Monday, July 7, 2008

Lessons for children (and the rest of us)

Although children’s literature is marketed to children, we can learn a lot about the history of American education from children’s novels.

In Mary Emma and Company by Ralph Moody, 12-year-old Ralph’s family moves in the 1910s from the Colorado frontier of one-room school houses to the public school system of Boston. He has to take a placement test so the principal knows in which class to place him.

The principle asks, “What is the result of twelve times twelve, divided by thirteen, times five, divided by three?” Ralph responds, “I got along all right until I came to fifty-five and five-thirteenths, then I got a little bit mixed up in trying to divide it by three … I got mixed up when I got into the thirteenths…”

And so, Ralph was placed in seventh grade. How many of today’s adults can hold that many numbers in their head? Yet it was commonly expected of all children, as evidenced by Ray’s Higher Arithmetic (1880), which was the standard math text at that time.

Modern American students are no longer required to memorize how to divide by four let alone by thirteenths in their heads. Everyday Math, a popular math curriculum for elementary students, says learning math algorithms is no longer necessary due to calculators.

Training brains to retain massive amounts of information is no longer deemed important. The connection between training the brain like any other muscle, through rigorous repetition, and the ability to think deeply and well has been severed.

A post by Jim Horn on Schools Matter (July 6, 2008) complains that proposed charter schools offer “a Spartan diet of behavior modification with their boiled reading and math.” He protests “the cognitive decapitation on which these schools build their mindless parrot learning programs.”

And while some of his criticisms may be founded, how can students consider new ideas, be creative, or rise above their circumstances if they are never taught good manners (behavior modification) or how to store, process, and use information (mindless parrot learning of boiled reading and math)?

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