Cart Before Horse?

Maybe we’ve got it all wrong. Chicago Public Schools, like other school systems around the country, has taken NCLB to heart and framed the school day around the subjects that are subject to high stakes testing: language arts and math. “Literacy blocks” and “math blocks,” sometimes lasting two hours and usually in the primetime part of the school day … early morning, have become standard operating procedure, carrying high stakes consequences for those teachers and principals who swim against that current to focus on other aspects of children’s education.

But what if language arts and math don’t belong in the lead? Suppose they are more the cart than the horse? What would that supposition look like?

Let’s imagine a different kind of school day, one framed around science (including engineering), social studies (including cultures and languages), the arts (including design), coding (and other technology), and physical education. Let’s call that the Future Common Core. It wouldn’t preclude taking language arts skills and math skills occasionally out of the context of our new core subjects to address certain discrete skills. But it would reshape children’s experience of school and return us to a more sensible interpretation of what constitutes a good education and being an educated person. It would get to the meat of why humanity learns to read and learns to compute and to the meatier, and therefore more engaging, matter for learning.

Science at the Center = Student Fascination  with the World and Active Engagement in Learning

Science at the Center = Student Fascination with the World and Active Engagement in Learning (dissecting owl pellets for the skeletons they contain)

Children, like all human beings, learn to read and learn to compute in order to engage more fully in the world … the world of our own individual self, of others, of ideas, of things, of nature and of life itself. Reading is not the end … it is the means to a larger end. We read to expand our understanding of ourselves, of others, and of the planet we all share. Our inborn curiosity about those things drives our desire to read. We compute in order to understand them better, to have some measure of control over the world we live in, how we live in it, and how we can improve it.

If we want our children to read and compute well and with deep understanding, shouldn’t we start with the horse? Shouldn’t we consider starting each day not with decontextualized reading or math skills but with the stuff that sparks in children a desire to know, to learn, to engage? As education author Alfie Kohn argues, “Maybe the problem is that the educational environment emphasizes how well students are doing rather than what they’re doing: It’s all about achievement! performance! results! rigor! and not about the learning itself.”

Science is a likely candidate to begin to move the cart to a more appropriate position. Kids love science, if it isn’t memorizing vocabulary words or reading science textbooks as the primary means of access. If it’s becoming scientists, doing science hands-on minds-on, they are all in! And when they are all in, they want to know more. Science drives reading and not the other way around. Science drives math in the same way. So can engineering. Or social studies. Or the arts. And what about sports science? Bring physical education, science, and math together. Seems like kids might find that irresistible. Integration is the key. And relevance drives rigor.

Under our current system, it is far less likely that students will ever read Charles Dickens. Fiction is being granted less time in today’s schools. But it behooves those of us who were more fortunate, who grew up, educationally speaking, in kinder and gentler times, who didn’t spent endless days every year taking standardized tests to learn how pitifully we were doing, in fact, who were tested only at two benchmark grades during their elementary years, and yet, survived to become literate, numerate, civically engaged, and productive members of society … it behooves us to point out that we have been here before. The spirit that reigns in many U.S. schools today was chronicled by Charles Dickens in Hard Times (1854), which indeed they were.

In Chapter 2, we find little Sissy Jupe being grilled for her definition of a horse. Sissy is a circus child. Her father trains horses, and she has been around them all her young life. But she fails the test. The founder of the school, Thomas Gradgrind, questions her:

“’Girl number twenty … Give me your definition of a horse.’

(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)
‘Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!’ said Mr Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. ‘Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse.’

‘Bitzer,’ said Thomas Gradgrind. ‘Your definition of a horse.’
‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.
‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’”

“THOMAS GRADGRIND, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir — peremptorily Thomas — Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic.” And Sissy’s teacher? Why, Mr. M’Choakumchild. Recognize anyone you know?

The not so venerable Thomas Gradgrind, Henry French illustration for Hard Times

The not so venerable Thomas Gradgrind, Henry French illustration for Hard Times, 1877.

It’s well worth reading this prescient chapter. It describes an educational system that has sucked the joy out of learning and turned children into little automatons able only to regurgitate dry facts on command and only rewarded when they do. And that system was a failure.

Today, we are in great danger of devolving to that grim, factory-like, Victorian education Dickens portrays, if we continue to misconstrue the point of learning. It isn’t to score well on standardized tests of the narrowest range of facts and skills, with science and other subjects fairly marginalized, particularly around testing times, which have come to be year round. What is tested is what is assumed to be most important and consequently what is given the greatest focus and the most substantial resources. But the real purpose of education is to become lifelong, deeply thoughtful, learners and engaged productive citizens. That demands that we take great care not to drive the enthusiasm for learning real and fascinating things from the hearts and minds of our children. People who haven’t had their curiosity squelched are more likely to get us to that next game-changing breakthrough or to help solve those big societal problems. At the very least, they will raise their children to like school and to find relevance in what happens there – namely a genuine education.

Now for a modest proposal (nods to Jonathan Swift). Let’s consider reframing our school day around, for example, science (my preference) or social studies, with language arts and math supporting children learning those subjects, and let’s see where that takes us … first in envisioning the resulting schools and classrooms and then into an education policy (with accompanying resources) that would bring that vision to fruition. Using a more integrated approach, consistent with the NGSS tie-in of the CCSS in ELA and Math, at the minimum, things might become a bit more balanced; the horse might actually get back in front of the cart where he rightfully belongs and take us to where we really intend to go, and, most importantly, it will be someplace worth going.

~ Penny

You can learn more about Golden Apple’s Inquiry Science Institute here.


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Filed under Alfie Kohn, education policy, Inquiry Science Institute, NCLB, Uncategorized

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