Lessons Learned

While the Bangor Daily is a newspaper I approve, more often than not, I cannot fail but note a tendency for it to print nonsense in conjunction with the subject of educating schoolchildren.  Admittedly, it is the going nonsense, which can be found readily enough in any American newspaper, but the BD would be better without it — or at least with a bit of counterbalancing nonsense, to which end I therefore devote this column.

Being a talking head on education is easy.  These are the dogmata, the list of need:  We need better schools and teachers.  Kids need to know learning is fun!  We need computers in ever classroom, a computer on every kid’s desk.  Kids need to be taught by computers, using fun teaching computer games.

Let me ask you something:  IS learning fun?

I don’t personally agree with any of the items on that list.  The one common dogmata I don’t list that I do agree with is that we should pay our teachers more.  How about a governor who gives himself a 10% pay cut and raises teachers’ wages commensurately?

I think it’s our responsibility to ask whether learning really is fun before we teach our children that, because otherwise we are doing something called “lying.”  I enjoy learning.  I read.  I carry around flash cards when I get into a new subject, and pull them out at dull moments during my day.  When I meet someone who knows something I don’t, I have a socially awkward tendency to corner them and wring the basics out of them before letting them go.  But, no, I wouldn’t say learning is “fun.”

Learning is WORK.  I think this should be explained to all students the first day of every school year.  It clarifies things tremendously.  School is not a game.  It takes effort.  Learning demands thinking about things you do not yet understand until you understand them, and this by its nature is uncomfortable.  But everything you learn you get to keep for the rest of your life, and you will look back and know the effort was worth it.

I don’t think we need better teachers or better schools.  We need better students.  This attempt to “help” our students by doing everything except demand that they step up is lethal.  Educators keep meeting them halfway, and halfway, until by a kind of Zeno’s Paradox the material has been so stupided down that it bores the life out of any thinking child.

Really there is no such thing as teaching.  There is only learning.  A good student makes progress with a bad teacher, but the best teacher cannot make progress with a willfully bad student.  Tell your kids that learning is work, and you expect them to do it.  Teach them how to find an answer in a book without reading the whole damn thing, teach them to ask good questions, and turn them loose in the library.  It’s honestly that simple.  To learn skills — a foreign language, basketball, mathematics — add practice and troubleshooting.

We do not need computers on every desktop.  They’re a distraction.  Students must learn to touch-type, but until the last two years of high school teaching them to use software — any software — is useless, because the programs will all change long before they enter the work force.

When I was in high school, my grade were the first to carry a Texas Instrument graphic calculator to math class every day.  Big, clunky things.  Didn’t use them for months.  The teacher liked them well enough, but the fact was it was largely useless for learning concepts.

One day, I forgot mine in my locker.  I asked to run and get it, but the teacher said no.  And, she added, today we were finally going to use them.  In retrospect, I wonder if she wasn’t aiming to teach me something.

The lesson began.  As you know, a circle is divided into 360 degrees.  But, in calculus, we often use a different measure for angles.  We use, not degrees, but something called RADIANS.  It saves us a bit of work, like working in miles and miles per hour instead of miles per hour and kilometers.

One radian is the angle you get when the length of the arc is equal to the distance from the angle to that arc.  So, if you had a pie with a diameter of six inches, and therefore a radius of three, you measure off three inches of pie crust and the resulting angle is one radian.  That’s my way of explaining it; our teacher gave us a more abstract definition.

“Now,” the teacher told us, “take out your graphing calculators.  How many degrees in one radian?”  The students began dutifully punching numbers into their calculators.  I sat there awkwardly.  The teacher looked around.  “–Conrad.  What’s the answer?”

I looked at the board, and guessed.  If you had an equilateral triangle, all with 3-inch sides, then the measure of any angle would be 60 degrees, no?  So then pull one side out to make it an arc, and the angle opposite that gets just a bit smaller…

“I’d say 58 degrees or so,” I answered.

Silence in the classroom.  She asked a calculatored student for the answer.  “57 degrees, 17 minutes.  I don’t have the seconds yet.”  It was a mystery to everyone how I had done it, because they had not stepped back to look at the whole problem.  The technology was a barrier that distanced them from considering what was actually going on.

I’d teach math with abacuses, fingers and slide rules.  Engineering students maybe need computers and calculators, but maybe not.  We put a man on the moon with slide rules.  Very few K-12 subjects could not be taught well with 50 year old texts.  No kid in the world needs a thirty-year-old to teach them to use Skype, and the last thing we need is teachers delegating teaching to a computer program.  Unless you’re teaching programming in C or Java, get those damn machines off the kids’ desks!

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