Knowledge vs. Skills

What is school really for and how do we ensure that all of our children gain…whatever it is they are supposed to gain from it? Among many people I know, it is taken for granted that school is largely a waste of time. Your send your kids there for 6.5 hours each day, and then you spend the rest of the day providing their actual education. Some people spend major money on private schools in a desperate effort to salvage those hours, but what they’re really buying for their child is the right to spend the day with other privileged kids. Back in our hoity toity private elementary school days, another parent told me that the primary benefit of private school was the connections the kids made there. That’s right; my eight-year-old was supposed to be networking.

If this sounds like a pitch for homeschooling, it is not. I for one am not looking to increase my already overwhelming time investment in parenting. I’m looking for ways to alter the educational paradigm that has been in place for, what, a century? The education system is designed to turn out good factory workers. It is inflexible and unresponsive to the needs of students who deviate from the norm in any direction.

Schools do an adequate job of imparting knowledge efficiently, by delivering it to children in groups. My middle school kid absorbs the social studies curriculum along with her peers. Though she often finds the content dull, she learns stuff she didn’t know before and then moves on to other new stuff. It works.

Where the school spectacularly fails is in developing skills. And perhaps it is not reasonable to expect skill development to happen there. Consider, for example, musical instruments. Anyone who has played an instrument or had a child who did can tell you that the instruction they receive in school is just a starting point. If you want to actually learn to play your instrument well, you must take private lessons outside of school. (That’s problematic from an economic standpoint, since it means lower income kids are denied that opportunity, but that’s another topic.) In the case of music, the school serves an auxiliary function by providing a group with which the kids can use the skills they’ve gained through lessons and practice.

For my kid, that works great, and music is by a factor of about a million her favorite part of middle school. She works with her private teacher and progresses at her usual lightning speed, and then she goes to school and works along with her classmates on the skills needed to play in a group.

But other skill-based classes do not operate this way. For example, foreign language instruction, which I complained about at length here, is done as a stand-alone endeavor. The teacher attempts to teach language skills to a large group of kids who learn at very different rates, inevitably leaving some of them to struggle and others to suffer through the soul-crushing boredom of endless repetition. Sure, I could hire a Spanish tutor for my daughter and she could race through the curriculum, but she would still have to suffer through a school language class. It’s both a graduation requirement and a college entrance requirement.

We have the same problem with math. My 7th grader is taking Algebra I, which is allegedly a 9th grade-level class. But she mastered most of the content in elementary school, thanks to the parent volunteers who ran the math club. It has been her lifelong experience that math class means staring at the clock while other children learn something she already knows how to do. Surely there must be a better way for schools to handle high-performing students.

But what is it?

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7 thoughts on “Knowledge vs. Skills

  1. My experience in California’s public schools of the 1960’s/1970’s was nothing like what I believe I see in my grandkids’ experiences today — and California was a top education state in those days, whereas now it’s bottom of the barrel. “In my day” and place, education was very liberal and there were classes for kids from all over the spectrum, so I was able to progress rapidly while those who didn’t soak up knowledge (and skills) like sponges were in classes geared to their native abilities. Then the “back to basics” movement, which is the code phrase for religious fundamentalism severely restricting the classes that they believe might teach critical thinking or “values”, took over in about 1978. That’s the course public education in the US has been on ever since, and when it lets too many kids down they redouble their efforts because surely doing more and more of the same damage must eventually fix things. This leads to dumbing down the curricula for every student with such stupidity as NCLB and teaching to (students memorizing) the test.

    My take on it is that while the system I experienced was imperfect as all systems must be, it was on the right track until it was derailed by special interest groups with political and religious agendas. I suspect, almost believe, that a good start would be to study what was happening in the top performing schools in the top performing states of four decades ago, back before they started “fixing” a problem that didn’t exist. “Johnny can’t read” was a fiction when it debuted in the 1950’s and it remains a fiction today. But today Johnny, whose reading skills are worse than his grandfather’s were in the 1950’s, can’t think because all he’s being taught is memorization. And the kids who might excel aren’t afforded that opportunity. It was tough enough to excel when the opportunities existed in greater abundance, but now, it seems, we’re asking bright kids to just endure the broken system and any who become apathetic due to boredom fall through the cracks.

    Ya think there might be something to that?

    • Well, tracking still exists in our schools in the form of a “gifted” program in elementary school, which was helpful, and a self-selected “honors” program in middle school, which is less helpful. And interestingly, there is no honors option for the skill-based classes like Spanish. It has been a bit of a culture shock for my daughter to go from the gifted class to the general middle school population.

      Certainly there used to be a plethora of alternative ed programs that sadly no longer exist. And the emphasis on testing is highly detrimental to bright kids. That group of kids will ace the test no matter what, and therefore all the test prep time is a waste for them and the school has little incentive to address their needs at all.

      • I know that shock. It was the second semester of my junior year when the fundies programs took hold. I was a gifted program/AP kid who’d set the goal of graduating a year early and was on track to do it, and then they took that option away when they established a fixed curriculum. I worked around them by dropping out and taking the proficiency exam.

        It’s outrageous that the system is so broken that the average kid comes out with less education today than before they started fixing the thing, and the bright kids are prevented from truly excelling unless their parents are rich. We’re not even in the top 20 in PISA… the fundies’ response is that we need to double down for the fortieth time. Gah.

        I wish your daughter all the best in her educational pursuits. I’ve no idea how she might get it, but I wish it for her just the same.

  2. For my high-achieving son, public school was a disaster, and after multiple meetings with councilors and administrators, we realized they truly have no interest in educating a kid who doesn’t fit neatly into one of their slots. So he finished “high school” at the community college, which doesn’t have a “gifted” program, but at least nobody monitors your bathroom usage.

    • That’s exactly what my elder child is doing, and she too appreciates the bathroom liberation. And the local mega-university has a super-early entrance program for talented and motivated middle schoolers. It is under consideration.

  3. Three of my kids were home schooled, after being bored to death in the local grade schools, and did most of their high school at the community college, where they were invariably at the top of their classes. Home schooling didn’t involve much parental time; their mother bought public school textbooks at the beginning of each year and told them how many pages to get through a day, then went off to work on her rental properties. They usually spent no more than three hours a day on school (before they started at the community college). The girls graduated at 15 and 14 respectively.

    The 15-year-old was a National Merit Scholar but chose to do a vet tech program at another community college. She’s very happy working at the veterinary clinic now. Her sister is finishing up her BA in art and English at DBU this year. My son did a forensic science program at another community college, but prefers to work as a handyman and eventually hopes to have a farm.

    I’d say they developed skills.

    • Wow, sounds like you have very self-directed and yes, skillful young adults, there. Interesting about graduating so early…when you don’t have to spend all of your time plodding through the snail-like curriculum, the actual content doesn’t take long to complete.

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