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How to Make Good Schools Better Reflections on My Early School Years

I believe itís helpful for people to evaluate their own education, and reflect on what worked and didnít work. Then you have a solid personal basis for judging new ideas and what is going on in local schools. Many years ago, I attended a very good private school. But even there, as I look back, there were things that might have been done better.

Here, in no particular order, are memories that have stayed with me for decades.

1) MAPS. I remember being in the seventh grade and we had all these big wall maps that unrolled like blinds. But they were old and didnít work very well. I asked somebody, ďWhy donít we get new ones?Ē And the answer in effect was, well, we donít need them anymore or we donít do it that way. I know now that this was nonsense coming over from the public schools. But it shouldnít have been accepted at a good school.

If a kid is sitting in a classroom and bored, and that kid stares at the maps and lets his mind roam around the shapes and cities, thereís almost no better education.

I can remember being in various history classes; and Iím sure there were no maps. So to this day Iím still not clear where Poland, the Ukraine and Serbia and so on are. If I had a chance to study a map week after week, I wouldíve memorized it all. I didnít understand until I was an adult what the Continental Divide is. I never had a clear sense of where the mountains were. I think every history course should start with a raised relief map and a look at the rivers and main mountains. Geography shapes history. Maps, big maps, I totally love maps and think they are a teacherís best friend.

2) GRAMMAR. I can remember in the ninth grade we had a red book with a title something like ďEnglish Grammar and Composition.Ē But we rarely looked at the book. I remember asking, ďWhatís with this book?Ē and the answer again was to the effect of, well, we donít do it that way. Or you donít need to be taught these things explicitly. Again, this was nihilistic nonsense coming over from the public schools.

One result is when I got to college, the first thing I had to do was buy Strunk and White and learn more English grammar. Every high school should find a good 50-page grammar book and cover 10 or 15 pages each year. To this day I can never figure how to form the plural of Rogers and the Rogers house and all that. This stuff must be taught explicitly. Maybe only a little at a time; slow and steady, all thatís fine. But it seems to me I got all the way through high school without being taught much grammar. This is happening to millions of kids. Thatís why you see adults who donít know the difference between itís and its.

3) PARALLEL KNOWLEDGE. One of the most neglected things, but to me itís so obviously crucial, is the knowledge you need to make OTHER knowledge easier to learn.

For example, I took three years of French, and in all that time never was told any French history. As an adult, I figured out that the essential thing you need to know about French is that around 1500 the French regarded themselves as the center of the universe and the direct descendants of the Roman Empire. When the king spoke French, it had to radiate all of this pretension and ego. If I were teaching French, the first thing I would do is to play one of those movies where you can see the aristocrats at Versailles. Thatís French.

I think this neglect happens in many other situations where a little background knowledge or parallel knowledge is the best assist that students can get. It might be science in a history course. Or it might be history in a literature course. The idea that you can study history without knowing the technology at some particular time is foolish.

4) TAKE ON THE DIFFICULT. Another thing I noticed thinking back about French is that the teacher tended to shelter us from things he thought were difficult. Fricative r, for example. I think this is a mistake. If I were to teach French, I would start with the fricative r in the first class.

I think in every subject there are things that are central, fundamental, entangled in every aspect of the subject (like the letter r), but for some reason the professors have decided they must be delayed.

5) START WITH THE BASICS. If there is one rule Iím sure of, itís that teachers should always start every subject at the very beginning, at zero, with things so simple a teacher might even forget that they need to be taught at all. They do!

Suppose you are teaching electricity. Zero is static electricity or a spark. Next simplest is a primitive circuit, a flashlight, for example. Draw it, make it, take it apart, put it back together a different way--kids could spend a week on this one thing, learn every nuance, and then start adding components.

Today, ďdifficultĒ might be illustrated by programming. All students should learn what might be called ďprogramming for babies.Ē The absolute basics that every adult should know. With this foundation, many students would want to learn more a few years later.

6) WHATíS OUTSIDE THE DOOR? Remarkably, none of the schools I went to as a child ever thought to take me outside and teach me the names of local trees, shrubs, flowers, and any animals we might see. There are species of trees that I have seen literally thousands of times but I donít know the names. I think the best strategy is always to start with what is nearby, not because itís what the educators call ďrelevant,Ē but because this is the easy way to go. The tree is standing right outside the window. Talk about it.

Also, I wish they had marked off an acre somewhere on the school grounds, so we could see what it feels like to be on an acre. So much of American history is based on acres, 40 acres and a mule, a square mile, and things like that. Kids living in the city have no idea what 40 acres and a mule means.

7) GENIUS EVERYWHERE. The most striking fact about all my years in school is that no teacher ever held up a common object (Coke can, ball point pen, watch, radio) and said, now letís think about the genius it took to invent, design, and manufacture this thing.

They talk about teachable moments. But for my money what is really being ignored are teachable objects. We are surrounded by teachable objects. To put Coke in a can under pressure, inside metal so thin you can cut it with your fingernail, this is genius. Kids should see the many steps in the process. And be asked the question, would you enjoy doing this kind of work? Could you do it? All of this emphasis on college prep somehow seems to leave out the fact that weíre living in a wonderfully technological society. Itís not just the iPhones that we can see. Itís the design, development, manufacturing, and marketing processes that are in the background. Indeed, a can of tomato juice or any toy has a long history behind it. I canít remember in all my years in school that any teacher ever brought the real practical machine world into the class, nor the real practical business world. The left hates capitalism so much that nobody mentions how complex it is to run a big business. Students should be invited to plan businesses.

I wasnít taken to a local factory, historical landmark, or military installation. All of these things can be used to teach multiple subjects. Kids love to think theyíre getting away with something; their resistance drops. So field trips can be used to teach parallel knowledge when the kids least expect it.

My perfect school is a place where kids learn a lot. Often they donít even know itís happening. Such is the genius of ergonomic education. The right facts rightly sequenced, thatís the ideal. For more analysis of this point, see ď26: How To Teach History, Etc.Ē and ď39: How to Teach Physics, Etc.Ē on
About Author Bruce Deitrick Price :

Bruce Deitrick Price is the founder of <a href="" target="_blank"></a>, an education and intellectual site with 60 original articles. One focus is reading; see "42: Reading Resources." Price is an author, artist and poet. His fifth book is "THE EDUCATION ENIGMA."

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Article Added on Monday, April 30, 2012
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