Monday, June 28, 2010

A Continuation of What To Teach

My wife and I went to a musical concert last night--it was loud.  I'm not sure I could teach music to this generation.  But then.....I thought back not too many years ago when I went to Vancouver, BC and was fortunately invited to visit on of the premier bagpipers in the world.  We were graciously welcomed to the downstairs family room, daylight basement if I remember correctly.  Rather long and narrow with many chairs on both sides.  There was a crowd of us and we found seats and conversed among ourselves.  Pretty soon John McDonald was asked to play his pipes which we all were hoping for.  

He got his pipes out, tuned the drones and soon was playing tunes of glory, marches, happy melodies.  It was a beautiful sound but loud.  Pipes are just that, loud.  No volume control.  Finally he started playing Piobaireachd, the classical old music of the pipes.  John was an amazing piper and the sound though loud was pure honey to the ears.  We all listened with great enjoyment--it still is one of the best times in my piping memory.  

There were several families there that had little toddlers--perhaps one or two years of age.  Wiggle worms who settled down when John started playing.  Somewhat near the end of the concert, for a concert it really was, someone asked John to play some was time for the wee ones to take a nap.  I was sure that the sound from those great Highland bagpipes would keep anyone awake, not put them to sleep.  But John dutifully went into lullabies with his pipes.  And I was surprised to watch the two little ones dutifully nod off and close their eyes.  Nap time had come.

You may be wondering why I started today's blog with this incident, however, John Dewey makes a point in his first chapter (Democracy and Education) that we as a society need to convey our knowledge, customs, values, and history to our young if our society is to continue and to continue to progress.  And we do this, Dewey contends, by indirect instruction and direct or formal instruction.  Those two wee ones in the basement of John McDonald's home were being given indirect instruction in the ways of a Scottish family in British Columbia. I wonder if they will always remember the beautiful sounds of those pipes putting them to sleep.  Indirect instruction.  I hope so as I would want this bit of culture to continue in our society.  John has since passed away--he was a grand piper.

I am beginning to be concerned about the swing in our thinking of education in the United States.  While there are still some who favor testing, measurements and firing all the teachers (a bit of my sarcasm), there seems to be a trend to moderation and a return to the more traditional concept of schooling.  My concern is that the pendulum will swing much the other way.  "Get rid of the new and go back to what was good in my grandfather's day."  "In my day....."  I offer three examples of my concern.

The first is Leigh A. Bortins' The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundatons of Classical Education.  The second book is Martha C. Nussbaum's Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities and my third example is Diane Ravitch's The Death and Life of the Great American School system: How Testing and Choices are undermining Education. I was appraised of these three (although I had already read Ravitch's book on my Kindle) tomes by Stanley Fish in the June 7th issue of the New York Times.  His article is entitled:  Classical Education: Back to the Future.  Mr. Fish writes of his classical education which included "four years of Latin, three years of French, two years of German, physics, chemistry, biology, algebra, geometry, calculus, trigonometry, English, history, civics...." and then he had French club, Latin club, German club, Science Club and on and on.  Dewey would consider the clubs indirect instruction while the other classes would be formal direct instruction.  What a combination.  I am envious of Mr. Fish's education.  I wish I had had that in my high school.

But my worry and indeed, I am good at worrying, is that we will toss out the baby with the bath water.  No, I'm not for saving the testing part but that we will not include some new stuff that is needed.  Such as:  keyboarding, computers including some programming (I dislike programming), television, and ethics in technology.  Actually the young in our society may be learning all of this indirectly but I feel formal instruction would not allow any of our young kids to fall through the net.  

So, here is another bit of thinking of what should we be teaching our children.  Sort of a cautionary tale of not going to far the other way.  I am still against all the testing that has gone on.  But I can also see the possibility of throwing out other items of value in our curriculum.  Be careful in your thinking.

To those teachers of Latin, French, German that I wish I had--thanks for your teaching of Stanley Fish.  He writes well.  And for all those teachers who haven't been thanked, listen carefully as I play a Lament for you on my pipes.