Thursday, August 12, 2010

Putting things together in education

The following is the text of my "Letter from the Editor" in the new Classical Teacher magazine:

When my first son was young, I would come home from work and had would want me to pick him up. When I did, the first thing he did was to reach into my shirt pocket and grab whatever pen or mechanical pencil he would find there, at which point he would proceed to take it apart. Of course, being so young, he was not able to put them back together again. That was a job left for me.

One of the tendencies of modern education, is to take the discipline of education apart--and it doesn't do a very good job of putting it back together again.

I have spent more than a little time in my professional career dealing with public school education policy. I have served on various state education committees, including our state's Goals 2000 Committee, and the Character Education Committee. In all of these cases I have noticed the same tendency of wanting to take the education process apart in order to make it clearer to people when, in fact, it does exactly the opposite.

For example, every state has a set of education standards of some sort. If you go online, you can find them. But instead of clarifying things, they only make them more mysterious by ignoring the old educational disciplines--arithmetic, history, reading--in favor of long lists of discrete abstract skills. They have abstracted these skills from the whole disciplines of which they were once a part, and now ask professional educators to think of the education process in terms of hundreds of these isolated skills.

This tendency has even reached physical education. People taking degrees in physical education are apparently trained to emphasize the discrete skills of particular sports, so that children spend less time actually playing a sport, than training in the particular skills that were a part of these sports.

Instead of playing basketball, volleyball, or baseball, many physical education instructors break out little orange cones and try to mimic the individual physical movements that these sports once required of the player, but are now to be performed all by themselves, outside of the context of what you to be, in addition to good exercise, actually fun.

It is a tendency from the whole to the parts abstracted from the whole, with no acknowledgment that the parts benefited from being a part of the whole.

In the old system of classical education, language was taught using the classical trivium. Once a child learned how to decode and was reading English, he began his Latin study. Latin is a discipline which includes in it a whole range of skills: vocabulary, grammar, and the thinking skills involved in distinguishing between person and number, case and gender--not to mention the skills involved in such an organized and systematic study.

But in the early 20th century, when classical education was displaced by progressives and pragmatists intent on changing the purpose of schools toward more political and vocational purposes, Latin was first driven out of the elementary curriculum and forced to take refuge in high schools. It was eventually driven even from there.

Why do Latin when we can teach the skills that it taught so well in other forms? So schools tried to mimic all of the individual skills that were once packaged within the discipline of Latin. If you read books used in teachers colleges in the 1940s, you find that those in charge of training teachers were well aware of the plight they were in: of reconstructing the benefits of Latin without the benefit involved in actually teaching Latin.

Since that time, we have seen an endless parade of attempts to do the things Latin once did. Program after program, with limitless combinations of languages skills has tried to do what Latin once did. And it never seems to work very well.

The pens and pencils I had in my pocket when I came home worked quite well. But when my son took them apart, they became a lot less useful. I had to put them back together again in order for them to work properly.

If you are jaded by the endless variety of language arts programs that are now available to Christian educators, you might try going back to the favored system of language instruction the way it was before our educational system took it apart.

It worked a lot better.

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