Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog


with 4 comments

It really does seem as if we’re all so entrenched in thinking about education in terms of “courses,” that we can’t seem to get out of it.

To answer some of the questions and comments–no, I don’t think a series of national tests will lead to a national, centralized curriculum, because we already have such tests–the  SATs and ACTs, plus the  AP program–and it hasn’t yet.

And long before such tests existed, colleges and universities devised their own to determine who would be allowed to enter, and that entry did not depend on grades from a school–or even attendance at any school at all.  

A fair number of the men who made the American founding–most of them able to read Latin and some Greek, most of them far more conversant with the classics than any high school senior is expected to be now–never saw the inside of a classroom until they entered college.  

There is absolutely no reason whatsoever that knowledge must be arranged in “courses” that people are supposed to “take.”  John says he would have hated Beowulf, and Robert, if I remember correctly, loves it, but the issue isn’t what a student will love or hate but getting that student to actually learn something.

As far as I can tell, the majority of the content in high school English courses these days is makework without a point, and yet “passing” such a “course” is supposed to certify that the student is capable of going on to higher level work.  In my experience, it certifies no such thing,  Most students arrive, even on “good” college campuses, with little or no understanding that there has been a Western literary tradition, that it has a history and that that history is not random, or even of how to dissect and analyze a work of the imagination.  Most of them know none of the standard literary terms or what they mean, don’t know how to scan a line of a poem or what the basic rhyme schemes are, can’t tell you the difference between a ballad and a narrative, and really can’t tell you the difference between an English and  Italian sonnet.

I once gave a class the assignment to come in with four Italian sonnets for the next class meeting–they came in with reams and reams of sonnets in  Italian.  It would have been funny if it hadn’t given me a headache.

My point is not that English is a special case, but that it isn’t.  There are lacunae like this in every student’s background in every subject.  Colleges and universities have known for a long time that an A in biology, or algebra, or history represents absolutely nothing about what the student knows in any of those subjects.   That’s why they rely so heavily on SATs and  SAT-IIs.   They’re not the best tests in the world, but they give at least a basic idea of what the student can be said to actually know.

But if that’s the case, why bother with the high school course at all for people who don’t want to pursue their education in that way?  Why shouldn’t a fourteen year old who can get a 750 (out of 800–it’s an unusually high score) on his SAT-II in calculus, or biology, or French, simply be acknowledtged as having that particular accomplishment under his belt?  Most of the students who do “take” the “courses” will know less than he does, not more.

My problem is that I don’t see what purpose the schools are serving in these cases.  Yes, certainly, there are people for whom sitting in a classroom is as good as it’s going to get, but there are lots of others–and I increasingly think it’s the majority–for whom it is a waste of time.  

There are, after all, other ways to learn things, and even other ways to acquire a coherent sense of what an educated person should know.  People did it for centuries.   The idea that schools are the “normal” way to learn is relatively new.

I also know one thing.  We’re not going to make inroads against the therapeutic culture as long as we’re funding a huge set of institutions who see their missions as “treating” the “whole child,” and that’s been the rationale in American public and private schools since the Sixties. It’s been as true under Republican presidents as Democratic ones, under liberals as well as under conservatives. 

Of course, what would be even better would be to get some solid information about the efficacy of that therapeutic culture into the culture at large–how good are its predictions about individuals?  (hint:  piss poor)  How effective is it at identifying children with psychological problems (NOT “the children we identify are messed up” but “okay, these are how many children needed therapy or had breakdowns that we DIDN’T identify).

In other words, actual information about whether psychology, as it’s now constituted in clinical practice, is doing good, doing harm, or doing nothing at all.

If you give me a lump of goo and ask me to test it for arsenic, I can run a series of tests that will determine if it has arsenic in it or not.  The results of those tests will not change depending on whether I believe the goo MUST have arsenic in it, or MUST NOT.  My feelings and perceptions do not matter.  That’s science.

In too much psychological testing, however, the perceptions and assumptions of the tester are the whole ball game–the “practictioner” finds whatever he expects to find.

About five years ago, away at boarding school, my older son was sent to the school psycholgist for testing because–well, they “just wanted to know” if he had a learning disability.

And the school psychologist dutifully found a learning disability, bringing me into her office to explain at length how all the tests she’d done “proved” this.

Unfortunately, Matt didn’t have a learning disability.  He had secondary stage Lyme disease, and there were plenty of physical symptoms of it–sitting in class with sweat pouring off him in the middle of winter, literally rivers of it making wet spots on the floor  was one; not exactly easy to ignore–that the school and his teachers blithely ignored.

If he hadn’t come home on vacation where I could see him, and if I hadn’t taken him to h is long-time doctor to get checked out, he could easily have gone into tertiary stage and permanent neurological damage.

But, you know, he must have a learning disability.  That’s the “science” of psychology.

Of course, there’s been no sign of it since we got rid of the Lyme.

Written by janeh

March 15th, 2009 at 7:06 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Courses'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Courses'.

  1. Another problem I’ve noticed with the course-based approach as opposed to the year of classes-based approach is that with courses (and worse; courses with unit tests that count for a considerable percentage of the final grade) is that the disjointed approach contributes to the ‘memorize for an exam and forget’ approach. This seems to work moderately well (as long as you don’t want the students to actually retain things longterm) when you do nice little elementary-school discrete packages on dinosaurs or The Native Americans (or Canadians), but causes serious problems when applied to mathematics or chemistry, where you really can’t forget basic algebra or the periodic table when you move on to the next unit.

    I know you’re not talking about classes, either, you’re talking about independant learning and being able to opt out or test out of various subjects. That can be done to a limited extent in some places now> I suspect to do it large scale, you’d have to homeschool. I’m a bit iffy about homeschooling because I think sometimes the parent-child relationship gets in the way of the teacher-student one, and I think, as much as I often disliked school, I would have been far worse off being homeschooled in spite of having had educated parents interested in my education. I suppose it works sometimes. And if you’re rich enough you can probably hire a tutor or governess with appropriate qualifications.

    Science doesn’t operate totally independantly of the emotions of the scientist. It’s supposed to, I think, but it is full of warnings about how easy it is for a scientist to accidentally bias his findings in the direction he thinks they should go. You’d think a basic analysis (eg for arsenic) would be free of this, but for something hardly more complicated, a titration with the endpoint determined by a colour change, there’s judgement involved in deciding when to stop titrating, and I’m told that students, at least, if they think they know the volume they need to reach the endpoint allow that to influence what degree of the colour change means ‘stop’!

    I believe psychology is both a science and an art, and moreover has a very complicated target. Psychologists and psychiatrists can be very good or very bad at what they do, and I’m sure some of the ones in the schools do tend to spot learning difficulties if that’s what they’re used to looking for. That’s human nature too. But on the scientific side, they do make some effort to find out whether their work is beneficial or not. It’s not easy. Even doctors working with conditions that can be physically diagnosed don’t always agree on the most effective treatment – and even when there IS wide agreement on the most effective treatment, don’t always use it. I think that’s back in the news again now.

    And about the false negatives – the kids with real problems who don’t get picked up by psychologists – sometimes if you increase efforts to pick them out, you will also increase the false positives. It’s like the mis-diagnosed learning disabilities. If a psychologist (or scientist) goes looking for something, chances are he’ll find it, whether it’s there or not. And that he’ll miss the real thing that’s not presenting in a ‘typical’ way. The study of the human mind is in a very primitive state, although fortunately less primitive than when they chained the more obviously mentally ill people up in Bedlam and charged admission to look at them.


    15 Mar 09 at 7:37 am

  2. Well, I made it back from Key West. Sorta.

    In thinking about what good alternative there might be to regular schools, I realized that something that *might* work would be freelance pedagogues. Given proper safeguards and checks to be able to trust your kids to these people, what if the teachers were able to set up stand-alone classrooms/learning environments and charge $X per student (what is now distributed to schools by the states) and teach one or more subjects thoroughly. Want your kid to know classical literature or higher math? Enroll them with the appropriate pedagogue until said teacher says “stick a fork in him” or he passes a competency test. This ends up being a parent-designed curriculum, and can be driven by student interest as well.

    This would work for all sorts of interests, fencing as well as geography, shop skills as well as literature. I envision that for convenience, such teachers might cluster together in educational parks, but it still doesn’t end up a school because there is no central administration, no controlled curriculum, and poor teachers would be rejected by the marketplace. Need for certain core skills would make sure anyone has access to basic reading, math, etc, but specialists might gather in certain areas. If you want to learn cow-ranching, well, go to Wyoming.

    This would, of course, require the state to relinquish control of the money they collect and let parents decide how spend the money to educate their children, so it will never happen. But it’s a cool idea, init?


    15 Mar 09 at 1:06 pm

  3. That’s the Tiffany Aching approach, from one of Terry Pratchett’s series. I think it’s marketed as a juvenile, so if you’re looking in the adult section you might not see it. If Tiffany feels the need to learn geography, she gets an egg or carrot from her mother and goes to the local market to trade it for an hour’s education.

    I can’t see it working in real life, partly because there’s no way to ensure that every child gets at least the basics and partly because hiring a bunch of independant entrepreneurs is likely to cost more, not less, than what the government spends on education now. I suppose the closest equivalent would be the sessional teachers at the university level, and even there you have the government paying for the universities to hire and organize them and provide places for them to operate.

    I really don’t have an enormous amount of faith in market forces to determine which teachers are doing a good job. After all, it doesn’t seem to do such a great one in providing clothing or mass entertainment or even (in some cases) food that I want.


    15 Mar 09 at 3:28 pm

  4. “There is absolutely no reason whatsoever that knowledge must be arranged in “courses” that people are supposed to “take.” John says he would have hated Beowulf, and Robert, if I remember correctly, loves it, but the issue isn’t what a student will love or hate but getting that student to actually learn something.”

    Yes, the problem is getting students to learn something. Perhaps we ahouks distinguish between need to know and nice to know.

    The 3R’s are need to know. It would be very difficult to survive in a modern society without reading, writing and arithmetic.

    But Beowulf and the difference between Italian and English sonnets are nice to know. I do not see the point of forcing students to study them.


    15 Mar 09 at 8:06 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 240 access attempts in the last 7 days.