Friday, April 25, 2008

We're Still at Risk

No wonder why so many children have difficulty with word problems: "Study Suggests Math Teachers Scrap Balls and Slices" suggests that real-world math examples undercut the actual mathematics because it's harder to focus when details get in the way. They open with a classic "train problem" of times and schedules that are always ridiculous, the kind of problems that frustrate me and which I inevitably leave blank. Comparing that with the simple equation after it--well, how am I supposed to know what variable fits where? The concept is completely lost in words, but I know how to do the math.

I've always felt that math should stick to numbers, with certain punctuation marks and letters as worthwhile substitutes. Save the stories for English class, it'll just confuse us. I was one of those kids who'd point out logical inconsistencies with the real world even if they had nothing to do with the problem, exactly the type of thing that pisses off both students and teachers alike. Word problems were the scourge of my mathematical existence for most of school. Those train problems always confused the hell out of me, and frankly, I preferred the straight-alone algebraic equations. I also never liked multiple choice questions for math problems, because if I did the problem and was off by a little bit I couldn't possibly pick A or D, thereby getting the entire question wrong, instead of only losing a point or two from some silly error.


The New York Times today published several articles dealing with education, partly because it's been 25 years since the seminal "A Nation at Risk" was released. The politics behind the controversial report are very interesting, as Ronald Reagan only cared about instituting school prayer back and actually wanted to demolish the Department of Education. But Americans reacted to the core message of the report: That the educational system was mediocre and the US would lose its advantage in the world if something wasn't done. Reagan instead abandoned his political agenda and jumped on the bandwagon, and education has been covered by the media and is consistently listed as one of the vital issues facing Americans.

However, as much as our educational system has changed in the last 25 years, new technologies and new fads in other sectors have undermined learning. For one thing, IM and text-message speak--the lol linguistics that make my blood boil--are beginning to seep into schoolwork. This isn't surprising in the least, but it's something that drives me crazy. I understand not typing properly in IMs, and capitalizing "I" in text messages is usually difficult and fruitless. However, there's a difference between "ill" and "i'll", "were" and "we're", "wont" and "won't". That little apostrophe separates two different words with two different meanings. Trying to decipher the message with "intentional" typos is annoying. For the most part, we've been able to adapt, but it's still a glaring sign of laziness. That extra keystroke is not hard; it's automatic for me.

This worries me. Richard Sterling, executive director of the National Writing Project and a professor at the University of Southern California, Berkeley, wants to throw out capitalization too. "When his teenage son asked what the presence of the capital letter added to what the period at the end of the sentence signified, he had no answer," reports the Times. Excuse me? A guy who's in charge of a group that aims to improve the teaching of writing and who grades papers does not know how to answer this question? It's for readability, the ability to visually denote the beginning of one idea (the sentence) from another. Without punctuation, reading would be a headache, as we would never be able to follow a story or an idea without getting confused. Anyone who's read stream-of-conscious works or On the Road understands this.

Of course, texting and IMing aren't considered real writing. If you're sending a quick message about meeting for lunch, it doesn't have to be formal. Trying to relay dialogue or a story over IM is very different from verbally telling the person, and concessions are made. However, emails, blog postings, essays for God's sake, are. They are time-consuming (at least for me), and for many people, they are graded or judged. Don't dumb yourself down for the sake of expidency.

What's also notable in the article--and which I've seen elsewhere--is the statistic that the percentage of black teenagers who write in personal journals (they don't define this term though) is greater than the percentage of whites. I think it's pretty self-explanatory that girls are more likely to do so than boys, but the perception that blogging is more of a certain type of white-hipster thing (as pronounced by the media, natch) isn't true.

1 comment:

John said...

Unfortunately, the masses have the power to enforce changes to language through sheer force of numbers. Soon there will be no capitalization, no apostrophes, no "you're," "their" or "they're." In the future, all words will be spelled phonetically because we will have forgotten any other possible spellings.

To Hell with it! Let's take a cue from Orwell and bring in Newspeak! We'll call it lolwurdz and fill the Dictionary with pictures of cute animals saying sentences that would make any English teacher's skin crawl!

Perhaps once the USA falls to last place in global education rankings we will finally start taking these things seriously. The only problem with waiting until then is that there may not be anyone in America literate enough to understand the report!