Friday, April 20, 2012

Schoolhouse 2025: Page Two

We had a lively discussion last week and I thank all who participated. There seems to be some divergence of opinion on our schools, and that is to be expected. This week, I’d like to touch on what I think are the necessary ingredients for learning to take place.
As I see it, there are two main elements needed; a person who has knowledge and is willing to impart it, and a person who has a thirst to learn. Place those two under a tree or in a multimillion dollar edifice and learning can take place. Obviously this is an oversimplification but it illustrates a great truth. The teacher and the student are the only irreplaceable elements. Everything else is tiered somewhere lower on the have to have scale.
I’m hoping for a bit of mind stretch here. Consider what other elements you will need to teach any academic subject; perhaps something to write on, something to write with. Equipment comes next. In some areas of study, you must have teaching aids to be successful. Without going into the individual disciplines, let your mind range over what kind of devices it takes for a teacher to impart science facts. Books for reading classes. Perhaps maps for history and geography. Musical instruments for music (yes, music is an academic discipline, incorporating mathematics and auditory science in an art form). This is a sample starter list, and you can fill in specific subject requirements.
Now it’s getting a bit complicated, and we need a place to house all this stuff. A comfortable, well-lit classroom isn’t a bad idea, either. And, ta-da, we have the beginning of controversy over how big a building, how big should classes be, and on down the time-trodden weary road to compromise. Remember two facts of life; one, each generation sees normal as what he/she experiences it early in life; and two, we have all been subjected to countless barrages of social engineering.
Consider the first point if you will. Because man is a generational beast and tends to build a history as he goes, we tend to believe that tradition will protect the great truths we discover along the way. We do, until we’ve become sufficiently careless that we don’t continue to teach those truths, but believe each generation will simply accept them.
I came along nearly eight decades ago, into a world that had a crude radio system, telephones that hung from a wall and required an operator to connect you to someone, a transportation system recently moved from the horse and buggy to self-powered automobiles, small transport airplanes that seemed sleek and modern but were archaic by today’s standards. And the only individual communication device consisted of the Dick Tracy wrist radio that cartoonist Al Capp dreamed up. That was my norm.
My first-born son, Michael, came into a world that was viewing the first successful color television sets, had experienced the first atomic explosions and the ramifications of that technology, transport planes that sported jet engines and held several times the number of people able to fly together in the past, increasingly efficient and comfortable passenger autos, a post-war America awash in commercial success but threatened by warring factions in the two most powerful nations on earth. This is just a little cross-section of life for either of us, but it is clear to see how we could easily grow up expecting different things from life.
Even when Mike was growing up, what was being taught in his schools had changed markedly from what I learned. And what I didn’t learn. Fast forward a generation to his first child, Jessica, and check out the radically different curriculum she learned from, and you begin to understand the importance of what I said above. Unless we insure that certain universal truths are constantly taught, and not constantly revised, each generation will develop its own norm and the ultimate result is what the world has experienced for thousands of generations, chaos. A new civilization is born, matures to domination, achieves great heights, and collapses when it loses its original foundation, leaving the world in a new dark age.
I know that many of you will disagree with me, and that is fine with me. Primarily, I want to evoke a serious discussion of where we are, and how our kids and grandkids are going to cope in their own generations. Till next time.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Schoolroom 2025

Did that get your attention? As a longtime educator, I often wondered what will happen to our schools once technology supplies us with viable alternatives to the old three r’s; readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic of the early 20th Century. Well, it’s happened. We’re on the cusp of a revolution in education beyond anything man has known in the past. Today I want to discuss serious issues our children and grand children will face.

At one time cut and dried and tried and true, that famous old 3-R curriculum has ballooned into a mish-mash of social, touchy-feely, gobbledygook most adults couldn’t wade through without a pitchfork. Math has always been an objective field, one that had no gray areas to puzzle over. Now, even math has side issues that call for feeling as well as thinking. Oh, not the real math, but what is being taught in some places. And what do teachers allow in their classes these days? Calculators, well before most kids have a secure grasp on mathematic principles. Is it any wonder we’re slipping in the sciences that are dependent on extremely accurate calculations requiring full understanding? Remember; garbage in, garbage out with calculators. Or with computers.

Reading was a bit more obscure because there were so many choices of reading material. Imagine the quandary of the reading instructor now that there are so many more choices available, even for kids. Especially for kids. Still, a good reading teacher can provide a solid path for kids to follow as they sharpen their reading skills. In picking the stories and books kids should read, the teacher makes some critical decisions that are based in part on her social bias. Can’t be helped; that’s the way humans are.

Got an idea where I’m headed with this? Good. Now let’s look at writing. Once the domain of sticklers for traditional penmanship, I fear that may have gone by the wayside as well. I won a prize in eighth grade for penmanship. It took over fifty years before my handwriting deteriorated to the point one has to look closely to be able to decipher it. If I’d not started all those years ago with a hand so steady it looked like the printed word, my writing would have been just a blur long ago. I understand that many schools have downgraded the need for penmanship because we have the word processor, complete with spell-check, electronic dictionaries, and other built-in writing aids.

So far, it sounds like I’m a dim viewer of things electronic, doesn’t it? Nothing could be further from the truth. I am a dim viewer of lazy teaching. Through my years as a student in elementary, middle grade, high school, college, and post graduate studies, I encountered many fine teachers. Selfless souls who labored mightily to pass along everything they’d learned in an effort to help the next generation move up the learning curve. They worked long hours, in meager surroundings, with measly equipment, and received precious little in monetary reward, all for the belief they’d done their best to help mankind.

From the late fifties into the early nineties, I watched more and more ill-prepared teachers enter the school work force as the older generation dropped by the wayside. Time after time, I saw a group of folks more concerned with their pay, vacations, and benefits, than with the need for a good education for their students.

In my first full year of teaching I made a mistake one day. I had bought a dress shirt that was light blue, like shirts TV anchors wore because the blue looked cleaner than white on a black and white TV screen. My students thought it was cool. My superintendent called me into his office to explain why I could not wear white like the other teachers. And if I’d ever taken my tie off in the classroom, I would have probably been sent home to change. Nowadays, in many schools, the teachers resemble homeless folks, not to demean the homeless. Is it any wonder respect for teachers has vanished in most schools?

Okay, enough of that. I think I’ve at least hinted at an approximation of the state of education in our schools today. Who will ride in on his white charger, wave his white hat, and spur us on to a better day? He’s already here, folks. The same technology that gives us low-cost eReaders and other electronic gear, will soon provide a simple, light-weight, multi-function capability, means of storing a year’s worth of curricula, or more. Bye-bye fifty pound backpacks that are causing physical problems for our students. Hello, a way for the bright student to move at his or her own pace. Bye-bye the classrooms where we all try to get along, because that’s more important than whether we learn anything. Group projects, where the bright student carries the loafers, too.

I could go on and outline my concept of 21st Century academic education for our children, but I prefer to let you put your own imagination to work. When we can give our kids everything they need without darkening the door of a school, why should we continue to subject them to a breeding ground for bullies, lazy intimidators, and a place where the lowest common denominator is not a math principle, but the modus operandi?

Put your thinking caps on, ladies and gentlemen, and dream of a better future for the world of education. You tell me what you envision as the schoolroom of 2025 will look like.