Not A Principal I'd Like to Have

Last week, a principal’s blog post was passed around on my facebook feed. The title was provocative: “We Need to Stop Teaching Our Students How to Write.” There were some interesting discussions that were generated by the link. I think he addresses larger issues though.

01. The issue of change in education, in terms of both method and content
02. The necessity of memorization
03. The necessity of proper spelling
04. The necessity of having a ‘right way’ to do some skills
05. The necessity of cursive penmanship
06. The necessity of foreign language learning
07. The necessity of the nebulous “technology skills”

The author of the blog post is in favor of change, foreign language learning in elementary school, and technology skills. He’s against spelling, keyboarding, cursive, and memorization (his specific example is state capitals).

I wholeheartedly agree that, in general, the United States needs to move towards foreign language learning in elementary school, and not of the one day a week enrichment variety. It should be a daily subject, even if it occupies just fifteen to twenty minutes, and it should begin with listening and speaking as early as possible, with reading and writing of the foreign language following once the pupils have a rudimentary grasp of reading and writing in English. In most cases, then, I suspect the pattern would be listening & speaking in grades K-2, with reading and writing beginning in about third grade.

Now he and I part ways.

The overall tone of the post is one of embracing change solely for the sake of embracing change. I wrote about that not long ago, and how we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Having recently played the part of “the baby,” I’m even more sensitive to this. Don’t change things simply because it seems like the thing to do.

What, exactly, are technology skills? Why do we need to teach them to third grade students, for instance? I’m going to develop my own interpretation, since by the author’s own admission, he does not include keyboarding as a technology skill. I think perhaps he means something like “word processing, internet research and safety, computer care, troubleshooting and ethics” or perhaps “computer programming and robotics, advanced Excel, PowerPoint, and Web 2.0 skills.” I suspect he would agree that a goal for technology education would be “becoming self-sufficient with computers/laptops.” I took these quotes from descriptions of sixth and seventh grade technology courses at one of the finest schools in the country. I have no problem with their objectives. I don’t understand what there is to be gained by a third grader having these same skills. A third grader doesn’t really need to be doing internet research, mostly likely can’t truly comprehend internet safety, and would be learning programs that would be several versions out of date by the time s/he reaches middle school. And, no, I don’t think that fourth graders need to be doing very much of their schoolwork on the computer.

Beyond these arguments, though, I do see inherent value in the very subjects which he scorns. Cursive penmanship, memorization, and spelling all train the brain and develop skills that are not used solely in isolation. They have value both in terms of what they achieve invisibly and the immediate visible value.

I find his distaste for keyboarding the least understandable, however. Keyboarding is taught because there is one way that is more efficient for the vast majority of typists. Keyboarding is taught because proper posture and hand position do matter in terms of body mechanics and possible future ailments. Keyboarding is taught so that kids can best utilize those technology skills which he lauds so much! Without proper typing learned, anyone is at a distinct disadvantage.

I understand that public schools are put in an unenviable position. I realize that instructional time is short, and there are external pressure to teach to the tests–tests whose scores do not increase with proper spelling, good penmanship, memorization state capitals, or achievement of a benchmark words per minute. However, to overuse a tired cliche, throwing out the baby and the bathwater in order to have room for a few bath toys? It simply does not make sense.


Smrt Mama said...

I see plenty of benefit to technology skills in young students. I just don't think they need to supplant rigorous traditional education.

I don't think third grade is too young to be doing supervised internet research. I think it should go hand in hand with teaching other researching methods and how to assess sources for validity/accuracy. As for online ethics and safety, those are also skills I feel should be taught early, because sometimes your kids will have access to computers out of your supervision (a grandparent's house, a friend's house). Again, I still see no reason why those skills would need to be taught at the expense of other skills, however. Maybe they could teach them instead of covering the solar system for the third time in as many years?

Kash said...

I don't see any benefit to having a third grade doing internet research. I guess I feel it's more important to curtail opportunities to access the internet outside my supervision. ;) But, then, I have much stronger feelings about young kids not using technology than you, as I think we've previously established, lol. :)

As a complete aside, I wish I *had* covered more astronomy. I remember covering the solar system in first grade. We did a lot with geology in fifth and sixth, and we did cells and sex ed and all that jazz in fourth and fifth, and by no means was my science education lacking, but I essentially had /no/ astronomy other than that first grade unit on the solar system. :P

Smrt Mama said...

When I was in it, and when my mom was teaching, the did the solar system and dinosaurs EVERY.SINGLE.YEAR. Presented the same way, little to no additional depth. Just "we need some science...what's less offensive?"

Kash said...

How boring!

I sometimes think I went into biology because my fifth grade unit on cells was just that much fun. I have no idea how they made it fun, and I don't remember details, just the overall impression I was left with.

Smrt Mama said...

I enjoyed my fifth grade unit on cells, too, but I had just read Wind in the Door and was mad that they didn't go into mitochondria or anything INSIDE the cell much.

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