better.  I hope. 

My 7th grader REALLY struggles with SOS, but her issue is more of a focus issue--even with A Beka she didn't get down to work when she was supposed to. My 5th grader loves SOS and nearly broke down when I told him I didn't think we were going to use it for school next year. Out of all 3 children, he is the one child for whom SOS works like it is designed (with the exception of geography). He also manages to have a great memory and rarely needs to look up any answers for the quizzes/tests. Since I already have the 6th grade curriculum, I will let him use it if he really would rather. My 8th grader will be going on to public school for high school. What I have to decide is if my 7th grader will continue to use SOS for some subjects, or if something else will fit her better. I am undecided what my 2nd and 1st graders will use for school next year. They will use Math U See for math. They are both nearly on the same reading level, so I will probably use a combined curriculum--maybe A Beka--for all other subjects. 

I wanted to love SOS, I really did, but it will never be a one-curriculum solution for us.  I will add more reviews of the other curriculum we used this year after we do some standardized testing for our kids and I get their math scores!

10 comments:

  1. Thank you! This was very helpful!! I am reading all reviews on the curriculum before making a decision on it. Seems the cons outweigh the pros.

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  2. I have found the very same problems . I get very frustrated with the planning part of it tho. I don't care for the fact that I cant see her work on my computer as well as hers. I in this I am wondering if Abeka streaming would be better . She also gets very frustrated with the right answers being wrong.

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  3. Very helpful, thanks for taking the time to post an honest and comprehensive review!

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  4. How did you feel about the science portion of 8th grade? We are looking for a new science for our now 7th grader. We are doing Apologia, but the style of writing is like nails on a chalkboard for my son and myself. SO, we are in search of a challenging science. Do you think it is challenging?

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    1. It has been a year, so I honestly can't remember that well. I asked Micah, and he said it was ok...he said he really "didn't get SOS." What Apologia are you doing this year? I am doing Zoology 1 with my younger set, but with Micah (9th grade) and Eden (8th grade) I am doing Physical Science. The two are different (and by different authors). Granted, the writing style is still "conversational" but at least the "voice" is different between the two. I really love the format of Physical Science--the experiments have been fun and relatively easy for us to accomplish, I almost never have to buy anything special for them. I don't know if it is the curriculum, the format (text book vs. computer), just my changed attitude, but I find these experiments much easier to accomplish than SOS. It wasn't that SOS was difficult, but I was never prepared and never knew how to work them in. I am much more involved with their studies now, and we are prepared for experiments ahead of time. I love the study guides in Apologia and the tests much better than anything SOS did. My kids actually have to think about their answers, and when it comes time for the tests I have a true evaluation of what they have learned. It's encouraging to me in a way that SOS was not. But if you are already using General Science or Physical Science from Apologia and THAT is not working out for you, I can't imagine it will improve with the next book in the series. It's the format of SOS that doesn't work well for me--kids reading then answering multiple choice or short answer questions, skimming the text to get the "exact" wording, questions that are designed to "trick" the reader, etc. I didn't feel like they were developing critical thinking skills or that the stuff they were reading was sticking with them. Also, I have a friend who uses Bob Jones for Science and she is enjoying it. I hope that helps some!

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  5. Very helpful review! Thanks so much!

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  6. I can't imagine having so many different grade levels to teach, I have three levels to teach(K,4th, & 8th) and the researching curriculum, planing, and grading is overwhelming at times. I thought SOS would be great due to planing & grading but I don't want them to have a watered down education. This by far has been the best detailed review, thank you for putting this out here for everyone to see.

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  7. Did you use "time 4 learning", was there a different online program that you used?

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    1. Yes, I wrote a review of Time4Learning here: http://stephsoundoff.blogspot.com/2012/04/curriculum-review-time4learning.html. I am not currently using any online programs with my kids now. Every year (usually in August) I write a roundup of the curricula we are using for the year. Usually in the spring/summer I try to write a summary of how the year went, but I don't always get to it. This is what we are working on this year: http://stephsoundoff.blogspot.com/2016/08/back-to-school-2016-curriculum.html

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