When I was in the fifth grade, if called upon, I could stand beside my desk and rattle off the names of all our presidents (there were only 32 then). I had no idea what kind of presidents they were -- good, bad or just putting in days at the office. However, Washington and Lincoln must have been better than the others, because we got out of school when their birthdays came around.

We learned most things that way in the lower grades. We memorized multiplication tables, short, easy words to spell and for some reason, still unknown, the names of all the state capitols. It was rote learning for the most part; and we did it because we'd receive poor grades if we didn't.

Explanations? There weren't many. It was all we could do to retain the basic knowledge they were teaching. Most of us also learned the phonetic basics for spelling but with its exceptions; our English language is full of them -- "live" can rhyme with either "hive" or "give," etc. Nevertheless, phonetic rules are definitely worth knowing.

As we progressed into the mysterious workings of algebra, we learned that a negative number times a positive one equals a negative answer; and two negatives times each other equal a positive result. Also, the sign of a number changed when it crossed the "=" sign in an equation. Why? Who knew? But you scored the correct answer by doing it.

Later, after these procedures were firmly in place, we learned why they worked that way. Also, while learning U.S. history in higher grades, knowing all those presidents became helpful as a time guideline.

Then, somewhere in the 1940s and 1950s, people started coming into our education systems full of new approaches to "improve" teaching. Phonics? Forget it. The look-say system would have students in primary school spelling such multisyllable words as locomotive, skyscraper and zucchini much faster. And in math, students should be given the reason immediately why those numbers crossing the equal sign became positive or negative.

The very bright survived, but too many others became confused -- mixing explanations with processes too soon was not a good idea. And those look-say folks were turning our alphabet into a symbol language. I encountered high school students who could pronounce the word America, but not American. Adding the "n" made it an entirely different word.

The 1960s and 1970s brought in "relevancy." We were always to show a lesson's relevancy. (What's relevant about quadratic equations?) Special terminology accompanied those new presentations: desks became "pupil learning stations," and each students' "cognitive needs" (how to think) had to be met. Try that with five classes of 30 students each!

Once, at a California Teachers Association conference, I heard a teacher's comment about her principal, "The man seems to have a knack for hiring good teachers. Then, other than checking that they follow the curriculum, he leaves them alone and lets them teach."

Now there's a new idea worth pursuing!

Contact Joe King at alamedanews@bayareanewsgroup.com.