Saturday March 20, 2004

If I Ran a School

[ This is the last of five questions from this week's Friday 5 ]

If I Ran a School

I don't have much good to say about the way the typical K-12 educational system is run. My spouse is of a similar opinion. We'd both do a lot of things very differently if we were in charge.

I tend to view the current educational system as a 12-year College preparatory course; there isn't much 'real" education for real life. If I were running a school, every child would be required to take what has traditionally been called "Home Economics" as well as "Shop" classes, starting simply and early and continuing every year until graduation. No child should be able to graduate from school without knowing how to shop for groceries, write a check, prepare a meal, mend a seam, sew on a button, cut a board, change a light bulb, solder a wire, replace a wall outlet, check a fuse, flip a circuit breaker... the list goes on.

Every child would be required to take a minimal set of science classes (biology, physics, chemistry, earth science) and the more elementary (earlier) science classes would spend less time on theory and more time on practical application. What makes a cake rise? Why does beer fizz? Why can you clean nuts and bolts in a glass of Cola? Why are ants attracted to sugar and why do they form a line back to the nest? Why do plants lean toward the sun? What is chlorophyll? Why is it important? How do physics and chemistry affect the way your car runs? Why can cows eat grass and people can't? How do scientists predict the weather?

Likewise, mathematics classes should emphasize real-world applications, from making change to balancing a checkbook, to calculating the angle for a stable step ladder to calculating a moon shot. I was recently asked if I would help a friend's child go over her arithmetic homework. The word problems were of this form "Bob ate 87 hot dogs. Joe ate 300 clam strips. How many more clam strips than hot dogs did the boys eat?" I shuddered. The problems made no sense. Worse, the kids had not, apparently, been taught how to relate phrases such as "how many more clam strips than hot dogs" with the process of subtraction.

I was also appalled by the fact that the teacher didn't require the kids to show their work and didn't explain how or why they were getting the wrong answers. The little girl I was helping often confused subtraction with addition. She got mathematically correct answers for the process she used, but solved the problem incorrectly. She also had some difficulty in keeping her numbers lined up straight. Simple errors in number alignment led to large errors in addition or subtraction. But her teacher wasn't showing her where she went wrong or helping her learn. This was an either/or proposition. Students either got the problems right or they got a red mark and a lower score. That's not learning. That's not education.

I would similarly modify Language Arts and Social Studies classes to be more practical in nature. What purpose does it serve a child to be told to read "The Red Badge of Courage" if that same child doesn't has some feeling for the historical period in which the book is set? Our current system tells a child s/he has to read "Lord of the Flies", but fails to ensure that the same child can read the newspaper, look something up in the Yellow Pages, find an address on a map, or compare the nutritional information on two food labels. An essay on "How I spent My Summer Vacation" may or may not improve a child's writing skills, but it doesn't teach the same skills required to write a business letter, a letter of complaint, a resume, and a thank you note.

In all cases, students in "my" school would be taught spelling, grammar, punctuation, and given frequent practice in reading, understanding, and writing. It doesn't matter so much what they read or write as it does that they read and write every day. Although, in general, I dislike the memorization method of teaching, in these areas I would make an exception. No one should graduate from school who is functionally illiterate, or who is made to appear ignorant by their poor reading and writing skills.

Art and Music classes would focus less on theory and more on appreciation and experimentation. Classes would include field trips, guest artists, school orchestral assemblies, and more emphasis on trial and error. Art and Music classes would never be graded.

Finally, I would do away with the popular concept of ranking children by age through "grades" K through 12. Students should be taught to the level of their interests, their knowledge, and their skills and abilities. If a given student excels in mathematics, for example, that student should be able to take the mathematics course best suited to his proficiency level (even if the student is 11 years old in a class of 14-year-olds).

This is similar to the way education worked in the "old days" of the one-room schoolhouse, where a school had many children of different ages and only one teacher. Students worked at their own speed, to their own level, progressing to the next level when they were ready. Older or quicker students helped tutor younger and slower kids.

I can't see any reason why a similar system couldn't work today. "All" that it would requires is teachers and a school system that pay more attention to teaching than to "grades", a system that pays more attention to what an individual student knows and can do than to what society "says" that child should know and be able to do at a particular age.

If I Ran a School ( in category Memes & Prompts ) - posted at Sat, 20 Mar, 00:21 Pacific | «e»