The world is changing rapidly, but our educational system has not kept pace. Oh, it’s become politically correct. And it now teaches kids how to use condoms and such. But I don’t get the feeling that there has been a lot of overarching analysis as to how kids should be educated in the modern world. Let me ask a few of questions to get things started.
First, what role should the classics play in education today? Are the writings of dead white men, written hundreds of years ago relevant to the modern world? Certainly, classic political and mathematical texts will always be relevant. But what about works of fiction? The works of Shakespeare, for example, are lovely but they are so old, and their humor so based in his own time, that they need translation to even be understandable. Should the precious (and, it seems, ever-shrinking) class time be spent on such works.
Second, what role should standardized test play in education? In thinking about this, I’m reminded of Churchill’s comment that democracy is the worst form of government ever except for all the others. Standardized tests give a very limited view of what a student actually knows. Yet, for many purposes, they are better that any other alternative I can think of. I’m especially fond of the term “teach to the test.” If what is on the test is what we want our kids to know, what better way to encourage teachers to actually impart that knowledge to the kids than to require them to teach what will be on the test? Sure, teaching to the test is only effective if the test actually contains what we want our kids to learn, but can’t we define that body of knowledge well enough to give the tests value?
Third, in an earlier thread, someone commented on how teachers still have problems even though class sizes have shrunk. I must defend the teachers on this one. In many schools, the students are much more diverse than they were in my day. Many of them don’t speak English as their first language. A growing number have behavioral problems. And the most fundamental disciplinary tools have been taken away from the teachers. My teachers could handle a large number of students because (a) we all spoke English as a first language, (b) most of us came from families that valued education, and (c) if we did get up out of line, the teacher would put us back in line again with a paddling that would get today’s teachers fired, and (d) when we got home, most of us would have gotten paddled again if our teachers reported our problems to our parent. Even the best teachers have a much tougher job today than my teachers did.
What do you folks think of all of this? What ideas do you have for K-12 education in the 21st century?