Slimantics: When it comes to education, one size does not fit all

December 6, 2012 10:19:12 AM



Almost every afternoon, I take the walk from the office to Coffee House on 5th for an iced tea. 


The other day, I noticed a young lady sitting at one of the tables there, working on her laptop, which was positioned at such an angle that I could recognize what was on the screen. 


"Algebra, right?" I asked. 


"Yes," she said wearily. "I'm studying for finals." 


I certainly remembered the feeling, if not the algebra. 


When I returned to college in the spring of 2011 to finish my degree after a 30-year break, I discovered that most of the subjects I had avoided during my previous years in college were math and science classes. 


I vividly recall my first day in College Algebra that winter day in 2011. I entered the room and noticed the enormous blackboard filled with algebra problems, which more closely resembled Egyptian hieroglyphics than math, as far as I was concerned. I studied the problems closely as the other students began to file into the classroom. There wasn't a problem on the board I could solve. I remember giving myself a pep talk: "Maybe these are the problems we are supposed to be able to solve at the end of the semester." It was a soothing thought. My tranquility was short-lived, however. 


"We won't spend much time on the problems on the board," the grad student/teacher said. "This is all just stuff you learned in high school." 


I swallowed hard. 


"Great," I said to myself. "It's been 35 years since I was in high school. The only thing I really remember from high school was how long and shapely Julie Tutor's legs were." 


So it's accurate to say that I started my new college career in a state of absolute terror.  


Don't tell me that fear isn't a powerful motivator. It was fear of failure that drove me to study like a fiend. I made an "A" in that College Algebra class. In fact, in the three semesters it took to earn my degree, I made the President's List twice (two 4.0 GPAs) and the Dean's List once (3.67). 


But here's the kicker: I still don't know any college algebra. In fact, if I were to walk into that same classroom and stare at the same problems on the same blackboard, I am pretty sure they would still look like hieroglyphics to me. 


I simply have no aptitude for math. It just never "stuck.'' 


Conversely, I have always been able to retain much of the written word. I was a whiz at history and literature. Somehow, I processed the words, comprehended them and retained them, which allowed me to build on that knowledge. 


It's been that way since I was a little kid. 


In third grade, we were given the optional assignment of learning and reciting the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Many of you know that that chapter contains the best-known version of the Nativity Story. Anyone who could learn and recite the chapter in front of the class on the day before Christmas break got a prize, which turned out to be a plastic cup filled with colored pencils with erasers in the shapes of reindeer, snowmen and Santas. 


Well, I learned the second chapter of Luke easy enough, recited it flawlessly, and picked up my prize. 


Today, 44 years later, I can still recite that chapter. Each year, I brush up on the chapter so that I can recite it, just in case someone should ask (they never do, though). Also, nobody is going to give me a plastic cup full of pencils and erasers, I realize. Still, I take some pride in my ability to recite that lengthy passage. 


What I am leading to is my theory on a new approach to education. 


I believe that by the end of the ninth grade, the curriculum should be tailored to a student's real aptitude. By then, it should be clear enough if a student has any talent for math or science or history or literature. Some may display no capacity for any of those disciplines but are well-suited for technical and trade training. 


Algebra was a supreme waste of my time and energy, diligent though I may have been in studying it. I suspect there are math and science experts who can't remember the name of five presidents or a passage from anything that wasn't made into a movie starring Tom Cruise. The best mechanic I ever knew never got out of 10th grade. Now, he owns his own shop with six master-certified mechanics in his employ. 


So, let's specialize in high school. Those who have abilities that will lead them to college and a useful career should be devoted to that during their teen years. 


Those for whom academics is an exercise in futility should be immersed the trade and technical programs. 


Throw out the cookie-cutter mold. Let's really educate our kids based on their aptitude and interests. The outcome, I firmly believe, would be far better than what we are seeing today. 


If kids devote themselves to subjects they understand, enjoy and succeed in, they will do well. 


I was going to say it's simple math, but, well...