Drink up

I suppose if one lives here in the US, one could consider these recent Inside Higher Ed stories to be gloom-and-doom: first, “ACT Scores Slip,” pointing out that this year’s results are the lowest in five years and that reading and English scores are particularly down; and second, “Troubling Stats on Adult Literacy,” pointing out that American adults’ literacy and numeracy levels fall below average.

Naturally, these quick pieces don’t tell the entire story (for instance, the ACT story notes “more students are taking the exam — some of whom are required by schools to do so but have no collegiate aspirations”), and any kind of rankings amongst large groups of people, as well as any kind of measure of skills and intellect, are bound to be sticky as they deal with human beings in different circumstances, cultures, etc. That said, basic knowledge can be tested, and standardized tests for all their controversy do measure something.

So what’s a student of any age to do? Well, first get the right attitude; recall this exchange from the TV show Seinfeld:
Kramer: Do you ever yearn?
George: Yearn? Do I yearn?
Kramer: I yearn.
George: You yearn?
Kramer: Oh, yes. Yes, I yearn. Often, I sit and yearn. Have you yearned?

Ah: but can one be taught to yearn for learning?

Consider this: within “ACT Scores” kinds of stories, it’s generally observed that students who take a more rigorous college-prep curriculum do better on these tests, which suggests students who challenge themselves learn more. Indeed! Of course, students must first desire to learn: it’s very telling, I think, that during my years in higher ed I’ve heard this particular cliché more than any other: “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Teach for awhile and you realize the yearning for learning comes entirely from the student: it must.

As for the article on US adults lacking in literacy and numeracy levels, we could consider the schools of course, and we should; but I firmly believe any and all of us can take, to a large degree, our educations into our own hands. A common-sense action for anyone who struggles with reading would be to read, read, read some more. Too many of my students who struggled with both reading and, not surprisingly, writing, told me they didn’t like to read, so they avoided it. Well, they will stay in that less-than-optimally-literate place unless they take initiative to start reading more and, again, start challenging themselves. I could do my part by assigning readings in class and guiding them, but if they dropped out (which happens frequently in a community college), they then lack formal guidance and must themselves yearn to learn in order to come back around.

What do you think – how might we raise literacy and numeracy levels?

Image via / taliesin