“School days, school days, good old Golden Rule days, Reading and ‘riting’ and ‘rithmatic’…”

Just the beginning of August but already there are thoughts — pleasant and unpleasant about the return to school. In recent years much attention has been paid to reading and arithmetic as essential to academic success. Now, educators seem to be recognizing that children can’t write — at least not in keeping with their grade level or in meeting the requirements they will face as they progress academically. According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress three quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing.

Poor writing is nothing new, but the Common Core Standards were supposed to change that. Writing was thought to be central to the American curriculum, a change from the years of No Child Left Behind, which focused on reading comprehension and standardized multiple-choice tests.

Now educators are having a debate about the best approach to use in teaching writing. One approach, thought of as process writing, emphasizes activities such as journaling about one’s personal experiences. The idea is that focusing too much on grammar will stifle children’s voice and prevent them from falling in love with writing. There are those who agree that formal grammar instruction doesn’t work well and research finds that students exposed to a focus on such instruction perform worse on writing assignments.

On the other hand, there are those who believe that children writing their own experiences in a journal thinking this will lead to a love of writing, hasn’t work. In a move away from child-centered writing, children need to do more writing about what they have read and less about their own lives. The idea is that grammar and basic concepts need to be reinforced.

It is interesting that this social media generation, writing more than any generation before it, writing text messages and social media posts, struggle with the mechanics of simple sentences when it comes to the formal writing expected in school. Apparently, children have become so acclimated to small mobile screens that they are unable to work effectively at a laptop. Quick communication on a smart phone requires ignoring rules of grammar and punctuation, the opposite of school requirements.

In another educational direction, a summer camp run by a research group at Tufts University, is preparing children for the automated economy. While children at the camp were learning early childhood skills like block building, turn taking and mastering frustration, researchers say they were also learning the skills necessary to succeed in an automated economy.

Apparently, there are those educators and researchers who believe that the recent focus on coding is misplaced. The more important skills to teach have to do with playing with other children and nothing to do with machines, rather human skills that machines can’t easily replicate, like empathy, collaboration and problem-solving.

The idea seems to be that technology has made increasing numbers of jobs obsolete and parts of most jobs will eventually be automated. Jobs of the future are likely to be different but we don’t know which will be done by machines and which new ones will be created. Children learn better by playing and building instead of sitting behind screens.

The striking thing about these ideas in education, whether writing or technology, is that two schools of thought exist in both. One has to do with the mastery of skills, the other a focus on children’s development.

In thinking about how and what children should be taught, perhaps we should rely on what we know about how children learn.

— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. And, she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.