Friday, July 16, 2010

What Is The First Thing We Should Teach In A School?

Following John Dewey's thinking about how we transfer knowledge from one generation to another--from the older to the young, we might start at the very beginning and examine what should we teach our children?  Let's fantasy play like they do in sports.  Let's say you have five six year olds who have never had any schooling.  Perhaps you are home schooling for the neighborhood or maybe you're a teacher in a remote school somewheres.  Where do you start?

What should we teach our children first?  Reading comes to mind because with the knowledge of how to read one can then learn about other subjects.  I could teach farming or fishing but once learned we come to a stopping point.  We could learn music or painting but the same thing happens.  Once we achieve success in THAT subject we find our way stymied in other areas.  Arithmetic could be a beginning subject and lord knows one could study mathematics for years, but reading is a part of arithmetic as well so we're back to reading an the initial subject.  As a society we use reading as the tool to learn other subjects.  So how do we start to teach reading?

I would suspect most trained teachers would gather the flock around her and then would read a story.  Any childrens' story would do that has pictures.  I would hope that these five children have been read to at home by their parents or siblings.  But never-the-less,  the teacher needs to establish a reason for learning.  Why learn to read?  Perhaps to enjoy other books like the teacher just read, to be able to emulate the teacher, to feel smart.

Reading is primarily a cognitive objective (do you remember my discussion of the three types of objectives in learning?).  At first it is a skill to recognize those strange shapes called "letters."  But then the skill is to put those letters together to form "words."  And from words come sentences and from sentences comes paragraphs.  There are psycho-motor skills in reading--knowing how to hold a book, or be able to make our eyes go back to the beginning of the next sentence.  And there are affective objectives as well that one has to acquire--the feeling of satisfaction of completing a story or finding the right sign while traveling.  "I got it!"

There was a private school in Bellevue (Washington) that use to hire only teachers who could speak not only English but another language as well and that fifty percent of the students' learning had to be in that other language.  So one day one might teaching reading in English and the next day in French.  I've always wonder how that worked out.  The school maintained very small classes, ten to fifteen students per class so it might have worked out well.

I also wonder about learning to read on computer screens.  Have today's children who have had the advantage of computers in the home become faster learners?  I would love to study this some more.

Here is another interesting facet of learning how to read.  Let's take the letter "T".  Or the letter "t".  Or the letter "t". Or the letter "T".  My point being that the beginning learner has to understand (cognition) that the letter "T" comes in different sizes and shapes.  Have you ever seen a small child who suddenly understands this concept?  Oh my what a delight.  Then they want to point out every letter that is the same and different.  It is a beautiful thing to behold.....watching a child learn something.  This is what teachers live for.  And in the teacher's mind, she/he is already selecting the next objective needed in that learning sequence.  And we want to move that learning from "immediate memory" to "long term memory."  So we start...  "Do you remember what we learned yesterday?  Who can find a letter "T" on this page?"  And we move on.  Such little baby steps of learning until we reach the giant steps of Plato and Dewey.

So do we agree that learning to read should be among the first things we teach our children?   It is a good start.

And thanks to all those reading teachers who started so many of us on the exciting world of knowledge.  You have much patience and deserve our thanks.