The Cart Before the Horse

Back in the eighth grade my English teacher loved all us brats and did her best to teach grammar.  She even saw the wisdom of forcing us wildcats to diagram sentences – a concept so useless and inane I thought at the time, that I could never imagined wanting to know or need.  Forty-five years later I finally go, “Damn, I wish I had paid attention.”

Tonight I started listening to The Elements of Style by Strunk and White on my evening walk and it made me remember all those painfully boring grammar lessons.  I wonder if I had started blogging in elementary school if I would have been a different person and actually wanted to learn what my English teacher was dishing out.

Now that I’m studying the history of physics I sure wish I had paid more attention in math class too.  Why has it taken so long to want to learn?  Now, don’t get me wrong, I wanted to learn back in 1965 – I just wanted to study science fiction, rock and roll and Estes rocketry.

I work at a College of Education and I hear a lot of talk about teaching.  I can’t believe anyone would want to be a teacher.  Lion taming would be easier.  I think my problem as a student was I had no reason to learn what they so desperately wished to shove into my noggin.  The whole system of teaching us ideas before we needed them was putting the cart before the horse.  Of course I understand they needed to stuff a certain amount of data into our brains as soon as possible but why didn’t they trick us into wanting to learn?

I’ve seen copies of my report cards for the first, second and third grades.  The big complaint was I was a daydreamer.  Jesus, what’s a little person to do when a big person is going blah, blah, blah, blah, blah for hours?  Hell, they didn’t even think I could read.  Between the third and fourth grade they even sent me to summer school to learn how to read.  I ended up in a cramped room with a few other kids and a bored old man (he could have been twenty-five or forty-five for all I knew).  He didn’t bother to teach me anything, but gave me a copy of Up Periscope, a book about submarine warfare.  Damn, I could read – all it took was something I wanted read.  I bet if you gave little boys, who hate to read. books about war and sex, they’d start reading.  Don’t underestimate the value of smut and violence on the young male mind, even second graders.

I wished I had been introduced to science and astronomy as a tiny kid.  I wish I had been introduced to boat building and plane building and car building too.  If teachers had given us projects that required me to figure things out so I’d end up asking “How do I do this?” – They could have replied, “Well kid, you need something called mathematics,” maybe I would have gotten the math bug.

I was just reading Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Death By Black Hole and he had a chapter about how much astronomy you could learn with a stick.  If some enterprising teacher would have taught me that when I was ten and the mathematics that went with it, maybe I would have calculated the size of the Earth on my own.  It’s one thing to tell a kid to memorize a fact and another thing to teach him how to discover the fact.  It’s hard to say, but I’ve got to wonder how different my educational years would have been.

Maybe I’m expecting too much.  The trouble with this educational pie-in-the-sky system is you have to customize it for every kid.  If one kid says he wants to build a plane and another kid says she wants to play the guitar and another says he wants to dissect a frog, how many teachers will you need?  Is it any wonder that home school kids often turn out better educated?

While walking and listening to the sage advice of William Strunk I couldn’t help but wonder if we should be encouraging little kids to blog.  Not every kid will want to, but those that do, wouldn’t it start them on the track of wanting to know how to write better?  How many activities that appeal to teens and grown-ups could be offered to kids that might inspire them to want to learn more?  I remember reading a story about a teacher that had his elementary class build a wooden boat.  Eventually that led to math and a lot of mechanical skills.

That eighth grade English teacher of mine did divert the course of my life, but maybe not in the way she expected.  She had one great trick.  She said anyone who read five books, five newspaper articles and five magazine articles and wrote a report on them each six-week grading period would get their grade raised by one letter.  That’s how I made up for not learning grammar and not having to take a C home but got to brag about a B instead.  She also had an approved reading list and Robert A. Heinlein was on it.  That little trick got me to reading hundreds of books.

Now that I’m writing for public consumption, I actually need to understand language and grammar.  Back in grade school one of the most embarrassing things around was if someone read your paper when it was handed back.  We did everything in the world not to have our words seen.  Today kids put their diaries on the world wide web – you’d think they’d be literary geniuses if they weren’t embarrassed to do that.  Today’s kids write more than ever for their peers to read.  Why hasn’t that encouraged them to write better?  I guess I just proved my assumption wrong – but maybe not.


3 thoughts on “The Cart Before the Horse”

  1. I’ve long held the belief that teens should not be in school. They should all be on individual programs that are focused on immediate ‘need-to-know’ issues. They should be out learning about the world – learning exactly how far their attitudes and lack of knowledge will get them in the world of work and how much money they’ll make without it all.

    I can’t blame them for not being interested. I don’t remember being much interested in school myself. I remember just beginning to be interested in some things as we learned about them but then the teacher decided we’d learned enough of that and never came back to it. It was frustrating, but we never disrespected the teachers.

    Once kids reach upper primary, they seem to have lost that never-ending curiosity of how things work and why things are the way they are and they seem to have dropped into an ‘I’m not gonna do it’ response to life. Maybe it’s because there’s so much happening in their bodies that they’re just barely treading water. Or maybe it’s because they’re brains are going through another massive restructuring. Who knows.

    What I do know after 27 years teaching them is that a significant proportion of teens don’t do as well as they should in the school system. When I was that age, I found a lot more to interest me in high school than I did in primary school – the academic side, I mean – as we seemed to spend a bit longer on each topic and delve a bit deeper, ask deeper questions. But there was a whole new social world opening up for me too that academia took a poor second place.

    About the only thing kids seem to learn in schools is social skills – and not even that well. Today I lost the battle with a child. He’s fourteen, perpetually grubby, always in the middle of whatever altercation is around and constantly sure that nothing he does or tries will make a difference to the way his life is. Today was his last day at my school. He’s moving to an island that has a small generally low socio-economic population and the nearest high school is over an hour by boat – the stats are not in his favour.

    Of course there are the exceptions. There are still kids out there who will hear a dry 60 minute lecture on the human resource manager’s role in industrial relations and still be able to ask, ‘but what if …?’.

    I’d love to be the teacher who inspires kids to learn, to question, to want to know and sometimes I do. Every few years, there’s a gem of a kid who simply can’t get enough information into their brains, whose enthusiasm for knowledge and life makes struggling with the others worthwhile. You never know when another interested kid will come along.

  2. I agree completely. I think after the sixth grade, starting with what used to be junior high, they should pass a law that says you can’t give a kid anything. No money, presents, etc. You can give them basic food and minimal clothing. And this would be for poor people to billionaires.

    Instead of starting back to school most would start work or apprenticeship programs – but not be placed in them. Again, it would be up to the kid to find a placement. For those kids who do show academic skills let them compete for scholarships to continue their education. All kids should be paid, but like a dollar an hour or even less, and even scholarship kids should get something too.

    If a kid didn’t make an effort to get a job, apprenticeship, or scholarship he or she would get zip. Now society would have to make plenty of places for them so with some effort every kid could find a position.

    Then after awhile tell working kids they can have time off for hour or two of classes in the late afternoon. If they pass they can continue to take the class, if they don’t, they can’t go back. As the kids get old offer more opportunities to get back into the academic track – but even then require earning a scholarship or making the kid pay for his classes.

    All classes should go at a steady fast pace and anyone that is disruptive or can’t keep up will be kicked out. Sure, you could have some classes for slightly slower learners, but there should be no babysitting.

    We have invented a tremendously expensive babysitting system. Not only that, but we keep pounding our heads trying to invent one system that works for all kinds of kids.

    Tell kids when they start kindergarten that if they study hard they might get to be academic type people. Other than that keep telling them they need to find out what they like to do and offer them opportunities to test out different kinds of activities. Really get into the science of predicting what a person will be skilled to do and also enjoy doing it.

    Also, instead of going to fun places on field trips, take the kids to see people working, and every year take the kids to see a prison or jail.

    I think if kids had to work for every coke or Wii cartridge they might find some drive within themselves.

    I think I mainly wasted my youth trying to avoid having to do anything. I didn’t settle down to business until I got married at twenty-five, and I was thirty-three when I finished college. Most of those school hours from 7th grade through early college years were wasted on me.

  3. I’m certainly in favor of taking more time to individualize education to the student. Having things tailored to the individual from a very young age would no doubt go a long way towards developing children who looked at school as a way to explore their interests rather than a place to have things crammed in their heads.

    I like the idea of doing something different with teenagers as well. I’m not anti-school, and I think things like drama and music can certainly be beneficial group activities that a school presents, as well as sports, but I think students spend too much time outside of those activities worrying about who they are/should be dating, how they measure up to others, etc. Taking them out of that closed in world might help break down some of this pressure to conform and to be like the ‘popular’ kids.

    It cost money to educate this way, but I cannot believe that a group of intelligent people could not sit down and devise a way for this sort of plan to work that would not only be effective, but would be fiscally possible. People can be-little homeschooling or privatized education all they want, but those programs have come a long way over the years. By and large they are networks of people trying to broaden the educational possibilities for their kids while trying to do so in a safer environment. The public schools need to take a cue from them and make some well past due changes.

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