I want to preface this post with a word about my kids’ school. Quite simply, I love it. I think their teachers are some of the hardest working people in the world and I am never worried about what or how they’re learning because it’s always top-notch. I say this because I want to be clear that my opinions are very general here, not about our personal experience. I’m pretty sure most of that staff has no idea I even have a blog, but if they ever stumble upon this, I want them to know I (and even more so, my kids) adore them all. At least so far. We’ll see what happens in 4th- 8th grade.;)
So, what’s the problem then? Well it’s a huge pet-peeve of mine and one that I see is an issue not just in schools but out of them. In fact, on the news today they listed “useless degrees” in a segment on whether a college education gets you a job. My Business Crush Donny Deutsch summed up my thoughts when he said that he never looked at majors when hiring people. You know why? He’s in advertising where not just creativity, but the ability to brainstorm, problem solve and story tell are crucial. Guess what a lot of our kids don’t have when they graduate, no matter how great their education is? Yep, those abilities.
Why? These are not just luck of birth abilities. They can be taught. I’ve seen it happen. My guess though, is with all the standardized testing, they are being taught to answer questions a certain way and when they master those skills they pass so it doesn’t matter what their natural strengths are or what they need to learn. Creativity and problem solving aren’t taught or utilized.
Want to know how I think we could solve this problem? Teach writing. I mean really teach it-not just assign and grade it. Teaching it requires the background of how and why we write; using your voice, telling a story, making a case so that people want to read it. Teach not just rote writing, but the skills that are necessary to write well, including of course, brainstorming, problem solving and story telling.
As I’m typing this I can hear my daughter reading aloud a written argument she had to make for homework about whether being the first to invent something is crucial to success. Pretty heavy stuff for third grade huh? When I sat down with her and the prompt, she was instantly frustrated because there were so many questions she didn’t “get” how to answer. She also said it was a state test practice sheet so it shouldn’t be homework. (That’s her argument, not mine.) I could tell from the bullet points and spacing that the questions were intended to provoke thought that would help her make a logical argument about the initial topic sentence question.
Being a writing teacher (we’re like Marines-once a writing teacher, always a writing teacher) I sat with her and explained the concept behind making an argument. I would ask her questions about each bulleted question and then we would discuss how those answers could flow together. She would literally repeat what I was saying, trying to memorize it so she could write it on her homework when I shut up. Try as I might I wanted her to think on her own but she just wanted to get it right.
I left her in there because I wanted her to talk out the argument herself. I suspect she’ll be in my office soon where we will go over what she’s written and I hope it doesn’t look just like what I said. I’ll have her make the appropriate revisions after we talk about why they are necessary and she’ll go back and clean it up. She’ll hate me, but hopefully she’ll have a better understanding of how to answer these questions another time and more importantly, the purpose answering those questions serve because if she can get that, she’ll eventually be able to do it on her own-without all the prompting and bullet points.
So what’s the problem? She’s being taught writing right?
Maybe she is. Maybe her teachers will go over exactly what I went over at the kitchen table with the whole class. But I’m afraid they may not because this test is looming and they want her to answer correctly too-they’re being judged on that after all.
She’s being taught, or at least I assume from these kind of questions, how to pick apart a prompt, thoroughly answer every question and use supporting details from what she read to answer said questions.
That’s what constitutes writing today.
I’d ask, where is the thinking?
When I explained to her the point of her assignment, to make the initial argument, she was baffled. The idea that there was a purpose behind answering questions was foreign to her. The idea that there should be continuous, logical thought was crazy.
Now, she’s only in third grade so maybe she’ll get to this later. But with all the complaints I hear from my friends who are trying to hire and work with younger people (and people my age-not sure these skills were ever properly taught) it seems this isn’t the case in most of our country’s schools. I suspect if my daughter is not lucky enough (like I was) to have that one great teacher who bucks the system and risks getting fired in order to spend time getting to the meat of writing, she’s doomed.
Writing instruction can’t just be grammar or sentence structure. It can’t just be answering prompts and constructing responses. It has to be creative and free sometimes. It also has to include some explanation not just rote process. Kids have to learn brainstorming, problem solving and storytelling for every aspect of future life and they can do that through real writing, where creativity grows.
Then they might just make valuable employees, no matter their major.
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