Monday, April 20, 2009

What do we want our kids to learn

It is the age old question--Plato intoned it centuries ago....  "Of which knowledge is of most worth?"  Basically, what do we want our kids to know, to learn, to carry on forward.  In recent days I've seen articles, blogs and a television news report (sic) that mentioned how we need higher standards for our kids.   We have fallen behind other industrialized countries is the warning.  Only three out of four of our high school students are graduating from high school. And if I look carefully, the sky is falling down.

I do want to make a point here.  In the late 1800s if I remember my history of the American Public Schools, we graduate about one out of four students--but remember many students only went to school until the sixth or eighth grade.  We were an agrarian nation primarily.  And many young adults studied on their own at night after working the fields all day.  Remember, Lincoln never went to law school--he studies at home.  Our records about who was educated and who left high school were not well kept.  

Even before World War II, (remember it was in the depression) we didn't have a great graduation rate.  And colleges were for the rich kids and primarily for the guys--girls were expected to marry and raise more kids.  Formal education was not a major goal for most people.

According to some historians, schools began to be organized with certain learnings in the early 1900s.  The United States was growing into an industrial nation and we needed trained workers for the plants.  Some say that the method of teaching children in large groups (fifty to sixty children) with bells ringing to end and start different classes of learning was to train the young how to work in a factory.  Perhaps.  We certainly needed child labor laws at one time.  What type of learning do you need to run equipment?  

This question of what to teach has been with us since the American schools were organized in Boston early on in the life of this country.  We have been arguing ever since.  What we study in the schools is called the curriculum.  It came from the Latin meaning a course of study.  In today's age, we have many, many experts that would like to tell us what a "proper" curriculum should be.  Besides those experts, there are those who will say, "And don't leave out...."  You fill in the blanks....  

I have read my state's requirements for what schools in this state are suppose to teach and what students need to learn to graduate.  Lordy, I'm not sure I could pass.  I do know that reading the state's requirements should take care of any sleeping problems you might have.  Then these requirement are converted into test questions--I am sure I couldn't answer many of them....the WASL tests are suppose to be the end all to what students should know.  And if you listen carefully, there are those in this nation and in this state that say we need to increase the level of knowledge so that our kids can compete with the rest of the world.  

I think the first step that we should do is to have a ongoing debate and study of what we want our kids to know.  List the items.  Tell me what you think a graduate of our K-12 schools should look when they graduate.  What can they do, what do they know.....and how do their feel and what do they value.  Once we have that focused in our minds, then tell the teachers and let them do their job.  Keep the administrators from stirring up the pot--let them run the schools but keep their hands off of the curriculum for now.

You know what I think people will want?  Leslie Briggs did this exercise many years ago.  He was a professor of education at, I believe, the University of Florida.  Smart guy--I don't have his book anymore but I remember a lot of what he wrote.  

Briggs said we only need to teach our children three things.  Just three things!  The first thing we need to teach our children is how to communicate.  All types of communications.  Talking, singing, writing, acting, publishing, listening, talking, reading, dance, mathematics, story telling....the list goes on.  We are a societal animal and we need to communicate with each other.  And it mandates a variety of ways.  Briggs suggests that this objective or goal should start in pre-school.  He pre-dated the pre-school craze long before it became popular.

The second thing we need to teach is the "self."  Who are we?  How do I feel today.  Why did I get an "A" on the exam--or any other grade?  How far can I jump?  We don't do a good job of this--many people feel we are "messing with the children's mind."  But I think we need to get the children to understand how they are feeling effects their learning.

An aside:  I can remember coming into class on some different days and telling the kids I was feeling grumpy and don't mess with me today.  I want you all on your best behavior.  Then one day one of my boys came into class in the morning and said to me, "I feeling grumpy today and I don't want to be messed with."  I though to myself, I've know exactly how he feels.  So I said to him how would like to do your work at the carroll in the back of the room today.  He agreed and by noon he reappeared and said he was feeling better and he joined the class.   How kids feel is important....but we don't teach much about this subject.

Leslie Briggs suggested in his book that we need to keep individual records as to what we do and the results that we get from them.  So if a child didn't eat breakfast and then did poorly in his assignments, can we learn from that?  So learning about the self is part of the Briggs' three objectives.

His third objective or goal was the arts from fine cuisine to history to the arts in general to knowledge about the world to economics to politics, to philosophy and psychology and sociology and everything that makes a quality of life unique.  The other two objectives or goals are the foundations but this goal is the architecture of life.  

So I am suggesting that these three goals be the foundation of our curriculum.  As old "Blue Eyes" has sung, "I am in the September of my life," and I cannot believe how many things, how much stuff I have learned that is totally useless in todays age.  It is amazing.  However, we need to sit down and talk about how we want our children to be....  Then we can design a curriculum that we can teach.  

Are you thinking about what I have written?  Then go thank a teacher who taught you how to think.

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