Back to the Basics

When I’m not sitting at my laptop, I do a little substitute teaching. This time of year, education is a hot topic in NS – the government usually declares funding cuts to education, and everybody gets in a tizzy. The fact is, the population of Nova Scotia is an ageing one; there are fewer school-age children every year, so it only makes sense that the amount of money spent on education should decrease proportionately.

Speaking of the basics, this is historic and beautiful Lunenburg Academy, built in 1895, replaced in 2012 by Bluenose Academy - I'm sure the new school is state-of-the-art, but it could never be this beautiful!

Based on my limited experience in the schools, the main problem with education is simply that teaching has veered away from the basics. There are new theories of education, experts, strategies and consultants galore, but the truth is, kids aren’t being taught the basics these days. Spelling tests were outlawed a few years ago; as a result, kids are horrible spellers. It’s not the fault of the kids – they want to know how to spell words correctly and are embarrassed when they can’t. Cursive writing seems to be a dying art, but elementary students are eager to advance to writing from printing, and eager to show it off when they master the skill. Beginning in the lower elementary grades, math strategies abound, making it impossible for parents to help their children at home as current methods are very different from those we learned as kids (no more memorizing the times tables, for example).

It seems to me that many people working in the schools would like to see a “back to the basics” approach in the classroom; why then, are the consultants still filling teachers’ in-boxes with new strategies and approaches that serve to take away from the teachers’ focus on the students, where it belongs? Maybe I’m just getting old, but it seems that the harder the consultants/experts work to devise the best way to teach a simple concept, the more complicated that concept becomes.

On a brighter note, I’m continuing to read the Newbery medal winners and honour books. Memorable ones of late include:  The Wednesday Wars (Gary Schmidt); Elijah of Buxton (Christopher Paul Curtis); and When You Reach Me (Rebecca Stead). I’m trying to decipher what makes them so good, but they’re all so well-written I can’t see the structure for the story!  Happy reading and happy March Break!

3 thoughts on “Back to the Basics

  1. It is a dilemma Jan, and hard to strike a balance between teachers being creative with their professional expertise, “new” pedagogical strategies, and a desire for the basics to be taught once again. In the U.S. we have just begun to emerge from a devastating decade of the “back to basics” movement with No Child Left Behind. This effort to teach just the basics has brought the teaching profession to the brink. Teachers are routinely bashed in the media for their lackluster test scores (all classes, communities, and children are the same) and now we have performance-based scores for teachers based on suspect “data”. All of this is well documented on gothamschools. Even the ultra conservative education historian Diane Ravitch has reversed her course on NCLB.

    The real problem as I see it is that teachers are not permitted to be creative enough–teaching critical thinking. We do not know what the state of our technology will be in 10 years, so I would argue that kids need to know how to think logically, critically, creatively, and have the basic skills to read, write, and cipher.
    Luckily in Canada being a teacher still means something. Teachers are well paid and generally respected, both of which are not true in the U.S., sadly.

  2. Thanks, Janet. Interesting to read your dual-country perspective. Shannon actually interviewed a teacher we both know (:)) yesterday for a journalism article she’s writing, and, as a 19-year-old, was amazed by the education gobbledy-gook contained in the “outcomes” (especially for lower elementary grades). I guess my criticism was mainly directed toward consultants at the Board level, and the Department of Education level, of which there are too many, sucking up the education dollars and making work for teachers to justify their existence. In my humble opinion, of course…Sad to hear of the situation for teachers in the US.

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