Archive for the ‘James Stigler’ Category

How schools will hurt your kids.

December 10, 2006

Conventional schooling in America is a shambles. We’re not teaching our kids the stuff they need to know. The system produces outcomes almost directly in opposition to what we want and we don’t even see a problem. Teachers are stuck in their ways and if there’s a group more defensive when criticized, I can’t imagine what it would be.

This rant is to encourage you to think about education in different ways than you have before. It’s to encourage you to read some different view points and try to solve some of our nation’s educational problems. After years of thinking (and arguing) about this issue, I’ve come across some books which encapsulate most of the problems with education in this country. They even cover some alternative approaches and solutions that have worked elsewhere.

The only prerequisite for reading further is that you need to be ready to challenge some beliefs you might hold fairly deeply. If you can’t do that, take a hike 🙂

Schools should teach creative thinking and problem solving. They don’t. The majority of American schools teach method and process. They teach the “How?” rather than the “How come?”. It’s an important distinction. John Taylor Gatto believes that this is not an accident. He believes that the schools of today are not fatally flawed or off track. Gatto believes that schools are designed to crush creativity and critical thinking. He believes that in a capitalist society, those that control the money (and hence the power) are happiest when there is a ready supply of consumers who are trained to accept authority and not think too critically about what they’re told. Of course, he sounds like a conspiracy theory nut but that doesn’t make his points less valid. They stand on their own merits. This comes from a teacher who has done enormous amounts of research into the early history of conventional schooling and the theories he’s developed are disturbing.

Judith Rich Harris‘ book The Nurture Assumption outlines a position that will shock most parents. The book claims that the effect of peers on a child’s personality are more powerful than anything parents can do at home. So not only will a child’s career prospects be impacted hugely by the education they (fail to) receive, so will their personality. Her theories involve the concept of multiple “socials contexts” and, if true, mean that the ways in which parents matter to their kids’ futures is different than mainstream society currently believes.

James W. Stigler is the author of The Learning Gap and The Teaching Gap. These books investigate differences between foreign schooling and schooling in the USA. The comparisons presented are not flattering for the US. Educational outcomes on every measured dimension are better in the countries he studied (China, Japan & Germany). A lot of it comes back to John Taylor Gatto’s complaints regarding the regimented nature of school practices. In Japan, students are rarely shown how to solve problems. The teacher presents the problem in the broadest possible terms, giving no hint to the process that should be used. Children are encouraged to shout out their ideas, which the teacher proceeds to write down. Each potential solution is then evaluated by the class (under the knowing guidance of the teacher) until a workable method is developed. In this way, the kids are taught to understand the underlying principles rather than memorizing formulae or processes. In US schools, it’s the other way around. The teacher walks students through examples of how to solve various problems. The students then grind their way through problems from a text book or work sheet. They repeatedly solve large numbers of similar problems. These problems are very similar to those they’ve just had demonstrated in class. They can master the process without the slightest idea about why the process produces the right answer at the end.

If you only listen to one of my recommendations, make sure it’s this one; Read Alfie Kohn’s stuff. Make sure you read The Homework Myth and The Schools Our Children Deserve. They will permanently change the way you think about education.

In The Homework Myth the central premise is that schools should not assign homework. Kohn claims that at best homework is useless for the purposes to which it’s currently being put. At worst, it’s outright harmful and is crushing our kids’ abilities to think critically and their love of learning. Homework has never had any experimental data produced and corroborated that demonstrates its value to the students who are tasked with completing it. Think about that. There’s absolutely no evidence to demonstate a benefit to homework. Even if you’re a diehard proponent of homework, that’s a tough pill to swallow. You’d think that, if homework was such a silver bullet, it wouldn’t be too hard to find some supporting evidence. Try to find some. If you can, you’ll be the first.

Kohn is also a firm believer in making our educational system more about learning and less about testing. The central premise of The Schools Our Children Deserve is to create educational environments that nurture childrens’ innate desire to learn. In Kohn’s world, it’s less about motivating kids to learn and more about not crushing the motivation that every child is born with. The idyllic imagery he paints is as tantalizingly appealing as it is seemingly achievable.

The thrust of all these works is that public Schools in the US have degenerated to the point where they’re harming our kids. The problem won’t be solved by talking about it, however, without talk, people might not realize there’s a problem at all.

I’ll probably come back and expand this at some point. I really just wanted to get it started. Eventually, I’d like to provide a more detailed review of all these books. They’re really worth the effort.