All across America schools are desperately concerned with teaching what are often disturbingly referred to as "the 3 Rs" - Reading, Writing, and [A]rithmetic.
All across America teachers, administrators, parents, politicians from Obama to the Lunatic Right, are worried about whether children are learning to read - and to write - and to add and subtract.
And, all across America, this is wrong.
I was presenting at the CSUN Conference on Friday evening, and as I spoke, I realized that what I need to say first, every time, is that we are asking the wrong questions, we are focusing on the wrong things. And by focusing on the wrong things we have turned school into a self-defeating loop, which makes kids miserable and leaves our educational system a failure.
So, I need to begin here: If we define "reading" as interpreting little Roman alphabetical designs inked on to paper (or even "pixeled onto a screen), I don't care if kids learn to read. And if we define "writing" as learning to form those alphabetical codes with 19th and 20th Century "writing tools," I don't care if kids learn to write. And if we define "arithmetic" as memorizing "math facts" or filling a piece of paper with scribbling to divide one number into another, I really don't care if kids learn that at all.
In schools, we treat all of these skills as a "goal," and none of these should ever be a goal. Because when we treat these things as a "goal" we convince kids - and we convince them of this quickly - that all of these abilities are nothing but school chores, with no connection to their lives. And, in the incredibly short space of a couple of years, we take five-year-olds who are dying to come to school and turn them into eight-year-olds who'd rather be anyplace else. Eight-year-olds who hate "reading," who hate "writing," who really hate "math."
And that is a damn shame.
Let me say it this way: There is no reason, in and of itself, to "read." We read to access the information in written form. There is no reason, in and of itself, to "write." We write to distribute informationto others. There is no reason, in and of itself, to do "arithmetic." We manipulate numbers to help us understand and share a series of concepts we call mathematics.
And if kids want to access information, to distribute information, and to work with all the worlds which involve numbers (et al), they will have a reason to find a way - with our help - to make that work. But if we begin with the "chore first," we will have the schools we have right now.
Or, as I said Friday afternoon, "Reading is defined as getting information from a recorded source into your head, Writing is defined as getting information from your head into a form which others can access." And to which I might have added, "Arithmetic is defined as having a common system for sharing quantifiable data."
Reading matters because we want our students to have effective and efficient ways to access stories and information. Writing matters because we want our students to be creators and distributors of stories and information. Arithmetic matters because we want math concepts to be within the reach of our students. But you know what? How they get to these things, should matter a whole lot less to us.
For some kids alphabetic decoding will be a quick and efficient method of grabbing that information. For some kids, writing with a pen will be a great, fast way to get ideas down into recorded form. For some kids, writing numbers and/or remembering "the times table" will be a short route to manipulating numbers.
And for others, those routes will not work, or they will not work well enough to really give them access.
For all those kids, we need to find other routes to get them content, to get them involved, to get them excited, to get them communicating.
Which is all easy now. We have the technology, from Click-Speak to WYNN, from WordTalk to Windows7 Speech Recognition, from audiobooks to mp3 conversion, to switch to access systems that work. We can use calculators (free ones) and Word's Equation Editor. We can get kids in, connect them right now.
See, there's a reason US standardized test results collapse after fourth grade. Fourth grade tests simply ask kids to regurgitate the processes we've been banging into them for their first four years of school. They do that well enough. But the processes really don't connect to most on a functional level, so that when they take later content-driven evaluation tests, they fail, because they are not accessing the content. They only know how to "read" to "read." I see this all the time, quick, "fluent" readers who have no idea what they've just read, or why. Kids who form letters perfectly but who can't express themselves. Kids with memorized math facts but no ability to leap into algebra or beyond.
And that's stupid. I, for example, have read James Joyce's Ulysses five times. Yes, five times. I can argue with the best of "'em" on this literary classic. But I have never even held an ink on paper version. I have read the book on cassette (or something like 64 cassettes) twice, on CD, and twice with WYNN the digital literacy system. Likewise I have read hundreds of books from The Great Gatsby to Frankenstein to really boring textbooks without ever "decoding" a single alphabetic word.
I have written two books with substantial parts of both dictated via speech recognition. I have done really well in structural engineering classes without being able to subtract on paper well enough to keep track of a checkbook. I blog and tweet to the world without beingable to write about half of the alphabet legibly, unless I am copying already printed text.
So please, when your kids have trouble with the "skills" of school, offer them the way around, the path to the "why." Give them a digital reading system and let them access what's of interest to them. Turn on the speech recognition in windows and let them communicate with the world. Give them a simple way to create math symbols and perform calculations, and allow them to see what math can mean.
These "skills" are not "ends." They are "means." And we should be opening the world to our students by any means possible.
- Ira Socol