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How much time does your child spend each day studying mathematics and reading? How long do they study science, history, social studies, geography, music, art, and physical education? If your child's school is like many others across the country the answer may well be, "Ahhhhh, not much." In our zeal to produce higher test scores in math and reading...the gold standard of proof of the well educated child...these other disciplines are being all but ignored. More and more time is being devoted to these two grail subjects and yet our children's academic performance as measured by standardized tests continues to deteriorate. Administrators across the country are scratching their heads in confusion and exclaiming with bemused expressions on their faces, "How can that possibly be?"
Nature got it right. The cross-pollination of two different plants can yield a stronger, more productive, and more beautiful hybrid. The same is true when education includes the cross-fertilization of ideas across disciplines. Our schools are failing today not because we're not trying hard enough as a society, but because we've all forgotten lessons from the birds and the bees. We've forgotten that everything is interconnected. By ignoring these connections...this cross-pollination of ideas...we've eliminated point of reference from education. Think of it this way. How many of you sat in a geometry class breezing through question after question because you also had an interest in pool, or quilting, or construction? You could relate the concepts you were learning and see a real life application for them. Could studying geography or astronomy give this same advantage to other students when they had cross knowledge discipline to see the usefulness of the relationship between angles and distance?
Robert Schwartz, in a recent article for The Huffington Post, relates his experience teaching a group of elementary school teachers how to teach science. Three years before the passage of NCLB these teachers had been "ordered" by administration to teach nothing but math and reading to their students in an effort to improve test scores. Science had been all but eliminated fromn the school's curriculum. But Schwartz's "premise was that science served as a hook, the way to engage students in a lesson, get them excited about reading about why it rained, measuring rainfall in centimeters, computing totals and averages and graphing the data longitudinally, and then writing and speaking about what they discovered." [SCHWARTZ] He believed, and rightly so, that the study of a third discipline could bring purpose and focus to the two subjects that were of interest to the administration of these teachers' school. Greg Toppo reported that a 2007 study in Science magazine found that "the typical child in the USA stands only a one-in-14 chance of having a consistently rich, supportive elementary school experience". [TOPPO] In one of the largest studies of how first, third, and fifth grade students spent their day it was found that 62% of instructional time was spent on literacy or math.
Fifty years ago American students were arguably the best educated students in the world. Fifty years ago American students were provided with a rich and varied curriculum that included a mere hour or two each day working on math and reading. The rest of the typical student's day included classes in science, history, social studies, art, and music. Students took field trips to zoos, libraries, concerts, bakeries, and fire stations. They had formal physical education classes and extended recess periods where they could run off some energy and be ready to concentrate for the afternoon. Teachers had time to allow their students to explore all the ways that the world around them was interconnected. Music and science related to math. History related to geography. Literature and art related to history. Art related to geometry. The interconnections between disciplines and the ideas they generated were limitless. There was always a subject to inflame each child's soul; a catalyst that would fan the spark of learning.
Fifty years ago teachers had the opportunity to practice a little xenogamy. Today...well, there's reading and math and math and reading...and an entire generation of students starving for education.