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In a couple of minutes, I have to go into the other room and correct my first set of papers of the term.  I have friends who say I shouldn’t assign the things this early.  I have friends who say I shouldn’t assign the damned things this early, but here we are.

At any rate:

1) I looked at the comments to the lost post, and I have to say that I didn’t designate the curriculum on purpose.

I was asking a question of principle, IF we think that some things are good to know in themselves (whether or not the student will eventually “use” them in a job), THEN shouldn’t we do everything we can to make sure that all children learn them.

For the purposes of this question, WHAT we decide is necessary for all children to learn is irrelevant–it could be long division, or carpentry, or the complete works of Lord Paul McCartney.

Once we have decided that it is important for all children to learn whatever it is, it seems to be to be necessary to make sure that children do in fact learn them.

What we do now is to put a bunch of children in a room and accept–even under our various accountability schemes–that some children will simply never get it. 

And that’s why I said I think that we don’t really mean it when we say we want all children to learn X.  We run, rather, a kind of sorting scheme–X serves as a standard by which we separate sheep from goats from aspidistra plants.

2) When I said that if we do want all children to learn X, then we must consider X useful in and of itself in some way and  not just “useful” in the ordinary sense.

Consider, for a moment, algebra.

If Susan is a student of very low academic ability who will, no matter what we teach her, be unable to do any job but that of a fast food server or a convenience store clerk, should we insist she learn basic algebra?

How about Jack, who is brighter than that, but only wants to spend his life as a garage mechanic?

Bringing Susan to the pont where she can do algebra is going to take a lot of time and tons of money–but if we think algebra is important for people to  know, then we should spend both in the project of getting her where she needs to do.

But neither Susan nor Jack will likely “use” algebra in their adult lives.  If we want them to know algebra, then there is something about algebra that is “good in itself,” that functions in some way for Susan and Jack and for the rest of us.

Maybe it provides good mental training and makes the people who understand it more intellectually disciplined than they would be otherwise.  Maybe we think all children should be inducted into the cult of Protagoras.

We had a huge fuss over just this issue a few years ago in Connecticut, when the state Board of Education put out guidelines requiring schools to emphasize “practical” mathematics and not the “theoretical” kind, because most people can’t learn that stuff to begin with and nobody will ever use it again after they leave school.

When we commit to bringing all children up to speed on whatever set of standards we decide to have, we must know at the beginning that some subset of them will never use the information they get. 

If we still think it’s important that they learn it, then we must think the information and skills it imparts (algebra, carpentry, whatever) is “good in itself,” functions for us beyond the basically utilitarian.

3) It is possible that we do NOT think there is anything that is important for all children to learn–that what we’re looking at is a system meant not to make sure all children learn X, but to separate children who learn X easily from those who don’t, and shuffling them to their respective vocational destinies.

The system we have now certainly behaves as if this is the case. 

And I have a lot of objections to sorting systems, not the least of which is that they almost always end up sorting for the wrong things.

But if this is what we’re doing, and what we want to do, I think we should say so.

4) This sort of thing would, of course, be very, very expensive, but a lot of things are very, very expensive.  If we think they’re important to do, we do them.

Like I said, the answer here may be very simple.  We may not really be after doing what we say we are doing.  We may not think that algebra, or even reading comprehension, is important for every child to learn.  We may only want to separate “bright” children from the other kind.

5) When I was much younger, I used to think the educational system was set up the way it was (and is) so that society could say, “It’s not OUR fault that you ended up going nowhere in life.  YOU screwed up.  Just look at your grades!”

I’d better go correct those papers.

Written by janeh

September 13th, 2012 at 8:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Random'

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  1. First of all, there’s lots of stuff in school, and some of it is going to be beyond almost all the students and some can be done by almost all the students. Aguably, long-term, the underlying political beliefs/ national myths and ability to tolerate and work with others are more important than alegebra and more easily acquired. From this point of view, you could still sort on the academic side, but not so much on the national myths side.

    The whole idea of school as a sorting mechanism is based on the belief that the value of each human being depends on how high up the ladder he gets, or is capable of getting. If, instead, you admire someone for doing a decent honest job and doing as well as he is able, the fact that Joe couldn’t learn algebra is irrelevant to the fact that he can reliably clear snow after a blizzard. If you really think that humans have innate value just because they’re humans, you can also find a place for those who can’t learn to drive a snowplow, or perhaps even to handle a sharp kitchen knife.

    I think some sorting is inevitable in schools – you will need eventually to put the non-algebra learners in a different class than those doing introductory calculus. Even those who don’t have much time for the non-academic people find it important to have some people learn calculus.

    But I’ve seen the effects of too-early and too-rigid streaming, and it doesn’t work well. It doesn’t only ensure that the kids from the bad part of town won’t learn calculus, it can ensure that they won’t learn the basic arithmetic needed for admission to a training course for professional cooks either. That’s also a waste of potential.


    13 Sep 12 at 10:47 am

  2. In response to your algebra comments – this opinion piece addresses it as well. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/29/opinion/sunday/is-algebra-necessary.html?_r=2&pagewanted=1&smid=fb-share


    13 Sep 12 at 11:00 am

  3. I came across this and thought of you, Jane.


    As for the necessity of algebra, there is always going to be SOME aspect of the curriculum that will seem to be useless to someone. Are we going to cut it all out eventually? As technology moves on, are we going to call reading and writing obsolete (after all, we can get the computer to read us everything, and we can talk to type with the right software)? Heck, we discriminate against the illiterate, this has gotta stop!

    It’s actually a good policy to teach every student more than they can grasp. Otherwise you artificially restrict people based on YOUR expectations, and that way lies bigotry and self-fullfilling prophecies. Let failure to grasp in spite of good teaching mark the limits of someone’s mind, rather than the preconceptions of any number of “experts.”

    I personally ran out of math talent (after a 760 SAT math score) in advanced calculus. But if someone had said, early on, that I would never need to go beyond long division, I’d never have gotten algebra or geometry, both of which have proved useful to me (despite my whining during those school years).

    When did we decide that challenging students by presenting difficult and perhaps impossible subject matter was a bad idea? Who says that we should teach only those things we’re *certain* a student can absorb? That’s a sure course to even more mediocrity and an excellent way to miss identifying unexpected talents and much needed genius.


    13 Sep 12 at 1:22 pm

  4. Another thought struck me.

    We all talk as if learning stops the moment students leave school. For many it may, but for others, everything after school is a life-long self-guided curriculum.

    Many subjects require a progression of learning that just can’t be skipped or modified or dabbled at. Math and science, most notably. You can study psychology without knowing about art history, but you can’t do calculus without algebra.

    My husband (who has two master’s degrees and a LOT of advanced math) is currently doing online Kahn Academy classes in statistics. He had basic stats back in school, but wanted to know more about advanced stats. If he didn’t have the basics he’d be starting from a perhaps insurmountable place in order to accomplish his goals.

    Teaching kids as much as they can absorb gives each of them the most advanced place to start if they choose to self-educate later in life. Not advancing each student to the limits of their ability (and those can only be determined by trying to push beyond) handicaps them in the future.

    On the other hand, once a student has reached those limits, we shouldn’t promote them to the next level to fail again. We already know you can’t do differential equations. There’s no need to prove it again. We need to teach you something you CAN learn, or find you a job that will build whatever skills are possible.


    13 Sep 12 at 1:58 pm

  5. OK. Your “good in itself” turns out to be my “good for something” in that it’s learning a skill or method–just one level back from job/college ones.

    But the argument still feels like a bit of a straw man. It’s not that there aren’t things we should try hard to get everyone to learn, but that we have a very broad spectrum of abilities, and there are very real limits. We already have a very expensive education system. If not used with some discretion, a program to see that EVERY child learns certain things could be infinitely expensive–and not even deliver the mediocre results of the present system. I’d try to focus on critical knowledge and skills and improving techniques to see if we couldn’t get more out of the present effort before I doubled what the system consumed.

    As for sorting, certainly you don’t want to lock young people in career paths too early, and you want to give them ways to change. But in some sense, sorting is what education is for–unless you feel you should have had to take sheet metal in high school, and you wanted your graduate school literature courses filled with people who couldn’t read very well, and didn’t care for the authors anyway. There are only so many hours in the day–and only so many days.

    Life is short. Time is limited and the range of skills and things to learn almost infinite. In a good school, I’ll come to know what I’m good at and what interests me, and be able to pursue some topics and skills a little way down the road. But pursuing one path means not pursuing another, and if one of the things I learn in school is that I take well to History, but have poor manual skills, and Chemistry just doesn’t hold my interest–those are all three good things to learn.

    Yes, there is a core we should make sure every child has a chance to learn–but let’s not carry it to the point of breaking their hearts and bankrupting their parents. Let’s focus on what they can learn instead.


    13 Sep 12 at 4:45 pm

  6. It also occurred to me that what we say we want every child to learn is a statement of what is important to us as a culture or society. In a way, it hardly matters if we think we are primarily a scientific culture, and insist that every child learn science to s certain level and some can’t, as long as those who can’t acknowledge that as a worthy goal. Actually, reading might be a better example, or possibly national identity. Unless the US is more different from Canada that I think it is, I’m probably safe in saying that with some exceptions, we do pretty badly at teaching science although we do say it’s important.


    14 Sep 12 at 6:46 am

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