Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Interesting article on education

I'm sicker 'n a dog right now, as my grandma would say, so the book review I've been working on for you will have to wait until I recover from the virus that's got me down. (Yup, this time it's not the kiddo -- it's the side effects of being a teacher. I was sick all last winter, too -- one cold after another.)

So, to make it up to you, I'm posting a link to this intriguing article on education in America. If you know me, you know that I am in favor of homeschooling -- that all my time teaching in institutionalized schools has only served to solidify my distrust of them. As the writer of this article says, schoolwork is largely busywork. Learning seems to happen very little.

However, at least in the Catholic schools where I've taught, this isn't part of any conspiracy. It's simply in response to the fact that it is easier to teach large groups with busywork. Furthermore, it is easier to grade them with tests. And students raised on lots of tests learn for the test, study to the test, and forget after the test. Any time I would try to make them think, to analyze, to wonder, inevitably they would smack me back to reality with a raised hand. "Will this be on the test?" And if you answer "no," they tune out instantly.

Luckily the younger kids are not yet so conditioned, and I try to avoid doing so. Yet it is almost impossible to teach them without streamlining them more than is good for each of them individually. It's a case of "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few," so I have to hurry one up who is still struggling to understand and force one to wait who has grasped the material days ago, even though I long to teach to each of them.

I can't testify to what this author says about public schools, never having taught at one, and having little memory of anything I learned while going to one. In my experience, public school teachers are enthusiastic and try extremely hard to break the pattern of busywork and failure that cripples their students. However, there seems to be something intrinsic in the structure of schools, even in the nature of any school so long as it is institutionalized, that makes this pattern almost impossible to break. Schools seem to encourage mediocrity, blind and thoughtless acceptance instead of critical thinking, and learning that only lasts until the exam.

So, read the article and tell me what you think. I know it does seem a little extreme in parts. But whether there is an agenda behind the failure of schools or not, the failure is just as evident, and the author's solution is just as necessary.


Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila, I used to be sick all the time when I was teaching, too! Students are walking hostels for viruses!

I also share your experience that busywork is sometimes the most pragmatic form schoolwork can take. It's easier for students to do well in and easier for teachers to mark.

The idea that the very nature of the school (as we have it today) is at fault isn't new to me. Though I haven't looked into the matter more deeply, I suspect it has something to do with the template for children's education having come from Prussia.

Warren said...

Great article. I'm passionate about the decline of both English literacy in students, and Mathematical literacy.

I recently read a great essay, Lockhart's Lament, on the sad state of Math curriculum, from a passionate math teacher. How I wish I had a teacher like him.

It was my most passionate, most involved teachers that made the biggest impression on me. I had a fabulous Grade 12 english teacher, who taught me to love Essays, who taught me to view writing as a craft worthy of all the time and energy one could devote to it.

Anyways, here's a wonderful rant, from a passionate math teacher:


some guy on the street said...

The thumping ab avo leads into a most resonant description of How Not to be Bored, and which it is unlikely most teachers think to teach.

I didn't enjoy school much before I figured out what exactly I was really good at and really enjoyed --- in my case, it's mathematics and math/physics --- which rather entailed I'd be "in school" for the rest of my career. The other key to enjoying my schooling was figuring out that school itself needn't actually interfere [!] with my learning all the math and physics I'd ever want. So off I went, and never looked back, as they say, staying in-place the whole time.

I'm not through the article, yet; I've still got to collect me a thesis supervisor and grade assignments and answer questions in tutorial... so much to do! so bad with my time!

some guy on the street said...

A note on busy work. There's "busy work", and then there's "dull tedious and absolutely necessary exercise". Specifically, in most any craft or profession (what one should mean by "a person's work"), there are essential skills that can only be learned by repetition and refinement. Shepherds have to take care of their sheep; typists have to have qwerty or dvorak in their hands; musicians must learn complete control of their instruments; surgeons have to hold veins and nerve bundles, and sew, with forceps; orators (e.g. teachers) have to enunciate most unnaturally to be understood; people working at heavy labor have to know how to lift things without hurting themselves; soldiers drill and parade and are conditioned to immediate obedience so that whichever division can act smoothly and coordinated in the thick of battle and whatever the weather.

Becoming a mathematician, it's been essential to learn dozens of "axiomatic" notions as well as hundreds of proofs and proof tactics, which from watching my students in tutorial I can tell appear abstruse and obscure, and even scrupulous, to the novice of epistemic rigor. But the only way to learn all these essentials is to submit to hours (roughly 10,000 hours, selon Peter Norvig) of repetitive, mind-numbing, but fundamentally brain-tuning exercise.

This is not a task for one easily dismayed; but it still needs encouragement and guidance --- and I think this is one place professional teachers can be either of enormous benefit or dangerously inept.

Yesterday, I mentioned discovering that school couldn't fundamentally interfere with my education; I must also mention being generally encouraged by most of my teachers to pursue my scientific interests, and furthermore that there were two or three very formative specialists who were able --- indeed glad --- to keep nudging my unskilled reading towards more fruitful practice. Absent either the general encouragement OR the careful guidance, and at best I'd have taken much longer to find myself in my present state, approaching expertise. I might even have been a complete train-wreck!

Alas, if the administration and guidance of exercise is handled without skill (there's another Teacher's skill), or carelessly, there is a risk of the exercise degenerating into such busy-work as keeps the hands writing and the brain a Devil's plaything --- just as much as there is greater risk of physical injury if the gym coach is unskilled or careless at his work.

So, if you're a teacher (or a student), remember drill-work isn't evil --- it can even be a positive good --- but it isn't a substitute for proper attention, and even more must never become a means to avoid paying attention. And if you're not a specialist in the drill subject, then maybe on occasion consult with someone who is?

And, yes, tell them not to let it bore!

Sheila said...

There's a difference between busywork and drill-work, though. Busywork is given to keep children busy. That is all it is.

As a language teacher, I often had to give students work that was tedious and rather boring -- even to the point of having them write out endings over and over. I always apologized to them for doing it, telling them, "I'm not doing this just to keep you busy, I'm doing it because I know these things are hard to memorize and this is going to help." So I hope that distinguished the work I assigned from busywork as such.

What frustrates me more than anything is having bright children finished with their work and bored because the slower children are still working. Yet I don't have the time and attention to focus on the quick ones and give them something new to learn. Instead I have to let them wait, or give them busywork, even though I know they don't need it. That's the part that hurts.

I agree that advanced work has to be taught by a knowledgeable instructor. This is why I advocate homeschool but NOT "home college." In the later years of school, for example, in high school, I think it is very fruitful for the student to learn from a good teacher. I just DON'T think it is necessary for them to be in a brick building for seven hours a day to do this. In my case, I took courses at a community college.

Of course there is some good learning happening at schools. It's just that 90% of what goes on is not good learning, but disciplinary action, classroom management, social interaction in an artificial environment, busywork, and boredom. To some extent I can change this for my own students -- but there is still much they and I suffer through together that can't be helped without changing the whole system drastically.

some guy on the street said...

Oh, I don't mean to give the impression that I thought You Personally ought to pay individual in-class attention to whoever finishes an in-class assignment first (good heavens! and it's just as bad for the more sluggish wrists, like mine...). But as Mr. Gatto says, there's no reason for a student to be bored just because everyone else is still doing something he's done with; if he were a clever lad, he could switch to working on homework for other subjects, or if artistic he could scribble on a sketchpad, or else read a good book. So one might take care to suggest that every student has a good book from the library to read in case they run out of immediately-pertinent occupations. All that is to say that no, it shouldn't be up to you to assign them new filler material; if they can, they really should learn to peacefully and constructively direct their own attention once it isn't needed for present works. That was a slow lesson for me, too --- e.g. I lost a couple (noisy) Rubik's cubes from re-directing my own attention (and noisily) before it wasn't needed...

For whatever that's all worth. I have the luxury of dealing mostly with fresh new adults, who for the most part have elected the specific courses I'm assigned to assist in teaching --- though even there, it's odd how uninterested some of them can seem. I daresay you know your own business better than I do.

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