Throwing the Baby Out With the Bathwater

There’s a popular animation of a portion of a TED talk on changing educational paradigms. It makes some good points. Other treatises on education about improved technology can similarly make some good points. However. Kids still have to be able to spell, to write, to do arithmetic and higher math, and have basic knowledge about their world. In some ways, the proliferation of technology makes it MORE important to master the traditional subjects, so that we're not manipulated by the technology.

It’s not possible, of course, to do an exhaustive study of any one subject. The fact that it’s not possible, though, doesn’t mean we should cease to attempt any study of the subjects at all.

Sometimes we need to find new ways to teach a subject. Because of a child’s gifts, strengths, weaknesses, quirks, or a combination of some or all of the previous, the so-called traditional way (what was or has been used in the last fifty to one hundred fifty years) may not work for that child. When that happens, we look for alternatives. One of my children thrives with a workbook approach to spelling. The other one needs a more multisensory, rules-based curriculum with a lot of review. The latter curriculum does not “look” like what many expect of a spelling curriculum. She’s still learning to spell (albeit, at times, somewhat slowly and painfully, but that’s not related to the curriclum).

Sometimes we have to add a new subject to the curriculum. Computer programming was rarely taught to any but an interested minority even fifteen years ago. Today, I would allege that some basic understanding of programming principles is essential. Most people would do well to know basic HTML. One hundred years ago, humanity’s knowledge in most scientific fields was a mere fraction of what has been catalogued today. The Neo-Darwinian Synthesis alone changed biology significantly, and that’s just one small fraction of what’s been learned in just one main area of science.

Sometimes we have to change when a subject is taught. Nearly forty years ago, my mother learned typing in high school. Teaching it sooner was not considered necessary. I learned to type twenty years ago, in junior high. Times were changing, and it was considered necessary at a younger age. Today, I’m requiring my daughter to master typing before finishing fifth grade. The technology has changed, and I want her to be the master of it, not at its mercy.

What doesn’t need to change are the skills. A well-educated citizen still needs to be able to communicate clearly and competently, both in speech and in print. A well-educated citizen needs to be able to comprehend what she or he reads or hears, whether it’s from a podcast, on the radio, on paper, or scrolling by on computer screen. A well-educated citizen needs to understand mathematics. A well-educated citizen needs to be protected against manipulation by the forces that would manipulate him or her: the media, large corporations, politicians, and advertisements are only a few.

Doing something differently, or a new way, for the sake of doing it differently or in a new way does not result in academic excellence. It will not result in children who are magically better prepared for the future world of work. Doing something because it is different or new is as foolish as doing something solely because it is the way it has “always been done.” Of course we should evaluate and re-evaluate our curricula, our approaches, our goals, and our overall course of study for our children; evaluation is a necessary part of teaching. Deciding to approach a a subject differently for no other reason than it is “outside the box,” however, is no better than deciding to teach only history that happened before World War I, because that’s how it was done in the 1920s. Both approaches are foolishly short-sighted, and remind us, again and again, that we must begin with the end in mind.


Smrt Mama said...

The goal should be to expand education, not replace all the old stuff with new stuff. Granted, I think some of the old stuff is a lot less important than it used to be (with the availability of good translations, I'm really not too concerned about Latin beyond a basic understanding of how it formed the roots of so much of our vocabulary), but on the whole, the foundation of education has remained the foundation for a reason -- it's not habit, it's practicality.

farrarwilliams said...

Totally in agreement. Nice post.

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