Open Letters on Education
by Dr. Ed Vavra
As I have often said in relation
to KISS Grammar, I really appreciate the interest and support that KISS
is receiving from homeschoolers, but my main objective is to change the
way in which grammar is taught in our public schools. That will be extremely
difficult to do, primarily because, in spite of all the talk about standards,
there is very little sequencing in the public school curriculum. As a simply
example, one year, homeschoolers can use KISS Level One to teach their
children how to identify subjects, verbs, and prepositional phrases. In
the next year, they can build on what their children already know about
these three constructions to teach their children how to identify and intelligently
discuss clauses. No such "building" is possible in our public schools.
In other words, our public schools cannot teach a basic concept and then
expand on it to develop "understanding." Instead, our school systems leave
most of our students with decaying deposits of unrelated facts.
I am not, of course, the only one who makes
this complaint. In The Unschooled Mind, for example, Howard Gardner
argues that "understanding," not just "facts," should be the ultimate objective
of our educational system. The "Books
Reviews from KISS Grammar" include reviews of other works that make
similar arguments. That still leaves me with the question, "What can I
do both about the problem in general, and, more specifically, about publicizing
a better approach to teaching grammar?" Developing the KISS site itself
has taken, and will continue to take, a huge amount of time. I'm working
on a "trade" book about the teaching of grammar, but even finding an agent
for it is taking dozens of hours. I've considered writing articles for
newspapers and magazines, but that process is slow and unsure. Most publications
want submissions submitted only to them, and they make take months before
they decide to publish--or reject.
I have therefore decided to try what I call
"Open Letters." I intend to send the following to the person addressed,
and/or to a variety of organizations and publications. With that understanding,
they are welcome to consider them, publish them, or write about the questions
addressed in them.
If you find any of them interesting and
want to help, you are more than welcome to send them to as many people
or organizations as you wish--your local newspaper, other publications,
educational groups or organizations, school boards, legislators, etc.
|The Home School Advantages (to the NEA)
|The Illiterate "Common Core Standards Initiative"
|Assessable Standards -- Improving the Illiterate "Common Core"
The following links lead to interesting presentations on education.
Education Paradigms, by Sir Ken Robinson, (YouTube)
| This video critique of modern education
makes numerous important points. Sir Robinson argues that current education
is based on looking backwards. We do what we have been doing, usually without
seriously questioning it. His objections to standardized testing are relevant,
but I would argue that the problem is not the testing itself, but rather
that the extent and the vague subjectivity of the proposed teaching and
testing are the real problems.
Sir Robinson points out that we have been
basing education on previous historical economic situations, and he argues
for "art" as an intellectual aid--a more important way of perception. I
would extend his argument to the economic and social. I have lately been
having my students read Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward. In Bellamy's
utopia, almost everyone retires at age 45. My students, who have been trained
to think of education as leading to a "job," shocked me with their objection--"What
will people do after they retire?" In other words, these students appear
to have little sense of personal development in the world of ideas or of
art. They also have little sense of history.
What they do not understand--what most
people today do not understand--is that we are living in a major economic
turning point in history. For most of history, mankind's major need was
for more material goods--food, clothing, shelter. Technology and industrialization
have changed that. The question is complex, but almost everyone in the
United States can now easily buy more food, clothing, and other material
goods than they need. Even housing is easily available. The problem
is not a lack of goods, but a lack of jobs. People without jobs don't have
the money to rent or buy a house.
But where will jobs come from? Very simply,
they are going to come from the arts! People who do have money are going
to buy paintings by local artists and crafts and home decorations made
by local artisans. They are going to support local musicians and local
theater productions. To some extent, we can already see this happening.
But for it to grow, more people are going to need better education in the
arts both to make them better producers, and to make them more interested
Note however, that as usual our educational
system is looking backward. In the current budget crunches, school systems
are deleting courses in art and music! To quote Peter, Paul , and Mary,
"When will they ever learn?"
I would extend "art" to literature, history,
and all the social sciences. Current political debate in the United States
is so radically divisive because both sides fight with meaningless slogans.
Our educational system has done a terrible job of teaching people how to
evaluate these slogans and to ask for and evaluate the arguments behind
them. (For more on this, see the "Open Letter to President
Much more in this video could be emphasized--schools
as "factory lines," classes based on age, etc. Two points, however, I want
to relate directly to KISS Grammar. Sir Robinson notes the "boring stuff"
in most current education. As many users of KISS Grammar have noted, it
is not boring because, instead of a collection of useless definitions,
KISS enables students to understand how language works to convey meaning--including
their own minds. It also begins with basic constructions so that students
can easily see how much they already understand.
My second final point is Sir Robinson's excellent
explanation of "divergent thinking." As he notes, our schools train students
to the belief that there is always only one "right answer"--the one in
the back of the book. But as he beautifully explains, divergent thinking
(which we were all masters of before we were "educated") is often better
and more fruitful. Some users of KISS have questioned the KISS openness
to "alternative" (divergent) explanations. I can now direct them to this
Empathic Civilisation, by Jeremy Rifkin (YouTube)
| Rifkin claims that humans have "mirror
neurons" that slant us toward a sense of "empathy." Like Sir
Robinson, Rifkin argues for working together, but Rifkin's argument
is global. What interests me are the implications of Rifkin's presentation
for the huge educational debates about competition, collective learning,
and "standards." Over the years (far too many of them now), I have seen
many teachers and other educators bristle at the very idea of "competition"
and/or "standards." The problem, I would suggest, lies in our ideas of
"competition," "standards," and "intelligence."
To begin, we should not equate high scores on
standardized tests with higher intelligence. As Sir
Robinson and Howard
Gardner (among many others) have suggested, intelligence, smartness,
or whatever else one wants to call it is a very complex question. High
scores on current standardized tests simply reflect achievement in a vaguely
defined area of skills and knowledge. They certainly do not reflect what
students have learned in school.
You can check this out by looking at the
standards of individual states or the "Common Core." For more on this,
see "The KISS Approach to Standards
and Assessment." My point here is that educational standards and assessment
should accurately reflect what teachers can teach and students can learn
in the classroom.
If they did so, the very idea of
educational competition would change. Instead of competing against each
other in a vaguely defined race, students would be "competing" against
a clearly defined set of skills and knowledge. High scores would mean that
the students have mastered a clearly defined set of knowledge and skills,
a set that every parent and member of the public could understand. Under
these circumstances, collective (or cooperative) learning would be a great
idea. Students would quickly learn that by helping their classmates, they
are improving their own understanding.
Rifkin's argument for "empathy," I would
suggest, supports this idea.
As an afternote--I was again shocked by
my students' reaction to reading Bellamy's Looking Backward. Bellamy's
Christian Socialist uptopia assumes a degree of altruism among all people.
The number of my students who could not see any reason for any degree of
altruism shocked me. The Biblical message about loving thy neighbor
is apparently being lost.
Life of the Public School Teacher, by jasmineblossom84 (YouTube)
need to pass your class, by Rametap (YouTube)
Am I Failing English, by AnEnglishProfessor (YouTube)
am worried about my grade, by superamyable (YouTube)
| There are more of these on YouTube,
and some people may find them a bit crass, but they do suggest a major
problem in education. They are primarily about college, but I'm sure that
many middle and high school teachers have had similar experiences. As Richard
Arum and Josipa Roksa have shown in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning
on College Campuses (The University of Chicago Press, 2011), on average,
students are spending less and less time on their studies, but they still
expect good grades. As the cost of college goes up, the students' responsibility