Obama's Secretary of Education
Bill Long 12/6/08
First, Teach Them To Learn
In his column yesterday in the NY Times, David Brooks brought his readers into a seething debate inside the future Obama Administration--whether to appoint an education secretary who is favored by teacher unions or one who has a track record and commitment to newer educational ideas--such as merit pay, charter schools and teacher accountability. This is the way that the "education debate" has been framed in the last 20 years in our culture, and now it sits right on the desk of the President-elect. Yet, as I read about it the debate, I had the distinct feeling that the major product with which education has to do--learning or knowledge--is going to be the big loser in all of this. Why? Because none of the discussion over a secretary's appointment shows any concern for how students learn and how properly to identify and then to maximize the love and mastery of subject matters. This essay probes what I think should be the real education agenda in America for the next four years...
Let me begin with a story. In the past two months I have connected with two people in the education arena--one a former student (now a middle school principal in the East) and one an elementary school principal in the Midwest. Both of them have deep concerns for "underachievers" or those for whom the current educational system doesn't "work." In both cases these men describe the problem similarly--their students lack the ability to wrap their minds around words and, thus, around the concepts to which words point. Because of this lack, they tell me, the students are unable to make progress in more advanced issues--simply because they get "lost" in the process. Their student body is one to three years "behind" their peers in word/concept mastery.
These two paragraphs set the stage for my three points on educational reform.
I. Beginning with Words
True learning, or learning that "sticks," takes as its fundamental point that words, individual words, are the basic bricks, or building blocks, of learning. Thus, much time should be spent on making sure that children/students associate a particular word with a particular object or concept. This is far different that having "vocabulary" tests or having students read a book and then learn a "glossary" of terms from it. However useful those exercises are, what I am getting at here is that words be mastered so that people actually associate real live things with the word. If we learn "mango," bring in a mango; "tuille" fabric, then bring in the fabric and let the students feel, smell, wrap themselves in it. Latin or Greek-derived words should be chosen with special emphasis on the "stories" or "pictures" that the words create, or the way that the words open windows into myths, stories, buildings (art historical terms) or other monuments. Care needs to be taken to make sure that individual words are learned and associated with very visible things in our world.
II. Useful Phrases
Meaning comes in chunks, as well as in individual words. Chunks of words (phrases, clauses, sentences) also allow the painting of pictures that fire the imagination. Thus, the school or teacher should have perhaps 100 phrases at the ready, or short quotations at the ready, which can be learned by students. Perhaps 10 of them are ancient proverbs; perhaps five are foreign sayings; perhaps 20 are derived from James Joyce or DH Lawrence or someone else who writes memorable lines. But have students learn these arresting phrases so that they, too, will see that the building of language is a bit of a game or a challenge for them. Make sure that they understand these phrases, and give them extra credit if they come back the next day and report how they used the phrase in the intervening time.
III. Building "Out" From The Individual Words
This step involves taking the word that they have learned in "I" and learning a whole lot more about it. Perhaps they will learn the word sauterelle (butterfly). Then they will learn about the drawing Picasso made which he entitled Sauterelle; they can learn about butterflies; the Linnaean classification system; new colors, etc. There are so many ways that knowledge can be built, but the key is that you have to begin with one clear concept. If the basic idea isn't crystalline to the learner, not only will the next step not be clear, but the student will lose enthusiasm for learning. We lose our eagerness to learn when connections haven't been made for us.
My approach to learning is that almost all people want to learn but they need to be helped to get over some basic hurdles or need to be given some fundamental/basic direction as to how to get started in their quest. Once you show them how to do these three steps, you will be amazed. Not only will students learn the things they are assigned, but they will be provided a method to begin to learn about other things. Sooner or later, they not only will know all the words they are supposed to know, but they will be performing well above grade level. Is this a dream? Perhaps, but so was Pilgrim's Progress...