Because of my field of work and my family background, on my blog I have tended to focus more on the last of The Three R's, but I actually appreciate all three to a great degree. In fact, it's hard for me to say whether reading, writing, or arithmetic is most endeared to me. Certainly I spend more time in raptures over mathematics, but really I can't imagine my life without any of the three.
I've always found it amusing that only one of the Three R's actually begins with the letter "R", at least when written using Standard American English spelling, which I guess is something that cannot be assumed nowadays. The relativism that has permeated our culture in the past half a century has affected even the way we read, write, and do figures. What used to be black-and-white is now a matter of opinion, and it is becoming increasingly harder to make any sort of value judgment of a student's performance in school. I've heard of elementary school teachers who refuse to correct a student on spelling because that would "crush creativity." I've also heard of teachers correcting papers in purple ink, since it is "more soothing" than red ink. The day may well come when schooling may largely be a group therapy session, where all the students sit around and "discuss their issues."
Oh wait, that is already beginning to happen.
I have a bachelor's degree in education (mathematics education, to be precise), so I speak from the perspective of a former student-teacher in the public schools, a current tutor of public school students, and a survivor of a public college education program :-P. It is extremely sad when one of the primary concerns of a teacher/faculty/educational program is to protect the self-esteem of the student. To paraphrase one of my education instructors: If you praise Billy for his correct answer but don't praise Jim for his incorrect answer, that's an issue of equity. And I think it's also an ethical issue.
Excuse me, but education isn't about making people feel good; it's about helping them strengthen their recognized weaknesses. As I tell my students often, Admit you don't understand! None of you are Einstein because if you were, you wouldn't be in this class. We're here to learn because you don't know it yet! Students will rise to the expectations set in a classroom, and very rarely will they rise to anything higher. If our goal is to protect their self-esteem, rather than challenge them to overcome their recognized weaknesses, then who are we to be surprised when students fail? For an interesting post on the subject of expectations, make sure to check out Brett Harris' recent blog post over at The Rebelution. (Hattip: Anna)
But back to the Three R's. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are extremely important, and are the bases of formal education. Yet look at what is happening to them. The very structure of each is being marred beyond recognition or obliterated completely. Keep in mind that I am speaking of the state of American education in general, recognizing that the discussed problems appear in public, private, and home schools, though the level of the problems depends on the method, the individual school, and the individual classroom. I am merely stating that as a whole, our education system is defunct, and that is an indisputable fact.
Phonics has been all but shunned by the majority of educators. Look at our national illiteracy level, and then look at the level of reading that even those dubbed "literate" can tackle. Newspapers and magazines are continually having to gear their articles towards lower and lower levels of reading, to match the decline in reading levels of the general population. It's sad. Reading is a learned discipline, and phonics teaches reading in a disciplined, structured manner that is missing in most (or all) modern methods of reading instruction. In addition, reading in our culture has been reduced to a matter of recognizing the words on the paper, rather than critically analyzing those words. Reading starts as a method of mentally capturing words, but it is so much more! Let's move beyond Dick and Jane.
Grammar and composition are sadly watered-down in the English curriculum in most schools today. In my Freshman English class in college, almost none of the students (not exaggerating) had a clue as to the proper placement of commas in a sentence, and in fact, several could not even recognize an incomplete sentence. I thought, Well, this is sad, but things will get better second semester. Au contraire. During one class period in second semester, we each picked a partner and swapped papers to proofread. How does one tell a fellow student that in her paper there is not a single intelligible pair of sentences written back-to-back? Actually there were few complete sentences at all. The paper was mostly a conglomeration of dependent clauses connected by ellipses, with an occasional quote thrown in without any explanation. Keep in mind that this was a student who passed all the way through high school English and made it through first semester college English. Clearly someone along the way should have recognized the gaps in her grammar and composition knowledge!
In the case of reading, I think phonics is the essential ingredient needed to utilize the tool of knowledge reading. In the case of writing, grammar and composition together are the building blocks that form the tool of knowledge writing. So what is the essential ingredient or building block for arithmetic? Well actually, I think the list of the Three R's is unparallel. I would not classify arithmetic as a tool for knowledge on the same level as reading and writing; instead, I think arithmetic is the building block for mathematics, which is the third tool of knowledge. This fancy of mine fits well into my bemoanings on the deterioration (or absence) of the building blocks for the other two R's. Phonics, the foundation of reading, is missing, so reading suffers. Grammar and composition, the foundations of writing, are sadly ignored, so writing suffers. Arithmetic, the very foundation of mathematics, is lacking from most students' education, so mathematics suffers.
But everyone is taught how to add and subtract, you might say. Ah, but what you are thinking of is called memorization, and I am not speaking of memorizing the arithmetic tables, though if that was done thoroughly and permanently then it would help a bit. After a year as a math tutor, I've decided that a very basic something that is lacking in the mathematical education of the vast majority of students today is the comprehension of what exactly addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division are. Unfortunately a large percentage of students really don't know, and it's quite hard to continue to plow ahead in math without understanding the basics. In one of my math education classes, I had a professor laughingly tell us that some students decide which arithmetic operation to use in a word problem based on the relative size of the numbers in the problem: if the numbers are similar in size, they add or multiply; if the numbers are very different in size, they subtract or divide. When he said this I laughed, but now as a math tutor I can attest that he was right. I have watched in disbelief over and over this year as his prediction came true.
Sadly, the students in our nation are suffering from the poor educational choices of their parents and teachers. If a student gets to college and cannot recognize an incomplete sentence if it slaps him in the face, I feel sorrow for him, not disdain. I was blessed with an excellent, tailored education instigated by my parents, but I did not deserve such a blessing any more than the next person, so I can feel no justified pride in this. The vast majority of the students in our nation have been robbed of a real education; instead they have endured 12 years of memorization, imitation, and therapy sessions, and then they have been tricked into believing that this dance they have danced for 12 (or 13 or 14) years is an education. It's not.
A real education doesn't just force students to learn how to graph an ellipse or how to diagram a complex sentence. A real education teaches students how to learn, not just what to learn. The educational experience of the majority of the children of our nation is but a shadow of what true education is. It's akin to feeding a child cherry-flavored cough syrup and claiming it a sufficient dietary supply of fruit. Being spoon-fed cough syrup is not the same thing as eating real cherries. It's a bitter imitation!
The old adage, give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for life, still rings true today. Education should not be about handing a student knowledge on a platter, but showing a student how to acquire knowledge himself. It does not mean throwing a student a pole and saying, Here, learn how to fish! It does mean taking the time and care to explain to a student the details of fishing. Fishing is more than just dropping a line in the water and waiting for a bite (or so I've heard), so yes, teach a child to fish instead of just handing him a fish, but might I tweak the saying a bit?
Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for life. Show a man the beauty of fishing, and you've hooked him for a lifetime.
After all, a student may be acquainted with all the details of fishing so that he can be fed if necessary, but only by showing a man the beauty of fishing will you convince him to fish on his own for his own benefit and enjoyment, not just for his sustenance. It's all well and good to show a child how to get by in life and survive, but it's quite another thing to show a child how to soar! Only then will The Three R's be recovered.
As a final disclaimer, my point in this post is not to claim my own superiority in each of The Three R's. I am aware of my own numerous deficiencies in these areas, and it is amusing (though humbling) to note, that I originally had a missing comma in my paragraph of that subject. Ah, yes, humble pie :). The point of my posts is merely to lament the sad corrosion of The Three R's in our modern educational system, not to claim that I have perfectly "risen above" these corruptions. Besides, any skill I have in these areas (or others) is not of me, but a blessing from God.
Stay tuned over the next several days as I share musings of my own personal experiences with each of the Three R's. Meanwhile check out Adrian's post on the public school system, an issue which I chose to dodge in this post :). Adrian also mentions many of the types of deficiencies that I grazed over in this post.