New Common Core Standards drop classic novels in favor of “informational texts.”
The US school system will undergo some big changes within the next two years, chiefly due to a decision to remove a good deal of classic novels from the curriculum, or so the recent media reports would have you think.
The idea behind discouraging or reducing the teaching of old favorites like The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird is to make room for non-fiction “informational texts” in the curriculum. These should be approved by the Common Core Standards of each state. Suggested texts include, “Recommended Levels of Insulation by the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Invasive Plant Inventory, by California’s Invasive Plant Council,” among others.
Mmmm, I just love me a good read on insulation levels while I soak in the tub.
So, the idea behind this is that children who pass through such a school system will be better prepared for the workplace, their brains packed with useful, practical knowledge rather than brimming with literary fluff (my personal summation). It has the backing of the National Governors’ Association, the Council of Chief of State School Officers, and even the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which partially funded the directive.
But is that estimate correct? Will reading more non-fiction in favor of fiction breed better writing, or more informed graduates? The discussion is extremely divided. One Arkansas teacher wrote in this Telegraph article,
In the end, education has to be about more than simply ensuring that kids can get a job. Isn’t it supposed to be about making well-rounded citizens?
Meanwhile, another reader weighed in for the pros of teaching more scientific texts:
I don’t understand how adding non-fiction books to reading lists REDUCES imagination. Hard science is all about imagination–the “what ifs” of nature and the universe… I am sick of English professors acting like English Literature is the only bastion of imagination/critical thinking/culture.
When I first read that article stating that The Catcher in the Rye and other novels specifically would be gone from curriculums nation-wide, I was alarmed and frightened, though I now know it was needlessly so. The reactions of protesters are a tad hyperbolic, given that the two soporific texts I named above are found amongst a long list of alternate suggestions in various subjects, for instance Circumference: Eratosthenes and the Ancient Quest to Measure the Globe by Nicholas Nicastro, and The Hot Zone: A Terrifying True Story by Richard Preston, interesting and well-written books in their own right. English Literature classes will not be barred from teaching certain classic novels, as some of the reports would have you believe, though they may have more limited time to teach them than before. Yes, the school system will be changed and possibly not for the better, but Salinger and Lee aren’t going anywhere.
All in all, the arguments for both sides make overblown assumptions: on the one, that students will miraculously be better prepared for the job market, on the other, that all imagination and creativity will be drained from impressionable young adults. So, which side do you stand on, if either? Is the teaching of informational texts merited, or best left to vocational studies? Tell us in a comment below!
The intersection of science and play.
We are taught from a young age that authority in any academic realm must be allocated to adults only–or more specifically grey haired men in tweed jackets staring down their noses at us from in front of a chalkboard or behind a cluttered desk. But when we think about the fundamentals of Science, a field that in its research requires constant questioning and experimentation, who better to contribute to its innovation than the naturally curious? In his TED talk above, neuroscientist Beau Lotto tells why children make the best scientists.
Evolution’s solution to uncertainty is play… Play is the only human endeavor where uncertainty is celebrated. When you add rules to play, you have a game. And that’s what an experiment is–a game…
Armed with these two ideas that science is a way of being and experiments are play, we asked, “Can anyone become a scientist?” And who better to ask than twenty-five 8-10 year old children? Because they’re experts in play.
With this idea in mind, Lotto turned to a primary school in Devon, England, to create a program in which children would be given the opportunity to act as scientists. He was granted no funding for this idea, as “scientists said children couldn’t make a strong contribution to science, and teachers said kids couldn’t do it.” Teachers, if you can believe it, had no faith in the capabilities of young people. Lotto went through with it anyway.
His first step in the program was to have the students ask questions. The results?
Five of the questions the students came up with were questions that were the basis of science publication in the last 5-15 years. They were asking questions that were significant to expert scientists.
This gave Lotto and his colleagues the impetus to turn the group of children into full-fledged scientists, an idea that amazingly resulted in the peer-reviewed publication of 10-year old Amy O’Toole’s science paper. She joins Lotto onstage to describe the inspiring journey from early hypothesis to academic acceptance.
I strongly suggest you watch this video, if not to be inspired by the true capabilities of children (despite the misgivings of teachers, scientists, and most adults), then to rethink how good scientific thought requires our embrace of uncertainty.
College professors have been bemoaning the lack of solid writing skills in their students for decades (see this article from 1974 for proof), but statistics gathered over the past few years suggest that student writing skills are in an even more dismal state than they were in 1974. Today, 28% of college graduates produce writing that rates as deficient, even with tuition reaching record rates and many colleges being more selective than ever. These poor writing skills have had serious ramifications not only in higher education but in the business world, as our information-driven society makes it ever more critical for students to develop the ability to communicate through the written word.
While it’s easy to point out the problem, it’s much harder to figure out a solution. A promising first step can be to pinpoint just what is causing students to arrive and leave college without the skills they’ll need to get by in the real world. That’s easier said than done. The decline of writing abilities in students is a multifaceted issue, impacted by teachers, students, and administrators alike and encompassing all elements of writing education from support to motivation. While not comprehensive, this list addresses some of the biggest reasons so many students struggle with writing in colleges today, from freshman year to graduation.
Does more equal better? When it concerns students’ essay scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SATs), that may well be the case. Milo Beckman, a fourteen-year-old student at Stuyvesant High School in New York conducted a study among his peers after becoming frustrated with the scores he received on the exam. Beckman took the exam twice, and to his surprise, discovered that his second test scored higher than the first, although he deemed the first attempt to be superior in quality. The second essay he wrote was considerably longer, but not, in the students’ opinion, as well written.
Beckman then polled 115 students who had taken the exam in his school, asking them to count the number of words they had written. The students who wrote lengthier essays almost always received a higher score, despite the quality of the content. Beckman’s results were confirmed by MIT professor Les Pereleman. (Read the full story as first reported by Elisabeth Leamy of ABC’s Good Morning America here.)
In other testing news, it is not just students who are being graded. Increasingly, teachers are being held accountable for the performance of their students. Houston, Texas is the latest city to announce that teachers’ jobs will no longer rely solely on evaluations by their principals. Until this year, 99% of teachers received satisfactory performance scores based on personal reviews. However, now student test scores will play a much greater role in deciding who is hired and fired.