Most educational models today are based on outdated economies and impractical and idealistic psychology experiments. Though there are certainly exceptions among western nations, they seem to suffer from inefficiency at best and clear failure of desired outcome at worst. So the thing to do, as the saying goes, is to “go back to the drawing board”; we need to approach this problem pragmatically and with a fresh perspective.
Basic education boils down to these three essentials which we could call the Three Cs:
No one would dispute the fact that reading is an essential skill. But the old “See Spot run” books are nothing like the way people speak or talk (neither are most “children’s programs” on TV). Good parents seem to know instinctively how to teach their children to talk, so it would seem reasonable to take a similar approach to reading, without going to the “see Spot run” extreme. In times past students often used the Bible or other classical literature, the results of which are often seen in personal letters of ordinary people. Their sophistication is far beyond today’s “text speak”.
As for writing, there is good evidence to suggest that young children should write with pencils and pens. I’ve seen people try to argue that only cursive writing is effective for development, but it’s really the act of handwriting, not the style, that matters. Cursive might be faster but it is often illegible, though perhaps artistic. It is also argued that since much literature of the past is written in cursive, then everyone should learn it. Yet we don’t make them learn Middle English or Anglo-Saxon, and much of it is now digitized. It certainly has value as an elective, but I wouldn’t make it mandatory, aside perhaps from one’s own signature.
Spelling is an issue as well. Exactly what issue is highly controversial. We’ve all seen those samples of deliberately-misspelled words to “prove” that spelling doesn’t matter beyond a few critical letters in the right places. And I’ll be the first to argue that English spelling is beyond illogical; the reason “spelling bees” ever existed is because the spelling of English words makes no sense whatsoever and must simply be memorized. These days, with texting and social networking, it has devolved into more of an exercise in cryptography than anything else. Yet if one argues that cursive writing must be preserved so we can read it in historical documents, then so also must proper spelling be preserved.
The solution is not simple or clear. English has many homophones, homonyms, homographs, and other confusing properties as well— and don’t even get me started on punctuation. There is a virtual anarchy now in English communication, due partly to poor education but also to technologies such as texting. Clearly, issuing rules from ivory towers never lasts long, and it reminds us of the old debate over purism versus letting the common people make up their own rules. Both extremes are doomed to fail, however. So it seems to me that a better approach might be to simplify spelling and punctuation, however that might be accomplished.
The purpose of both reading and writing is, of course, communication. Once the mechanics are mastered, the student should be taught how to read with good comprehension and write with clarity of thought. They need to learn about grammar and syntax at least on a basic level, about how to avoid ambiguities, and how to convey or grasp what is being said.
Another undisputed fact is that people must know how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide— by hand. Though many alternative methods have been tried, there seems to be no improvement on boring, tedious repetition and memorization. By this method, the answers come instantly when the questions get more complex, because you don’t have to picture something or walk through a series of steps to get there. Personal experience in home schooling taught me that when memorization is proving difficult, a multi-sensory approach is helpful. I designed sheets filled with number pads (as found on phones or calculators), color-coded for each step in the multiplication table. The student then used his finger to point at the numbers (e.g., 3,5,1,5 for 3 x 5=15) while saying them out loud. Another approach, if done carefully, can be to use games, video or otherwise.
Of course, this should always be combined with explaining the practical use of everyday math. Nobody likes “thought problems”, but I think that’s due more to their being silly or poorly explained (the teacher must have those good communication skills!). Once a student has mastered the mechanics, the practical application should be emphasized, and above all, relevant to the child’s environment and culture. Unless one is in a farming community, counting bushels of apples just isn’t going to hold the students’ interest.
As for units of measure, I think both the metric and avoirdupois (or “imperial”) have their areas of practicality. For everyday use, the former is so much easier, based as it is on ten rather than twelve or sixteen. As many years as I’ve used the imperial system, I still have to stop and think about how many ounces, pints, cups, quarts, and gallons there are in the next larger unit. Yet there is still something very useful about fractions rather than decimals, and they have a lot of important correlations to the natural world: time, geometry, etc. (Kids today look at me like I’m from Mars if I say, “It’s a quarter after nine”.)
Once students can communicate and calculate well, they need to be taught how to think for themselves. Public school has largely been engaged in spoon-feeding— not only facts and figures but also political and philosophical ideologies which often clash with those of the parents. The school should not promote one over the other or try to steer the students one way or another, but instead present all the facts so the students can decide for themselves. It is only the dictatorial and controlling educator who fears independent thought, because a truly superior ideology will welcome scrutiny. Instead, students should be taught how to find information, weigh it, and choose the best option among many. They should learn to question everything and resist jumping to premature conclusions.
Clear thinking also involves rhetoric or debate. The internet is positively saturated with it, but most of it is pointless and counter-productive because people have no idea how to grasp or present an argument. They cannot focus on the point being argued or spot even the most obvious fallacies. (And then they claim victory when I decline to play along.)
Having mastered the basics, the student is ready to dig a little deeper and begin to truly explore the world. While some of these things were certainly covered in the primary courses, topics such as science, art, music, history, health, and government can now be explained in greater detail and complexity.
It really should be considered a requirement for students to have a grasp of various forms of government (again, presented without bias yet without omitting pertinent facts) and how each form has fared in history. Likewise, knowing basic scientific facts reduces fear, increases safety, and often leads to improvements and innovations for future technologies. Another poorly-covered topic is economics, closely tied to politics. At the very least, people must know how to manage their own budgets and financial planning. The mastery of all of these topics makes better individual citizens, and thus a better society.
This is the area of option and specialization. The intermediate graduate can function adequately in life, but the secondary graduate will move beyond the average in one or more areas. And if optional, the rate of success will be high because the students have the interest and aptitude needed. In this way, the artist is not bogged down by topics the engineer would love, and vice versa. But this isn’t just vocational training either, since one could also study linguistics, philosophy, or any other academic discipline.
Does this sound like college? Yes, but with a twist: there are no “general education” requirements, because those were already met in the primary and secondary courses. The reason most colleges and universities require what is termed a well-rounded or “liberal arts” education is because it wasn’t done when it should have been done— and of course, there is much monetary incentive for requiring non-major courses in order to get that coveted diploma or degree. And that leads to my final point.
Acknowledging a Failed System
We have been conditioned for generations to presume that the way to “do” education is to pass students through “grades”, which we assess by the administration of written tests. We have largely abandoned the old apprenticeship model and turned instead to what we think is the most efficient way to educate the masses. We force the student to fit the system and encourage conformity and mediocrity. The system becomes more important than its original purpose, taking on a life of its own and tending to breed corruption, as any bureaucratic construct seems to do. Even at the post-secondary level we put students into “grades” (“years”), and we “teach to the test”— a practice that has mostly led to “cramming” rather than “knowing”.
Has the system worked well enough? Some students manage to actually learn valuable things in spite of it, but I don’t consider that a valid reason to leave it in place. It’s finally becoming obvious that all the typical college degree accomplishes is huge amounts of debt and equally huge amounts of disappointment due to scarcity of the kinds of jobs one went to college for in the first place. Outrageous staff salaries have not led to better quality of instruction, and many of the courses deemed worthy of a college education are little more than the old “basket weaving 101″. It is a scam, just as more taxes for public school has been a scam.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do have some ideas that might turn out to be practical. If we can define it as educating human beings rather than a means of churning out homogenous masses of easily-controlled worker bees, we will take a giant step in the right direction.
- “School” is not a surrogate parent or babysitting service. Parents must do their own jobs by teaching their children acceptable behavioral skills before they are allowed to enter any classroom. Like good citizenship, good parenting is derived from a strong moral base, whether some wish to admit this or not. A sterile/amoral society is cold and lifeless, ultimately leading to anarchy. Problems in education begin with society’s values or the lack of them.
- Teachers must not only know the subjects they teach, but also how to lead without resorting to fear, mockery, or intimidation. Character matters at least as much for them as it does for parents. Their salaries should be based upon qualification alone, and dismissal of poor teachers should be at the discretion of all the parents.
- Primary and Intermediate education should be mandatory, while Secondary should not. Help should be available to students whose parents failed to give them a good foundation, but it should be done separately from the other students so they can focus on learning.
- Homework should never be “busy work”, and only assigned if a student needs extra practice or the work is an individual project which cannot be carried out in the classroom. If the lesson cannot be taught in the allotted time, it needs to be improved.
- Replace age/grade levels with subject-by-subject certificates of mastery. A student may easily master math but struggle with grammar, so the two should not be tied together.
- Specifically, we would get rid of “first grade”, “fourth grade” and replace it with “primary math”, “intermediate grammar”, for example. At the end of required education the student would not say “I graduated high school” but “I am certified in all my required courses”. Rather than strict boundaries between grades or even high school/college, there would be a continuous flow of individual course certificates. This encourages lifelong education and discourages “class” warfare.
- Testing should be a demonstration of mastery, not a regurgitation of spoon-fed facts. “One size does not fit all”; one form of testing does not work on all students. If the time wasted in social engineering, entertainment, and “fluff” courses were spent on actual teaching, teachers would surely have the time for more personal assessments.
- Eliminate government bureaucracy and control, and replace it with a board of parents, teachers, and business leaders. Replace tax funding with trust funding or other performance/reward-based arrangements. The money no longer required for bureaucracy will make education affordable to everyone, even without tax support. Left alone to compete, the educational “market” will also improve standards by itself. I personally will play an excruciatingly awful song on the violin out of pity for the unemployed control freaks and social engineers.
- Let parents choose the locations and times their children will be “in school”, just as they do now with other extracurricular activities. There is no divine law etched in stone that mandates a “school day” of 8 to 3 or whatever it may be. Make education fit into life, rather than force-fitting life to education. Attendance issues will handle themselves as they do already for other activities.
- Likewise, let teachers set up “practices” the way physicians have always done, perhaps forming groups or associations that share a building and coordinate schedules. If they offer quality service, “business” will boom.
That doesn’t sound so bad, does it? And I hardly think it could do worse than what we have now. For an interview on the dangers of Common Core, please see this video.