Monday, March 24, 2014

The More Things Change...

We had a family gathering yesterday, and I wound up talking with my wife's 90+ year-old grandfather for at least an hour or so. I think my wife felt a little sorry that I was "stuck" with Grandpa for so long, but it was actually really, really great: he was sharing memories from his childhood and adolescence growing up in the ranchlands of the Great Plains.

He told great stories: a train ride from Chicago he remembers well. Breaking horses when he was a hired hand on a ranch. The amazing amount of dust that would seep in through through the cracks of the house during the years of the Dust Bowl. Grasshoppers and locust that would strip the wheat fields of anything green. Hitch-hiking 400 miles when he left home to move to Minnesota at age 16. His first paying job, where he worked for three dollars a day, and felt good about the money he made.

And--very interesting to me--he told about the country school he attended from grades 1-8.

There were about 30 students in the school at a time. Teachers rarely lasted for more than one year. He was humble about his academic work--didn't want to brag--but he completed the first and second grade in one year's time, and skipped the fifth grade entirely, because he would have been the only student...and the teacher asked his parents if they would be all right with him moving on to sixth grade early, so he would have classmates studying the same material.

Image by bdinphoenix [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

I'm imagining what life would be like teaching in that kind of setting. It's not unheard of to have a class of 30 students even today. But not many teachers today would likely relish the thought of having eight grades worth of classes to prepare for!

I asked him about the curriculum: what did he study? His answer didn't really surprise me: reading, writing, and arithmetic. That is about it.

About at this point in the conversation, my son walked by carrying my iPad, and Grandpa said it himself: "School has changed."

He's right. School has changed!

But as soon as I say that...

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

For example, for all of our emphasis on active learning, and rigorous standards, I find it interesting that the Common Core State Standards only include Language Arts and Mathematics. It's the 3 R's (reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic), just like Grandpa had when he was in school.

No science.

No history.

No economics, or geography, or arts, or world languages, or technology, or philosophy, or health, or physical education, or music.

Oh, I know. I can hear someone saying, "that's not all we teach in school today!" And, yes, I know that there are standards among the Language Arts standards indicating the importance of reading and writing in the content areas, such as history and science.

But really, when push comes to shove, the greatest curriculum focus in the United States today is the same as when Grandpa was in the country school, with eight grades in one room: reading, writing, and math.

Is this something we should be concerned about? As a former science teacher, I think so. I think that the reasoning skills taught through science are just as important as reading and writing well. As a musician, I think that experiencing the arts and practicing creativity are just as important as learning to calculate. The amateur geographer in me about cries at the thought of relegating social studies to a second tier of importance in school.

I'm not opposed to the Common Core. In fact, I think there is much to celebrate there! But if we are focusing at these few subject areas at the exclusion of others, I think we're selling our students short.

Should we emphasize just a few subjects in great depth? Or should we expose students to a broad variety of different experiences through their formal education? What do you think?

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