When I was in junior high school, my father began adding on to our house. For the foundation he dug a lot of trenches in the ground, built wood forms to pour the cement in, and hired a cement truck to fill them up. I remember thinking that it seemed like a lot of trouble to take for something that would eventually be covered over and never seen again.
If my father had been impatient and not known better, he might have been tempted to cut corners on the foundation and spend that time and money on the parts of the house that we would actually see and use.
Education is a little like this.
Basic skills instruction is one of the two essential components of any education program for primary and early elementary grades (along with classic children’s literature). Later on the focus will turn to the liberal arts and the great books, but in order to do that, students must know reading, writing, and arithmetic—the fundamental skills of decoding words, writing letters and then words legibly, and mastering mathematical calculation.
Traditional educators have always believed that there is a distinction between the order of knowledge and the order of learning. The order of knowledge begins at the top. The order of learning begins at the bottom, with the simplest things which must be mastered first, before trying to attain the more sophisticated things at the top.
The simplest things come first.
My father’s work on the foundation of our house involved a lot of patience, hard work, and precision, virtues that come in handy in our classrooms as well. In reading, we have students memorize letter-sound correspondences, a few basic phonics rules, and how to carefully trace letters. In math this involves learning to count, practicing addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division through sometimes tedious practice and memorization—things that are unimportant in themselves, but necessary to master in order to later be able to read for understanding and to negotiate advanced mathematics.
These are basic skills that eventually get covered over and put out of sight. Our students must learn them, not in order to think about them, but so that they don’t have to think about them. But they will be there, underneath and out of sight, supporting the entire structure of their learning. This is not a very popular view today. For the educational progressives who dominate our educational establishment, whose psychological emphasis is on “child-centered” learning, these traditional practices seem unnecessary.
They are Romantics who spurn memorization, drill, and practice because they consider them “lower-order” skills which can be bypassed in favor of “higher-order” skills. They don’t believe in the order of learning; they believe only in the order of knowledge. They are impatient. They think you can begin education at the top.
Newer methods like whole-word reading instruction and methods of teaching math that emphasize concepts over mastery hold out the promise of fun in the classroom and quick advancement.
Progressives see no reason they can’t build their infrastructure of learning by bypassing the foundation and beginning with the roof first.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2016 edition