Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Education 101

Paradigm shifting defininitions that have helped me understand the goals and processes of education.

Skills vs. Content

Memory vs. Overview

Skills: Proficiency, facility, or dexterity that is acquired or developed through training or experience; ability. Skills are tools needed in order to learn or grow in areas: phonics, ability to memorize, the mechanics of writing (how to hold a pencil, control the pencil, the shape of the letters), counting, math facts, grammar, etc. Skills are sorely overlooked in modern education and are becominig increasingly so.

For instance, phonics. Phonics is the skill of decoding the written word. Decoding has often been replaced with the whole-word method of learning to read. While some words are clearly words that need memorized vs. decoded such as was, you, etc. the majority of English words can easily be decoded given the proper tools. Skills are the baby steps (the grammar stage) of most areas of study. Without understanding the skills necessary to grammar (such as the definitions of the parts of speech and the ability to diagram) the study of a 2nd language becomes torment. Without basic math skills aglebra is laborious.

Content is "the substantive or meaningful part: “The brain is hungry not for method but for content, especially content which contains generalizations that are powerful, precise, and explicit” (Frederick Turner). Perhaps because the brain is hungry for content we find it easier to overlook skills. Content includes those areas of study such as history, literature, the Bible, the aquisition of a 2nd language. Apparently the government school system also believes that content includes sex education as well as other ideologies that are best kept within the context of home and church. While government schools take ground and liberty to introduce inapporpriate content to our progeny the church and family give it up. Not a win-win in my economy. But I digress.

Most skills allow us to truly enjoy the content of various subjects. If I have aquired skills in history, such as a memorized timeline and a solid understanding of geography, then my content gathering will be so much more enriched and enlivened. I will make connections between people and places. If I were to simply focus on content each history lesson would be a stand-alone story, not a rich narrative that allows the beauty and wonder of His narrative to unfold. I won't be able to fully appreciate the amazing complexities of serendipity in the world or have a good sense of the part that I play in it all. It's all decontextualized, whitewashed and dull.

Secondly, Memorizatin vs. Overview

Memorization is the mental faculty of retaining and recalling past experience. How often and clearly memory work is overlooked in education. I am always astonished when we read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In The Long Winter I believe, she recounts a recitation her school gave for the community as a form of entertainment. The amount and skill of memory work that the students demonstrated was astonishing! Memory work is that which we know that we know. Think of the alphabet. Most of us have this memorized. If I were to state a letter you would immediatly have the shape and sound of it in your head, know how to use it at the beginning, middle and end of the word and feel comfortable explaining to others how to write it and sound it out. Barring any disability you will be able to do this your entire lifetime. That is because you have the alphabet memorized. You KNOW it. If I were to mention a concept found in freshman biology, however, we might have a vague understanding of it, be able to speculate about it a little bit, but for the majority of us, that's about as far as we'll get. We've overviewed biology- we have some basic concpets, we are aware of what it is about, but we haven't memorized it. True memorization takes diligence and mnuemonic skills. It's hard work, that, like most skills, gets easier with time and practice.
Overview is a general survey or summary. Most global thinkers (as opposed to linear thinkers) are great at surveying (for more on that, check out Cynthia Tobias Ulrich's book, The Way They Learn). I'm a very global thinker- I get the big picture, look for the big picture, create the big picture. In fact, I generally need to know the big picture before any of the particulars make sense to me. Overview and big pictures are great, and often times needed, but they are simply part of the what education is about; overview without the particulars or details that are demanded of from memory work leaves our students with a shell of what their education could have been.

Sorting out the various areas that need skill building and content building, what needs memorized and what needs overviewed are skills in an of themselves. Again, the classical method of education does the best job of sorting it out and making clear sense of what is a monumental task; that is education.

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