Steve J. Moore

Educational Change in Finland; What Can We Learn?

In Writing on October 11, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Educational Change in Finland; What Can We Learn?

I recently finished this audio book on my commute to and from school. I really enjoyed hearing it spoken; my only problem was that I couldn’t stop to write notes and questions constantly that came up while I was listening. I will most certainly be returning to this book in its paper form so I can search out the many tables, figures, and points made about this fascinating topic.

I highly recommend this book if: you are concerned with the status quo in public and private American education; are feeling “stuck” in your current practice in school’ or, if you are just interested in how one system was transformed through a focus on research-based teacher prep, teacher autonomy, and a shared vision of the purpose of school.

Defining Literacy Today

In Culture, Education, identity, Literacy on April 6, 2009 at 9:29 am

While reading through my education-related feeds, I came to an interesting post on “The English Blog” written by Jeffery Hill.  He teaches overseas and blogs about learning, writing, and speaking English. I do not deal as often with learners of English as a second language, but his post brought up an interesting point.  His quote from a local radio program got me thinking:

“The ABCs are apparently no longer as easy as 1-2-3. Recent federal studies indicate that the average American teenager’s vocabulary is less than half that of the average teenager in the 1950s.”

This comment made me recount my recent lessons in English literacy through my undergraduate and graduate studies at Missouri State. Naturally, I read the post carefully a few times again and composed a response to outline my thinking:

“I think the valuable question we need to ask ourselves here is, “how important is knowing specific words to literacy?” Does knowing what “abscond” means help people to do business better? Does understanding what “ad hoc” means help you write a better poem or essay? Communication and composition are specific only to the environment that their authors occupy. People learn what they need to in order to accomplish their goals. If teens today know less words than their parents, then is it a crisis or a sign of shift in literacy? Maybe this generation is redifining the word.”

After I posted my reply, I sat back in thought.  Did I really think that a lack of vocabulary represented a shift in literacy or was I simply playing devil’s advocate to this easy-to-accept commentary on the lazy youth and their social media addiction? What research could I find to support my statement?

I turned to E.D. Hirsch Jr. and his best-selling book on cultural literacy in America. In this book, he has lists of words, dates, and phrases that “literate” Americans should know. Do you know the significance of 1066 CE? How about absolute zero or amicus curiae? These are supposed to be common terms that Mr. Hirsch requires of you. Maybe you happen to know when the Battle of Hastings was because you were a history or an English major in college, or because you were on the quizbowl team in high school, but otherwise why should you know it?

Of course, I would tell you that learning about the importance of historical events would enrich your life. If you know that the Normans defeated the English in 1066, then you may come to learn that this military event changed the face of the English language forever. Many of the French words present in our vernacular today were introduced by good ol’ Billy Conqueror via the sword and arrow.

That being said, would you really say to someone who didn’t know the significance of this date, “I’m sorry, but you are illiterate” ? I hope not. What kind of message would that send to people? I think Hirsch has only the best intentions in mind as he writes that you should know what “aeschylus” means. He is saying that you should want to be smarter (and I agree). He says only 2/3 of our society (in America) is truly literate. Is there really a “network of information that all competent readers possess” or is literacy something more than common or shared knowledge?

I think that literacy has more to do with conveying and understanding ideas than with specific words, phrases, or concepts. If you don’t understand covalent bonding or absolute zero, but you can define curricum vitae and synecdohe, are you more or less literate than a person who can do the opposite? It sounds like the first person teaches science and the second English, but I would say neither are illiterate for having very specific gaps in their knowledge.

While it would be wonderful if we could count on every American to be able to discuss the importance stereoisomers in optical science upon pulling out a pair of sunglasses, I don’t think it’s necessary to be considered literate. For most of the third of America that Hirsch sees as illiterate, I would imagine their chief concerns are more to do with basic needs than their intellect.

Hirsch has a lot of great data to back  up his thoughts on literacy, and I agree with a lot of it, but he uses a lot of anecdotal evidence too, like in the introdcution. Ben Stein recalls his experiences with California high school students, claiming that in many years not one has ever been able to tell him the dates of any US war, any of the first ten presidents, or where Chicago is. I find that very hard to swallow. As a teacher in a sub-rural Missouri public high school, I could easily find ten students in five minutes who could answer all three of those things clearly.

There is validity to the arguments though. Students are pump and dumpers when it comes to reading, learning, and testing. Students usually can’t tell you who that World War I started in 1914, or 1917 for the US involvement, because they only chose to remember it for “the test.” It is the challenge of the teacher to help students build knowledge connections so retention of information is  easier. I think Hirsch comes to this point as well, that of making connections. I think we’re starting on opposite ends of the same spectrum though. He gives a determined set of information that people need to digest to be literate–a product to be obtained–while I think the process is where literacy is built.

Design Speaks Directly to the Soul

In collaboration, Design on March 27, 2009 at 12:36 pm

by Matthew Stublefield

This post is part of an ongoing series of collaborative conversations. See that initial post for a table of contents of all articles in the series.

As Ryan observed, design is more than making something look pretty. It is the first line of assault against your senses, charging in to make room for a deeper truth–for the greater message being communicated through the whole of a piece. Design is the underlying foundation of everything, and much like our own skeletons, it is likewise hidden and sometimes forgotten.

There are two things I understand decently well amongst all the things in the world, and so it is those two upon which I will focus in the context of this series. The first is architecture, with which I will begin because (of the two) I understand it least. The second is writing in general and poetry in specific.

Architectural design is not something with which many Americans (by which I am referring to the residents of the United States of America) are preoccupied. We might admire a fine building and snap a picture while on tour, but it isn’t something we study, stare at, and marvel. Yet architecture is one of the great fascinations of my life, and when I am in a distant city, I spend the vast majority of my time wandering the streets, eyes fixed to the walls, roofs, and doors of all the buildings I can see. I have spent hours lying on the lawn of Westminster Abbey so that I could look upon its vast facade and out across the square at its neighbours. Days beside the river Thames marveling at the wall that skirts the river, or wandering the streets and hills of San Francisco, or the wide sidewalks of Chicago. I derived a great deal of enjoyment from comparing German Switzerland to German Germany and the similarities and differences in how the walls meet the roofs, the materials used, and the arrangement of their towns. Architecture fascinates me in a way similar to the hypnotic stare of a dragon preparing to pounce on a meal.

The USA is very utilitarian in its construction, but once upon a time architecture was not just a pragmatic means of getting a building upright. Rather, it was an art designed to communicate something to the passerby. A non-Christian friend admitted to me once that she began to cry as she entered a cathedral in Europe simply due to its beauty. This is a design done right. This assails our senses, demanding entry to our heart because of its power and majesty.

And it is not unique to architecture. Though you may not admire buildings as I do, I imagine that you can sympathize with and understand what I have written above, because it is a very obvious example of the purpose, power, and presence of design. Less obvious is the placement and depth of a thumb scoop on a MacBook, the resistance and length of a switch on a coffee pot, or the arrangement of words in a poem.

I can communicate an idea to you with a straight-forward statement of fact in a simple, well organized sentence, and in so doing you will understand the words and potentially their implications. Yet such a statement will not touch your heart, nor will it influence your soul, for that is the purview of poetry. There are many who malign the ambiguity and obtuseness of poetry, wishing instead that the writers would be more direct with their intentions, but that directness is not of the greatest design.

There are times when communicating with your head is sufficient, such as at work or when figuring out where to go for lunch. But there are other times when that will not do, when I will need to build a bridge from my heart to yours if you are ever to truly understand what I mean. A simple sentence will not suffice. And it is in these instances that the power of design is made manifest in writing.

A good design not only joins our hearts and souls, but it satisfies something deep within our selves. No, the switch on a coffee pot is not a cathedral or a poem, but you will know it is right. You will flip that switch to turn the coffee pot on and think, “Ah, there we have it. This is good.” A good design is more than just functional, it is beautiful. It was created with love and an attention to detail that surpasses a mere statement and that goes beyond simple pragmatism.

Good design, like our skeletons, holds us up and drives us forward. It is a powerful charge we can only refuse by closing our eyes and ignoring the world.