Education Opinion

The Six R’s

January 01, 2000 3 min read
Schools are more likely to succeed if they give high priority to an additional three R’s: rigor, relevance, and relationships.

There is a good reason the “three R’s” became synonymous with schooling a century or so ago. Reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic are the gateway skills to learning. Reading is the key to the mastery of all subjects. The other side of the reading coin, writing, hones our ability to think and communicate. And mathematics is the language of the sciences. Even the most progressive educators acknowledge the importance of learning these basic skills. Without them, a child will be severely handicapped, particularly in today’s information age. The more proficient students are in these skills, the greater their chance of success.

Unfortunately, ardent back-to-basics advocates tend to see the three R’s as an end in themselves, rather than as the crucial prerequisite to creative and independent thinking. Consequently, they are inclined to stress drill and memorization. To them, reading means learning to spell a word and read it aloud. Writing is confused with penmanship. And mathematics is about learning the multiplication tables and memorizing a specified set of algorithms.

Decoding and memorization are important steps in mastering the basic skills, but they are insufficient. Students who can decode-read aloud and spell the words-but do not understand the words they read cannot truly read. Writing is a way of thinking; it requires us to organize our words and sentences logically and thus contributes to clarity and precision in both thought and expression. Mathematics develops an entirely different mindset, one that enables students to understand and express ideas, complex theories, and elegant solutions in another language.

Helping children acquire these basic skills is the single most important task of public schools, and there is indisputable evidence that we are failing to accomplish it with millions of children. An alarming percentage of our students can read aloud but cannot explain in their own words what they have read. Even more have trouble expressing themselves in writing. A majority of students do poorly in mathematics, particularly on tests that assess reasoning ability. The performance of many students not only flattens as they move through school, it often declines.

Our schools need to do a better job teaching the three R’s. And they are more likely to succeed if they give high priority to an additional three R’s: rigor, relevance, and relationships.

Rigor. I don’t mean harsh or rigid, but challenging. Expectations for both teachers and students should be high. Many students do only what is expected of them, so the work should be rigorous enough to challenge and motivate them. A rigorous curriculum does not try to jam into K-12 all the knowledge we’ve acquired in the past few thousand years through coursework that is a mile wide and an inch deep. To develop a lust for learning, students must dig deeply into areas that interest and excite them.

Relevance. Traditional schooling is terribly artificial, and students readily make the distinction between the world of school and the real world. Because many of them do not understand why they should study geometry, Shakespeare, physics, or ancient history, kids consider these subjects irrelevant. They have no context to help them understand, no way of connecting what they hear or read to other subjects or to their own lives. Perhaps teachers should devote the first part of every course to a discussion of why it is important and how it relates to students and their world. Students learn quickly and well what they want to learn.

Relationships. Finally, students and teachers are likely to perform better when they know and trust each other. Venturing into the unknown, as true learners must, can be scary and risky. Close, supportive relationships between teachers and students-as well as among students-encourage intellectual risk-taking and enhance learning.

The basics are vitally important because children need them to educate themselves and become lifelong learners. We cannot teach youngsters everything we’d like them to know in 12 years of schooling, and we shouldn’t try. We will have succeeded if we stimulate in them an insatiable curiosity and arm them with the skills they need to continue their education for a lifetime.

--Ronald A. Wolk