Sunday, November 16, 2008

Teaching English

High Schools need to teach people few skills.  Give them some degree of numeracy, and teach people how to write.  Math is handled through subfields--Geometry, Algebra, Trigometry--which are fairly well divorced from the quantitative demands of a modern workplace.  Simple estimation, problem solving, data analysis, and computer skills (programming, modeling) seem much more important today, but are generally not taught.  

Writing is handled pretty poorly too.  Many people are very bad at this, even after spending as much as an eight of their total school career in English classes.  How does that happen?

Obviously it's going to be hard to teach people no matter what--especially as they get older, and given the poor quality of American teachers and the state of our knowledge of how people learn.  One thing that doesn't help is conflating "teach people how to write" with "teach people how to analyze literature." 

I've been trying to figure out why we spend thousands of hours on getting kids to understand Shakespeare, when teaching them to write and edit simple prose is so much more useful and also highly underprovided.  As far as I can figure out, this started on the University level in the late 19th century, as the German research model took over.  The justification for keeping disciplines became entirely dependent on research output, so English became a "science" just like any other, focused on textual analysis.  High Schools looked to Colleges for inspiration, and parents figured that as long as kids were reading and writing, they were doing well.  Plus you to satisfy that vague feeling that kids should read some English literature at some point for culture's sake.  

But this English racket doesn't make any sense.  Teaching writing primarily through the lens of literary criticism encourages a particular obscurantic style of writing and focuses on questionable methods of literary analysis at the expense of building basic skills.  If you go around online, you'll find many English teachers frustrated that they can't convey their love of literature to kids.  Tough.  None of them seem to question the whole notion of reading centuries old English literature to teach writing.  Fire the whole lot of them, kill the union, and hire the direct instruction people to improve the writing quality of high schoolers by a few standard deviations.  

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