In search of the girders for the framework

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“All the information is out there on the internet,” education instructors and administrators say. “We need to teach retrieval skills, not just facts. We need to teach students critical thinking skills, not just facts.”

But critical thinking skills only work when a person has a certain number of facts at their disposal to put into some sort of framework. That information on the internet is only useful within a framework. In language, the framework is called grammar. We have been moving away from teaching grammar. It’s not much fun, for one thing. I also suspect that we’ve reached the point where many of our elementary school teachers don’t know basic grammar.

In language studies, a formidable amount of new vocabulary comes packaged with unavoidable and often unfamiliar grammar. Since many districts now teach almost no grammar in elementary school, accordingly, many high school freshman and sophomores (plus a few juniors and seniors) cannot identify a subject and verb, much less a direct or indirect object. All first year foreign language classes run up against these problems, and foreign language teachers often become grammar teachers, filling in the blanks for students who don’t understand the basic structure of language.

(If you doubt that last statement, check with your school district. I was entertained in a staff meeting a couple of years ago when speakers brought up the greater success of local Catholic schools at state standardized testing. The pundit who had been trying to tease out the Catholic advantage told us, “One thing they do is teach grammar. That seems to help their students on the test.” A few teachers around the room expressed surprised, grammar being so old-school and out of fashion. The rest of us sat there thinking, “Duhh.”)

The current retrieval/critical thinking approach to education has various flaws. While I am not objecting to teaching information retrieval and critical thinking — vital components for today’s students without doubt — I think teachers and others should stand up for grammar.

If we are going to teach writing — and we do — then we ought to teach more grammar. If you’re reading this blog, on some level you know English grammar You can put words in an order that makes sense with endings that tell where you are in time. But if we want our students to develop critical thinking skills, one place we might start is with the structure of language itself. Do we need formal instruction in grammar? Probably not. Most of us probably don’t need algebra either.

But if we want to develop critical thinking skills, we need to learn to break down how processes work. We need to understand how the parts of processes fit into the whole. What better place to work on developing this understanding of processes than the English language itself?