A musician wakes from a terrible nightmare. In his dream he finds himself in a society where music education has been made mandatory. “We are helping our students become more competitive in an increasingly sound-filled world.” Educators, school systems, and the state are put in charge of this vital project. Studies are commissioned, committees are formed, and decisions are made all without the advice or participation of a single working musician or composer.
Since musicians are known to set down their ideas in the form of sheet music, these curious black dots and lines must constitute the language of music. It is imperative that students become fluent in this language if they are to attain any degree of musical competence; indeed, it would be ludicrous to expect a child to sing a song or play an instrument without having a thorough grounding in music notation and theory. Playing and listening to music, let alone composing an original piece, are considered very advanced topics and are generally put off until college, and more often graduate school.
As for the primary and secondary schools, their mission is to train students to use this language to jiggle symbols around according to a fixed set of rules: “Music class is where we take out our staff paper, our teacher puts some notes on the board, and we copy them or transpose them into a different key. We have to make sure to get the clefs and key signatures right, and our teacher is very picky about making sure we fill in our quarter-notes completely. One time we had a chromatic scale problem and I did it right, but the teacher gave me no credit because I had the stems pointing the wrong way.”
In their wisdom, educators soon realize that even very young children can be given this kind of musical instruction. In fact it is considered quite shameful if one’s third-grader hasn’t completely memorized his circle of fifths. “I’ll have to get my son a music tutor. He simply wont apply himself to his music homework. He says its boring. He just sits there staring out the window, humming tunes to himself and making up silly songs.”
In the higher grades the pressure is really on. After all, the students must be prepared for the standardized tests and college admissions exams. Students must take courses in Scales and Modes, Meter, Harmony, and Counterpoint. “It’s a lot for them to learn, but later in college when they finally get to hear all this stuff, they’ll really appreciate all the work they did in high school. Of course, not many students actually go on to concentrate in music, so only a few will ever get to hear the sounds that the black dots represent. Nevertheless, it is important that every member of society be able to recognize a modulation or a fugal passage, regardless of the fact that they will never hear one. To tell you the truth, most students just aren’t very good at music. They are bored in class, their skills are terrible, and their homework is barely legible. Most of them couldn’t care less about how important music is in today’s world; they just want to take the minimum number of music courses and be done with it. I guess there are just music people and non-music people. I had this one kid, though, man was she sensational! Her sheets were impeccable every note in the right place, perfect calligraphy, sharps, flats, just beautiful. She’s going to make one hell of a musician someday.”
Waking up in a cold sweat, the musician realizes, gratefully, that it was all just a crazy dream. Of course! he reassures himself, No society would ever reduce such a beautiful and meaningful art form to something so mindless and trivial; no culture could be so cruel to its children as to deprive them of such a natural, satisfying means of human expression. How absurd!
I took the above directly from A Mathematician’s Lament by Paul Lockhart. It’s a great piece of writing and I totally encourage you to read it. He talks about math education. (“I complain about the lack of mathematics in our mathematics classes“). But there’s a lot more wrong in our education system than just mathematics teaching.
In this article, I will show you what’s wrong, how did it get so bad, and what we can do about it.
What’s wrong with our education system
John Dewey, while visiting a classroom one day, asked the students what they might find if they dug a hole in the earth. The students exchanged puzzled looks, and nobody answered. He asked again, and was met with silence. Finally, the teacher suggested that Dewey had asked the wrong question. “What is the state of the centre of the earth?” she asked her class, and all the students chorused, “Igneous fusion!”
1. Facts instead of understanding
Our schools are fact-junkies. We teach students thousands of useless facts that will be forgotten as soon as the next exam is over. Hell, usually they’re forgotten even before that, and then you see students cramming late into night, only to forget it all within 48 hours. How’s that for effective use of everyone’s time.
The worst subject in this regard is mathematics. Here is a type of problem. Here is how to solve it. Yes it will be on the test. Do exercises 1-35 odd for homework. What a sad way to learn mathematics: to be a trained chimpanzee.
Math educators are consistently finding examples of how kids can do calculations without really knowing what they’re doing. Students given the problem (274+274+274)/3 set about laboriously adding and then dividing, completely missing the point.
Which brings me to the next point.
2. Facts and techniques instead of creativity
Somewhere along the way, our education system forgot the value of creativity. People are saying things like “there’s no need to reinvent the wheel” and “experts have spent years thinking about this, why should you think about it?”
It’s like all the answers have been found and all that’s left is learning facts and doing routine tasks.
The fact is, creativity is like the car’s spark plug. A spark plug gets a car’s engine started, and then the whole car can move forward. Yet if this little gadget is damaged, the whole car will become just an inert hunk of metal.
Your mind is an amazing biological machine, but it would be just sitting there idly without creativity. That’s why the current education seriously hurts learning. It takes away the joy of discovery, it takes away the students’ enthusiasm, it takes away the fun of learning.
Creativity is what makes us human, and what makes us far more valuable than a machine. Companies value creativity very highly. (at least the better ones. Think Google). If our creativity is stomped upon and discouraged at school, the schools are doing the exact opposite of what they were created for.
This is a huge topic, I can only scratch the surface of it in this article. I’ll explain it fully in another article devoted solely to this topic. And yes, I’ve got everything backed by scientific research. Wait for my article about this to get all the references.
The gist of it is that emphasizing grades:
1. Undermines students’ interest in learning
Once good grades become the point of learning, students stop caring about the learning itself. In fact, they come to hate the idea of learning. Once they leave college, they’ll never want to hear about learning again. And that’s perhaps the worst effect of our education system. Not only does it do a great job at stopping students from learning anything at school, it even stops them from learning for a long time after.
2. Makes failure seem overwhelming
Hey, failure’s not a big deal. It helps you learn. In the words of Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM: “Would you like me to give you a formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure.”
Avoiding failure leads to needless perfectionism. It leads to stress. And most importantly, it leads to less learning. See my article Learning Mastery 3 – Fail Early, Fail Often on more details why failure is good for your learning.
3. Leads students to avoid challenging themselves
Here’s a question for you (get ready, it’s a tough one). Will you build more muscle by lifting a 20 kg weight, or a 1 kg one?
Similarly, you learn more by tackling challenging tasks. You learn by tackling tasks you don’t know the answer to yet. Avoiding challenging tasks gives you better grades – but worse learning. Plus, easy tasks are boring. This, again, undermines interest in learning.
4. Reduces the quality of learning
This is almost a paradox. The whole point of grading is to help students learn. But emphasizing grades makes students focus on the grades instead of learning. And as a result they remember less.
“The archer who sets his eyes on the prize will miss the target.”
Grading really is like shooting yourself (or, rather, the students) in the foot.
Simplicio: So you’re saying we should just stop assessing students? Let them to do whatever they want?
Salviati: I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying we should move towards more meaningful forms of assessment. Verbal assessment is much more accurate than summing up the whole year of a student’s work in a single number or letter. I’ll say more about verbal assessment later.
Simplicio: But verbal assessment is very subjective. Number grades, on the other hand, are objective and precise.
Salviati: Just because you add up all the year’s marks and average them doesn’t make them precise. Each of the individual marks remains just as subjective as it was. Averaging all the grades and calling it accurate is like the story of the Emperor’s nose. A long time ago, the Emperor of China wore a veil, and never showed his face. The people wondered how long his nose was. So one man went around and asked a thousand people what they think – how long is the emperor’s nose? Then he averaged those numbers. Surely the resulting length of the Emperor’s nose must be accurate, because it was found scientifically.
Simplicio: You’re saying all the individual grades are subjective. But what about standardized tests? Aren’t those objective?
Salviati: Standardized tests have probably done more harm to our education than anything else. Let me explain…
4. Standardized testing
If grading is like shooting yourself in the foot, standardized testing is like cutting your leg off with a chainsaw. To quote a teacher:
“We spend 25% of our time taking standardized tests, 50% of our time preparing for standardized tests and 15% of our time resting after tests. There’s only 10% of our time left in which the students can actually learn something.”
Standardized testing is like a black hole that sucks up and annihilates any learning it gets close to. It bends the very fabric of curriculum and students’ time. The teacher above might have been slightly exaggerating, but she’s closer to the truth than most of us would dare believe. In the words of another teacher, speaking about demands to raise standardized test scores:
“Sure you can raise standardized test scores. Just eliminate arts, restrict extracurricular activities, and spend hours on end drilling the students on test-taking techniques. And sure enough, the test scores will increase. What a meaningful measure of learning.”
Not only does standardized testing annihilate meaningful activities like arts, it also emphasizes all the wrong things. Since it’s “objective”, it assesses facts instead of creativity. Therefore preparing students for these test means teaching cartloads of pointless facts, rather than meaningful concepts and ideas.
5. Competition instead of co-operation
Researchers know that the best way to progress is co-operation. They live in big communities, sharing ideas, openly discussing things over lunch and helping each other. If everybody kept their ideas secret in fear of losing them, we’d still be living in the middle ages.
Yet schools somehow didn’t catch on to this. In schools, co-operation is called cheating, laziness, “not doing one’s work” and a dozen other unpleasant names. Schools would have us believe that the only way to achieve something is on your own. It’s quite a wonder our schools don’t churn out crazy sociopaths, who are afraid to share any of their ideas or feelings with others.
Humans are like individual parts of a machine. Each of them is amazing in its own right, but together they are so much more.
The schools also teach us that everybody else is competition. After all, the standardized testing is all about sorting people in baskets like “the top 1%” and “the top 10%”. This leads to students becoming adults who undermine others’ efforts and trash-talk people behind their back. Because their education has taught them that everyone who’s more successful is taking opportunities away from them.
Someone in the top 1% richest people in a third world country is much poorer than someone in the top 20% richest in the US. Similarly, giving everyone a great education would stop the need for sorting people. After all, if the top 20% of students were as good as the top 1% now, none of the top universities would complain about receiving “average” students. Students could spend their time learning instead of being sorted.
6. Students as passive receptacles of knowledge
Have you noticed that in a traditional classroom, a teacher does about 80% of the talking, and the other 20% is divided among all the students? I mean, sure, it makes sense. The teacher knows more. Therefore his talking will be more useful than the students’ talking. If the students are allowed to talk, the air will be filled with half-baked ideas and misconceptions. On the other hand, if the teacher is talking the whole time, the air is filled with pure distilled wisdom.
There’s only one problem. The classrooms are there for the students, not some third-party ethereal observer who might happen along.
Learning is an active process. When the students discuss, talk about the new material, try to explain it to each another and figure it out together – that’s when learning happens.
Simplicio: But you can’t get students to talk about topics they know nothing about. You’ve got to tell them about it first, so they can discuss it.
Salviati: If you just tell the students about the topic, they won’t really understand. Sure, they’ll be able to answer carefully crafted questions that exactly match what they were taught. But they won’t be able to use their knowledge in new creative ways. They won’t have real “gut-level understanding“.
Concepts need to be actively created by the student. They can’t be passed from the teacher to the student. You can pass on facts, but you can’t pass on concepts.
Simplicio: Create the concepts for themselves? They can’t be passed on from the teacher to the student? It sounds to me like you’re saying teachers should just sit back and let the students learn on their own. Like we don’t even need teachers in the classroom.
Salviati: Oh yes we need teachers. Teachers help the students discover concepts by asking the right questions. Then they let the students discuss it among themselves without immediately jumping in and correcting every little mistake.
Simplicio: Wait, teachers shouldn’t correct the students’ mistakes? I thought the whole point of a teacher is to help the students overcome their misconceptions and teach them the truth.
Salviati: The teacher shouldn’t immediately jump in and correct the mistakes. Instead, he should ask the students another question that reveals their mistaken assumptions. For example, let’s say the students are trying to simplify the fraction 19/95 . They come to the solution of crossing out the nines to get 1/5, which is the correct answer.
A bad teacher would immediately jump in and say “No, no, no! That’s wrong. THIS is how you simplify a fraction…” (In fact, the teacher probably wouldn’t even let the students try to figure it out on their own. He would begin the lesson by “This is how you simplify fractions. Now do exercises 11-25 on the handout. Stop talking, John! Turn around David, and pay attention. This is important, it will be on the exam. Come on, get going.”)
A good teacher would just say “Ok, how about simplifying 3/12?” and let the students figure it out. This might involve the students fiddling with a group of twelve marbles, to really get a deep understanding what 3/12 means (3 marbles out of 12)
Simplicio: Doesn’t that take an awful lot of time? It seems simpler to just tell the students how to simplify fractions. Why the whole circus with “figuring it out” and “inventing the concepts for themselves”?
Salviati: Because that’s the only way the students can really understand the concepts. You can’t pass on understanding, it needs to be created by the students themselves. If you just teach them a technique, it will be forgotten as soon as the next exam is over.
Simplicio: I’m still not convinced by this whole “actively creating concepts” thing.
Salviati: Let me show you another example…
A first-grade teacher in Massachusetts shoves aside all the classroom furniture and uses masking tape to outline a large boat on the floor. Its the Mayflower, she tells the children – the very ship we’ve been learning about. She hands a piece of paper to a student named Zeb and says it’s a message that the king has given him to deliver to the class. Zeb reads aloud that the ship can’t sail until we tell the king how big it is.
“What should we do?” the teacher asks. “Who has an idea?”
After some false starts and some painful silences, a boy named Tom volunteers that it can’t be three feet because he knows (having just been measured by the nurse), that he is four feet and the boat looks bigger than he is. Other children now join in, one suggesting that they find out how many times Tom can fit in the boat. It turns out the boat is four Toms long. Problem solved!
But wait a minute, says the teacher. How will the king know what that means? After all, he’s never met Tom. She waits for someone to remember that Tom is four feet tall. No one does. Instead, Mark suggests that the boat can be measured with hands. He does this several times (rather sloppily) and gets a different answer each time. After more discussion, the class realizes you have to start right at the end of the boat, and then make sure there’s no space between your hands when you put them down. Finally Mark concludes to everyone’s satisfaction that the boat is thirty-six hands long. Done!
Well, just to be sure, says the teacher, let’s have Sue (the smallest child in the class) measure it again. Oh, no! Now the boat is is forty-four hands long! Confusion and animated discussion follow. The children realize that all hands on deck are not of equal length. By the time someone proposes using people’s feet instead, time has run out. But the teacher has them return to the problem the following day. One child now remembers that the king knows Zeb, and argues that the boat can therefore be measured in multiples of Zeb’s foot. The class is so excited by this that they decide to use Zeb to measure everything in the room, and the teacher lets them.
It isn’t until the next day, returning to the topic yet again, that she begins to make the lesson explicit for them. She invites the children to think about the importance of a standard form of measurement. And only after that does she finally introduce them to the use of rulers.
How did the system get so bad
Some people (like Howard Gardner) argue that schools are doing their job perfectly. That is, that their job is to dumb people down, take away their enthusiasm and creativity, and create a timid, uncreative, easily controllable workforce.
Normally I’m all for conspiracy theories, but I don’t believe this one. I believe everyone is doing what they think is best.
1. Teachers don’t know better teaching methods
I’ve met teachers that have lost interest in teaching, and just sort of come to the classroom as a boring job. They don’t care about the students and wish the day was over as soon as it starts. But these are rarity.
Most teachers want to help students learn. They care about the students. And that’s what hurts me most – they do all the wrong things, but with the best intentions. If this majority of teachers only knew that there are better teaching methods, we could change the system for the better. They would be glad to help the students learn better.
2. The administration wants accountability
Students and teachers generally realize standardized testing is bad. But we’re powerless to change it. The school administration sort of realizes it. But the big administration out there, who never set a foot in a classroom except for a photo shoot for their campaign, they adore standardized tests. They want accountability. Because then it seems to them like they know how much learning is happening, when they see the standardized test scores.
The trouble is, they don’t realize that learning has nothing whatsoever to do with standardized test scores. They might be in fact inversely correlated.
3. The Current system is *familiar*
After going through the system for 12 years, we don’t realize things could be different. In fact, we might even start to resist change (“If it was bad enough for me, it’s bad enough for my kids”). I personally hope as few kids as possible will have to suffer through what we had to suffer through.
Parents also pose a big problem to making effective changes. To them, it’s reassuring to see students get grades, and to have the teacher firmly in control of the classroom, talking most of the time. After all, if the parents have gone through the system and turned out fine, surely the children can as well. And also, if it’s boring, annoying and painful, surely it must be good for you.
It’s as if they subscribe to what might be called the Listerine theory of education, based on a famous ad campaign that sought to sell this particular brand of mouthwash on the theory that if it tasted vile, it obviously worked well.
Parents get very nervous if you propose them to put their child in a progressive school. They get nervous when the students don’t get grades (instead they get specific and positive feedback, to really help them learn). The parents get nervous when the students do most of the talking, when the teachers seems to fade into the background and let students learn instead of being the center of the classroom, they get nervous when students are allowed to get involved in the creation of their own curriculum.
Thankfully, most parents’ worries dissipate if they actually visit such a school. They see the students sitting or lying down in groups, excitedly discussing things. They see students’ projects plastering the walls (and I’m not talking about twenty look-alike projects set by the teacher. I’m talking about projects the students take on themselves). They see the teacher giving helpful advice and guiding the students, without telling them all the answers and without being the ultimate authority.
What we can do to change it
I’ve described a lot of positive changes we could implement. While it’s by no means a complete guide, it gives you a good idea of what schools could be like.
I know we won’t change the system overnight. That would involve all the people at the top suddenly realizing the truth. Unfortunately, they’re buried too deep in paperwork to notice what’s going on in real classrooms.
To quote Alfie Kohn:
[The educators] sit on Mount Olympus, where no children live, and insist that students be made to learn. They like to talk about motivating kids, as though motivation could be imposed from the outside. They are fixated on observable, testable behaviors (such as correctly pronouncing the words on a page) while ignoring the people who are doing the behaving (and whether they care about, or understand, those words.)
It would be a damn near impossible job trying to change the people at the top.
The change will have to come from the bottom. We need to spread awareness among students and teachers. Let everyone know that things could be different! We don’t have to suffer through 12 years of boredom and mindlessness! Learning can be fun!
In fact, learning and fun go together. Taking the fun away from learning is like taking tires away from a car. You can still move the car along, but you won’t get very far, and it will require lots of effort.
So what can you do to help change our education system?
1. Send a link to Lockhart’s Lament to your maths teacher.
This isn’t guaranteed to make a difference. It probably won’t. When I sent the link to my teacher, he went right on teaching in his old way. He simply called it “the same old rant, but written in an interesting way”. But it’s worth a try. If even one out of a hundred math teachers will start teaching REAL mathematics, it will be worth it.
2. Send a link to this article to anyone you think might be interested.
I sent copies of Lockhart’s Lament to several of my friends who I knew would be interested. They then sent it on to others, and those to others.
If you know someone who isn’t happy with the current school system, or is generally open to change, you might want to send him this article.
Or, the simplest and yet very effective action:
3. ReTweet this article, or give it a thumb up in StumbleUpon.
The more students and teachers realize that schools could be fun and interesting, the better our chances to change the system. Saving our education doesn’t get easier than this. Just one click, and you can make the world a better place.
Let’s change the world!