by Bruce Price 12/6/13
It’s generally agreed that the public schools are sub-par and could be much improved. But how?
Everyone seems to assume we need some big new concept, and who cares what it costs. We hear relentless shilling for Constructivism, 21st Century Skills, and now National Standards. Right on cue, Obama is out of the gate with Race to the Top, which is supposed to make kids College-Ready and Career-Ready. Excuse me. Could we first make them Book-Ready? And perhaps even High-School-Ready?
All of Obama’s plans, and who is surprised, require billions of tax dollars. Why? Was there ever a correlation between money and quality? Well, perhaps there’s an inverse correlation.
Here’s what our Education Establishment is good at: concocting slick marketing slogans that don’t produce results and then asking for raises all around. Enough.
We don’t need any fancy slogans or ingenious new ways to waste more billions. We’re in a recession; let’s think lean-mean-machine. I would argue that the proposals we hear mentioned again and again are beside the point, irrelevant, unnecessary, superfluous, empty, and silly. We don’t need them. All of these bogus ideas are expensive; they are also cumbersome; whereas the correct answer is inexpensive, and as simple as 1 + 2 equals 3.
In fact, the correct answer is 1 + 2 equals 3.
That’s an example of basic or foundational knowledge, the kind of thing that every student needs to learn in the first years of school. Shazam!
As surely as 1 + 2 equals 3, foundational knowledge is what we need to return to, immediately. Observe that no new laws are required. No new books. No new funding. No new training. No new schools or facilities. No new personnel. No new budget items of any kind. No new nothing! Why, it must be a miracle from heaven.
We merely do again what all teachers automatically did for thousands of years. We teach the information that people need.
Sure, the anti-educators in charge of education have trashed this idea with so much venom and for so long, you might mistakenly assume there is even a smidgen of sense in their objections. No, not at all. Remember, these people are happiest when allowed to be social engineers. They don’t have much of a feel for education, poor dears. They wouldn’t understand that foundational knowledge and education are more or less synonymous.
Teaching foundational knowledge is the right thing to do, the easy thing to do, the cheap thing to do. We’ll return to the bright heart of education. Facts! Knowledge! How exotically beautiful these words are! Like rare orchids. We actually start to teach again. What an idea. This shift is so revolutionary, we might call it 22nd Century Skills.
No, no, no, we don’t need to teach a lot. Don’t be alarmed. We can teach almost nothing and still turn the country around. How about one fact each day?? Don’t you think those little nervous systems can handle the stress of learning one fact each day? Personally, I believe their nervous systems would welcome the excitement. Hallelujah, free to learn at last!
What facts, you ask. Here’s some more good news: it hardly matters. Start anywhere, go anywhere. Any little bit of information you could reasonably call foundational knowledge, bingo, throw it out there to those fact-starved minds. You know, all that basic stuff that everyone really should learn, like how many quarts are in a gallon or how many days in a year. Imagine you had just arrived on this planet; now make a list of all the things you would want to know. What’s a ship, what’s a hammer, that kind of thing. Ask yourself, is it something that the average adult ought to know? Then let’s teach it.
There are three oceans–Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian. Any first-grader could handle that. The seven continents–everybody should know their names. The biggest river on each continent, how difficult is this? The highest mountain. Easy, right?
The twenty countries you’re most likely to read about in the newspaper. The major capitals. Just keep it coming, one fact each day. All the facts mentioned so far don’t add up to 200, which is roughly the quota for first grade. What a beginning.
Second grade takes children up to 400 facts, third grade to 600 facts, which could reasonably include the multiplication table to 10 times 10. In fourth grade we’re up to 800 facts, which might include the names of the 50 states. Heck, these student are ready to enter college by the standards of our public schools today. If we can have fun with this, keep it light, and teach, teach, teach, the knowledge will build and build, like the Great Pyramid. Sixth grade takes you to 1200 facts. How many college graduates know so much?
All we hear now is complaints about “high stakes testing” and “teaching to the test” and how everybody is overwhelmed. Isn’t it tragic?! I think this is dishonest propaganda. Here’s what the real problem is. The kids in fifth and sixth grade don’t know 25 facts, total. So how can anyone teach those kids American History, for example, when they don’t know the names of oceans, mountains, states, rivers, etc.?
Here’s a statement that must have occurred in thousands of history classes: “The Pilgrims left England and sailed westward across the Atlantic to Plymouth Rock.” If you’re educated, you think this is a mundane, trivial sentence. But it’s not, not for the kids in our public schools.
Here’s what those kids are puzzling over; What’s England? What’s sailed. What’s westward? What’s Atlantic? What’s Plymouth Rock?
All that basic information might as well be most of us hearing about craters on Mars. There’s a perfect void. A teacher of American History hasn’t got a chance. With no foundation to build on, teachers must spend all their time re-explaining the simplest things.
Please note: the same Education Establishment complaining about testing is the same bunch that made the kids ignorant in the first place. If children learned foundational knowledge in grades k-6, whatever came next would be relatively easy. American History is not that complicated but if the child doesn’t know the name of the ocean next to the east coast, what Columbus did, the names of the 13 original colonies, and what 1776 is, the whole year is an exercise in wasting time.
Here’s a way to put this in perspective. Imagine you as an adult are told you need to learn early Chinese history. But you don’t know any context; you don’t know the simplest things about Chinese culture or geography. What do you need? A week or two about background, the languages, the landscape, the history before, during and after the period you are to study. Only then will you be ready to understand what the teacher says.
So much basic information has been stripped out of elementary education. There seems to be a deep hatred of knowledge. The situation is grotesque, almost unbelievably so. Is this whole thing a really bad dream? Imagine that some busybody like me shows up asking that one fact be taught each day. You’d hope that everybody in education exclaims: “Duh!!!”
Nope. This proposal will actually strike our top educators as something they need to ponder deeply. Hmmm….
I predict that our Education Establishment will sit around rubbing their chins and murmuring, “Well, maybe it’s too difficult. We want to do what’s developmentally appropriate. Different kids have different learning styles. It’s not fair to ask the kids of one ethnic groups to learn things of more interest to other ethnic groups. Rousseau advised against pressuring children too early. Self-esteem is the main consideration. It’s better to let each child create her own knowledge, Piaget explained that. First, of course, we need to find what their prior knowledge is, and work with that. In fact, maybe we’re asking too much now. Better to let the children roam free, happy in their glorious ignorance….”
That’s what we’re up against. Ideally, we fire all the people talking such ed trash. Meanwhile, every teacher should try to teach three times as much. Every parent should. Students should demand a better education.
Until the public schools are intelligently run, the answer lies outside their walls. School-proof kids before they go to school. Pre-school kids during each summer. Hand out lists of websites on each subject. Subscribe to history and science magazines. Make a list of the museums, galleries, factories, and historical sites within driving distance–and visit one of them every few months. Basically, everybody needs to be, at least a little, in homeschooling mode. That movement started because the Education Establishment wouldn’t do a good job. That’s where we are today.
Perhaps it needs to be stated:
the best way to teach simple facts is to teach them again and again.
Teach X, wait a month, teach it again. Wait two months, teach it again.
(When children complain, “Yeah, we know,” that means they’ve got it.)
In this regard, see 26: How To Teach History, Etc.
Benjamin Bloom created a “Taxonomy” (circa 1956) which posits a hierarchy of mental activities. Here’s a quick outline of Bloom’s Taxonomy (the main thing to note is that knowledge — memorized, arranged, or whatever — is the lowest thing a human can do):
Knowledge: arrange, define, duplicate, label, list, memorize, etc.
Comprehension: classify, describe, discuss, explain, express, identify, etc.
Application: apply, choose, demonstrate, dramatize, employ, etc.
Analysis: analyze, appraise, calculate, categorize, etc.
Synthesis: arrange, assemble, collect, compose, construct, etc.
Evaluation: appraise, argue, assess, attach, choose, etc.
I’m belatedly realizing what a brilliant bit of nonsense this thing is. It allowed professors of education to demonize the very reason that children, for all of history, went to school. If you’re concerned with knowledge, you might as well be a philodendron. Know is a four-letter word.
A school teacher in Kansas recently sent me a very sad email. You’ll see that all the parts of this story come together here:
“The principal has refused to recommend me because I ignored the school’s emphasis on education reform (read Constructivism). She was appalled that I had my third-grade students memorize facts. Where was the higher-order thinking involved in the task? It mattered not to her that the kids loved the geography unit. Nor that most of them scored above 90% percent on fill-in-the-blank tests (not multiple choice). That they had learned about the equator, they had seen images of maps and had talked with me about how the world seemed to grow over time in ancient maps. That we talked about technology and how our planet looked on Google Earth. We talked about the invention of the wheel, of navigation, and all sorts of other fascinating things. They knew what a compass rose was and what it did. They learned about scale and computed some simple scale problems. No, none of that mattered because I had violated two major rules–I had had the children memorize facts and I had taught them information.”
“Where was the higher-order thinking?” This article, Bloom’s Sophistry, and the fate of those kids who are not permitted to learn anything — all come together in that phrase. Airily discussing things they don’t know is called Critical Thinking. Actually knowing what you are talking about is called unacceptable.
What makes it so silly is that even Bloom’s own examples of the higher-order activities — computing tax from a tax chart, for example — are not manipulating what you learned at a lower level. No, you’re perpetually working with stuff outside of your head. Why? Because there is nothing in your head. Bloom gave elaborate sophistical cover for the zero-content curriculum that the educators were already pushing for decades before (ever since Dewey, really).
Bloom added another layer of sophistry, and created a staging ground for Constructivism, one of the major obstacles today to teaching sensibly (in which regard, please see 34: The Con in Constructivism).
Bloom was also involved in Values Clarification and Death Education, these being ways to wash young brains.
Bruce Deitrick Price explains education theories and methods on his site Improve-Education.org
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