In the first of these two posts, I suggested questions that you might wish to sensitively ask your child’s current or prospective primary school teacher about behaviour and reading. There are three more questions that I wish to propose.
3. How do you teach history and science?
Both of these subjects contain significant amounts of world knowledge and have the potential to expand your child’s vocabulary and reading comprehension. Ironically, they can be potentially displaced by a misguided effort to over-teach reading comprehension strategies, perhaps under the guise of ‘guided reading’.
If they are given curriculum time, science and history may be taught well or badly. I have no problem with a few papier mache models and dioramas in primary school – they are a right of passage – but science and history taught primarily through these means are impoverished. I still remember being in primary school myself, collecting leaves in autumn and gluing them to sugar paper for a ‘science’ lesson. I still have no idea what the science was that I was meant to have learnt.
It is an opportunity lost if parts of our science and history lessons do not involve significant episodes of writing. After all, it is a component of the strategy for expanding vocabulary and contextual knowledge for later reading comprehension.
Again, ideology rears its head. We have the dreadful ‘we are mini-scientists’ approach to science. And there is one model of history teaching where ‘social studies’ education is meant to start with the immediate vicinity of the child, family relationships and local area and gradually work its way outwards over the years; out with the Romans and in with family trees. This is the precise model recently adopted by the new version of the Australian Curriculum.
The problem is that it is a stiflingly boring approach that redundantly teaches children things that they will work out anyway just by living in a society. Evidence for its failings emerged at least as far back as the 1960s and, in 1980, Kieran Egan wrote a paper debunking the whole idea. I can’t fathom why we still pursue it.
4. How do you teach maths?
Children should learn maths facts such as number bonds (5+7=12) and multiplication tables (5×7=35). The better ways of doing this will involve random retrieval – filling in a grid of randomly assorted multiplications – rather than always relying, for example, on a song.
There are plenty of people who disdain maths facts, pointing to some professional mathematician who apparently never learnt her tables. But this is like the argument about reading. You can do lots of things despite poor instruction, particularly if you have an excellent working memory as many mathematicians do.
Knowing such facts rather than having to work them out frees working memory to focus on other aspects of a problem. It is useful for everyone but probably most significant for those who struggle. The point of asking students to retrieve these facts under time pressure is not because we somehow think that speed is important in a mathematician but because it allows us to tell whether the facts are simply ‘known’ rather than the students having to work them out each time.
Ideally, students would also be taught a few mental arithmetic strategies such as 67+24=60+20+7+3+1 and then go on to learn the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication and both long and short division. The algorithms would be practiced to fluency but the teacher would also repeatedly explain how and why they work, emphasising the importance of place value. If your primary school does all of this then you should be pretty happy.
Sadly, there seems to be a popular insistence on exploring a strange numeracy peninsula where various mental arithmetic strategies are written down and used in preference to the standard algorithms (which are superior). In the worst cases, children will be asked to solve the same problem in different ways or write wordy explanations of what they are doing.
5. Can you please explain what happened?
My final question is a little left-field and doesn’t really follow the rationale of the others. Imagine your child is now at primary school, comes home and informs you, “I wasn’t allowed to eat my lunch today because Charlie stole my pen so I couldn’t finish my writing.”
This seems outrageously unfair and the temptation is to phone the school to complain. However, you have only heard one version of this set of events. Without necessarily being intentionally dishonest, there is the potential for your child to have misunderstood or to have left out salient details. In a classroom of one teacher and 30 students the possibility for miscommunication is vast. That is why you should always ask questions about what happened from the teacher’s perspective before deciding whether you have a genuine complaint.
What have I missed out?
Lots. You might want to discuss art, music, drama and sports with your child’s teachers. I just don’t have as much to say about them. Writing is also significant in its own right – exactly how is it and should it be taught? My thoughts on writing, however, probably require a post of their own. I know the problem but the solution is complex.
Feel free to suggest other questions in the comments.