I’m not a teacher. I have absolutely no affiliation to the educational system at all, unless you count the fact that I have a couple of cousins and a couple of friends who happen to be teachers. I have not taken part in any studies, or done any of my own, though I have read a fair few. I don’t know what it’s like to be on the business side of the system, and honestly, I don’t care to. For the most part I am simply a woman who went through the educational system as a kid, and now has a child who will eventually be going through that same educational system. I just wanted to clarify that because what will follow are opinions; some of them are backed up by information I have read at one point or another, but mostly they are just opinions based on what I went through, and what I happen to know is occurring in our schools right now. Feel free to disagree with my points because, again, I am not a teacher, and I am not affiliated with the educational system in any meaningful way.
And with that out of the way, these are a few things that I think North American schools should seriously consider changing.
Start Paying Attention to Spelling and Grammar Again
This may not be a problem everywhere in North America, but it has come to my attention through several teachers I know that the education system concerning itself with such little things as spelling and grammar has become a thing of the past. While these two subjects are still technically taught, they are not graded in any way. My friends tell me that all that is important anymore is the intent of the words written. One friend in particular told me that she could get an essay with every last word spelled incorrectly and not a single piece of punctuation anywhere on the thing, but if she can understand what the student is trying to say and the topic of the essay is sound, she has to give them perfect marks. They cannot take away points for a complete inability to properly use the English language.
The reasoning behind this one is essentially that spelling and grammar are all but unnecessary these days because almost all of the writing we do is on computers or handheld devices, and that technology allows us to “spell check” at any point we so choose. Therefore, the experts say, time and energy spent drilling proper written language skills into our kids’ heads is time wasted…they can always just get the computer or their smartphone to fix all the errors for them. In a way I agree somewhat…that time could probably be better spent on other topics. But there’s a problem in that logic, namely the fact that spell checkers are far from foolproof. I know tons of people who had spelling forced down their throats as kids who still don’t know the difference between there, their, and they’re, or the proper use of then and than, or how to use commas to properly show a list of items, and now we’re not even bothering to try to get kids to learn these things? Spell check is a great thing, but it doesn’t help you determine which homonym you meant to use, and auto-correct will often give you a completely different word from the one you intended to use. This refusal to spend time on spelling and grammar is going to result in generations of young people sending out resumes that make them look like they’ve never attended a day of grade school in their lives.
I’m not saying that spelling and grammar should take up a huge amount of the grade of an essay or other written work, but it should definitely count for something.
A Lot More Tests Should Be Open Book
Let’s be perfectly honest here. Memorization means nothing. Memorizing a bunch of facts and figures so that you can regurgitate them on a test proves only one thing: that you have a halfway decent memory. It doesn’t prove your ability to comprehend the material, use it properly, or locate it when necessary. It is my genuine belief that our kids would be much better off being taught how to find information rather than how to stuff it in their heads just long enough to spew it back out onto an exam paper. Think about it; do you rely on your memory when dealing with your job? Maybe to some extent you do, when you’re doing something that you’ve done over and over a thousand times, but do you honestly rely on what you think you remember from school when such an opportunity arises? No, you don’t, because you don’t want to make a stupid mistake based on what you believe you may remember from goodness-knows-how-long-ago. Can you imagine if a doctor performed a surgery that they’d never done before based on what they remembered from med school that, oh by the way, they graduated from over a decade ago? You wouldn’t feel too comfortable about that, would you?
No, it’s my opinion that in this day and age, when there are literally a million different ways that you can type something into Google to find the answer to a question, our kids would be much better served being taught how to locate information and determine whether it is accurate information, rather than memorizing it just long enough to not have to think about it again until their kids are learning it.
The Way We Teach Math Should be Seriously Reconsidered
Math is an excellent skill to have, don’t get me wrong on that, and I’m a huge advocate of kids having things like the multiplication tables drilled into their heads so that they can do quick math on a moment’s notice (have you ever tried calculating a tip or figuring out how much your grocery order is going to cost with tax and just made your own head hurt?). However, here’s the thing. Back when I was in school it was very common for teachers to refuse to let students use calculators, all while spewing the sentence: “You have to learn to do this manually because you’re not always going to have a calculator in your pocket all the time.” Sound familiar? I’m certain that every student for decades heard that sentence thrown back at them, and yet now we know it to be false. How many people in this day and age don’t have a cell phone with them most of the time? Even super-old cell phones have a calculator function, so yeah, we really do have a calculator in our pocket at all times these days. That’s not to say that I think kids should just stop learning math because they don’t really need to know how to do it, but how often in the work world do you think people rely wholly on their own mathematical prowess? If your job relies on calculations, are you really going to trust your ability to work those calculations out on your own? Do you think that chemists, architects, and rocket scientists work without a calculator? Not if they want to keep their jobs for very long, they don’t.
No, I do believe that kids should have to learn the methods, but I think they should spend less time laboring over question after question and spend more time learning the proper use of computing devices. They should be able to do the basics, but when it comes to advanced mathematics they should know how to properly use a computer, calculator, or whatever ever devices they may require to come to the desired conclusion. We definitely want our kids to know enough math to be able to look at the result they got using a calculator and think, “That doesn’t look right” (because technology is not flawless either), but yes, I think we should be teaching them to use calculators in the first place because I don’t know about you but I don’t want the people running our nuclear power plants to be working out all their numbers by hand on paper.
“Split” Classes Should Not Be a Thing…Ever
Split classes probably don’t exist everywhere, but they’ve popped up in my neck of the woods in past years so I’m going to explain. Say, for example (I’m just grabbing numbers out of the air here) that the school board has decided that there can be a maximum of 30 kids in one class with one teacher. Now say that this year we have 40 first grade students and 40 preschool students. Instead of splitting the numbers evenly and having two first grade classes and two preschool classes with 20 students in each, what happens instead is that they do “split” classes. That means that they have one first grade class with 30 students, one preschool class with 30 students, and one first grade/preschool split class with 20 students…half of them trying to learn first grade material and half of them trying to learn preschool material with one teacher.
I understand that there’s a financial aspect to this and that when we’re talking about budget it’s better to have three classes with three teachers than four classes with four teachers teaching the same number of children, but it’s my belief that this is an extraordinarily terrible set-up for the children. For one thing you have one teacher trying to focus two different curriculum into one, which means that someone is losing out somewhere: either the older kids are leaning less for their age group or the younger kids are having more advanced information forced on them. For another thing, you have the age gap between classmates which isn’t necessarily a good thing when it comes to social interaction. For example, my daughter is going to be one of the youngest kids in her class when she starts school because her birthday is just barely before the cut-off point. Other kids will be the oldest kids in their classes because their birthdays come right after the cut-off and therefore have to wait until the following year to start school. That means that it’s entirely possible (and likely) that my daughter could be starting school at 5 years old, and have 7-year-olds in her class with her. At certain points that age gap wouldn’t mean a lot, but there are definitely points at which I personally believe it makes a huge difference. There’s a heck of a difference in maturity levels between a 5-year-old and a 7-year old, and I’m not sure that I would feel comfortable with those two age-groups mixing on a social level. My daughter and her cousin are about a year and a half apart, and while they get along and love each other, I couldn’t fathom having them in the same class at school, being taught the same material and having the same expectations imposed upon them.
Split classes are often toted as being aimed toward advancing kids who are already a little advanced – in other words, put the smartest kids in the split class and they’ll get to learn more material sooner – but personally I think it’s nothing more than a way to save money and is almost definitely doing damage to at least some of those kids. It’s one thing to skip a grade because you and your parents and your teacher discussed it and decided that you’re too advanced for the material that you’re currently being taught, but it’s an entirely different thing to be forced into more advanced material – along with having to learn to deal with a different age group of children being in the same room as you all day every day – just because you happen to be in the upper percentile of the kids that you just happened to start school with.
LET KIDS FAIL
Look, I don’t want to see kids suffer. If there’s a kid who, for instance, just doesn’t get math no matter how hard he tries, I don’t want to see him punished for that, because some kids just don’t mesh with some subjects. By all means, take that kid and work out a special math program for him so that he can still work through the system and move along while working on subjects that he is able to understand.
However, I can’t tell you how much I hate this “no child left behind” concept. I’m certain that someone could quote lots of psychological pros for having a schooling system in which children can never fail, the same way that someone decided it would be a great idea to take the ball away from kids playing soccer so that there’s no way anyone can lose. Regardless of your feelings on this system, here’s the problem with the overall thing: those kids – the ones who have been pushed through their education for a dozen years and have never had to deal with any kind of consequences based on their own effort or lack thereof – are eventually going to find out that the real world doesn’t give two shakes of a rat’s tail about their delicate emotions. When you spend twelve years showing a child that they’ll still move on regardless of how much or how little work they do, they’re going to learn to do as little work as possible to get by. And then when those kids hit the real world, the real world hits back…hard. College professors couldn’t care less about a student’s feelings; they aren’t going to allow them to pass a course just to make sure they continue to feel good about themselves. Employers aren’t going to give a damn about participation awards or what great self-esteem a person has; they will fire employees who refuse to put in a full day of honest-to-goodness work and they won’t think twice about how that firing will affect their ex-employee’s psyche.
By taking away any chance for a child to fail, we’re creating generations of young people who genuinely believe that the world is going to be handed to them on a silver platter, and can’t handle it when that doesn’t happen. By avoiding having to teach kids about what it means to lose, we’re telling them that they don’t ever actually have to try. By insisting that every kid is equally capable in all things, we’re taking wave after wave of kids and building them up for enormous disappointments later on in life. And here’s the thing… When kids are still young, we can teach them to deal with disappointment, to understand that not everyone can be good at everything, and that you have to put in hard work if you want to succeed; but if you teach them the opposite of all that for the first nineteen years of their lives, how are they supposed to handle the disappointment then, when they can’t get a job and they’re stuck living in their parents’ basement and they have absolutely nothing going for them at all? If you were told your entire life that you were the strongest person in the world, how would you feel when you finally went out into the world and the first person you came across punched you right in the nose and knocked you the hell out?
It sucks seeing kids fail, it really does, and I’m a big believer in that the educational system is not adequate for every child. But pushing a child through school even if they refuse to put in the effort to try and learn is akin to paying a mechanic to take the wheels off your car and then refuse to put them back on. The only beneficiary is the child’s sense of entitlement, and lord knows we already have enough engorged senses of entitlement floating around the world these days.