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Friday, June 20, 2008

Blog Blast for Education: It just starts with the "three R's"

No matter what the subject matter or curriculum, I think that education should have one overriding aim - preparing individuals to be functional, contributing members of a civil society. We may want more from our schools than that, but at the root, that's what I believe their purpose is.

The name of this blog was, of course, inspired by the traditional "three R's" of "reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic," once considered the sum of an education. These days, we know that they're the fundamental building blocks of an education, but not an end in themselves. Getting "back to basics" is important, but it's important not to stop with the basics either - as I said, they're building blocks, necessary skills for acquiring further knowledge, which I'd like to call "life literacy." When it comes to the tools one needs for getting around in the world today, I think it's important to have the toolbox well-stocked.

Reading and writing are expressed as separate skills in the traditional definition, but I think they're much too closely related to be split up like that. Reading is a necessary precursor to written expression - without it, how would you know what you're saying? Reading is learning that skill in using language is essential to understanding, and to making oneself understood.

The ability to read is at the bedrock of almost all other learning, but only in part because most teaching materials are in print. Reading is so much more than being able to recognize the letters, seeing how they are put together to make words, and building a vocabulary; it's taking meaning away from those combinations, and grasping the ideas they're intending to convey when they're used together in certain ways. Reading doesn't stop there, either, since ideas aren't conveyed only in words; symbols and pictures are also part of language, and we need to learn how they're used, and to use them, too. Additionally, one variation of reading that really isn't taught enough concerns the nuances of interpersonal communication, such as tone of voice and body language, as well as listening skills. Life literacy makes use of all of this.

Numbers are among the most critical and useful symbols we need to learn to understand and use. While the basic "arithmetic" concepts - counting, adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, fractions - need to be mastered in order to progress to more advanced ideas, at a practical level many people won't use much more than those skills on a daily basis. (One needs a far more advanced and specialized knowledge base to make daily use of calculus, to be honest.) However, these concepts are among our earliest formal exposure to problem-solving situations, and the skills developed from there are essential to life literacy. Also essential and numbers-based: financial literacy, otherwise known as "how to handle your money."

Being able to read opens the door to all the subject-specific learning that we generally think of as "education," or knowing about the world and how it works. Most of that falls into one of two broad categories: natural or social sciences. Natural sciences are the mechanics of things - chemistry, physics, biology. They consider how things are made, how they function, and how they came to be that way. The social sciences are concerned with humans as individuals and in community - history, geography, sociology, psychology, music and art, and almost any variety of "cultural studies" one could name.

Some of what both varieties of science encompass has been objectively proven or is supported by facts, but much of it hasn't been yet or may never be - but education's function should be to present all sides, and an educated person should be able to accept ambiguity. Education doesn't really come down to knowing all the answers; it's more about exploring the questions, which may have many possible answers. The life-literacy skills come into play in making sense of them all, and when we can do that, we're the functioning, contributing members of society that education has, ideally, prepared us to be.

So often education falls short of that ideal, though. When it gets caught up in the details of what schools should or shouldn't teach (let alone how they can afford to do any of it), or to whom they should teach it, or of whether public, private, or home schools teach it best, the larger aim and the root purpose of it - which ultimately are the same - tend to get lost. Those details matter too, though, and other participants in the Blog Blast for Education are talking about some of them, and about their ideas and visions for education, on their blogs today, so please go check them out!

6 comments:

  1. Education is our most powerful tool, and it should be much easier than this. To read and write has been my greatest asset in life. I don't know how I'd get through a day without the ability to do both!
    And, okay, math is important, too :)

    Thanks for participating!

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  2. It's true that it's next to impossible to separate reading from writing. Sadly, it seems to me, most students (at least at the college level where I have personal experience) don't get enough of either.

    Back to the basics? Yeah, I'm not seeing that in the college undergrads in my classes. They don't know how to write any better than my 15 year old brother. In fact, when they do write they write in "txt spk". Drives me batty!!!

    I also see a complete disdain for literature and history from any student in the sciences. "I don't need this for my major, why should I care?" Reading and writing should be formally in place throughout schooling.

    What ever happened to grammar classes?

    Sorry, this was a bit of a rant. Great post.

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  3. I am constantly telling my students that I don't expect them to love literature like I do but by the end of the semester I expect them to have learned how to read --critically and analytically. I don't care if they never take another English class. I want to give them something that they will be able to use no matter what career path they choose.

    To address their, "I won't ever need this," I try to go around the class at the beginning of the semester, ask them what their major is and then tell them how learning to read and write well will help them in that major.

    This is an excellent post. I may just have my students read it this fall.

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  4. I LOVE that you mention finanicial literacy! That is so important especially with the way credit card companies prey upon college kids.

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  5. I agree so much with these being bulding blocks, not a permanent foundatiion. Without the ability to read AND comprehend, kids are sunk.

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  6. April - Thanks for organizing the Blog Blast and giving us the chance to delve into such an important topic!
    (And yeah, sorry, we do need the math too :-).)

    Cablegirl - I think grammar classes are one of the "basics" we really DO need to get back to, and the sooner the better. The things I find that reasonably intelligent people don't know about how to express themselves in their own language floor me sometimes.

    Dingo - If you really find this worth sharing with your students in the fall, I'm very flattered! I was a business major, and I completely back you up; reading and writing ability are essential no matter what one's major or career are.

    LunaNik - I'm an accountant. I had to mention financial literacy :-)!

    Kori - Exactly. What matters is integrating those building blocks into everything else kids will learn.

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