Letter from the Editor Spring 2020: How to Ride a Bicycle

When I was eight years old, my parents bought me a bicycle for Christmas. It wasn’t anything like my old bicycle, which had only one gear; my new bicycle had five. I couldn’t have told you then why five gears were better than one. To me it was like five pancakes being better than one or five toy trains or pet lizards being better than one. It was just the nature of reality that five of anything was better than only one.

After I’d ridden my bike for a while, I realized that first gear was better for going slow and fifth gear was better for going fast—but only after I’d gotten up to speed. If I started in fifth gear it was hard to get going at all. And if I put it in first gear when going fast I had to pedal way too fast to keep going, which actually slowed me down.

We tend to make two mistakes in education: One is like trying to go fast in first gear, and the other is like trying to start out in fifth gear.

In order to better explain this, I’ll start out slow.

Some curricula are very good at teaching basic skills. They are very effective in teaching young students to read, write, and calculate. Up to about fifth grade, they work very well. But when students get older, the curriculum doesn’t shift out of first gear. The literature programs never graduate from readers to real books, composition programs never graduate from basic mechanical issues, and math programs never get to the teaching of concepts.

In this kind of curriculum students can never take ownership over what they know. Students never read deeply or develop the ability to think about and discuss great literature.

This is the fallacy that traditional education is prone to make: starting out slow and never speeding up.

Other curricula try to begin in fifth gear. There is an attempt to skip much of what is required in teaching the basics to younger students. The phonics program attempts to attain “understanding” too fast by trying to bypass the necessary work of learning letter-sound correspondences and the rules of spelling and pronunciation. The thinking is that casting off the shackles of formal grammar will allow students to be more “creative” and write more freely. The math program tries to circumvent the necessary step of memorizing multiplication tables and other arithmetical procedures so that students can concentrate on “concepts” earlier.

Such a curriculum produces students who have trouble spelling and have a hard time pronouncing new words, students who are hampered in writing well because they have never learned how language works, and students who, because they never fully mastered basic math procedures, are dependent upon calculators to do even the simplest operations, making the advanced study of concepts cumbersome and unfulfilling.

In this kind of curriculum “lower order skills” like drill and practice are shunned in the interest of “higher order skills” like application and analysis. Teacher-directed instruction in the lower grades is frequently forsaken in favor of an unguided “Socratic” discussion. This kind of curriculum utilizes techniques appropriate for older students with younger students, and in the process never grounds young students in a way that allows them to later fully benefit from more advanced instruction.

This is the fallacy that progressive education makes: It tries to bypass the lower gears in an attempt to go fast faster, but ends up going so slow and with such difficulty that students are apt to fall off.

As we point out in this issue’s “How to Teach”, classical education has something to say about how to avoid these two extremes.

When I got my new bicycle, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that I needed all the gears, but at different times—the lower gears at the start, and the higher gears later, once I had gotten underway.

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