This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, April 29, 1992

April 29, 1992 - methods and content

One day in the public library of Springfield, Illinois a young girl -- maybe six years old -- walked into the children's department.

Shyly, she sidled up to the librarian on duty. In a low voice the girl asked, "Do you have any books on incest?"

Cautiously, gently, the librarian led the girl to a more private area. There, the librarian asked, "Are you interested in incest because of something happening at your home?"

The girl nodded, eyes down.

"Are you afraid to go home?" asked the librarian.

"No," said the girl. "Well ... a little."

One thing led to another, and before long, another librarian and an administrator had joined the conversation, in a mood of ever-deepening concern. The girl, meanwhile, seemed to grow more and more agitated.

Finally, she shouted, "INCEST! YOU KNOW -- BUGS! SPIDERS!"

Sometimes, what you think you're hearing is decidedly not what the other person thinks she is saying.

I think the same kind of miscommunication is going on these days between educators (teachers and school administrators) and the general community.

In brief, parents keep asking WHAT the schools teach. But the educational community keeps talking about HOW they teach it. It's the difference between content and method.

I believe that this basic difference in orientation is the key reason for the national frustration with our educational system, and the current confusion in Douglas County about the perceived difference between "basics" and "world class."

To the parents, I think "back to basics" means a focus on factual knowledge. They think that content should drive the curriculum. In the midst of numerous reports that our children can't find Washington D.C. on a map, can't name the first president of the United States, and can't work an equation, parents have concluded that children aren't being taught as much as they used to be, because today's children don't know as many shared facts as the children of a previous generation.

But to teachers and school administrators, "back to basics" means something else entirely. "Back" means "a return," a regression to an old STYLE of teaching. "Basics" means an approach dedicated to the drill, to a dreary, unimaginative, even punitive style of instruction. Educators think that method should drive the curriculum, as in the current focus on Outcome Based Education, which is "content-neutral."

But what's the problem? Can't we use innovative new methods to teach an identifiable, specific body of knowledge? Isn't it precisely the lack of a coherent, sequenced, consistently offered body of knowledge that makes us look so bad compared to the students of other countries?

Every one of those countries has a clearly specified national curriculum, taught in every publicly funded school. Those curricula are packed with facts. Until the American educational curriculum has a similarly rich base of raw data, our children will never do as well.

If the Douglas County School District is serious about becoming "world class," then it's time to get internationally competitive. Let's focus our efforts on the heart of a world class school district: the compilation of an agreed-upon list of facts that includes every fact those other schools teach, and more.

Public debate should not be focused on the methods -- that's a teacher's business. The public should -- and does -- focus its attention on the results, on what the children actually know.

That's everybody's business.

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