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  • Writer's pictureDr. Kristen Mattson

The Devil is In the Details

Just last week I engaged in a philosophical debate on Twitter. I typically enjoy talking with people who stretch my thinking, but during this particular exchange, I just ended up frustrated. The person I was conversing with kept insisting that there is no longer any real value to public education. While I think we have a long way to go to be the best we can be, I would argue that as an institution, we have a lot to offer. The final Tweet I received from this individual was a link to a Facebook post he claimed, “you just cannot argue with.” While I will not reprint the entire post here, you can read it for yourself if you like.

In general, the author of the Facebook post talks about all of the pointless “things” he was forced to learn in school and why he doesn’t need them in “real life”. While this author clearly intended to bash the public school system, I think he is sending a bigger message than he actually realizes . You see, what both this Facebook writer and my Twitter debate opponent fail to realize is that the devil is in the details of schooling.

Too often, people look at school from a bird’s-eye view. They remember what school was like for them as a child and then see similar content coming home with their own children in the form of text books, novels, and homework assignments. Assumptions are made that school sure hasn’t changed much. For those of us in the school systems, however, we know that change has been happening rapidly in the last decade and will continue to do so with the increase in access to instructional technology and the growing movements toward skill-based standards and grade reporting. I think it is important to hear the voices of those who have been through our system, but it is also important to educate them on the ways this system has changed.

So, without further ado, my response to the Facebook post “The Ultimate Cheat Sheet on Having a Complete Education.” The author begins,

“MATH – I’ve been a computer programmer, an entrepreneur, an investor, day trader, etc. All areas that needed “math”.  The highest level of math I needed to know in the past 25 years …Percentages. Like… how to do them in my head quickly. That’s it. You don’t need Calculus. You never need to know what an integral is. You don’t need geometry. I consider myself educated but if you ask me to define an “isosceles” triangle I wouldn’t be able to do it.”

Now I am not a math person. In my own life, I do not use much more mathematics than this writer does, but to say that upper level mathematics is a waste of time is a fallacy. Through mathematics courses I learned to reason abstractly, persevere in problem solving, stretch my thinking beyond what I thought was possible. I learned how to look at data and question it, its meaning, its relationship to other data. These skills have served me well as I look at statistics with a critical eye or come up against problems that require me to push through and keep going. Studying mathematics gives all of us a better idea of how and why the world works. While I may not have gone into a mathematically heavy field, would anyone actually pursue those types of careers had they not been exposed to the material? Today’s math teachers have begun to move beyond the “how” of math to the “why.” As our world increasingly moves toward a technological based society in which ideas, not manual labor are valuable, our students will need to be able to think abstractly while also maintaining reason and logic – all skills that upper level math courses help foster.

“LITERATURE. First off, here’s what you DON’T need to know: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Emerson, F Scott Fitzgerald …”

So obviously this guy has something against the classics, and depending upon how he was taught, I might be able to understand why. At face value, classic literature can seem boring to a teenage boy. But, there is something about this literature that keeps us coming back to it. Even movie makers are still retelling the classic tales of Romeo & Juliet, Gatsby, and Huck Finn. Why do these pieces last? Because of their classic themes. Even though Gatsby was written nearly 90 years ago, our society is still dealing with greed, corruption, selfishness, marital dishonesty, poor parenting, and the like. Reading classic literature gives students an opportunity to discuss these serious social issues in a way that is not personal or intimidating. Is it not also important for students to know that even though time has progressed, humans are essentially still the same at heart? Why not read To Kill A Mockingbird? Sure, we are no longer segregated by black and white, but we still have issues of segregation today – specifically in legal rights for same-sex couples. If students can see the injustice and discrimination in a novel and make connections to current issues, powerful change is possible. Sure, it takes a good teacher to help students move beyond the literal text and into the deeper conversations about these themes, but literature can help build empathy, understanding, and cultural perspective when it is taught well.

“SCIENCE: you actually need to know NOTHING. Biology textbooks are hopelessly outdated. As are physics textbooks. There are better resources online where you can learn faster without the pressure of tests and homework. But unless you are doing CPR soon, you don’t need to know anything.”

This statement baffles me more than anything. Sure, text books may become outdated, but this man foolishly assumes that teachers and students are not accessing a plethora of materials, both print and digital. And do we really not need science? I would hate to see where this guy would be without some basic courses in human biology and sex education. He may have a point about tests and homework being the wrong way to learn about science, but there are plenty of teachers who present these concepts in hands-on, interactive, real-world ways. Without science education and exposure, we would be a society without doctors, pharmacists, meteorologists, forensic researchers. Seriously –  even a meth cook knows a little chemistry!

 “Here’s the other thing about history classes. They try to give complicated justifications for wars. Wars have never created peace. They only create more wars and kill lots of 18 year olds.”

Ironically, this man makes an assertion he probably could not have come to without some exposure to historical content and thinking in school. If we want students to be informed voters who can question the world around them, make positive decisions about their role in this world, and be leaders in society, they must know some history and be able to think critically about it.  The real challenge for educators is making sure that our history courses aren’t filled with fact delivery. Students need to be taught to read multiple sources of history with a critical eye for the perspectives they present and whose agenda they serve. We need to teach students how to discern fact from opinion, political propaganda from political promise, and biased from unbiased sources of information. All of these skills can, and should, be taught through the content of the history course.

“This is almost all you need to know. If you know how to communicate, do percentages, understand that almost all history is lies and that all science is questionable (not in a religious way but actually in a scientific way), then you can succeed in life.”

So, if history is lies, science is questionable, classical literature is a waste of time, and all you need to calculate are percentages, our students should be able to walk away from us around the 8th grade. But instead, we continue to push and challenge, enroll them into rigorous courses, expose them to content they may never use in the “real world,” but when they leave us at the end of 12th grade, their learning journey has really just begun. So why? Why is all of this non-crucial content continuously taught when all students have the collective knowledge of the world at their fingertips? Well, for one, they need to know how to navigate all of that knowledge. They need to know how to read it, question it, critique and apply it. Students need to be able to collaborate, think critically and creatively, persevere to achieve their goals.

While many outside of education might look at our institution and continue to see the content they were exposed to as students, we know that the devil is in the details. The content is nothing more than a tool in the hands of a gifted educator who is equipping her students with the twenty-first century skills necessary to be whatever they want to  be.

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