Do you remember the first time you learned how to write a sentence? I’m sure you were young, still new to the idea of formal schooling. First you learned your ABCs, and then you were taught how to take a pencil to paper. After that came a little spelling. You have your vowels and your consonants, short sounds and long sounds, syllables. Then you finally did it. You strung a phrase together, more likely than not something along the lines of, “The cat ran.” I’m sure you were proud. I’m sure your teacher was proud, your parents too. It is an incredible accomplishment, because that one sentence unlocks a world of written language. A few years after that you wrote your first paragraph, putting all those sentences together. Then in middle school you got to create an essay with five paragraphs telling about your summer vacation. In high school and college, it gets trickier. Two, then five, then ten, then fifteen page papers filled with research and original thought. But it all comes back to that first sentence.
Where would you be if you had never learned that first step? This is the question that Sal Khan tackles in his TED talk (located at the end of this post for your convenience), “Let’s teach for mastery — not test scores.” Sal is the creator of Khan Academy, a web-based teaching tool that allows students to learn at their own pace in specific subjects, largely math and science. He uses math classrooms as an example of test centered learning. In a typical algebra course students will complete homework and lectures for a few weeks, take a test, and then start all over. Wash, rinse, repeat. Students take the time to learn material, they are tested on their knowledge, the scores show what they still need to work on, but then they never revisit the material. The result is that students are struggling in more advanced classes, because they don’t have the full set of fundamental skills to help them succeed. It is a vicious cycle that Sal thinks can be broken with mastery learning, which is the idea of letting students take agency of their education so as to truly grasp all concepts.
It definitely sounds like an educational utopia of sorts. However, there is no such thing as perfect in any system because of Adam and Eve many years ago. So naturally, I both agree and disagree with what Sal is trying to say. The test centered learning model is flawed. Focusing in on only one aspect of education causes so many important concepts to fall through the cracks. Students need help, but it simply is not yet feasible to provide a personalized educational process to a class of thirty let alone to the millions upon millions of students in the United States. Programs like Khan Academy are taking a step in that direction, but as a future English teacher my concentration area is not quite there. The best part is, though, that is totally okay. Being in a subject that is not as digitized as math or science means we know where we are going but we get to forge our own path, flexing our own creative minds along the way to think of methods that are most beneficial for the students. It is a freeing thought in a society with so many rules and regulations.
How about it, have you ever seen an essay without sentences? I know I haven’t, and I would like to keep it that way. I’m speaking largely towards a class of future educators, so I ask you all to keep this message in the back of your minds. It doesn’t matter what age group you’re teaching or what subject. All that matters is that you strive to continuously and consistently lay solid foundations for your students so that they may have the opportunity to receive the best education possible, setting them up for future learning endeavors. Letters first, then spelling, sentences, paragraphs, essays, and papers. You can’t have one without all that comes before it.