Friday, August 20, 2010

What Do You Need to Know?

My older son, who just started fifth grade, hates the fact that he has to re-memorize all of the "math facts" that he once knew, and demonstrate his knowledge on a series of timed tests. He has a pretty hard-core teacher this year, who will not leave the kids alone on this subject until they can pass addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division tests at a 75% passing rate, each one completed in three minutes (though they can start at seven minutes and work their way up). Why is the teacher doing this? Because, he says, without those tools the kids will not be able to do any of the higher-level math he's going to teach.

Read my previous post to see what happens when teachers take the opposite view.

There are interesting (though occasionally tedious) battles going on between the Core Knowledge folks, who insist that all children must know all things, and the P21 crowd, who want schools to focus more on skills and habits than on facts. Obviously, to those of us in the sane middle, neither extreme is true; what is needed is a blend of the two. But how does one blend them? And where does one draw the line? That's the tough question. What facts do you just, flat, need to know?

I think the fifth-grade example is instructive. There are certain basic tools that everyone needs, in order to perform more complex tasks. You can make the argument that not all adults need to have learned all of the complex tasks associated with every subject area--but every adult should have a grounding in the basic tools, just in case they need to look up and learn those complex tasks. And it's not enough to rely on a calculator or a spellchecker to perform those basic tasks, because unless we understand those basic tools, we won't really know how or when or why to use them when faced with more complex tasks or problems. This is why it's not okay to abandon basic numeracy and say, "I've got a calculator." You need the basic numeracy to know that, in this particular case, you'll need to divide this number by that number. You need to understand how math works. I would argue that our biggest problems in high school math--the vast numbers of students who cannot pass Algebra, even after multiple attempts--come from a lack of basic understanding of how numbers work. It's not that they don't understand the Algebra; it's that they don't understand anything.

It's no different in English. If you never learn the basic rules of grammar and syntax, you won't learn how to put sentences or paragraphs together effectively. If you don't understand how to put an argument together logically and coherently, you will not recognize when someone else has failed to do so. Why is our citizenry so profoundly susceptible to propaganda, smears, and appeals to emotion? Because we haven't trained them to recognize and resist such things. We haven't given them the tools.

Instead of starting at the bottom and listing the wide world of facts that students should or should not learn, we should start at the top. Forget about facts for a moment. What kinds of problems do adults need to be able to solve? Once you've listed some of those, then you go back to the facts. What facts and skills do adults need to have readily at hand--memorized and deeply understood--in order to be able to solve the kinds of problems that the world throws at them? I would argue that those facts and skills are the non-negotiables, the things that all students must learn, whether they go to college or not. Other facts can be looked up; other skills can be learned as needed, when needed.

The core curriculum should be a toolbox that we fill with the tools all children will need to be successful at the entry-level job they will eventually take on in the world, as adults.

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