Thursday, January 17, 2008

The Changing Education

A glimpse of the changing education was presented on the NBC Nightly News last night. There was a story about outsourcing tasks. Although the article was about how people have begun to outsource the way they live (I didn’t get too much nor did I understand this part), it spends a few moments showing how families and some schools are outsourcing the help children get in education.

Youngsters getting aid were using their computers on line with a help source in India for explanations they apparently weren’t getting from their teachers. Or from their parents. One youngster was getting help with algebra equations while another was getting some grammar assistance. It showed one classroom where students were on line getting help with the day’s assignments.

This is a far cry from the way I was taught so many years ago, and yes, before computers. I can remember working on similar algebra equations with teachers who not only understood them themselves but had both the training and the ability to teach me how to do them. There were no easy shortcuts but when we finished, most of us had how to solve the problems. There were a lot of my fellow students who didn’t like doing them, but certainly gave the tasks their best efforts.

I haven’t studied how to do mathematics since the 1950s. But because of the expectation of learning all through my schooling, I still find myself creating formulae to help me solve situations in which I find myself. We were not allowed to use aids such as calculators (I did learn how to use a slide rule while in high school.) until we could demonstrate the knowledge of addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and how to apply the principles to the math situations we faced.

I heard the argument that we now have these wonderful devices to help us; why not use them? We should and I do. I hate, however, to find myself in a position where a device either was not available or had broken down when I needed to solve a problem. It reminds me of an event I witnessed a few years ago at one of the local stores. I was in a checkout lane when a person in the next lane asked how much something was and then gave the young clerk a bill large enough to cover it. The clerk entered the size of the bill into her cash register when the customer said to wait a moment as she had the correct change portion of the price. The clerk actually broke out crying because she didn’t know how to handle the procedural situation. She had to call a manager for assistance. The clerk knew how to push the buttons on the register, read the total, and then subtract the total to the amount tendered. She had a device. When she had to make an adjustment without the device, she was at a loss. I felt sorry for her.

I’ve spend much time here on mathematics because that was the highlight of the news story I saw last night. But math certainly isn’t the only place education has changed. We also had to learn the rules of English and writing. I know where there are sentences, or fragments, here that have the rules errors in them in this blog. For example, there is one in the second paragraph. And in this paragraph there’s one sentence beginning with “but” and another with “and.” We learned in school so many years ago that’s a no-no. But we also learned that once we learned the rules, they could be “broken” if we knew what we were doing and why we were doing it. I recall a major paper I turned in to a college professor once that had some of these adjustments. I got the paper back, told to rewrite it, and footnote the errors and why they were used. That was done in the days long before word processors where I could have simply brought up the paper and made the changes. I had to retype the whole darn thing.

How important was learning the rules of English grammar and writing? We had this little test in our junior year in high school called “minimum essentials.” No matter what our grades were, we could not graduate from high school until that test was passed. Perhaps it was just we couldn’t move on to our senior year without passing it; but if that were the rule, the non-graduation part would be accurate as it took that senior year to get out.

In English we read the so-called classics of literature, literature that had remained throughout the ages because it generally taught a truth or a moral value. Is there a difference? Today, I understand, some classics are taught, but mostly students are reading literature that meets the needs of the teacher. For the most part, it is literature that will be long forgotten in the very near future.

Perhaps one of the most important classes I ever took, actually two years, was Latin. Is it still taught today? I hated every minute of those classes and the homework that went with them. In hindsight, though, I have a far greater insight into our language. And in those few times I run into a word I’m not familiar with (Oh, yes…of which I’m not familiar), I usually don’t have to turn to a dictionary because of my Latin.

We read the Constitution and by the time we left high school had in inkling of what it meant and why it was so important to our country. I suspect the Constitution isn’t even mentioned in today’s schools. We learned history through the documents of history, not through the revisionist documents of today. I not only could easily point out every state in the United States but also could point out virtually every nation in the world. I still can come very close to the world nations. The states have never left me, along with their capitols. I still can tell you many of the causes of our Civil War and most others, as well.

Oh, gosh, could I go on! Perhaps one day I’ll again break out into nostalgia in education. I’d love to have teachers and schools today once again hold their students responsible for learning. Oh! I’m off. I suspect there’s a good chance that one time in the future I’ll visit this again.