In my day, sonny, kids were smarter

Peter
Peter Jackson
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Every other fall, armchair critics such as yours truly will inevitably lean forward on their faded leather cushions and expostulate against the lax and wayward stylings of modern education.

This is one of those falls.

But the news is not all bad. Amid such shocking discoveries as geography-challenged students who can’t negotiate a trip to the loo without a GPS, there is one bright spot.

Math, it appears, is making a comeback. Old math, that is.

Manitoba, partially in response to a lobby group of professors called Western Initiative for Strengthening Education in Math (WISE Math), is introducing a “back to basics” curriculum for kindergarten to Grade 8.

According to a National Post article, it will require students to learn times tables; have automatic recall of answers to basic problems such as 30 – 5 = 25, known as math “facts”; and use standard algorithms to perform key math operations — without using a calculator.

This is good, because too much nouveau psychobabble has been devoted to ignoring the basics so they don’t infringe on the little darlings’ precious imagination. Imagination is a wonderful thing, of course, but it won’t get you far without the ability to add two and two or spell “unicorn.”

Happily, this province is actually ahead of the numbers game. After similar pressure from MUN academics, the Newfoundland and Labrador government began phasing in a “new” new math program in 2008. The guiding principle was to prune the volume of concepts being taught and reinforce more basic elements. It’s simple logic. Without the roots, the branches wither and die.

While ’rithmetic may be on a more solid footing, however, I still feel the other two Rs have lost a significant degree of structure and rigour. I get this impression not only from anecdotal evidence and scattered studies, but from my own experience as an editor.

Like, whatever

Rare is the young writer who has a reasonable grasp of grammar and spelling. More common is the one who feels it’s unimportant. More than once, I’ve heard someone say, “Oh, well that’s just a different way of spelling it,” when challenged over a misplaced homonym.

The following, from a provincial curriculum guide for language arts, sends a typical cue to downplay

the fundamentals: “Momentum is important as students focus attention on the development of meaning and the flow of thought. They can check spelling, grammar, usage and mechanics later.”

In fact, one can get a good idea of how language has gone off the rails simply by perusing curriculum guides. As a teacher, you almost need a machete to hack through the pseudo-scientific garble and discover what’s really being asked of you.

“English language arts … involves language processes: speaking, listening, reading, viewing, and writing and other ways of representing.”

Other ways of representing? Apart from American sign language, I’m not sure what they mean. Morse code? Smoke signals? Ink blots?

Guidespeak ranges from the impenetrable (“This control develops through metacognition — that is, becoming aware of and more purposeful in using the strategies for self-monitoring, self-correcting, reflecting and goal setting to improve learning”) to the frustratingly obvious (“Students learn language through purposeful and challenging experiences designed around stimulating ideas, concepts, issues and themes that are meaningful to them”).

Frankly, if a curriculum guide has to tell me I need to be creative to keep the kids interested, I’m in the wrong profession.

To be fair, there’s a lot of helpful material — and expertise — out there to bring all these nebulous concepts down to Earth.

It just strikes me as odd that a document designed to help chart a course for developing communication skills would wallow in such obtuse language.

Perhaps it’s not just the students who need basic training.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s

commentary editor.

Email: pjackson@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Strengthening Education, National Post

Geographic location: Manitoba, Newfoundland and Labrador

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Recent comments

  • Go-ForwardBasis
    September 18, 2013 - 09:30

    Great piece, Peter. A little flowery, but like, whatever. Now I know what Paddy D's been getting on about over the current curriculum for Math. I don't have kids at this point, but I can imagine that if I ever do, getting through homework sessions is going to be a raging nightmare.

  • Aub
    September 18, 2013 - 08:21

    Just read the Telegram, especially some of the comments.