THE FOUNDATION IS OPTIONAL

With the possible exception of psychology, no field of academic study is more faddish than education. Every few years another round of assessments and surveys show us that the vast majority of students – just like the vast majority of Americans – have knowledge and skills that cannot even be described as minimal. "Minimal" implies some understanding of a given subject, and often that is not the case.

Armed with the latest Look How Dumb Everyone Is survey, new educational techniques and tools are developed to join the long line of failed techniques and tools that were supposed to solve this problem in the past. One of the most dramatic paradigm shifts occurred when it was collectively decided that fact retention and rote learning (which remains the foundation of the educational systems in places like China and Japan) were ineffective. Instead, we were to focus on building students' higher order intellectual skills – critical thinking, reasoning, problem solving, and so on.

In my view, this is a shining example of one of the worst tendencies of academics – using jargon-heavy theories to explain away why students are so bad something. What is this shift toward the almighty "critical thinking" talisman but an effort to excuse students' woeful lack of facts, information, and basic skills? If the students demonstrably cannot write well, do math, or remember facts, we have to say they're good at something. What better than an abstract concept that proves remarkably difficult to measure? Sure, we can't prove that students have Critical Thinking skills, but…you can't prove that they don't. Voila.

The dismissive attitude toward facts and information has gone off the deep end in the last decade. Now that everyone has a smartphone, there's no need for students to know anything at all. Any facts they will ever need can be looked up in thirty seconds. What's important, we're told, is that they know how to interpret and Think Critically about things. This has always struck me as dubious. We are to believe that students who know next to nothing about entire fields of knowledge somehow have good analytical skills in those same areas. There's no foundation, but somehow there is a mighty edifice built on top of it.

Don't get me wrong, I understand the futility of many kinds of rote learning that were popular a half-century ago. A student does not really gain anything from being able to name all nine Supreme Court justices or knowing the capital of every nation on Earth. However, surveys continually show that students don't know things that are relevant either. Are we to believe that people who can't explain who Napoleon was or don't know which side the Russians were on in World War II can somehow think usefully and critically about history? That someone who has no idea which branch of the government holds which powers can understand and analyze our system? That someone who can't define "baroque" and doesn't know when or why Impressionism became popular has a useful grasp of art in the context of culture? Most amazingly, we are asked to believe that the ability to look any of these facts up on an iPhone will enable students to skip the knowledge step entirely and launch right into critical analysis. OK.

The underlying problem – and I'm sure some fad will pick up on this eventually, perhaps in another decade or two – is that the act of learning facts and information forces students to engage the material. Learning which powers belong to Congress requires one to read some stuff about American government, as memorizing who painted various works of art requires one to look at works of art. The hidden cost of the "Who cares, they can google it" mindset has been the "Why bother?" attitude with which, studies show, students now approach all of their academic tasks. It's not like they're spending less time on rote learning in favor of more time on other academic tasks; they're just spending less time learning anything.

No one in chemistry would argue that students can skip the Periodic Table, nor would anyone in math say, "Sure, skip algebra and trig, just go directly into calculus." Yet in the soft sciences and the humanities we continue to shoot ourselves in the foot by requiring students to learn – actually learn – less and less. We wrap up their ignorance in academic babble and explain how it's acceptable, or even good for them, to know so little. We come up with new "curricular enhancements" and pedagogical theories that, lo and behold, do not eventually bear fruit in the form of a generation of students with great thinking and reasoning skills despite being almost completely devoid of knowledge.

Shocking, really.

50 thoughts on “THE FOUNDATION IS OPTIONAL”

  • When my kids could use calculators for math tests, I knew we were fucked. But, hey, I came up with a bamboo slide rule in a leather case.

  • We were required to use log table in high school, because not every kid afford a calculator or even a slide rule. Then again, I don't think that was the only reason. There's a metric shit ton to be said about deeply knowing something in order to be able to start reasoning *using* that knowledge. At the most basic conversational level, if you have to stop and look something up every few minutes, you are a moron and will be identified as one. The great speakers and raconteurs of yore knew incredible numbers of things and details, which is why they could reach into their minds and pull out the exactly right one at the right moment. Also true for the great public intellectuals. And that will never happen if you don't just soak up as much sheer knowledge as possible, without ever knowing when and where you will use it.

    To use what might be a basic example, let's talk about music and musicians. Believe me, I can discuss music theory as much as the next jazz nerd and argue about all the various approaches from be-bop to whenever. But I never really absorbed it deeply. I could never play that shit, not in a million years. There's no stopping to use an app that transposes the next few bars of a standard up a fifth and then back down a fourth for the chorus. You just have to be able to pull it out of your head. And there's only one way to do it. Know it. Put in the time. Memorize. Practice. All those old-school basic ways of learning.

  • *tables, *could afford, etc. Apologies for the numerous errors. A hurried post after a bottle of wine is not a recipe for accuracy of either thought or of typing.

  • Middle Seaman says:

    Despite many laments, we educate many knowledgeable, balanced and capable young people. The sad part is that these young people come from well off homes. No academic theory will improve education for resource and community poor students.

  • To mind mind, "critical thinking" encompasses the ability to discern what one does NOT know about a given subject, in order to then seek out that knowledge prior to formulating a conclusion regarding a given situation .

    By that measure, it seems obvious that – while rote facts may no longer be taught in our schools – "critical thinking" isn't, either.

  • Ed. school is a racket just as loathsome as the biggest bank on Wall Street. Sure, the people are probably a bit nicer and committed seeing as how they're former teachers who understand what a tough job it is, but in general the powers-that-be in Ed. programs are people who haven't taught in a real classroom (i.e., not a graduate seminar) for years, if not decades.

    So on the one hand, they can just make up new bullshit (ahem "pedagogical paradigms") willy-nilly with no sense of a practical outcomes or effects.

    Indeed, to get tenure and maintain their actual department funding they must come up with these new, useless, approaches to making the wheel every five years or so.

    Seriously, spend five minutes with an actual Ed. school academic and you'll want to blow your brains out. They can talk about anything except for actually managing a classroom and delivering a quality lesson.

    Yes, there are different teaching and learning styles. But as a teacher myself, a good half of it is intuitive. You set a goal ("What am I going to get across to my students in the next hour?") and then you try to accomplish it through a mix of lecturing , questions, discussion, and group activities.

    You do not need an Ed. PhD, let alone a state certification, to do this. You do, however, need subject knowledge.

    But alas, somebody who knows nothing about history-literature-math-art-what-have-you is more qualified to teach in America than somebody with an actual MA or, god forbid, PhD, in said field.

    Like I said, a racket. And like all good rackets, one that fully protects and insulates the insiders from pesky things like actual knowledge and experience.

  • Buckyblue says:

    Wetcasements is exactly right. The amount of useful teaching knowledge that comes out of university Ed departments is deplorable. I would imagine you can get some useful stuff out of, say, the poli sci department and studies on governments. No such connection exists in education. In fact, what ever knowledge or research they pull out of their ass seems to be exactly opposite of what a good teacher should do. The rage here is what is benignly called "Grading for learning" where students are assessed on 'what they know and can do'. As if that wasn't being done before. It's a combination of putting all of the grade on the tests and none on the homework combined with a five point grading scale where passing a class simply means being able to average a 1 (D-). You can average a one by passing one test or handing in one project….in a semester. Needless to say, no one does homework any more, studies for tests or hands in projects. Teachers are reduced to begging kids to do something. Most college Ed departments should disappear because they are harmful to education, kind of like Arne Duncan and the Dept of Education.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    For the nation which pretty much invented universal public education, we sure like to feck around with what worked for us in the past.

    But what we do, isn't always an improvement – like the Model A was better than the Model T, Ford.

    But trying to "improve" education is the easiest sale in the world, because what parent DOESN'T want the children's education to be the best one possible?

    I went to public schools in from the early 60's, until the mid-70's, and got what I consider to be a terrific education. And yes, we had to memorize sh*t. A ton of sh*t.
    I don't know why we got away from that.
    Imo – if it was because of the near universal availability of laptops and smart-phones, it's still a bad idea, because it's NEARLY universal. Not every student of poor parents can afford to have both – or either, for that matter.
    And what happens if the Intertoob grid goes down for any length of time?
    No one will even be able to get home, because "Siri" won't be around, and no one will know how to read a feckin' map.
    But all that's a story for another day.

    Lately, there's a lot of people trying to grift everyone away from universal public educations, towards privatizing education – letting private companies receive the public's tax dollars, to educate their children.

    Perceived education geeks like Michelle Rhee have been out there, working Congress and the President, to privatize more schools.
    And she and her minions are working feverishly, at very high salaries, to convince the politicians, and the public, that privatizing schools is the answer.
    And, they've been faking children's test results, skewing the data in favor of the result they want – privatization:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/12/dc-schools-cheating-scandal_n_3070623.html

    But in some bad news for them, that perceived geek, the Governor (from "The Stupid Party) of LA, "Boobie" Jindal just had his (stupid) ass handed to him by the LA Supreme Court, which told him he can't use public money and give it into private hands, for education.
    Said private education being paid for with tax dollars, being, in many cases, nothing more than Christianista propaganda:
    http://www.nydailynews.com/blogs/pageviews/2013/03/in-louisiana-private-schools-history-books-cite-satan-worshiping-hippies-and-more

    Privatizing schools and education is the worst idea since privatizing our military, for a wide variety of reasons, none of which I feel like spending a lot more time on today.

    Let's leave it at this: privatizing schools fills the pockets of the geeks who are grifting the politicians, and the politicians themselves – the only thing that's not filled, is the minds of the children, with any knowledge.

    Take heed: Beware of geeks, bearing grifts.

  • Anonymouse says:

    Huh. You just made me realize my last art class was in the 7th grade, in the late 1970s. We spent the semester making beads out of clay (that were all deemed horrible and childish without further feedback) and drawing pictures with pencils on paper (which were also deemed horrible and childish without further feedback). I can't say that particular class was any different from any other art class I had in elementary school, where we were given an assignment and set loose to work on it, then criticized without any explanation of how to make it better.

    I can't say a know a darned thing about art, not even how to make it.

  • My girlfriend, an elementary school teacher, astonished me yesterday when she informed me that the NC public schools are no longer teaching kids the multiplication tables. It boggles the mind that people cannot comprehend that the quicker you can accurately recall and arrange simple facts, the less time you need to spend fucking w/ your iPhone and that you'll actually spend more mental energy on the "critical thinking" they're pimping so hard.

  • "You do not need an Ed. PhD, let alone a state certification, to do this. You do, however, need subject knowledge."

    And that is *exactly* the problem with edumacation.

    Think about the requirements for teaching in conjunction with the general education time line.
    It's the lowest paid and least respected of the professional classes. It has the lowest entrant standards something like a 2.5GPA — or is it now a 2.0?

    Because of years of under funding + lack of educational requirement + attacks on it the situation is little more than blind leading the blind. Imagine — if for some odd reason — there was a national push to improve and teach grammar (I know lay off the crack). Would there be anyone in the current classroom or coming up through college who'd know what you're talking about, let alone teach it?

    As that's situation for most school districts, Dr.s Google and Wikipedia are the best place for instruction.

    Look at the people who are in the teaching faculty. They're certainly not the same as someone at the coalface are they? Do they have a more priveledged background than those in the classroom? That said, my school had one classroom teacher w a PhD. the state also required having or working towards an M.Ed.

  • "My girlfriend, an elementary school teacher, astonished me yesterday when she informed me that the NC public schools are no longer teaching kids the multiplication tables."

    The Prosecution rests your Honor, no further questions.

  • As someone currently enrolled in a M.Ed program, I can concur that it's a total racket. Not least of which because it's considered a bare necessity for getting a job or a promotion in any education field.

    My specialty is informal environmental education (essentially those people who develop and present programs at museums, zoos, nature centers, etc). I'm damn good at it and have been told as much, but at present I can't get a job beyond contract and freelance work because no one will even look at my resume until I get an M.Ed (well, that and now I'm competing for jobs with laid-off teachers). So I'm effectively spending thousands of dollars on a bullshit degree to get some cursory letters after my name on a CV.

    At least I chose an easy program, but it's a shame that's what graduate school has come to anymore.

  • Number Three says:

    Was it Schumpeter or Schattschneider who said (paraphrasing) that ignorance is the ancient and honorable state of mankind? (Too lazy to Google.)

    I work with very smart people, many with Ph.D.s, but I am always shocked when someone doesn't get a(n obvious) literary reference or hasn't read a particular book "that everyone has read". Most people know a great deal about what they do (either for a living or as a hobby), but little else. There's no way to change this.

    But not teaching multiplication is nonsense.

  • One of the invaluable aspects of knowing how to multiply and divide in your head is what we used to call OOM analysis in engineering school during the slide rule era.

    OOM (Order Of Magnitude) analysis lets you do a a quick check on your work to see if your head is inserted in your butt….or not.

    If you present the problem "You have $1000 at interest at 10% for five years, how much money do have at the end of that period?" to the calculator generation you will get some interesting answers that range from less than the original $1000 to almost six figures.

    OOM helps you sanity check your work.

    //bb

  • Surly Duff says:

    "Most amazingly, we are asked to believe that the ability to look any of these facts up on an iPhone will enable students to skip the knowledge step entirely and launch right into critical analysis. OK."

    Exactly. Spending a mere five seconds wading through the online comments of say the Washington Post or WSJ (not to mention any number of blogs) and you easily recognize that the ability to google facts or "facts" does not provide the individual with the ability to muster those facts into a cogent argument.

    You cannot make a strong argument or support a position without a basic understanding of the facts or the context in which those facts apply.

  • The latest attempt to repaint the empty barn is called Common Core. Aside from some standards and supposed barriers to social promotion, there is an attempt to stress nonfiction reading as important. What does that mean? Socialist control by Obama.

    You could Google it, but the Glenn Becks of the don't need the advertising hits.

  • Perhaps the education field is unique. It's big. We hear a lot about it. There's a ton of data. It's in the political crosshairs. It's slow and messy. It's very expensive. Lots of pressure for a fix. Everyone has an opinion. Sounds to me a lot like medicine. Or energy, or nutrition, or……..
    Is there any reason to expect the education field to be in better shape than anything else? Thankfully, there are teachers who do engage students in real learning. Every day. We just don't hear much about that. It's not very sexy and it doesn't serve our addiction to controversy. It will never make the news.

  • I went from HS geometry to college calculus (at University during my sophomore year at HS) without taking trig or algebra. Trig I picked up on the street, algebra I'd taught myself… ended up with a Masters degree in pure Mathematics.

    Yes, this is an exception and both subjects are useful prerequisites.

  • Okay… I'm a long time lurker and fan of G & T, but I have to push back on this one.

    As someone who has taught in K-12, community college, and the much hated university college of education, I feel it necessary to point out that all of you appear to think that colleges of education actually have real power in the development and implementation of educational policy and practice. They don't. Full stop.

    What is currently hip in American colleges of education looks a lot like what is going on in "successful" nations… Professional Learning Communities in Singapore, Learning Success Coordinators in Ontario, Integrated training and Master teacher programs in Finland, etc.

    Last I checked, nobody in my institution is telling their teachers that facts no longer matter. If you don't like what's going on in your schools perhaps you should direct your anger toward those who are pulling the strings.

    Can you find hacks in the education business? You bet. However, I've also encountered some terrible research coming from political science, economics, etc. Please direct your anger and anecdotes elsewhere.

  • Someone needs to plot a route from American corporate culture, which somehow has convinced itself that leadership and management are skill sets that are independent from understanding what a company makes or how it does so, to gimmick education strategies which are believed to somehow obviate mastery of what is taught, to their attempted indoctrinary message itself, that what is true is secondary to how you get there. Because as usual, it sure seems to me that it's the MBAs that've led us into the abyss.

    Which isn't to say that I really believe that the "critical thinking" paradigm really amounts to anything in the actual teaching of kids, beyond one more grift that practicing teachers wearily subject themselves to. It seems at odds with the OTHER jumbo imposition: to teach kids to the variety of proficiency tests in an effort to satisfy a public with ignorant-people notions of what education is good for. Critical thinking, in the non-jargon sense, is actually really important, but if teachers can squeeze it in among the standardized test prep, then count me as amazed.

    And, of course, you can do a lot of damage with uncritical thinking. Horrible people believe this shit: "What we don

  • [apostrophe]t teach, and don’t even consider as something worth teaching, is the art of acceptance. The art of accepting somebody else’s thoughts, words, insights, and dwelling in them until they become your own as well." Received wisdom is dangerous in its own way.

  • ladiesbane says:

    Sing it, sister! So much process, so little content. Stick is also right. But this starts in primary school, and (in my limited recollection and knowledge) came around as a result of the bureaucratization of the public school system.

    I came up in the mid-70s/early 80s, and my next sibling, seven years younger, had a completely different educational experience. Five family members were teachers and I knew a lot of their peers personally. Micromanagement, particularly in curricula, became normal. Power was sucked upward to higher authorities while teachers retained all the responsibility for the negative changes.

    And consider who sits on school boards: anyone who can get elected. It's described as the largest body of elected officials in the country, and there are no requirements in terms of training, background, knowledge, or education. Ten signatures on a petition, no reputation-besmirching criminal offenses, and you're on your way to selecting textbooks for the next generation of students.

  • Not to mention that encouraging people to just turn to the Internets for the answers is a dangerous, dangerous thing. Unless you require the rigor of fact-checking what you found on the Internets…

  • My kids are in college now, so my memories of their school experiences are still reasonably fresh.

    IMHO, the ironic thing about the "critical thinking" mantra, is that – as a group – the teachers and administrators of my kids' schools were completely averse to controversy. Thus, the kids were never encouraged to think critically about anything particularly relevant to their own lives or the world they were growing up in. God forbid that the school should anger parents by pushing their kids to consider facts/ideas contrary to their politics, religion, etc.

  • HoosierPoli says:

    It seems to clear to me that education qua education is useless no matter what form it takes. Rote memorization or fuzzy "critical thinking" skills are worthless, monetarily speaking, unless they're taught in the context of performing a job. Hence the notion that college is not for learning, it's for proving that you CAN learn, so that when you get hired for a job you will be likely to absorb most of what you will actually NEED to know day-to-day. Most STEM education is basically vocational training in that regard. All the rest is pleasant faffing about.

  • @HP

    I think you nail it concisely.

    Hasn't the history of public ed in the US been the teaching of proles to read, write and cypher but not too much more so we make docile employees?

    Isn't that what the founders of public ed actually wrote (Dewey et al)?

    Even literacy was considered dangerous at one point in time where we, in the South, had laws against teaching Blacks to read. (This was widely flouted when it came to the Scriptures however…)

    After reading that back, I am sure some wag (cund – I see you cranking up your k-board) here is going to say "And still do…" as to the dangers of literacy in the South

    //bb

    //bb

  • @ bb in GA

    "Isn't that what the founders of public ed actually wrote (Dewey et al)?"

    Please do point us toward the work where Dewey made such an argument. I suspect that you've read nothing by the man. Otherwise, you wouldn't make such an absurd claim. And, by the way, I don't think you can count Dewey as being one of the founders of public education. A very early reformer… perhaps?

  • As a parent of two kids now in their twenties, here is my opinion from observing them and their friends:

    Whether we like it or not, students are aware from an early age that the test-obsessed, cover-your-ass education they are getting is going to be of essentially zero use to them when they grow up. This leaves two choices: either they allow their understanding of what is going on to be broken, and agree to spend hours a day in fruitless, meaningless work, to prepare themselves for a hollow, empty adulthood of servitude to corporations, or they just don't bother to cooperate with a system which subjects them to daily torture without any concern for their own needs.

    Of course, no "educator" in the country will dare countenance the notion that the poor performance of American students is actually a rational response to a Kafkaesque, meaningless educational system, in a country without a future for most young people. The teachers are the smart ones, and they will never believe that their young students actually see the world far more clearly than their elders.

  • regarding rote learning; the absolute best professor I ever had in any subject taught me just one thing:

    "A scholar never needs to commit to memory anything but how to get to the library, and find the book you want"

    Knowing where and how to look up the information you need is vastly more important than knowing the information itself, because it's infinitely extensible to all of human knowledge.

    I'm also a product of 60's and 70's public education. We had to memorize a lot utter BS; the single most humiliating moment in my life was in 4th grade when I confidently stood up in class to recite the countries of South America, got to the very southern time and blanked out. I manged to get out some gibberish that sounded like 'Tierra del fuck-ee-o' before racing to my seat in shame. All for something I can look up on a goddamn map any time I want or need.

    I also was fortunate enough to attend high school where I was able to simultaneously learn advanced biology and chemistry as well as enough auto mechanics, welding, woodworking, metalworking, sheet-metalworking, photography and printing, both type seting and woodcuts, (even using an honest-to-god Linotype machine smelling of hot oil and molten type), to actually understand those things, even get by a little bit in each discipline.

    Today we teach students to pass standardized tests.

  • Part-time Jedi says:

    I find it interesting that you include the periodic table as an example of "things that should be memorized" because I was never asked to memorize a damn thing off the periodic table, and I majored in chemistry. Obviously, I now have a lot of it memorized, just from looking things up over and over again. But most chem teachers consider memorization of the periodic table to be a fantastic waste of time; it's far more important for students to know how to use that information, rather than memorize data off a chart that they will always have access to.

  • I think I had a pretty good idea on this from a few years ago ago. I think it is possible to measure whether or not kids have that 'critical thinking' stuff and the actual ability to find stuff on the internet when they need it.

    To avoid the click-through: sit the kid down at a workstation with a monitored internet connection (some kind of kiosk setup) and tell them to write a few paragraphs on a subject or answer a complicated question that takes a bit of internet research. If they copy and paste from a website (easy enough to check with this setup), they fail. Grade them on how well they can find the information, synthesize disparate pieces into a sensible whole, and use it to answer an essay-type question. If this is supposedly what they're so good at, why not just test them on that?

    And I'd add: maybe you could also see if they can, for example, identify a rebuttal to a badly structured argument, even one they agree with. Or identify misuses of statistics. All really darned important skills in navigating the real world.

    I'd expect most students to fail this, because they're complex tasks with a lot of moving parts, all of which have to be working together. But as you point out, actually answering the question 'do students have good research and critical-thinking skills?' isn't the point of any of this. I just think it's a surprisingly solvable problem.

  • Buckyblue says:

    Sorry Stick, I think you're wrong. The research that comes out of universities anymore just isn't helpful to teaching. Even your PLCs are of dubious help, dependent on those that you are PLCing with. And come on, how earth shattering is the research that got the bright idea to say that you should get together and share and talk about what you do? Even teacher training programs are generally for shit. If you want to learn to teach DO NOT go to your big state university. The worst, most ill prepared teachers I have seen have come out of UW-Madison. And it takes a 3.8 GPA to get into the school of education as a social studies teacher, after you've gotten into the school which will generally only take from the top 10% of a high school class.

  • As one who received a great education from a public school, and as a school board member for nigh onto 20 years has watched the Crisis In Education industry be used for primarily political advantage, I like to point out the example of Finland (e.g. http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/15/us-education-reform-lessons-from-finland and there is a fine New York Review of Books piece also).
    Their system is ironically inspired by ideas from (the American) John Dewey and includes arts for everyone, no standardized testing until middle grades, and unions which include both teachers and principals. But most importantly, I think, is the rigorous training of teachers that make a respected profession.
    I know that the size and homogeneity of Finland simplifies the task, but still think the example is a good one. But theirs is a solution — here we need a perpetual problem, so that state legislators (half of whom here in Michigan do not have a Bachelors degree !) can keep acting like they are doing something under the guise of gutting the profession / political opponents.
    As one who received a great public education I am sad because so many outstanding teachers do great jobs and get less respect than Rodney D.

  • @BuckyBlue

    Anecdote rules the day.

    Look, the "high performing" nations we all talk about are practicing what we [in US colleges of education] have been discussing for decades. These ideas came from our colleges, for the most part, and are being used to great success elsewhere.

    One other point, I agree that teacher training has problems in that there is a disconnect between a curriculum based on research and the reality of schools based on all manner of crazy. Even still, the research shows that traditionally trained teachers do a better job than alternative licensure teachers. Ponder that…

  • @ Giri,

    "To use what might be a basic example, let's talk about music and musicians. Believe me, I can discuss music theory as much as the next jazz nerd and argue about all the various approaches from be-bop to whenever. But I never really absorbed it deeply. I could never play that shit, not in a million years. There's no stopping to use an app that transposes the next few bars of a standard up a fifth and then back down a fourth for the chorus. You just have to be able to pull it out of your head. And there's only one way to do it. Know it. Put in the time. Memorize. Practice. All those old-school basic ways of learning"

    Thank you.

    I would also add that the general public (ie. non-musicians who watch American Idol) seem to suffer under the delusion that "talent" is an inborn quality that is merely restricted by the technical barriers of mastering an instrument from coming out, and thus all the computer gee gaws that allow you to 'make music' without actual studying its basic components are wondefull, liberating things that allow your creativety to flow without having to waste all that time practising and studying. What they don't understand is that it's practising and studying that developes your musicality. It's all one big feedback loop.

    In a way, this is a paradigm for what's wrong with education now. "Frills" like art and music are cut in favor of "practical" science-based courses thought to be more beneficial in training worker bees for the economy. My friends in public school music education tell me there's always plenty of money for high tech toys, but never any to replace broken music stands. A friend who has a high school music program was told by a parent he wanted his children to have "the kind of education where they can use this equipment." (computers) My friend, bless him, replied "wouldn't you rather have them get the same education as the guys who INVENTED this equipment?" (which of course was broadbased and included the arts).

    @wetcasements,

    "Seriously, spend five minutes with an actual Ed. school academic and you'll want to blow your brains out. They can talk about anything except for actually managing a classroom and delivering a quality lesson."

    I have a B.ed, as well as a B.mus and an MA in jazz history, and yes I remember the Ed degree as basically a make work sinecure for the instructors. The only usefull part was the classroom practicum. I'm also a working jazz musician with an extensive discography. I spent 6 years developing a jazz performance studies program at a major American university, and my reward for this was a boot in the ass and a shove out the door. The guy who took over for me (another working jazz guy I'd originally brought into the program as a jazz piano instructor) spent a year on a visiting professor contract taking what I'd built and kicking it up several notches, bringing in heavyweight guest artists and lecturers through his extensive contacts on the national jazz scene.

    When the job came open this january, we both applied. I didn't even get an interview (a very clear "fuck you" from the department, considering I'd basically created the job I was applying for) but he didn't get it either. Instead they hired some nonentity no one had ever heard of.

    The very clear message here is: don't do a good job. It makes you a target.

  • @BruceJ: "A scholar never needs to commit to memory anything but how to get to the library, and find the book you want"

    I'm assuming this professor wasn't actively involved in the sciences, or at least not in any of the sciences where a great deal of information really does need to be committed to memory. Personal prejudices don't usually make Universal Rules (unless they're my personal personal prejudices, but then that goes without saying, although I said it anyway).

  • Stick: absolutely right. The worst people prepared for the classroom are the alternatively licensed teachers. Most make it one year and are done because their classroom management is so poor.

  • @Bruce J.

    ""A scholar never needs to commit to memory anything but how to get to the library, and find the book you want"

    Knowing where and how to look up the information you need is vastly more important than knowing the information itself, because it's infinitely extensible to all of human knowledge."

    I think you're failing to make a crucial distinction here. While "information" is not knowlege, it is a crucial component in the formation of knowlege. There are a lot of skills that absolutely require a great deal of rote learning in order to achieve basic competency. It's a piss-poor mathemetician who doesn't know basic computational skills, musicians are utterly fucked if they can't remember basic scale and chord spellings, and grammarians and english majors need to know things like grammatical rules, constructions etc.

    I doubt that Ed or anybody else here is arguing for the rote memorization of massive amounts of dates for historians, for instance. But if you can't even ballpark the dates for things like WWII, the American Revolution, or the Louisiana Purchase, but instead have to look them up on a smartphone, then you're a dummy in my book. Even more tragic is that the less you use these memory functions, the weaker they become. I'd wager most 20 year olds today cannot remember a single phone number from memory, even their own, because they don't "need" to. Continuing in the direction we're heading (which grows out of the idea that you don't have to memorize ANYTHING, because you can look it up in a few seconds) will inevitably result in a whole civilization of people who can't even drive from their job to their own house without a GPS.

  • Thanks in large part to standardized testing and the "accountability" measures that are tied to it, American education today is more focused on rote memorization of isolated facts and skills than ever before (in general; yes, there are exceptions).

    "But how can that be true if students today are so woefully deficient when it comes to such knowledge and skills?", one might reasonably ask.

    *Because*of that focus, paradoxical as that might seem—but the explanation is simple: such facts and skills are most naturally, deeply and lastingly acquired via meaningful activity and inquiry. Beside being more conducive to learning for a host of cognitive reasons, the latter also provide motivation to learn the facts and skills at issue.

    For example, if I never cook, and you try to force me to sit down with some flashcards to memorize how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon, how many tablespoons are in a cup, etc., my natural reaction will be "screw that."

    If, on the other hand, I do cook, I *need* to know those conversions, and I'll want to know them because it's a pain in the ass to look them up every time I need them. In the process of cooking, I'll inevitably come to memorize the conversions in a natural, deep and lasting way—natural because the memorization will come about as a by product of repeatedly engaging in the task; deep and lasting because rather than just memorizing words ("1 teaspoon equals…"), I'm tying those words to actual teaspoons and tablespoons, making the conversions, using them to achieve purposes, seeing how they work, etc.

  • @John Doheny

    "But if you can't even ballpark the dates for things like WWII, the American Revolution, or the Louisiana Purchase, but instead have to look them up on a smartphone, then you're a dummy in my book."

    Ballparking the dates for such things involves being able to place them on a timeline: e.g., first came the Great Depression (GD), then came WWII, etc. Now, here's the thing: sure, you can memorize by rote that the GD came before WWII, but if you're studying the causes of WW!!, you won't need to; knowing that the GD helped to set the stage for WWII, it will be completely obvious to you that the GD came first.

    Now, extend that out to all the major events/developments of history and how they fit together; if you've worked that out, you'll have a good idea of when each of them occurred simply by virtue of their placement on the cognitive map that you've constructed. And situated on such a map, they're going to be much more deeply and firmly anchored in your mind than if you merely memorized some words ("event X began at date Y and ended at date Z").

    Thus my point above: such knowledge can and should be the natural byproduct of deeper inquiry.

  • @DB

    "Thus my point above: such knowledge can and should be the natural byproduct of deeper inquiry."

    Of course it should, but "deeper inquiry" is unlikely to happen if you can "pass the exam" without it. (this is not entirely students fault btw, since overworked and/or lazy instructors prefer multiple choice questions to essay questions. Easier to mark).

    I suppose things like chord and scale spellings could be said to grow out of "deeper inquiry" as well, but the vast majority of people at some point have to bite the bullet and simple rote-memorize FACE ACEG CEGB EGBD etc. There's nothing stodgy or wrong about requiring students to do this. It's necessary basic knowlege, and memorizing it trains and disciplines the mind as well.

    As a musician I see this all the time. Just the other night I worked with a piano player who didn't know any tunes, and insisted he didn't need to know any. He spent the whole gig looking up every tune the leader called on the "virtual fakebook" on his i-phone. And you know what? He stunk. Because he didn't know any tunes.

  • Going by my fellow classmates who've grown up with nothing but NCLB and standardized testing, I can assure you that we've done them no favors. They can't construct an argument, they can't write, they don't have a bevy of facts at hand. All they know is how to prep for a multiple choice test.

    And to be fair, a lot of them know they've gotten shafted and trying to make up for it. But there's a lot time and work to get to that point and when they are working two jobs to afford community college, well there's just not a lot they can do.

    We'd better hope that they're forgiving when they are in charge, because older generations have a lot to answer for.

  • @ John Dohney

    I don't really disagree with anything you said; I would just add a few points.

    – Re: Deeper inquiry "is unlikely to happen if you can 'pass the exam' without it." Of course, that's one of the main arguments against the US education system's obsession with such testing: it leads to "teaching to the test" and, as you point out, students "learning" only for the sake of passing the test (and therefore doing the bare minimum required of them—focusing only on the content that they'll be tested on, which tends to be superficial, since that's the easiest content to grade).

    – Re: Learning chords—I've actually been doing that in my spare time lately, and here's what I've found: yes, at some point, rote memorization has its place here, but by poking around on the piano; looking at, listening to and physically making the different intervals involved in chords, inversions, chord progressions (and how different chords share the same notes), etc.; and fitting all of that into my overall understanding and study of tonality (not to mention using it to compose music—albeit shitty music), my learning the chords has been greatly enriched and provided with a solid foundation.

    Memorization of the note names, in turn, has helped me to sort of crystallize the more conceptual knowledge/understanding that I've acquired. Of course, I've been memorizing other things along the way, which helped me to get to the point where that crystallization could occur (e.g., the fact that a triad consists of the root note and the third and fifth intervals above it).

    I guess the deeper point to make here is that the idea that memorization of basic facts and skills creates an epistemic foundation upon which more advanced work and inquiry can afterward take place is misleading. Arguably, the latter is more foundational than the former, since it creates the cake on which the memorization is the icing, so to speak. But in any case, that argument is kind of beside the point, because, ideally, the two come hand-in-hand and mutually reinforce and augment each other. I find that I'm best able to learn when I'm continually and organically moving back and forth between these two poles of learning.

  • moderateindy says:

    This country needs to have it's populace educated in critical thinking, and analysis. Rote memorization is a hallmark of the small mind. Take a look at today's average conservative. You know before they even open their mouth what will come out on almost any subject. They have memorized the talking points, without ever analyzing the actual idea. Tax cuts increase revenue…..evidence? Reagan cut taxes and revenue increased. No analysis or critcal thought means worthless memorized "facts" drive complete stupidity in the form of tax policy.
    I must agree with DB that even ballparking dates of major events is fairly worthless, the important thing from a historical standpoint is having a concept of the timeline, and how events in the past shaped those that came later. I heard one academic on the radio lament that a small percentage of his college students knew the dates of the civil war, as if knowing that has any bearing on having real knowledge about the actual event.
    As someone that has been blessed with an excellent memory, I honestly have little interest in remembering the date of the attack on Fort Sumter, but it is important to know that it was the beginning of the civil war. In fact, I would deem knowing the fact that General Joe Hooker's action's regarding prostitutes and his soldier's popularized ( though it already existed) the word hooker as a term for prostitutes, as being more important than the wrote memorization of any date tied to the civil war.

  • There is nothing truly new under the sun in education theory. We just vacillate back and forth between theories, with slight deviations but the same foundations, every 20-30 years.

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