Education Backwards

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September 29, 2012 by bradcharlesbeals

I’m at work, and I feel all backwards. I’m teaching subjects and verbs.

At home we use a classical curriculum with our kids, which means, in part, that we cover the big historical periods in cycles: we spend a year on each: ancients, medieval, through the 1800s, and 1900 to today. Every four years, we start the cycle over so that if we do home educate our kids all the way through, they’ll have seen each historical era three times.

But it’s not just a repetition of content. It’s a recursive return to the subject matter, meaning that they’ll not only recognize it but bring to it an entirely different mind and set of skills. Imagine a spiral on an upward trajectory. Anything that is learned well is learned repeatedly. We take it in as beginners, attempt to apply it, fail, come back to the learning with a new perspective, then start all over.

But each time (if teaching and learning are happening), the application of the new knowledge is more effective. It’s being handled by a different, older mind, resulting in higher achievement. Again, we go as far as we can with it, fail, and return to the learning to start again. This should be happening in the microcosm of a single lesson or unit and in the macro of a 12-year education. 

And while my public school colleagues are well-trained in the former, the public school bureaucratic machine has made the latter all but impossible. Worse than that–they’ve built a system so entrenched in old and humanistic dogma that they’re working directly against it. We’ve lost the long view on education, and that is what I perceive as one of public education’s greatest failures and biggest obstacles to meaningful reform.   

I spend much of my classroom time and energy teaching basic grammar–parts, that is. Parts of speech, parts of sentences, parts of paragraphs, and parts of essays. In pre-John Dewey days, these would have been handled in what was then called the “grammar” school, grades k-4. Those who chose to go on in their education would have been trained according to the dialectic method–question-and-answer driving curiosity and the innate desire to argue that inhabits every middle/junior high student. The high school years would then be for expression: the building of rhetorical skills, taking the parts and the pieces and the arguments and synthesizing them in increasingly sophisticated writing. This was the classical method: grammar, dialectic, rhetoric. 

But public (and most private) schools have flipped things around. Now students engage in expression during those first years when their minds are best suited for remembering parts. The middle years are more of the same, but here, as they’re becoming more curious about the workings of the world and more adept at broader meaning, and as subjects are becoming more specialized, the parts gets introduced (like seeing a ball, bat, and glove for the first time just as you’re being thrown into your first game. You’d learn how to play, eventually, but dang! that’s a backwards way to do it). Then in high school, just when their brains are finally ready to write and create and persuade and build sophisticated arguments, just when they’re ready to conquer the world, they’re asked to memorize things. Things like formulas and dates and (cue the gag reflex) parts of speech.

Yes, some of that is necessary. Memorizing things will always be a necessary part of any educational setting, but at the high school level it should be the smallest part. It should characterize only the earliest years of formal schooling, not years 14-18. That’s just backwards. And any high schooler could tell you that if he wasn’t so busy memorizing vocab.

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