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Thursday, December 31, 2015
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I recently read about how some western nations (including Great Britain and Germany) are teaching elementary school students computer coding and programming as part of their required curriculum. Back in September, Australia made computer coding and programming a required part of the school curriculum from 5th grade on up. These lessons aren’t an occasional project or a one-semester deal; starting from the age of 10, computer programming skills become an integral part of the Australian student’s school-day. In order to make time for this, the Australian schools are cutting back on their geography and history lessons; these topics will no longer be “stand alone” subjects. A new “Humanities and Social Sciences” subject will merge the existing topics of history, geography, economics, business and civics and citizenship into a single learning area from the 5th grade on.

I don’t know all of the details of Australia’s plan, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that I don’t like it. I consider myself a science and computer geek, and I’m all in favor of using our education system to prepare today’s children for the world in which they will live (and try to make a living). And that clearly means more emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (“STEM” as the popular acronym goes). And yet . . . we can’t shortchange the classic mission of preparing our youth to be thinking citizens who can appreciate and defend the noble and yet frail ideal of civilization. Perhaps I’m wrong, but the general drift of the new Australia plan seems to put less emphasis into “humanities and social sciences”, by placing a greater share of school resources into science, tech and computer skills.

In my humble opinion, teaching 10 year olds the ins and outs of do-loops and IF/THEN statements and database queries and object instantiation is not going to guarantee them a place in the modern high-tech world. Sure, some introduction into computing logic at that age is needed; schools need to build the learning foundations that future computer people will need. But really — like an 8th grader should or even could become ready for a job with Apple or Google? Or be able to set up a VBA routine and a customized SQL statement in a small businesses’ Access database?

But the more important thing is this: the most critical mission of elementary education is to convince children that civilization and society are good things to belong to, and that they are not to be taken for granted. Perhaps I’m a pessimist, but I don’t believe that human children naturally leave the animal world and become truly civilized without a lot of effort on the part of their adult caretakers, teachers and mentors. By “truly civilized”, I mean something more than behaviorally tamed like a house-broken dog; I mean given an appreciation of what it means to be a responsible member of society who acknowledges the many benefits of not living in the wild, and is willing to shoulder the many responsibilities that go along with the benefits of civilization. Somehow, my parents and the adults in the working class community where I grew up way back in the 50’s and 60’s seemed to appreciate this; they never really talked about it, it just seemed to be “in their bones”. Perhaps there really is something to the “Greatest Generation” idea; perhaps you didn’t need a college education to appreciate civilization after living during a time that truly was threatened by fascist takeover or communist totalitarianism.

The new Australian plan seems to de-emphasize this. Australian youngsters will assumedly have been taught how to behave by the age of 10, by some mix of punishment and “self-esteem building” (and by using computerized toys as pacifiers). From then on, they will be prepared to perform useful technical tasks as adults. The centuries-old ideal of the “Renaissance Man” (sorry for the sexist language, but this is a centuries-old idea; obviously it should now be “Renaissance Person”) who balances freedom, citizenship and social responsibility within the context of education and critical thinking seems to be getting short-shrifted in Australia. It looks like history and geography will be reduced to “side-dishes”, while computer skills will become a “main course”.

So, for example, we will have more adults who can prepare a new game app for a hand-held device, but fewer who would be familiar, say, with the various African and Asian nations and how they were once subject to European colonialism. Early Babylonian and Egyptian civilization? The Roman Empire? The Chinese dynasties? Christendom and the Middle Ages? The Renaissance and the rise of nation-states? Christopher Columbus and the era of European world colonization? The Ottomans? The world wars of the 20th Century? The folly and brilliance of organized human society? These things are less important than knowing how to develop the next “Candy Crush”?

In my own life, computer programming and usage skills have been important throughout my career. And yet, the first computer programming course I took wasn’t until my freshman year of college. Personally, I don’t think that learning that stuff in 5th and 6th grades would have made me a better programmer. I’m not sure that I would have appreciated it at that age. My own experience tells me that a few intense computer courses in the later years of high school would do just as good a job of preparing a person for computer programming and applications development (and possibly also “techie skills” on setting up and maintaining data / computing systems) than a generalized elementary computer program during the “tween” years.

Not that my history and geography courses in elementary school were all that great. They could have been done a lot better. What little I remember of geography was that it sometimes got down to irrelevant details. I generally enjoyed learning about deserts and mountain regions and jungles and continents and major rivers like the Nile and the Amazon and the Mississippi, but I remember one day having a lesson about “naval stores”. I still have no idea why learning about naval stores in 6th grade was important. I went away from that class thinking that naval stores were places where oranges were sold, but after a quick look-up on the computer, I finally realize in my old age that “naval stores” are supplies that were once needed to build and sail wooden ships (such as the tar needed to seal up the spaces between the wooden planks, and the canvas for the sails). Obviously I didn’t grasp this back in 6th grade.

So sure, teaching geography can be a waste of time; but it doesn’t have to be. A good grasp of the world’s physical layout is essential to a better understanding of history, and to digesting all of the lessons that it teaches (or should teach). Geography should be considered a part of “deep history”, i.e. the important factors that have shaped human history. In that context, perhaps “naval stores” might have made more sense — Christopher Columbus would never have become famous if the Euro nations didn’t find ways to build ships that could stay afloat across the oceans. There would have never been a Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria if the Spaniards didn’t find some good “naval stores” somewhere.

As to history itself — well, unfortunately, the history classes that I sat through required a lot of rote memory. When did Charlemagne rule? Where did the French Revolution start? What were the major Civil War battles after Gettysburg? There was much too little emphasis on WHY this stuff was important. As kids, our teachers didn’t give us many clues about that. So things got boring a lot of the time. Only later in life did I realize that this didn’t have to be so. Geography should really be a part of history, and history should really be a part of “The Story and Importance of Human Civilization: Our Past Mistakes and Our Past Accomplishments”. And this should be a CORE component of elementary school education, both before and after the 5th grade.

Sure, science and math, along with reading and writing, are also core requirements. And introductions to how computers and computer applications work should definitely be a part of the science and math curricula in elementary education. A modern 11 year old should definitely know that there is a difference between a database and an application (and be aware that these two forms of computing work together to accomplish all of the things that we need computers to do for us).

But as to turning elementary schools into computer coding academies or vo-techs for system technicians: Goodness, NO!! To recap: first, I don’t think it’s going to work all that well — my own life experiences and observations say that kids aren’t going to pick up the truly relevant programming and equipment skills until high school level (and the later in high school the better). And second, and more importantly, it’s rather creepy. The Australian curriculum change in and of itself won’t turn humankind into the sci-fi nightmare of a robotized society (I’m sure there are plenty of movies about humanity becoming a soul-less cyborg swarm, e.g. I Robot; but the best example that comes to my mind right now are the Borg episodes in various Star Trek series). Unfortunately however, it sure sounds like a step in that direction.

[Oh, and PS — if we are going to humanize and prepare children for civilization, we definitely also need to maintain a space in elementary curricula for the arts, for music, for fiction, etc.]

So yes, teach today’s kids how to get “under the hood” of the computers that will become an integral part of their entire lives. But first, teach them how to be civilized humans!! Let’s make sure that they always appreciate where the machinery ends and where humanity starts.

With best wishes to all for 2016 — let’s hope that we ALL will keep remembering what humanity is about, despite all the trials and tribulations of our times.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 10:56 pm      

  1. Jim, There is much in this post that I have no clue about, just don’t understand it and never will, don’t really *want* to, basically, all the “computer stuff”. However, I do have some strong opinions regarding what should be taught in school and what should not. I was a teacher in high school for 10 years and then for another 26 years taught community college.

    Basically, any disagreements I have with what you think should be taught are lesser disagreements which don’t mean that much. In some ways I’d say we are on the same page in that regard. Since every single person in education seems to have his/her own idea of what/how schools should be run, I’m going to say here that I basically agree with you; However, if it were I who were the one making changes in our schools, my changes would be simpler yet more serious in their emphasis.

    As to the things I don’t understand, one is the STEM emphasis. I guess I’ve been out of teaching so long I have never heard of that before. Perhaps were I teaching now, I’d be in favor of it. But even in times when I myself taught the more “vocational” types of courses, I still didn’t believe that much in them.

    There was one thing I certainly *did* believe in: That was teach reading and writing. I’d tend to leave out arithmetic only because I was not good at it; I would say, however, that without some ability in arithmetic one can be at a serious handicap. Society has gotten to the point where schools have become the place where everything in the world must be taught. Perhaps that is for the reason that so many people in our society have had such a serious lack in their own education, they cannot help their children learn.

    The most important of all subjects that are taught is reading. (And I’m not going to add “IMO” here as I am much more sure about that than simply its being an/my “opinion”.) I remember when I entered third grade, receiving the reading book, and thinking there was no possible way I could ever begin to learn how to read that book. I also remember that by the end of the school year I was so surprised when I realized that the book seemed almost ridiculously easy to me.

    As a result, I learned that if one knows how to read *and comprehend*, one can learn anything at all. There’s always a book one can find that one can read to learn something new; all one needs to know, really, is how to *read* – and understand what one reads.

    For some years in community college I taught ESL classes (English as a Second Language). What dumbfounded me most about teaching those classes was that it was those who absolutely had English as a second language who knew the most about English. They were the ones most eager to absorb as much as possible about English so that they could read and understand the language; they had the message.

    Those whose first language, whose language was English, were the least knowledgeable about any language. So, for instance, the teacher might specify what is the “subject of the sentence”? For the most part all those whose first language was not English knew immediately who/what was being talked about. Mention “subject” to those who had English as a first language and they often had no clue what one was talking about. Same with concept of “verb in the sentence”. Other things such as “nominative case” were something like a “second language” to students whose first language was English. Something was seriously lacking in how the English language was taught to speakers born in the U.S.; and I found that to be all bundled up in the ability to read. Thus, our students are handicapped by being unable to read well; for the most part many of them are basically illiterate. The why and how of this lack of learning to read is a long and disputed subject that begins (as I see it) with the “see and say” method of learning to read that was introduced back in the 1960s some time. But I won’t go into all that.

    A second part of reading is writing (here I must say IMO, but it may be a second subject all its own). I have started to believe (not wonder, but believe) that it’s entirely possible that writing will soon go out of use; hunting and pecking at a computer, reducing all tho’ts to as few words as possible (some to as few *characters* as possible) may soon replace any ability to discuss anything. I find myself wondering if soon “watcha doin’ tonite” (no question mark required) following about “nuttin” or “not much” will soon be about as much as people will be able to type. Cursive writing has already begun to go out of use already. I actually know some young adults who (to my astonishment) cannot read cursive writing; everything they write or someone else writes must be printed. They themselves can only print anything they want to write. (Just check out the Christmas cards for examples.) It’s entirely possible that the typewriter was the beginning of this problem as here I am using a computer to type this note about cursive writing.

    To simplify, I repeat what I said at the beginning: If one can read and comprehend well (and that’s a matter of teaching reading well at the lower grade levels, so extremely important!), one can learn anything at all, as one can find a book that will teach one. There is a problem with books nowadays as they are themselves beginning to go out of style (if that’s a way to put it). From what I understand (I may be wrong on this) even those books that are “downloaded” to some reading device are themselves abridged; and thus the reader is at the mercy of the one who decides to pick and choose what to “leave in” the book.

    If one can read well (and here I include *any* kind of reading – history, geography, math, fiction, music, philosophy, programming, (name anything here), the topic/subject can be learned; there almost no subject that does not have a book written about it. Yes, it’s “nice” to have particular classes for certain subjects because one gets the benefit of the teacher’s knowledge as an added benefit; but basically, no matter how good the teacher, if the student cannot read, nothing can be learned.

    Thus, what bothers me terribly is the short shrift reading is getting in school; it’s the beginning of an illiterate society. I must emphasize here that I am *not* saying students are not intelligent. I’ve been amazed at how intelligent some illiterate students are.

    (Oddly enough, this reduction to simplicity has entered even music. I tho’t it was I myself who was hearing things wrong as it seemed to me that popular songs these days were composed of only two notes – the whole song, only two notes. Then I read that a study was done that showed that nowadays the songs that get the most “air time”, are the most popular, are songs composed of only “two notes”. Even music has been reduced to about as far as it can go. (Would it be possible to have music with only one note? I doubt that.)

    And my own “P.S.”: I think you had the “wrong” teacher for history. I don’t remember much history in the lower grades, but in my undergraduate work I had a teacher who made history seem like a movie – such an interesting story. We didn’t have to learn anything like dates at all; but we had to know the “story” in full detail; and what a thrill that was, to become interested in what happened and how it turned out. The best part was that it all was a “real happening”. Stories were so easy to remember and learn from. She was a marvelous teacher and I took history as my minor in undergraduate work because of her. Once again, reading did the work it was meant to do.

    One last P.S.: It’s likely that the problem with my comment here is that you even brought up this subject; anyone who has taught for any length of time has “absolutes” about what should and should not be taught. I seems reading is mine. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — January 2, 2016 @ 11:44 am

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