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?



I recently read two books I enjoyed: The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, both by Khaled Hosseini.  I now know far more about Afghanistan than I did before, but I won’t be visiting anytime soon.

I also read The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, and thought it had merit until it went way past over-the-top towards the end.  (Yes, I’m catching up on the bestsellers I meant to read but missed.) 

More disappointing was Barrel Fever, by David Sedaris.  I usually find him very funny but that book is a must-put-down.  Then I started but put down Alice Sebold’s second novel, The Almost Moon, which has both poop and matricide in the first chapter.  And it doesn’t improve from there.  Most damning is the unforgivable sin of literature–it’s boring.

Hence, I’ve burned through the whole stack of library books that were supposed to get me through the end of the year.  What should I pick up tomorrow?  Recommend  me something, Xanga. 

Caveats:  No science fiction, no romance trash, no spies.  Literary fiction or mystery preferred.  Non-fiction seriously considered.  All suggestions appreciated, even if ultimately rejected.  Thank you.

After visiting the library today I came home with these Xangan-recommended titles and authors:
The Risk Pool, by Richard Russo
Mr. Timothy, by Louis Bayard
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri
When We Were Romans, by Matthew Kneale

My selections were based mostly on what was available at my local branch of the county library system.  I’ll report back with reviews.

Please continue making recommendations.  I hope to fill 2009 with quality literary experiences.  Or at least avoid the slow death that is Seinfeld reruns.