Balance Amid Extremes - Part 5
In these posts, we have considered the benefits of balance and recognized that there is an imbalance in current educational efforts, which favors the sciences over the humanities, and has caused colleges and businesses to spend millions of dollars for remedial classes in basic skills that could have been taught in elementary and middle school. We noted that some of history's best thinkers were well-schooled in the humanities and in the sciences, that work ethics as well as academics benefit students, and that making connections between the two hemispheres of the brain is key to learning. So, how can balance in education be achieved?
First, it is not an overnight process as politicians and rhetoricians may lead us to believe. It has taken over a hundred years for our culture to stray from the well-rounded education that most Americans received in one-room schoolhouses, from private tutors, or at select schools. The current trends in education for the masses were seeded as the U.S. became more industrialized and less rural. No longer was basic education, reading-writing-arithmetic, needed for the purpose of running a family business; education became focused upon making good workers to fill the need of large industry.
One of the early steps in mass education reform of the 20th century was to fragmentize the course work. Once students reached middle school or junior high school, they no longer stayed with one teacher to study all subjects. They were to move at 45- to 55-minute increments to a different room to study a different subject with a different teacher who was specialized in one subject. The connections between the subjects frayed and often were broken completely. Even in the elementary grades, the subjects are broken into time periods each day, with the expectation that the subjects are only taught at specific times.
To counter this imbalance and rigidity, some programs have been implemented in various schools ‒ public charter, private, and home ‒ that totally remove structure and blend the subjects together so that essential analysis of each is often lost. Think of one's education as a dinner plate filled with foods from a buffet. The fragmented form of teaching can be compared to all foods in separate bowls and eaten only at a specific time during the day or only on a certain day. The blended model can become so muddled that it is like taking all the food on the plate, pouring it into a food processor and pureeing it together to make one big bowl of mush that may or may not have complementary flavors.
Granted, these are extreme analogies, but in asking students to relate one subject to another ‒ for example, literature to history ‒ many either see no relation between subjects, or they give a reply which sounds academic but actually makes little or no sense and is full of logical fallacies.
Continuing with the dinner plate analogy, the entrée of education should be a healthy portion of the essential proteins: reading, writing, and arithmetic, each used significantly in the comprehension of the other subjects on the plate, just as proteins are needed for digestion. Those subjects that rely heavily on the essentials, particularly science, history, literature, and foreign language are the fruits and vegetables needed for good health. Physical education can be compared to the starches often served with a meal to provide energy and endurance. The food on the plate often mixes, with flavors mingling, or are prepared together as in the case of a casserole or salad to provide maximum flavor as well as nutrition.
As students mature, the proteins of reading-writing-arithmetic are mixed in with the other subjects. Obviously, reading is needed to gain and comprehend knowledge of every subject; synthesizing and sharing that knowledge rely upon writing. However, just being literate usually is not enough to comprehend a subject thoroughly and be able to evaluate and apply the information. Thus, reading and writing instruction is needed throughout the education process. Math's relationship with the sciences is undeniable, but math is also necessary for understanding other subjects such as history and art. No subject stands alone just as no nutrient is sufficient alone.
Ideally, students have continual exposure to the various subject matters and are shown as they learn the connections between subjects. This interaction cannot occur when subjects are studied in isolation. One cannot thoroughly comprehend the writing of Shakespeare without knowing the historical, political, and philosophical influences on his writing. A child more thoroughly understands the metamorphosis of a caterpillar not only by observing, but also by reading, writing, and drawing about it. How can this sort of education be achieved?
Every year in the United States the number of students in home schools and private schools increases. Even in public schools, the creation of charter schools and tracking have given students alternatives to the subject isolation that has plagued American schools for decades. Though isolation of a subject to some extent can be beneficial at higher levels of learning, no subject is truly independent from other subjects, and identifying the connections between subjects only increases the chance that neural connections will be made within the brains of students and learning will be strengthened.
Unfortunately, there is no magic method to make every child learn and think like DaVinci, Pascal, or Franklin (if that's the goal). Neither can every child have a private tutor to design a comprehensive program to complement the child's unique gifts and talents. Homeschooling, for some, comes close to making connections for students, but many a well-intentioned homeschooling parent does not understand the connections between subjects if she herself has never been taught or has never experienced the connections. There are some good curriculum programs and methods to aid those homeschooling teachers in teaching connections, but a parent must study the options to make the best choice for her students. (The web sites for those with which I am most familiar that strive to make some connections between subjects are listed below.)
Even the best curriculum relies upon the teacher to understand the connections and the need for the child to identify the connections.
Private and charter schools as well as home schools often rely upon interdisciplinary unit studies, which can be great if they are not one-time events in the school year. Building from one unit study to another while identifying the connections between unit studies is a method which has been shown to benefit students. Again, care must be taken not to make the unit studies isolated events. To avoid such isolation within public and private schools, teachers must have close working relationships. Departments may best be divided by grade levels or by student groups rather than by subjects to insure the connections between subjects are evident to students.
With many large technical universities partnering with liberal arts colleges or pairing their own humanities programs with their science and engineering programs to prepare graduates for the workplace with communication and critical thinking skills as well as technical skills, secondary and elementary education must follow suite to present the "big picture" of learning across the curriculum to provide students in any type of school with the understanding and neural connections for a well-balanced education that promotes the critical thinking needed beyond the classroom.