With increasing emphasis being put on, and federal money being put into, teaching "reading" better in schools, a number of apparently successful diagnostic and prescriptive teaching programs have been developed by private companies and are being sold to schools. As I understand it, while teachers will need to work conscientiously to use them well, they will not have to be experts themselves in diagnosing student skill levels or problems, and they will not have to develop their own remediation or enhancement practices for each student. In some cases schools with perennially lower reading scores have shown tremendous improvement in student reading ability and interest after some of these programs have been instituted. This article presumes then that schools will successfully be able to teach students to read. I want to argue that will not be sufficient, and it will not solve most of the problems education has now, even with regard to teaching reading, for it may produce those who read only beach novels, best sellers, a small range of self-improvement or home-improvement prescriptive types of works, and the "news headline crawl" at the bottom of the tv screen.
What is equally important is that students learn to read, comprehend, and appreciate reading, serious descriptive, factual works, essays and editorial types of works, and that they learn how to analyze and evaluate what they read (or hear in speech), and learn to think about it, and its signficance, in logical and meaningful ways. Except here and there in the classrooms of a few exceptional teachers, that is not generally done, even with students who are excellent readers. Reading should be about understanding facts and ideas and their significance, not just decoding printed symbols in order to say them out loud or "in one's head" or repeat them in writing or out loud for tests. What we want ultimately are students who not only know facts and ideas that they have found out from reading, listening, or observing, but students who can understand and evaluate facts and their significance, students who can improve upon ideas they have gleaned from reading, listening, and observing, and students who can explain in speech, writing, and/or graphic or video form what those improvements are. Reading, writing, listening, speaking, and math should be treated as components of thinking, understanding, and communicating, not ends in themselves.
In short, schools need to (learn to) teach for understanding all kinds of things, not just concentrate on teaching basic math, reading, and writing skills. Doing math calculations and being able to read and write are means to using math and writing, not ends in themselves. It is understanding and using ideas or being able to use math to solve real problems or discover interesting ideas that is important. In itself, it is generally not particularly important just to be able to read a passage out loud or quote in recitation or writing what someone else said or what is in a book. Those activities typically are important ends only in academic types of tests, not in daily life. Nor is it important just to be able to do calculations that someone else has set up for you. Probably the main reason students have so much difficulty with math "word problems" is not that they cannot "read" the problems, but that they cannot understand what the problem is asking or the math that would help them discover the answer. They know how to do calculations (already laid out for them) but do not know when to use them or what what purpose they might serve. Often they cannot understand or appreciate the significance of the information the problem is giving them from which they must develop and deduce the answer. It is not reading or calculating that is the problem, but understanding the words and their logical significance -- being able to think about, or "think through", the problem until they can see a way to solve it, or at least make some progress in seeing what it might take to be able to solve it. Instead many kids just figure they can't do it or they plug some numbers from the problem into some formula they think might have something to do with it, and computer the answer the formula gives, even if none of it makes any sense to them.
In a piece with this, schools also need to teach better decision-making and dispute-resolution based on evidence and logic, whether in science or social studies, government and economics, or in personal life. Disputes and disagreements often have a logic to them that helps point toward a mutually acceptable resolution. Teaching for logic and understanding in the first place, as above, would be a giant step toward helping students learn how to settle disagreements and disputes rationally -- dispute resolution being a skill that is sorely lacking among adults in our society. But instead, schools today tend to delay social and emotional maturity by simply requiring or forbidding specific student behaviors instead of fostering emotional maturity and ethical-thinking skills based on rational principles, practice at decision making, and supervised and rationally guided dispute resolution. And we all pay for that by having paralyzing, polarizing, political debates that resolve nothing, and only set occasional courses when one side has sufficient power to institute a program, whether that program is of any real value or not.
Ethical skills are not developed in schools because people mistakenly believe that teaching ethics means teaching specific values -- which is a controversial and undesirable thing to do -- instead of teaching about the most important and useful concepts, language, and principles of ethics in a way that fosters personal responsibility and more effective and productive social discourse about ethical issues or about any kind of disagreement or dispute -- which would be a desirable thing to do. As of now when we see disputes being argued in newspaper editorials, letters to the editor, city halls, or on television, whether in the political or personal arena, each side just keeps saying its own points louder and more frequently, hoping they can sway enough people to their point of view, instead of acknowledging the real pros and cons of both sides and trying to discover a solution that maximizes the benefits and minimizes the burdens of the situation. Each side is so wed to its own proposed solution, and moderators are so often wed to the idea that the two sides are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive of all the possibilities that little progress is made in areas where a great deal might otherwise be made if people would examine the issues reasonably instead of posturing to a constituency that knows little and cares less about reasoning and understanding. Even the problems being argued about are not generally stated in the clearest and most enlightened way.
Coming from a different direction, Bill Gates has recently entered the debate about what schools should teach students so they can be prepared to compete globally in the technological market place, instead of the 19th century industrial market place. But if we only teach students for the modern workplace, they will be no better off when the next radical changes come about in the workplace, and they will not be any better off at all in their personal lives or in proposing or evaluating social changes and legislation. Schools should, I believe, of course, teach practical things, but that should include the fundamentals of money management, as well as some sort of anthropological/sociological/psychological/philosophical/political science perspective of relationships besides workplace technology skills. And schools should also, as above, teach for understanding so that when technology and social changes occur, it is not so difficult for people to learn what they need in order to adapt, adjust, or transcend them.
People who are only taught by rote to follow certain policies and procedures, instead of being taught the underlying governing principles that justify and determine those policies and protocols, are lost when circumstances change. People who have understanding can normally respond much more quickly and much better to change, whether it is in a math class where problems have been modified from the examples first given, or in a social, business, or economic environment where new factors have been introduced. Such understanding is important for those who drive the economic system as for those driven by it. It is not only important for workers to be able to adjust to changes in the financial system; it is important for those with social and economic influence to try to make transitions as unnecessary or as easy and reasonable as possible. That might mean casting the notion of work in a different light altogether. It might mean instituting employment insurance programs that pay people to retrain when their specific job becomes eliminated. It might mean trying to find ways to spread out leisure more reasonably and fairly as globalization and technology make life easier, healthier, and more comfortable. It might mean helping people change to a less materialistic and superficial lifestyle, making them happier and better off.
But whatever it might mean, it will require more people who can come up with new ideas and explain them in a reasonable, persuasive, and clear manner. And it will require there being a public that can evaluate them in a reasonable way and respond accordingly. Schools should be about developing communication and thinking skills. Teaching the basics of reading, writing, and math are just a part of that -- a basic part and a foundational part, but they are not sufficient.
Finally, I believe that students often will find challenging thinking much more interesting, stimulating, and educationally motivating than doing single-purpose drills or reading passages and taking basic, "surface" quizzes on them. If reading, writing, listening, speaking, and math were taught as components of thinking about challenging ideas, instead of as self-contained, narrow skill-development exercises, they would actually learn to read, write, listen, speak, and do math more effectively and more efficiently. They would seek to learn more on their own. And they would enjoy learning and thinking far more than they do now.