One of the biggest disconnects in education is the leap that so many K12 classes make between the low-level elements of a given subject and certain fuzzy heights of abstraction or fuzzy breadths of big picturism.
Tuesday, April 5, 2011
In math, it's either low-level "math facts" and terminology (7 + 8, 7 × 8, "liter," "ray," "kite," "box and whiskers," and "number sentence"), or "meta-cognitive" reflection and interdisciplinary/arts & crafts projects (explain why your answer is correct; reflect on what you still need to work on; invent a game using everything you know about math).
In social studies, it's either memorizing names, places, and terminology (who was William Penn; where is New England; what does "colony" mean) or broader themes (genocide; racism) or big projects (choose a country and write a travel brochure; invent a culture).
In K12 writing classes, it's either individual words (spelling words, learning their definitions, or identifying their parts of speech), or paragraphs and beyond (the 5-paragraph essay, the personal reflection, the narrative, etc.).
In foreign language, there's a similar leap from word-level (vocabulary) to the level of conversational utterances (what's now called "communicative competence").
And, looking beyond the classroom and backwards into the pre-K years to therapies for autism, there's a parallel leap between the words and categories of Applied Behavioral Analysis and the naturalistic conversational pragmatics of DIR/Floor Time and Sally Rogers.
What lies between? What links the levels together and is all-too-often ignored by today's teachers and therapists? Structure.
There's the mathematical structure of arithmetic and beyond, complete with the conceptual connections among addition, subtraction, multiplication and division; the standard algorithms of arithmetic; the base 10 number system; and the interrelationships between them all.
There's the chronological, causal, and geographic structure of history (it's telling that while memorizing names and terminology is still popular, memorizing dates and sequences and global and relative locations is not): the matrix into which all the facts fall and become meaningful and memorable, and from which the broader themes emerge.
There's sentence structure or syntax: the multiple ways to structure sentences and what to consider in picking the one that best delivers the message and best links up with and flows into the adjacent sentences.
And there's the overall grammar of language: the multi-tiered structure that combines words together in the specific ways that make communication possible.
Why do so many educators (and autism experts) neglect these things? Is structure too dry and abstract; too hard to teach; presumed to be too hard to learn? Or, in our right-brain world, do people simply forget, or want to forget, that structure even exists?
So here's to making structure the centerpiece of instruction. After all, the route to mathematical understanding is understanding mathematical structure; the route to understanding history is acquiring an organized, fact-rich, core knowledge of history; the route to writing well is choosing among the myriad ways to structure sentences (for any given message, there are almost always more syntax-level options than there are options at the level of word choice); and the route to learning a new language (or mastering your first language) is understanding how the words fit together into grammatical structures.
Without structure, the basic elements are meaningless, unmemorable dross; the abstractions and big picture are a messy, uninteresting blur; and conceptual understanding--true conceptual understanding--however promisingly it sparkles in the distance, remains forever out of reach.