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A Dose of Old-Fashioned 'How To'

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Grant me one wish to change the schools, and I would not ask for more or better content, for smaller classes or longer school years, for sager teachers or saner parents, or even for more money. I would ask for student skills.

My qualifications for making this request are only semiprofessional at best. I teach history to smart students at a good college, who, it is often said, know less when they graduate from secondary school than their counterparts of years past. In fact, I think they have more knowledge. But they can do less. They seem to have everything going for them except a practiced sense of how to go about an academic task: where to start, how to proceed, when to stop. For years I have been teaching some of these skills to both undergraduate and graduate students in extracurricular workshops I call "craft sessions," which include everything from how to take notes to what makes for a punchy last sentence. The sessions work like magic, though there is no magic in it. For a long time I thought this was just remedial liberal arts, making up for changes in secondary education that had taken a toll in research papers unassigned and grammarians lost.

Then I became a trans-Pacific parent, and, after several yearlong stays in Japan, I realized something stunning had happened to our sons. They were still red-blooded American boys, with unimpeachably messy rooms and a robust immunity to scholastic seductions, but they had acquired a practiced sense of organization and self-discipline that ran through everything they did. Without their knowing, or showing it, their work habits had been Japanized. In elementary school Japanese children are taught to "chunk" tasks into parts, to organize their notebooks, to notice details, never to skip steps in math problems, to follow procedures to get from point A to point B, all the more when B is an unknown. In short, they are taught how to learn. They are also taught to organize themselves, so that remembering their rucksack becomes their own "responsibility" in the first weeks of the earliest grades. It is a matter of disciplin~e--not of a moral or social sort, although there is altogether plenty of that in Japanese schools as well. We used to call this study skills.

I am not~--emphatically not--advocating that the United States imitate Japanese education. The social regimentation and the exam-centered dryness suit neither our ideas nor our style. Instead I am suggesting that the signal difference in Japan is not the number of days in the school year, the high math scores, or the school uniforms, but the daily dose of old-fashioned how-to, the training in being trained.

We used to teach this in American schools. It was the American way. In many cases, in what are now considered the bad old days in elementary education, such skills were nearly all that was taught. In my public school days, half of the left side of the report card showed the subject grades, and the entire right side, which was much longer, listed the "habits" considered necessary to learning, divided into three categories: social habits, work and study habits, and health and safety habits. "Work and study habits" judged whether the student "comes prepared for work, uses careful methods for work, completes work on time, keeps profitably busy, cares for material and equipment." (I had particular trouble with keeping "profitably busy" because I whispered all the time.) We had teachers like Miss Marble, noted mostly for her wig, or Mrs.~ Chapman, who disappeared to the back of the classroom every day to paint~ her fingernails. But they were strict about the "careful methods for work." It was rote learning, boring details, tedious routines, to be sure, but school--and life--is like that. And knowing how to get from point A to point B prepared generations of children to manage tasks in the classroom and, later, in the workplace. They may not have known about the Civil War--I didn't--but they had a better chance of knowing how to find out about it if the need ever arose. And if the need never did arise, they could use their skills for other things, notably on the job, where American workers were once considered tolerably trainable.

Work habits are socially neutral. Everyone, from the inner city to the outer reaches, can learn them. They do not inhibit, nor are they inhibited by, diversity of cultural background, and they can do their job independent of the so-called breakdown of the American family. They are not hard to teach either. They are best learned early, from kindergarten through 6th grade. Visit a 1st-grade classroom in Japan in April, which is the beginning of a child's elementary school career, and watch how even the most rudimentary (new) habits are formed: "Put the milk bottle in the center of the desk (so that it will not be knocked over)"--it takes three days before every milk bottle sits in the middle of the desk, not to be mentioned again. I see nothing subversive or oppressive in such a habit, which would have spared me many a spill. More important, we know that the youngest children welcome structured tasks: It gives them what we now psycho-habitually call a sense of control. And the real payoff of feeling in control comes in the tough years of "transescence" in middle school or junior high, by which time the strategies for task-tackling are ingrained.

Of course it is seldom as smooth as all this, and of course elementary school educators worry about "skills" all the time. But perhaps we have put too many colors on the pedagogical palette: We want content, interest, engagement, and students "thinking for themselves." I think of it as the dinosaur effect--all those 2nd graders who can pronounce "triceratops" but might be better instructed to write their letters over and over again on the line. Skills, in the acquiring, may be uninspiring, but once possessed they are liberation itself.

I am not urging a return to bygone days, but a re-evaluation of priorities. I have the greatest respect for America's classroom teachers, the greatest scorn for conservatives today who focus on standards and basics and prayer without regard for the real crisis in the classroom, and the greatest hope for the children, who, if given both the chance and the training, can in an almost literal sense do anything they set out to do.

Had I one wish, I would turn all the three-horned dinosaurs into three-ringed notebooks, the content standards into this-is-the-way-one-does-it learning, and the lower grades into kingdoms of skill.

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