One Thought on How we Learn, and Some Links

Prepping madly for a stupid industry convention down in plastic-sterile Orlando, as well as today’s American History class, yet does that stop the blogging? Heck no!

1. To paraphrase: To be any more than coat of paint deep into history is to cease to support the classroom model of education.  Yet this remains the biggest hurdle: most people, in my experience, actually believe that the only practical way to educate kids is by dividing them up into groups by age, and spoon feeding them tiny, disjointed pieces of information for hours and hours every day, day after day, for years on end – and that it’s only prudent to use the full coercive power of the state to make sure it happens.  Failing to do this will result in mayhem!

There are two ways to see that this is wrong:

First, pick anything it is valuable to know, and you will find that there are many ways to learn it that have been tried and proven to work, often over centuries. The graded classroom model is only a couple hundred years old, and has only become ubiquitous over the last 100 years. So, how did all those smart people – Newton, Hildegard of Bingen, Jefferson, Aristotle, and on and on – get so remarkably well educated? They took few, if any, classes, and the classes they did take bore more of a resemblance to a post-doctoral seminar than to a modern middle school.

Programming is a current favorite – few if any superior programmers get that way by taking programming classes. Instead, they hack away on their own, join on-line forums, try programming hard stuff because it’s hard, and hang out with other programmers. It’s a sort of self-directed apprenticeship. The ‘final exam’ is about whether your programs work and if the other programmers can figure them out. These are the guys behind the digital age, not the ones with straight ‘A’s in some classroom.

I’ve used the example of piano lessons before:  a 7 year old can take a half hour lesson once a week, practice 15 minutes a day, and, by the time she’s a 10 year old, be playing some serious music.  Math could be taught the same way, and the student would get through everything 6 years of daily 40 minute classes typically cover in about a year. If the child has interest and aptitude, they can get through it a lot faster than that, as has been repeatedly demonstrated.  When told that 6 years of grade school math could be covered in 20 weeks with 20 contact hours, Alan White, who had been an elementary math specialist for years in the public schools, said it was no surprise:

“Because everyone knows,” he answered, “that the subject matter itself isn’t that hard.  What’s hard, virtually impossible, is beating it into the heads of youngsters who hate  every step. The only way we have a ghost of a chance is to hammer away at the stuff bit by bit every day for years. Even then it does not work. Most of the sixth graders are mathematical illiterates. Give me a kid who wants to learn the stuff — well, twenty hours or so makes sense.”

And what about our colleges and universities? We don’t hear the same moaning about their failures, and in fact people come from around the world to study at them. So, can we assume the educational model used in college is better than the classroom model? It is different, more like piano lessons: several hours of independent study is assumed to be needed for every hour of instruction. Why don’t we do more of that?  Why do we wait until college to shorten classroom time to an hour or two day, and give kids the rest of the time to study as they see fit? Is an 18 year old really that different from a 12 year old that this wouldn’t work? 

So, we need to be asking: how do kids really learn things worth learning? And then ask: what is it, again, that they learn at school?

Second, the classroom model manifestly fails to teach kids anything a reasonable parent would want them taught.  In colonial New England,  before there were any compulsory schools at all, literacy was higher than it is now. How? The Federalist Papers would published in the newspaper; Thomas Paine’s tracts were read by large numbers of people. These works would be considered college-level English these days – not that your typical college student has the intellectual chops to understand them very well. 

It’s not just the drop-outs that the schools fail: the kids who get A+ grades with advanced placement classes as often as not are placed in remedial classes once they get to college – typically, for writing and math. Again, what exactly did they learn over 12 years and AP classes if not writing and math?  And then, after a semester of remedial work, they are typically up to speed. Wait – college achieves in a semester what couldn’t be achieved by 12 years of classroom schooling?

Please consider that the graded classroom model  is not some sort of divinely-mandated requirement, but rather is a 200 year old experiment, cooked up by certain people and, for the most part, inflicted on Americans against their wills. It’s one with worse results than any number of other approaches – as long as the desired result is educated people.

We’re the lab rats in this experiment.  

2. Dr. Boli gets it right again. 

3. William Briggs remains on the job. And here. I work with a guy who has regularly, for years and years, stated, in public, that a. there are too many people; and b. that he hates people. Yet he took great offence when I suggested he lead by example. 


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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