Here is a question many of you would probably consider a bit whimsical, if not heretical; but I assure you, it has a dead serious intent.  If you were education czar, what would YOU require be taught (or not taught) in American schools?

Let me get you started.  Here are three things that I believe SHOULD be taught but AREN’T: metric system; evolution; critical thinking.

And here are three that ARE being taught, but SHOULDN’T: spelling; long division; propaganda.

My full list is much longer; but I would like to hear your thoughts.  If I get responses, I am prepared to vigorously defend my philosophical positions.

Also, what do you think should be the ultimate goals of education?  As a teacher for 36 years, mine were the development of ATTITUDES; specifically - responsibility, self-reliance, creativity, initiative, integrity; and most of all - the value of hard work.  And repeated testing/grading do NOTHING to inculcate these values.  I hate to say it, but most American teachers test and grade in order to avoid the hard work of teaching 40 kids in a classroom.  That’s not entirely their fault, though.  It is the fault of the entire 19th century paradigm under which our education system stuggles, impotently, to succeed. 

By the way: Sal Khan ROCKS!   

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Comment by Dale Headley on October 17, 2012 at 6:46pm

Thank you all for responding so voluminously to my question.  I wasn’t sure how much it might engage other atheists.

FYI: I didn’t say any anything about not teaching grammar. It should be taught.  

I also see the need for learning basic arithmetic algorithms, though I do believe long division is a special case of one that traditionally requires far more classroom time to teach than is efficacious.  Long division, I believe is headed for the same dustbin of elementary school history as square root (which I was taught but have forgotten), and the slide rule (which I could NEVER master).  The point I am somewhat facetiously making is that pencil & paper algorithms are becoming less and less necessary when you can buy a one dollar hand calculator at Wal-Mart.  It’s not as though the world is about to return to pre-electronic times when memorization of multi-step calculation was necessary.  Business at all levels has already abandoned entirely the laborious, time-consuming process of doing arithmetic on paper; and it will never return to it.  I spent thousands of hours in school learning to manipulate numbers.  Yet, as I sit here at my computer, I am within arm’s length of a one dollar hand calculator.  I could have learned THAT in about a half hour - tops.  Even if Boulder Dam collapses and takes all my electricity with it, I will never again have to do my figuring on paper.   Long division is a nice skill to have; and so is crocheting; but I can live a long, healthy, productive life without either. I often wonder how many really important, valuable, and interesting things I might have learned in the 5th grade, had I not spent almost all of it having Mrs. Charles try to drum  “divide, multiply, subtract, bring down...” into my head. Instead of remembering to always indent one space to the left for each level of multiplication of large numbers, maybe it would be helpful to understand exactly WHY we do that indentation; that would make us more likely to remember to do it.  You would be surprised how many adults don’t.  I didn’t, until I was 23 (the age at which I actually began to learn useful stuff).  And what about rote memorization of such things as the multiplication tables?  To the extent that this is a valuable skill, my contention is that it is best learned by repeated use of a hand calculator in doing real problems - not by taking tests or standing in front of the class reciting the tables. 

That leads me to the biggest boondoggle in elementary schools: the memorization of spelling lists - the favorite subject of lazy teachers.  There are two things to understand about spelling: one is that it is largely a natural skill that is not easily learned by many, if not most people.  The second is that, no matter how many thousands of hours one devotes in school trying to memorize the spelling of selected words, 99% of English words will be left untouched.  What then should teachers teach?  HOW TO USE THE FRIGGIN’ DICTIONARY to correctly spell the actual words that are used in correspondence and exposition.  It is shocking to me how many adults I encounter who almost never use a dictionary; and how many more don’t know how to utilize its full potential.  I recently (and successfully) turtored an adult seeking his GED.  He said NO teacher had ever showed him how to use a dictionary.  He was amazed at how useful it was.   Instead of forcing kids to learn the spelling of 20 words a week from the state-published spelling manuals, they should be taught the use of the dictionary, either in book form or online.  What else?  Require the kids to write, write, and WRITE!  That way, the teacher can focus on the specific words that specific children need to be able to spell for their specific purposes.   A close friend, who entered UCLA at about a 4th grade literacy level, eventually earned a master’s degree.  How? By carrying around a pocket dictionary with him everywhere he went.  Years of struggling with memorizing spelling lists had been wasted; an understanding of how to use a dictionary was his salvation.  When I taught language arts, I NEVER taught spelling.  I did teach a lot of etymology - particularly Latin and Greek - though.  I contend that it proved much more valuable than memorizing spelling words.  When the administrators of my school district tried to get me fired for refusing to use the district guidelines, including the use of the spelling manual, they undertook to prove my incompetence by administering special testing to my class.  To their surprise and chagrin, my kids improved 1.6 years (2.0 in spelling) in one year.  The administrators never again darkened my classroom door.

Incidentally, Becca spelled 11 words incorrectly in her post; yet that doesn’t diminish my respect for the many cogent points she made.  

Which brings me back to grammar.  Of course I believe in teaching grammar, as well as syntax, semantics, punctuation, style, etc.,  but it should be done almost entirely in the context of composition - the writing of stories, poems essays, etc., NOT as separate disciplines to be memorized.  When a child is producing a story she WANTS to tell, she will WANT to learn to do it as well as possible; she will WANT to create a lucid sentence; and that means she WILL LEARN to spell that word, and to construct that sentence properly.  Spelling lists are  a B.S. waste of time.

No, SteveinCO, reducing class sizes, by itself, won’t help much if teachers rigidly cling to the large-class mode of “teaching to the middle.”  But reducing class size WILL help free those creative, motivated teachers who wish to fashion their teaching methods to the specific needs of their individual students.  Sal Khan is vividly demonstrating the fact that real learning can occur between A teacher and A student.  But even he would admit that if he had to face a classroom of 40-50 students who run the gamut of skill levels, attitudes, abilities, cultures, languages, behaviors, etc. he would struggle to succeed. 

One of you - Kris - said that evolution was taught in her (his?) school.  Perhaps, but I taught science in a school district where NONE of the other science teachers taught it, either because of their own religious beliefs, or because of the fear of angry parents.  And that is in California, where it is supposedly required.  Further, a recent national survey concluded that 60% of science teachers spend NO MORE than 5 hours total on evolution.  That is pretty much the same as NOT teaching it at all.  It is the most fundamental fact of all biology; yet I’ve never met anyone who truly understands it beyond the caricatures presented by parents, churches, and poorly prepared teachers.  Most people THINK they understand evolution, but most DON’T.

As a prime example of how what is taught in school is often disconnected from the real world,  I refer to one of you - Becca - who says that the metric system is being taught in “many” schools.  Really?  Then why aren’t we using it in society as a whole?  Until we do, teaching it in school is meaningless.  I do my part.  As a masters T&F athlete, I ONLY talk about distances in terms of meters, kilometers, and such, NOT in feet, inches, and miles.  But most Americans consider the metric system somehow foreign and un-American.  To the extent that some math teachers teach the metric system, it tends to be not unlike teaching square root - something that is intriguing and exotic, but NOT something that America must adopt if it is to keep up with the modern world, scientifically.  It’s true that scientists routinely use it; but how many actual scientists are American schools turning out? Very few!   

Becca also discounts propaganda as a serious problem.  She says that, whereas a few teachers might try to propagandize their students, it isn’t institutionalized.  Au contraire!  It is VERY institutionalized.  If you took U.S. history, you WERE drenched with lies meant to serve the xenophobic, chauvinistic, nationalistic view Americans have of themselves.   American history is taught in school largely as a chronological march through heroic American wars, all of which were started by Americans for economic and political gain.  American history books are pretty much devoted to spreading the myth of  “American exceptionalism.”  One random example: what caused the War of 1812 and who won?  U.S. history books say that the cause was the  impressment of American sailors by the British on the high seas; and that America won that war.  Not true - not by a long shot.  The War of 1812 (or as it is known in Canada, the American War)  was a war of Manifest Destiny.  The U.S. launched three separate invasions of Canada with the intention of conquering and annexing that country.  But all three times, the Canadian militias kicked our butts.  The British, despite the fact that they were at war with France, at the time, sent a few soldiers, not to invade America, but to help protect Canada.  After they captured Washington and the Americans were repulsed by the Canadians, the British left, with Andrew Jackson nipping at their heels.  In other words, we LOST that war, then decided Mexico would be easier to conquer, which it was.  Was that in your history book?  No.  Your history book was propaganda.

In general, I agree with most of what you have all been saying.  It points hopefully to the possibility that more and more, people are beginning to see that there is a lot wrong with the educational system, and that what’s needed to fix it is NOT the B&W, simplistic ravings of uneducated drug addicts like Rush Limbaugh who view education’s sole objective as being to produce automatons for the  military industrial complex.  By the way, I doubt very much that Rush wrote his best selling books himself; he is so obviously illiterate.       

Comment by kris feenstra on October 17, 2012 at 7:41pm

 The point I am somewhat facetiously making is that pencil & paper algorithms are becoming less and less necessary when you can buy a one dollar hand calculator at Wal-Mart.  It’s not as though the world is about to return to pre-electronic times when memorization of multi-step calculation was necessary.

I don't agree with teaching long division for the purposes of memorizing tables -- I think that is a valid overall point --, but I do agree with teaching it so that children understand the basic theory behind it. If that is coupled with good critical thinking and problems solving skills, applications open up, even in every day life. The ability to do math in your head opens up, which I think will continue to be of use until we can tether computers straight to our thoughts.

One of you - Kris - said that evolution was taught in her (his?) school.

My intent was not to contrast what you were writing. I was simply clarifying that growing up in the Canadian (specifically Ontarian) education system changes my perspective on the issue. Also, good catch on the androgyny of my name. I've been male all of my life thus far. It's gotten kind of boring, but it seems like a bit of a hassle to change now. I'd have to buy all new clothes.

Comment by Marc Poulin on October 17, 2012 at 8:13pm

I'm sorry, I can't get past the fact that you don't think spelling should be taught in school. The way kids spell on Facebook and Twitter makes me think teachers don't focus enough on spelling. 

Comment by Ed on October 17, 2012 at 10:15pm

@ Marc

With the advent of personal communications devices such as the ubiquitous  I-Phones and the social phenomena called texting, there seems to be a wanton disregard for grammatical structure and dictionary correct spelling. "Tweets" with their maximum character limit seem to make the phenomena even more apparent. All this has already boiled over into many web forums. Brevity seems to be a most sought after quality. I am thankful it is not appreciated on this site. 

Comment by Unseen on October 18, 2012 at 12:02am

Brevity, when not required, needs to take a back seat to clarity. Clarity is best achieved when the communication medium is used according to mutually understood rules.

Comment by Unseen on October 18, 2012 at 12:23am

"long division is a special case of one that traditionally requires far more classroom time to teach than is efficacious"

Translating that into plain English, you're saying that most kids spend time studying long division without learning it, aren't you? Why is it then that most of us can do long division?

Let's take that kind of argument further. Most people who take college-level philosophy don't end up being competent philosophers. Does it follow, then, that we should shut down the college philosophy courses? 

Comment by Ed on October 18, 2012 at 9:49pm

@ Arch

Texting, with all it's inherent dangers, will hopefully prove to be just a social trend that finally fades away. But I wonder.

Comment by Unseen on October 18, 2012 at 10:11pm

The kids like texting because they can do it unobtrusively around other people who can't listen in. They can also covertly do it in class rather than paying attention, which explains a lot in terms of the functional illiteracy one sees in so many of the young.

Some kids text hundreds of times per day, which I think qualifies it as an OCD.


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