20 May 2008

What Should We Teach Our Children?

The curriculum of our K-12 schools it outdated.

We are teaching our children essentially the same things that we taught them shortly after the last round of school reforms when Latin was jettisoned from the canon not long after World War II. Keyboarding seems to have muscled its way into the curriculum, displacing cursive writing, but not much else has changed.

We have a curriculum aimed to preparing all of our students for a liberal arts college education, something that made sense when most kids never finished high school, that no longer makes sense when high school is intended to be universal, and most kids who do go to college will enroll in preprofessional programs. We are preparing them to be renaissance men and women, in an age that increasingly rewards specialization.

We particularly short change those students who don't go to college, or drop out of college after minimal training. We are not teaching them many things that they need to know before their formal educations end, and we often teach them things whose relevance is hard to understand.

We often teach high school students trigonometry but rarely teach them statistics. We often teach them 19th century literature but rarely teach them how to read a medicine bottle or a contract. We often teach them economics but rarely teach them how to complete a tax return. Students often ask why then need to learn what they are being taught and rarely receive satisfactory answers. Yet, there is every reason to believe that more students would be engaged if they could understand why they needed to know what they were being taught.

There is nothing wrong with making cultural and civic enrichment a part of the curriculum. But our children need to be functionally literate as well. In the adult world, they are expected to know how to read a medicine bottle, how to explain their symptoms to a doctor or nurse, when to seek medical attention, what they are obligated to do under a lease, when and how to file their tax returns, how to buy a car, what to do if their car breaks down or they are in an accident, how to act if they are victims of a crime or are in an accident, and how to evaluate risk. Yet, we don't teach them these things in school and no one is born knowning them. Most students need to know what to do if they are arrested more than they need to know how an idea becomes a law.

We often try to teach them more difficult subjects, like reading classical literature, before they have mastered easier subjects, like reading contemporary literature.

History is often taught survey style. Year after year, a teacher tries to take on the entire scope of it in a single year. But this denies students the depth that makes history interesting and relevant to current circumstances.

The humanities also often come out of context. History and classical literature are too often divorced from each other, rather than enriching each other, and both often omit the history of art, and the music appreciation that should be part and parcel of the same enterprise, the task of really understanding in depth our cultural heritage. These subjects should usually be taught in the same class by the same person as an integrated endeavor, not taught in isolation, with students reading the Scarlet Letter for their 9 o'clock class, and hearing about the Chinese Cultural Revolution at 10 o'clock. This may work once students have context, as they often do at more selective colleges. But it misses opportunities for better teaching with younger children.

Most school systems start teaching languages in earnest in high school, when all of the evidence indicates that elementary school students have a much greater capacity to learn languages than older teenagers.

Most school systems begin classes for teenagers early in the morning, while beginning classes for younger children late in the day, despite the fact that we know that teens are far less ready to learn in the early morning than younger children.

Most school systems place too great an emphasis on teaching children with other children of the same age. While it is possible for ability tracking to be tyrannically rigid, as it was in the historical British system where tests taken at age eleven set your course for life, the current system which rigidly tracks children by age in furtherance of the ill established social benefits of doing so, is little better.

Colleges aren't necessarily better. By ill considered consensus, they impose traditional curricula upon high schools, whether they make sense or not. Their own practices are often little better.

For example, the business school at Miami University, in Oxford, Ohio, where I grew up, requires all of its students to take and pass calculus, despite the fact that very few business people need to know calculus. It is simply a device to weed students out. This isn't to say that calculus is inappropriate for everyone. Engineers, physicists and mathematicians, for example, all need to master it. But in the business world, it has little place except in the scholarly work of PhD economists and the practical work of sophisticated derivatives traders (and even in these cases, usually only in the service of statistics that doesn't require circular trig functions).

College foreign language courses similarly often prioritize classical literature over functional communication. Yet, many people need to be able to speak contemporary conversational Mexican Spanish in their daily lives -- from doctors and emergency technicians, to police and teachers. Few people has any great desire to read Don Quixote, written in the classical style of pre-industrial Spain in the original.

College teacher's education programs squeeze out classes designed to make future teachers themselves better educated, in favor of classes about teaching that often fail to meaningfully impart the abilities they aspire to teach. Thankfully, an increasing share of teachers have liberal arts degrees following by a year of integrated post-graduate clinical practice and theory, but these programs remain the minority approach.

No one person has all the answers, or all the detail required to take on the task of overhauling curriculum. Indeed, handing that task off to some blue ribbon commission is probably ill advised. But we do need leadership that makes clear that change is needed, that traditional approaches should not be retained simply for tradition's sake, and that focuses on teaching students what they need to know at the time when they are more ready to learn it.

1 comment:

Michael Malak said...

You are spot on about many points, such as that languages should be taught during "the sensitive period" (Maria Montessori's term) for language acquisition, which is from birth to six years old.

You're also right about some subjects being taught too late or not at all. In today's world of technology, it's surprising how few of even technical college majors touch upon signal processing, for example. Bandwidth, signal-to-noise ratio, dynamic range, and the dB scale are all tools everyone should have when going to purchase an audio/video system. Yet, it is taught very late in the curriculum only because the subject was developed later and is therefore "more advanced".

I like your example of statistics. That is another case of what should be basic math never being taught until the very last years of education, if at all.

In general, math should be accelerated. Math is not hard; it's teachers that don't know math that make it hard. And since math continuously builds from one year to the next, one bad teacher one year and the students progress is frozen forever, unless and until a remedial course is taken such as in college.

Learning math early would help in logical thinking, which is learning how to learn. That is the supposed goal of liberal arts education, but is rarely delivered for a multitude of reasons.

Your comment about age segregation is also spot on. It is artificial -- it doesn't occur in nature. The best way to learn something is to teach it. Older students should be teaching younger students. And younger students should have role models of older students. For these reasons, Maria Montessori advocated three-year cycles, where 3-6 year-olds are all in one environment, 6-9 year-olds similarly, etc.

But regarding your concern about not teaching about basic literacy in legal matters and car repair -- yes that's important and obviously a need considering the prevalence of adult education courses on those topics. But we have to be careful about focusing too much on particulars. It's better to learn how to learn, especially in this age of the Internet where a lot of that information is easily available. Daily skills classes or "home ec plus" would better be taught as a seminar, where students research it on the Internet and evaluate the veracity of the various information.