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School days, school days
Dear old golden rule days
Readin' and 'ritin' and 'rithmetic
Taught to the tune of the hickory stick
(Composer: Paul Lincke, 1907)
"In short, learning is the process by which novices become experts.
" (John T. Bruer; President, James S. McDonnell Foundation.)
Our current educational system tries to help all students gain
contemporary levels of expertise in reading, writing, arithmetic,
science, and certain other areas. This expectation is both a strength
and a weakness of the education system.
The first schools to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic were
developed about 5,000 years ago, somewhat after written language was
first developed. Thus, we have about 5,000 years of history,
experience, and research on how to help students gain useful levels of
expertise in reading, writing, and arithmetic. During that time,
contemporary standards for the level of expertise expected have gone up
considerably. Colleges and universities often require coursework in
Here is an interesting historical tidbit. The
original version of McGuffey’s Readers was published in 1836. During
the next 125 years, about 120 million sets of this seven book series
were sold. It is estimated that about 80% of students attending school
in the United States during the first 75 years of its availability used
this series of books.
Our educational system has come a long
way since the heydays of the McGuffey readers. Nowadays, more students
go to school; on average they stay in school much longer. An elementary
school level of education is no longer sufficient in our current,
rapidly changing society.
Here is a tough question. How does
one go about deciding on the level of expertise that schools (students)
should strive for in reading, writing, and arithmetic? A simple answer
is to have a widely accepted set of book (for example, in reading and
in math) and then set school the task of having students master the
contents of the books. This is especially simple in a one-room school
where students can be groups according to the progress they have made.
However, this approach is no longer in vogue. Among other things, we
have long known that students vary in their rate of learning and their
level of interest in “book learning.” Quoting Plato from about 2400
“Did you mean to say that one man may acquire a thing easily, another
with difficulty; a little learning will lead the one to discover a
great deal; whereas the other, after much study and application, no
sooner learns than he forgets?”
Looking at More Current
Over the past century our educational systems have had to deal with
steadily increasing understanding of individual differences, a steadily
growing totality of human knowledge, a rapidly changing world, and so
on. I find it helpful to make use of the following diagram.
We now know that it takes about 10,000 hours of concentrated
effort, along with the aid of good teachers and other aids to learning,
for a typical person to achieve somewhat near the highest level of
expertise they can achieve in a particular area. At the precollege
level, a school year is about 1,080 hours in length. Just for the fun
of it, think about a child learning the rudiments of reading, writing,
and arithmetic in the K-2 curriculum, and then devoting much of the
next 10 years of his or her schooling toward developing a very high
level of expertise in one area. Those 10 years would provide 10,000
years of school time to develop the high level of expertise in one
For most people, that approach is silly. What is less
silly, however, is that some children are provided with an in-school
and outside-of-school lifestyle in which they put in the 10,000 hours
of time in school following the regular curriculum, and put in nearly
an equal amount of time outside of school in an area such as art,
chess, computer games and other electronic entertainment, golf, math,
musical performance, tennis, and so on. That is, we know how to provide
precollege students with both a broad general education and the
opportunity to gain a high level of expertise in an area.
Looking into the
The totality of accumulated knowledge is growing far more rapidly than
in the past. The Internet and other technology both add to how fast we
can collect and store such knowledge, and how easily people can access
The learning time a person has available to
spend on informal and formal education—counting both outside of school
and inside of school—is limited. Thus, one goal of informal and formal
education should be to help students learn to make more wise decisions
about how they will use their learning time.
should also include a focus on roles of ICT both in having areas of
expertise (for example, digital art, digital music, computational
thinking) and in gaining the expertise (computer-assisted learning,
distance learning, computer simulations.)
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