Are basic skills eluding our students?
The purpose of my visit with Joe Ford was to learn about his professional pursuits. He recently graduated from UNH with a degree in, of all things, zoology. The word itself makes me smile and reflect back on my tender childhood years, as it was my first professional ambition and probably my most complicated vocabulary word. But my absolute dread of cows quickly put an end to that aspiration.
At the end of the interview, I asked Joe how well prepared he was for college. As one of my school’s best students, I was probably fishing for praise and adoration, but got neither.”Terrible,” he said. “School was too easy.” He said he learned the basics to be sure, but not the study habits, self-discipline, or work ethic. In high school, top grades came effortlessly, he added. College was a struggle, but eventually he figured it out and did well.While I never had Joe as a student, I took his criticism to heart. Few of us seek out life’s challenges, but most of us learn greatly from them. A recent survey of eighth-graders showed U.S. students slipping further behind their international contemporaries, but what was most alarming was the level of confidence our students had in their own shabby academic abilities.When the survey asked students to rate their own competencies, the U.S. students gave themselves glowing marks, higher than any other country.Annoyed, I store this all away for later. The time comes during my third period class, and when their ritualistic groans begin – “Why are we writing so much?” one moans, “This is social studies, not language arts” – I unload it all, the story and the statistics, but first I make them write.Then we move on to a self-assessment of their own writing abilities with each student publicly sharing a specific skill they’re good at and one that needs work.I feel more like a coach than a teacher, drilling my students on skills that need sharpening.I took the word “tangential” from a principal’s observation and stuck it on the wall as a reminder. Experts say that instruction should be split evenly between content and skills. After dipping into a content-full lecture, how much moisture is retained at the end of the term, year, or beyond? Can kids live healthy, productive lives without knowing the principal causes of World War I?Curious, I quiz myself from one of my old, forgotten tests. I could only answer a few of the essay questions. Maybe it’s age. I remember that I once could name all the presidents in order, but now I’m stumped by the names of my own children.My students can live without my adored content, but not the basic skills and essential work habits – all that come from nothing short of hard work and practice.Jeff Woodburn of Dalton is a frequent contributor to New Hampshire Business Review.