I recently attended two international education conferences within a month of each other: the Global Education online conference from November 15-19 and the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in Doha, Qatar, from December 7-9. The first was primarily a grassroots exchange, teacher to teacher, eliminating the boundaries of time and space. The overall feeling was a kind of euphoria that technology could actually connect people across borders without anyone leaving home. The second was face-to-face meetings among the elite policy makers in education, whose lives seem far removed from rural schoolhouses, as they enjoyed the all-expenses-paid hospitality of an oil-rich emirate.
Image via Wikipedia
The same issue was on everyone's mind in both conferences -- how to educate children in the rapidly changing world. Americans are particularly concerned with our students' standing internationally, especially when it comes to math and science. A recent article in the Washington Post reported that the status of American students in the 4th grade, which was "somewhat above the middle of the pack, usually about 10th," sank to a 20th ranking by 10th grade, just below the mean. The reason: failure to build a knowledge base, which I interpret to mean a lack of experience in reading in the content area. In other words, our younger kids are pretty good at decoding, but reading comprehension in later years depends on having a conceptual framework of knowledge to build on. And they're not getting it.
As an author of children's science books and an advocate for the use of nonfiction literature in the classroom, I couldn't help noticing one thing both conferences had in common -- no one was talking about what kids were reading. There was no concern on the part of all these educators for the quality of the reading material they routinely prescribed for their students. One group of teachers discussed how they could save money by downloading open-source material from the Web instead of buying expensive textbooks. Their underlying premise is that Wikipedia writing is interchangeable with textbooks. I agree. They are both equally bad. (If you want to see a side-by-side comparison between pedestrian informational writing and nonfiction literature, go to our wiki.)
On the other hand, the lovers of children's literature -- publishers and librarians -- who are watching the evolution of works that speak "child" and that can inspire as well as inform were curiously absent from both conferences. I know that school librarians, who are losing jobs right and left during this economic downturn, often have trouble getting the teachers in their schools to listen to them. They are dismissed as "enrichment," an extra for which there is no time in the "Race to the Top." Many teachers don't "get" that there are extraordinary books out there that cover the same subject matter as textbooks; that teaching with these books brings back the joy of learning to the classroom. In their panic to raise scores on the assessment tests (which essentially evaluates them) educators are overlooking a powerful and available resource.
My mantra is simple and obvious (at least to me): If you want kids to love reading and learning, give them wonderful books about the real world. Now why is that so hard to understand?