When does “boring” mean “unnecessary”?

October 31, 2011

in 21st century schools, hot topics, what's your take?

An interesting read--should teachers teach cursive, grammar, rote math skills, and other stuff that's becoming increasingly irrelevant to our world?Kristi Munno wrote an excellent article called “Do I really have to learn that? Why curriculum needs an intervention” (ETA 10/2013: her blog has since been delete, so I removed the link here.) She talks of how her fourth grade daughter hates learning topics and skills that she views as outdated. Kristi writes:

As a parent, I told her that yes she had to learn it, and yes she would use it. But I knew deep down that most of the stuff she was learning at this age would never be used again once she became an adult. I write for a living, and I never think about complete subjects and predicates. In fact, unless you’re a fourth-grade teacher, I don’t think anyone ever thinks of complete subjects and predicates. As for converting fractions to decimals, I can see where it may come in handy, but most people would just pull out a calculator to figure it out…

…And the cursive? I understand that she needs to know how to sign her name, but if you really think about it, that’s all the cursive she needs to know. Once she gets into junior high and high school—and eventually, the working world—she’s going to have to type everything. I think the cursive training should be replaced with a keyboard.

The experience of Kristi and her daughter is being repeated in homes all over the country. This is something we need to be discussing, and I agree that we need to re-evaluate curriculum to decide what’s really relevant and important in the 21st century.

But. When I really thought about what she wrote, I realized everything her daughter had to practice is something that I would justify keeping in the curriculum. Here’s what I shared in a comment on her blog explaining why:

  • Subjects and predicates are helpful to know when learning other languages. They’re also useful to me in my everyday life. I, too, do professional writing and editing, and I think that understanding the basics of sentence composition (including subjects and predicates) IS a big part of what I do. Knowing the technical terms makes it easier to communicate (“Take a look at this, there’s a split predicate, would it sound better if we change the words around?”) and also helps me fix mistakes (I know to Google ‘split predicate’ if I have a question about usage.) Will every child be a professional writer/editor one day? No. But should we limit them from having the necessary skills to communicate well in any format or profession they choose?
  • Kids who don’t know cursive don’t know how to sign their names–a hugely important life skill. They also can’t read other people’s signatures and notes. Cursive writing appears fairly often in popular culture (ever watch a movie which zooms in on a hand-written note, or seen an ad that uses cursive to imitate handwriting for part of the text?) It’s not the most critical skill for kids (typing is far more important) but it’s still useful to know how to at least read cursive writing and sign your name.
  • As far as converting fractions to decimals? Not an everyday skill for me, for sure. But I’m glad I understand what fractions and decimals are and what they mean; this knowledge helps me understand infographics and data I read in news articles. Because I recall the basic process of conversion, I can look critically at numbers in research and determine whether or not they make sense or if there’s been an error.

I guess my thought is this: Isn’t it nice to know something and NOT have to Google it? It makes you feel smart and well-educated to already have basic knowledge and not have to pull out a phone and look things up in the middle of a conversation or project. We don’t want to take away basic skills from our kids simply because they’re not used every single day in adult life. Knowing these admittedly rather boring things helps us make sense of bigger concepts and analyze the information around us in a more educated, critical way.

Rather than remove these things from the curriculum, why not teach them with 21st century tools and integrate 21st century skills in the instruction? Why not have kids collaborate, create, and problem solve while learning things like subjects and predicates? There are innovative, inspiring ways for kids to learn otherwise dry or tedious skills. Personally, I think we need to take a closer look at updating the teaching methods and tools, and not throw the baby out with the bath water.

So, what’s YOUR take? What skills and concepts in your curriculum are outdated and unnecessary for kids to learn? Do cursive, grammar, and fractions and other “boring” concepts still have a place in school? And if so, what can we do to make them relevant and meaningful for kids?

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Angela Watson was a classroom teacher for 11 years and has turned her passion for helping other teachers into a career as an educational consultant based in Brooklyn, NY. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has published 3 books, launched a blog and webinar series, designs curriculum resources, and conducts seminars in schools around the world. Subscribe via email for blog updates, exclusive tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Rachel Lindman November 2, 2011 at 11:04 am

As far as writing cursive, what about reading old documents? The Declaration of Independence, original drafts of Shakespeare, letters from my great grandparents, etc. are written in cursive. While taking notes on their tablets, my students use their finger or a stylus to take notes, laboriously forming each letter in print because the onscreen keyboard is difficult, and they can’t type either. We spend a lot of time taking notes, they write so slowly when they print!

If a student can’t read or write in cursive, they miss out on a lot. Both in history and though the abbreviated notes they take. I am a middle school PE teacher, my students ask me to teach them cursive after school! If they want to learn it and there is any value to it, we owe it to our students to teach it to them!

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2 Angela Watson November 2, 2011 at 11:09 am

Hi, Rachel! Thanks for pointing out some other purposes for cursive. There’s a good discussion happening here on my Facebook post about this article (https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=211545285584786&id=71659544187) in which someone mentions research showing that cursive is easier for students who have dyslexia. I’ve read some of those studies and they’re fascinating! Some schools are even teaching cursive writing before print because of research showing that cursive is easier (and faster) for many young students.

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3 Rebecca November 2, 2011 at 4:29 pm

Wow…really interesting. You took a topic that has been around the block a bunch of times and really made me consider both sides. I think there is a reason that these things became part of the traditional curriculum to begin with and they shouldn’t be done away with.

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4 Rebecca November 2, 2011 at 4:30 pm

Also I wonder…would there be less complaining if these “old” subjects were taught using “new” technology (as applicable)

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5 Angela Watson November 11, 2011 at 11:57 pm

Hi, Rebecca, thanks for your comments. I do think that using 21st century teaching methods and tools to teach “20th century” skills is the way to go. Almost any topic becomes valuable for students when we incorporate technology in a meaningful way and have students collaborate and construct new ideas. The problem is that many of the teachers who see the value in old school skills are still teaching in old school ways. Kids either get a teacher who gives them grammar worksheets day after day or a teacher who skips the grammar instruction altogether. It’s a tough thing to balance as a teacher.

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6 kate November 3, 2011 at 12:40 am

Where I teach (Spain) children learn to read and write in cursive. Apparently once they do that it’s not difficult to transfer over and use print. I don’t know if I’m a fan or not but it at least saves time later on, so you don’t have to learn and practice handwriting in class.

They also teach LOTS of grammar (way more complicated that just subject/predicate) and students are expected to learn it. I think it is helpful for learning other languages (especially important here in Europe) and also to really understand your own language…

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7 Angela Watson November 11, 2011 at 11:52 pm

Hi, Kate! Thanks for sharing your perspective from across the pond. It’s great to hear from a teacher who does teach cursive before printing, as I know this is very common in other parts of the world.

Reading your comment has made me think…I would imagine that grammar instruction would become MORE popular in the 21st century, since our students will be competing in a global job market and being multi-lingual is a highly-sought-after skill set. I wonder how we expect students to learn more languages when we don’t properly teach our own?

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8 mo November 4, 2011 at 9:10 am

I love that you wrote about this topic because I have always argued for the pro-side of learning the “useless” information in school. You’ve just put it soo much more eloquently than I ever could. I wholeheartedly agree with the notion of knowing something without having to google it and it’s a notion that I reinforce with my children as well as my kiddos in school.

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9 Angela Watson November 11, 2011 at 11:45 pm

Hi, Mo. I’m old school in many ways–glad you can relate, because sometimes it’s lonely arguing for BOTH 20th and 21st century skills to be taught! :-) When I was in school, probably 90% of what I learned felt useless at the time, but that’s because I was a child and just couldn’t envision myself as an adult and what skills I would need later on. Looking back, I can’t think of anything they made me learn that was completely pointless. There are things that were never relevant to ME and MY life, but I know that other kids in the class would eventually use them (advanced math, etc.) We don’t know what our students will do professionally when they graduate, so I think the best course of action (especially in K-8) is to give them a solid, well-rounded education in all subjects.

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10 Lori November 6, 2011 at 8:56 am

This is my first ever blog comment! I thought of this WSJ article about cursive handwriting when I read through your post and some of the comments. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704631504575531932754922518.html
I’ve heard that students who use cursive on college entrance exams typically score higher than those students who print. This article pointed out some other benefits; including the way handwriting engages the brain in learning.

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11 Angela Watson November 11, 2011 at 11:27 pm

Hi, Lori! I am honored to receive your first comment! Thanks for sharing that article. It has a lot of good research that I wasn’t aware of regarding the benefits of teaching handwriting. Wow! This would be great to share with parents who don’t see the value in it, since many of their concerns are specifically addressed.

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12 Gretchen December 29, 2011 at 2:53 pm

I can see this parent’s perspective. I hear it daily. Sometimes an hour in the classroom is all a parent needs to understand why we teach what we teach. Sometimes they do not see the bigger picture. We don’t know what each child will become and which skills they will specialize in; however, a conversation about what is taught and why is great for PD and open house! Think about how powerful that meeting would be! (it could open a can of worms!) Penmanship sure has been downgraded on the list of importance. I have a ” Cursive License” I award students with for neat penmanship. I showcase their license, give them a fancy pen, and allow them to skip handwriting exercises (their biggest motivation!). Some of my lower learners gained confidence in the classroom due to their achievement of the cursive license!

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13 Angela Watson January 4, 2012 at 1:14 am

That WOULD make an amazing parent workshop! It would be great to hear their feedback. :)

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