Sunday, September 9, 2012

exposure, cultural literacy and other myths of modern schooling: a response

I have received many responses to my recent column on high school. I will attempt to answer them all by answering just one:

Dear Mr. Schank,  

I found your recent Op-ed in the Washington Post ("Why kids hate school — subject by subject") spot-on.  Your comments about foreign language instruction, in particular, were quite lucid, and as an ESL teacher (and someone who only learned Spanish by moving to Spain, despite five years of Spanish class in grade school), I can attest to the frequency with which students arrive having studied grammar for years in their home countries  without being able to manage a simple conversation, or being able at best to string together a series of formulaic, overly-practiced sounding responses that native speakers rarely use.  

And so on with your discussion of the other subjects.  I'm curious, though, to learn what you think about students' more general cultural education – their knowledge base about the world.  Do you feel that students should come out of the educational system with some sort of fluency in the various subjects?  How would something like this be accomplished?  It seems like there's something to be said for having familiarity with major historical events, some canonical works of literature, some understanding of how plants work.

Also, how do you see arts education as fitting into this?  

Thanks again for publishing and spreading your ideas.  Hopefully my questions don't come off as too uninformed – were I somebody with more free time, I'd while away the day looking into your blog and published writings further.  Let's call it a long-term project.  

Take care,
Kevin Laba

Dear Mr. Laba:

Thank you for your question.

Of course one can make a legitimate argument for the idea that every person should know everything that matters or might matter. Works of literature? Why not? What harm could Dickens do really?  Everyone should know about World War II. How could one be a citizen of the world and not know about that?

The problem is that once you accept that idea two things happen and both are bad. The first is that you implicitly accept that telling (or reading) are the means by which students will “know” about these things. But that model doesn’t work. We don’t remember what we are told for very long by and large. And if we do recall some information, in order to have a deep understanding of something one needs to care about it, use it, do something meaningful with it, and that just isn’t how school works.

School doesn’t work that way, in part, because of the second bad thing. Once we think there is important stuff to know, someone is going to make a list of exactly what that is and you get books like “what every second grader must know” which if I remember correctly includes Eskimo folk tales because of it is “cultural knowledge.” The list is long and so in the end someone decides what matters most and that is how we have the curriculum we have.

We don’t need to do that any more. It is possible to build thousands of curricula and because they can be offered anywhere once they are built, students could learn what they are interested in learning. “One size fits all” is a very old idea for education and one that is very convenient for governments, book publishers and test makers.

I for one, never wanted to know how plants work. I never cared. But then, a couple of years ago I did because of some AI work I was doing. So I called a plant biologist I know and asked. Now I realize that not everyone has the luxury of doing that, but in the age of the web one can pretty much find out what one wants to know.

The real issue is: can you understand the answer? School’s job, and teacher’s jobs, need to be to cause students to think hard about things they care about. Thinking is thinking. If you learn to think hard about human memory and learning, you can understand a biologist when he speaks clearly.

As for arts education, I have, of course, the same point of view. Those who love it should do it. Those who would like to having a passing knowledge of it should be encouraged to do just that. We can’t force people to listen to lectures about paintings or listen to music that doesn’t interest them. Well, we can, but it never works.

The key word, the one I have heard again and again in counter arguments to my ideas, is the word “expose.” Some very intelligent people have asked the question about how one would know if one wanted to be a chemist without being exposed to high school chemistry.

I find it an odd question. Prior to the age of 16,  a child does a lot of living and has plenty of time to express his or her interests to parents, friends, and teachers (or the web). Someone who might be interested in chemistry would be asking questions about how the world worked long before being forced to balance chemical equations.

School is the wrong venue for “exposure.” In school there is very limited exposure actually. We expose students to what was intellectually fashionable in 1892. We don’t expose them to business, law, medicine, engineering, psychology, and hundreds of other subjects because they didn’t teach them at Harvard in 1892.

We need to teach thinking and get away from the idea of “important subjects.” There aren’t any really.

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