The kids doing spelling bees are cool and, at one level it’s lovely to see an academic pursuit being publicly acclaimed, but the hyperbole surrounding the event is completely out of sync with what this country and the World need from the next generation. The last thing we need to do is to push our kids down the road of rote memorising a pile of fundamentally useless information.
Being able to spell is an important part of professional communication. It’s a marker for education. But being able to spell very complex words from memory is completely unnecessary in the modern age of spell-checkers and dictionaries at your fingertips. It’s a parlor-trick with no practical application. Sure, if I was handed a CV with spelling mistakes in it, I’d look at the candidate askance – but there’s no scenario where I’d be asking a candidate to spell random difficult words out loud.
What if our modern society broke down and we no longer had access to the Internet or spell-checkers? Well in the event of total meltdown let me say that you’re not gong to be looking to the guy who can spell ‘succedaneum’ for survival tips. I don’t want to under-rate the importance of good grammar and normal spelling, but the feats of memorisation demonstrated in spelling bees are just as useless as learning a telephone directory or being able to recite pi to 2000 decimal places.
The deep irony is that spelling bees are an artifact of the sort of rule-based education which we are purportedly trying to move past. They are a function of a time when education levels were poor and there was no external storage even in the form of easily accessible books – which in turn meant that the capacity to memorise copious facts was actually a useful skill in some circumstances. The competitions themselves were, in the 1800s and early 1900s, and important way of encouraging education.
And therein lies the problem. There are many things we should be encouraging our kids to do, there are many activities we should be validating – but rule-based, rote learning is not one of them.
What we need is creativity and thinking: Skills which are just about completely the opposite of those validated in a spelling bee. We need innovation, maker faires, computational thinking like in Bebras, creativity and team-work like in the Young ICT Explorers. It’s those sorts of skills which we need to be a successful country in 20 years time; and it’s those sorts of skills which the kids will need to be shine in later life.
Ultimately, spelling bees involve us teaching our kids to do something that a computer will always be able to do better than them. We should be teaching kids to do the things computers can’t do: write poetry, make art, create the programs the computers use. Being able to spell ‘ratatouille’ is a dead-end; being able to make a poem about it, write a story involving it, or create a device to cook it – those are the skills we ought to encouraging in our kids.