Real Education Is the Apple, Not the (Common) Core

06/16/2015 10:38 am ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016

In recent years, traditional schools and their students have become more awash in symbols and less immersed in real life. Children are decoding symbols on a page or a device, sounding out each letter as Dick and Jane go for a walk or Jack and Jill go up the hill and fetch some water. Later they will read chapter books and take quizzes on the characters' names. In high school they might read Catcher in the Rye and identify with Holden Caulfield as he navigates adolescence.

With good humor, I have to point out that J.D. Salinger might have never written Catcher in the Rye had he not suffered through a decidedly boring experience at Valley Forge Military Academy. I suppose his great book can be considered the pearl formed out of his deeply irritating education.

Printed or digitized stories are merely the symbolic representation of real human experience. While there is indeed vicarious benefit to readers, a good book is no substitute for a good life. Salinger himself was a sad example of this, as his life was apparently bitter and lonely, with the symbolic report of his adolescent misery as the only important artifact.

This excerpt about music from Paul Lockhart's marvelous essay, "A Mathematician's Lament," is a satirical example of the error of our ways, but not so far from the truth:

A musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where music education has been made mandatory. "We are helping our students become more competitive in an increasingly sound-filled world."

Educators, school systems, and the state are put in charge of this vital project. Studies are commissioned, committees are formed, and decisions are made -- all without the advice or participation of a single working musician or composer.

Since musicians are known to set down their ideas in the form of sheet music, these curious black dots and lines must constitute the "language of music." It is imperative that students become fluent in this language if they are to attain any degree of musical competence; indeed, it would be ludicrous to expect a child to sing a song or play an instrument without having a thorough grounding in music notation and theory.

Playing and listening to music, let alone composing an original piece, are considered very advanced topics and are generally put off until college, and more often graduate school.

As for the primary and secondary schools, their mission is to train students to use this language -- to jiggle symbols around according to a fixed set of rules:

"Music class is where we take out our staff paper, our teacher puts some notes on the board, and we copy them or transpose them into a different key. We have to make sure to get the clefs and key signatures right, and our teacher is very picky about making sure we fill in our quarter-notes completely.

One time we had a chromatic scale problem and I did it right, but the teacher gave me no credit because I had the stems pointing the wrong way."

Trying to create musicians by having them read and write notes on a page is a dry, meaningless activity. If one hopes to spawn a great cellist, have your child listen to Bach's unaccompanied cello suites -- in a great recital hall, if possible. Let him pick up a 'cello and draw the bow across the strings, smell the rosin and listen to the deep, penetrating sound.

Politicians drone on about STEM in schools when children should be viewing the Milky Way and dreaming about the moon. If you hope your child might be a great scientist, let her loose in the woods for hours every day. The greatest irony of the current, uniform approach to education is that it deprives children of the very experiences that are conveyed in the symbolic notations they are supposed to care about!

Limiting mathematics instruction to manipulating symbols is equally wrongheaded. We have been conditioned to believe that math is the symbols we memorize and regurgitate. But take a simple example, the computation: 4 + 3 = 7. The numbers actually represent something true. The symbols themselves are just shorthand. The idea of 4 + 3 = 7 is more accurately portrayed as 4 apples and 3 oranges which, combined in a bowl, are 7 discrete objects. The apples and oranges are the mathematical truth. The algorithms of algebra, geometry, calculus and physics are humankind's best efforts to symbolically represent something that is true in the physical universe.

That may seem obvious, but its relevance to education is very important. In my simple example, allowing a student to manipulate the actual oranges and apples is a much better way of internalizing the mathematical idea of 4 + 3. It may be more fun too, but it invites other senses into what is otherwise a purely abstract, symbolic exercise. When playing with the fruit, children are using tactile information and 3-dimensional, visual information. They might even use a sense of smell to divide the sum into its parts. In every aspect of science and mathematics, exposure to the actual thing is of tremendous importance in the development of understanding the abstract symbolic representation.

In distinguishing between symbolic and real I'm reminded of an old, silly joke.

An eager student, Emily, signs up for her first foray into theater. She, fortunately, has a very minor role. In the midst of a dramatic war sequence she is to cry out, "Hark, the cannons roar!" Emily rehearses the line for hours at home, asking parents, grandparents and a very irritated older brother to listen. Back at school she performs flawlessly in each rehearsal. On cue, at precisely the moment called for in the script, she shouts, "Hark, the cannons roar!"

Finally, opening night arrives. Emily's parents, grandparents and a very reluctant older brother are in the audience. She is resplendent in costume and stage make-up. Her excitement (and theirs, except for the brother) is palpable. The long anticipated moment nears. Flushed with excitement, she stands stage left, awaiting her debut. Just as she is about to recite her well-rehearsed line the tech theater guys set off the backstage cannon. BOOM!!!!! Emily flinches, looks around and asks, loudly, "What the hell was that?"

When schools fail to attend to the different ways in which children are intelligent, when they fail to fill the school with a rich array of sensory information, when they immerse children in the symbolic representation of life rather than life itself, children are likely to leave school, encounter beautiful, fascinating things and say, "What the hell is that?"

This post is adapted from a forthcoming book, First, Do No Harm.