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Elementary education in America: Is it really that bad?

There’s a prevailing attitude – especially among immigrant parents – that American elementary education is inferior to other countries because we give our kids crutches from the start in the form of calculators for math and computers for everything else. This is a grossly misrepresented and overblown point of criticism for our education system, not to mention the blatant contradiction that these very same parents move to America to provide their children with first and foremost a better education.

The evolution of teaching proceeded as follows (an unscientific and unofficial description): It started with stone tablets and progressed with the abacus, invention of chalk (was chalk invented?), advent of the printing press, and then finally calculators and computers. I would argue that the potential of a people is limited to a great extent by the tools at its disposal. Of course, a certain populace is always hard at work designing new tools, but for the majority who work to sustain the American living standard (which by the way, is aspired to throughout the world), their lifestyle and even work descriptions are determined by their repertoire.

I argue that with the ease and ubiquity with which technology now pervades our daily lives, children don’t need to know how to do long multiplication and division in their heads – just like they don’t need to know where the sugar they put in their food comes from or how it’s made. The implementation of technology in the classroom is not making students dumber; it’s raising the base level of learning students need to get by in the world. Since we can only designate so many years of their lives to bring children “up to speed,” certain changes had to be made to keep the pedagogy from becoming outmoded in the face of an evolving inventory of tools. Simply stated, how will we make new discoveries if we’re spending the middle-school years teaching long division and the high-school years memorizing trigonometric tables? When will the students learn about the new discoveries in their area of interest (not just mathematics) and when will they master the new tools to advance their field?

A changing toolset is accompanied by a change in the set of skills we develop and use, so while we’re certainly evolving in some areas of learning, we’re devolving in other, often complementary aspects. This is a necessary trade-off because we’re limited in time and ability to learn, perfect, and use new skills and tools. So while we consider being able to conduct research via the Internet progress, it comes at the cost of an increasing number of people not learning how to establish fruitful personal relationships with the sources the information ultimately comes from. In the very same way, the stronghold of technology in our lives bears the expense of Johnny not being able to calculate the tax on his grocery purchase without the help of his cell phone.

1 Comment

  1. March 14, 2007 at 2:46 pm

    Go here to read an entertaining rant about technological advancement and the subsequent dumbing down of society:

    http://www.wired.com/news/columns/0,72961-0.html?tw=wn_index_8

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