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KISS Grammar's
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.

Open Letters
The Home School Advantages (to the NEA)
The Illiterate "Common Core Standards Initiative"
Assessable Standards -- Improving the Illiterate "Common Core"
Relevant Links
The following links lead to interesting presentations on education.
Changing 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 consumers. 
     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 Obama."

     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 video.

-Ed Vavra
The 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.
-Ed Vavra
The Life of the Public School Teacher, by jasmineblossom84 (YouTube)
I need to pass your class, by Rametap (YouTube)
Why Am I Failing English, by AnEnglishProfessor (YouTube)
 I 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 goes down.