Sunday, May 24, 2009

An "Education" Dilemma

Should algebra be taught to every eighth grader, as some in California propose? How about Thoreau in the third grade? Calculus in kindergarten?

OK, I realize I'm getting laughably extreme. But extrapolating ideas to their logical conclusions can be an instructive process.

Politicians and educational* policy makers debate what subjects should be taught to students of various ages in the absence of rational guidelines or strategic objectives. With few exceptions, it just seems like everyone wants kids to learn more and more at younger and younger ages -- preferably with "success" measured through the use of standardized tests!

This approach earns a failing grade for several reasons. First, developmental stages cannot be hurried along. Like flowers, they can be fertilized; but they grow in their own good time. Psychologists now believe that people are still experiencing cognitive (and certainly emotional!) development at least into their early twenties. It does no good to force them to deal with matters that are over their heads, any more than it would be useful to force a three month old to walk. Algebra, for example, requires the ability to think in abstract terms; trying to teach it to people who don't yet understand the manipulation of actual numbers is just plain dumb.

The second reason that the "calculus in kindergarten" syndrome fails is that knowledge of facts represents only the most basic and elementary type of academic learning. Treating kids like buckets and pouring as many isolated pieces of information into them as possible might help them become Jeopardy champions, but it neglects the more important abilities to comprehend data, to synthesize facts into concepts and theories, to write clearly, and to evaluate the veracity of what one hears and sees.

Third, knowledge is exploding. What today's young adults need to know the most -- at least from a cognitive perspective -- is how to learn new things. Wouldn't they be more inclined to do so if they enjoyed learning? And how exactly does homework in the first grade help accomplish that objective?

Finally, a great deal of current research indicates that social competence and the ability to engage in collaborative behaviors are far better predictors of success than knowledge of facts or even the capacity for sheer brilliance. "We have lacked the political courage and we have lacked the will to do the right thing by our children," says U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan (Los Angeles Times, 5/23/09). "Our dysfunctional adult relationships have hurt children in far too many places." Could it be that one reason so many adults are dysfunctional is that they lacked socialization opportunities as kids? OK, I'm not pretending that's an easy question to answer, or that schools can counteract dysfunctional families. But I don't think schools do enough, in an organized fashion, to help children mature emotionally as well as intellectually.

Spare the world the maladjusted genius -- we've had enough of those already! Let children play -- with appropriate guidance and supervision -- and they will develop into the kinds of human beings who can make the world a better place.

*Note: Has anyone else noticed that the word "educational" is falling into disuse? "Education" has become both a noun and an adjective. For example, according to the LA Times, "California already has received about $4.3 billion in education funding from the economic stimulus package..." (5/21/09, emphasis added). If this trend continues, pancreatic cancer will soon be a disease of the past; unfortunately, pancreas cancer will probably be just as lethal.


  1. Ron, congratulations on a good article in a great blog. I agree with every one of your points about this country's education situation, and would like to add yet another. One more fallacy of dictating what every child should learn at any certain grade level has to do with INDIVIDUAL DIFFERENCES. Even by the early elementary grades, there is a wide disparity within most classrooms in what various children are developmentally prepared to learn. And yes, in our rat race approach to education, we actually forget that our pace is stressing a GREAT NUMBER of children beyond their natural developmental levels. Marty

  2. I have to disagree with all three of your reasons. In response to your first point, although we do have strong age connotations for academic grades, they should reflect levels of academic understanding, with each higher grade requiring more advanced concepts. And 8th grade is an appropriate time to expect a student to start thinking of numbers in abstract terms. Doing so is an important intellectual step, within math and the hard sciences, as well as for handling the way we treat statistics and quantitative reasoning in the social sciences and humanities.

    In response to your second point, I think algebra and calculus are some of the least prone areas of academic knowledge to the mere recitation of facts problem. Even if students memorize sheafs of algorithms for dealing with various problems, applying the algorithms requires understanding the concepts behind the question, which is after all what we should want from education, understanding of more complex concepts.

    On your third point, you're conflating teaching hard things with teaching things badly. We should teach students hard things, for through the process of doing that is precisely how we become better at learning. Piles of homework at young ages don't teach hard things, or anything besides tedium.

    Lastly, although emotional and social development is important, I don't think the ways we have of making institutions respond to goals work well with it. The reason we are stuck with standardized testing is the strong institutional reflex of ass-covering which means we often need to come in with a rigid outside standard to prevent self-serving teachers and administrators from passing along students who have not been educated from year to year to a meaningless diploma, or to dropping out.

    Schools are massive and often recalcitrant institutions. Much as we might like them to dote on each student and foster individual growth, the prospects for doing so are rather bleak.

  3. I agree with George Carlin: kids should have an opportunity to drag a stick through the dirt... i.e.., do NOTHING occasionally. One of our mutual friends, whose son did not learn to read until he was eight years old because, "that's when he developed an interest in the Internet," recently attended Summerhill, the child-directed school in England. Aside from climbing trees, I'm not sure what he did there. But when he returned to the U.S., he decided he wanted to attend an advanced-studies school, which he still attends and where he happily studies like a maniac.

    The point is, he is doing what HE wants to do.

    We don't need an either-or approach to education. When children can study what they like, some of them will choose advanced studies that lead to excellence in science, mathematics and engineering. Others will choose music, poetry and art.

    As for those who don't know what to choose... that's the REAL challenge of education... to make it interesting, motivating, and more fun than robbing 7-Elevens or banging.