Common Core vs. McGuffey Readers

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"When I was your age, I had to walk uphill to school both ways, spend all day in school, and come home and do homework for three hours."

Dramatic stories of how hard school used to be have undoubtedly circulated for generations. Recently, however, many complaints have arisen declaring that today's school load is much more challenging. So which seems more difficult? Today's education or that of the past?

For the fun of it, let's do a comparison of two fourth grade reading lessons.

The first comes from a Common Core Reading Comprehension Worksheet which describes the weather, vegetation, and products of a tropical rainforest in six paragraphs. The concluding paragraph is as follows:

"Rainforests contain some of Earth's greatest biological treasures. Many medicines are made from plants found there. Scientists have used them to make some promising drugs for treating cancer and AIDS. Food sources are very rich, too. There are over 3,000 fruits alone. Rainforests also grow the vegetables and grains that make up most of the world's daily diet. You can find corn, potatoes, rice and squash there. Spices like ginger, cinnamon, and chocolate grow alongside coffee and a variety of nuts. The rainforests produce all this in addition to providing oxygen for Earth. The rainforests are very valuable to the planet."

The comprehension questions for this lesson include:

"1. What is the canopy of the rainforest?
2. Why might a scientist be interested in the rainforests?
3. Do you think you could survive alone in a rainforest? Why, or why not?
4. Describe the conditions that make a rainforest a good place for many living things.
5. Rainforests are found near what imaginary line?"

The second example comes from a revised edition of McGuffey's 1879 Fourth Eclectic Reader. The lesson is an eleven paragraph story about an aunt teaching her niece and nephew the lesson of perseverance through a kite-flying expedition. Two excerpts follow:

"We presently found a nice grassplot, at one side of which I took my stand; and all things being prepared, I tossed the kite up just as little John ran off. It rose with all the dignity of a balloon, and promised a lofty flight; but John, delighted to find it pulling so hard at the string, stopped short to look upward and admire. The string slackened, the kite wavered, and, the wind not being very favorable, down came the kite to the grass. 'O John, you should not have stopped,' said I. 'However, try again.' ...

'Yes, dear children, I wish to teach you the value of perseverance, even when nothing more depends upon it than the flying of a kite. Whenever you fail in your attempts to do any good thing, let your motto be, --try again.'"

Along with vocabulary definitions, the comprehension questions which follow include:

"1. What is the subject of this lesson?
2. Why was John discouraged in his attempts to fly his kite?
3. What did his, [sic] aunt say to him?
4. What may we learn from this?
5. What should be our motto if we expect to be successful?"

Granted, there are likely pros and cons to each of these lessons. But here are a few quick observations about what each one teaches:

Common Core Lesson

  • Uses simple sentences and is inconsistent with comma usage.
  • Teaches a lesson by listing a variety of facts in a dry manner.
  • Applies a lesson which encourages success if one got lost in a rainforest.

McGuffey Reader Lesson

  • Uses complicated sentence structure, liberally including semi-colons and dialogue.
  • Teaches a character trait through a memorable story format.
  • Applies a lesson which encourages success in all areas of life.

What do you think? Which lesson seems to be more challenging? Which lesson is more effective in encouraging long-term learning? Have today's lessons been dumbed down?

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