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Quotes on school and unschooling

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Going through some unread browser tabs, I encountered a page with “unschooling” quotes that I highly recommend. While I do not agree with everything there, much of it overlaps with my own observations and previous claims on school, schooling, education, etc.

This including (items are often overlapping):

The importance to think for one self, e.g in:

3. “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

— Alvin Toffler

9. Believe nothing merely because you have been told it . . . or because it is tradition, or because you yourselves have imagined it. Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be conductive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings — that doctrine believe and cling to, and take it as your guide.

— Gautama Buddha

That learning stems from the student, not the teacher, and/or that education and schooling are different things, e.g. in:

20. “Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners.”

— John Holt

38. Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.

— Oscar Wilde

42. “Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.”

— Isaac Asimov

73. Schools have not necessarily much to do with education… they are mainly institutions of control where certain basic habits must be inculcated in the young. Education is quite different and has little place in school.

— Winston Churchill

The importance of curiosity and/or how school is troublesome through damaging curiosity, e.g in:

6. “Just as eating contrary to the inclination is injurious to the health, so study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.”

— Leonardo da Vinci

Exposing the horrifyingly flawed claim that school is beneficial through socialization or through teaching social skills. Putting children together with other children, rather than adults, and expecting them to learn social skills is absurd:

11. “Nothing bothers me more than when people criticize my criticism of school by telling me that schools are not just places to learn maths and spelling, they are places where children learn a vaguely defined thing called socialization. I know. I think schools generally do an effective and terribly damaging job of teaching children to be infantile, dependent, intellectually dishonest, passive and disrespectful to their own developmental capacities.”

— Seymour Papert

The low practical relevance of school:

8. “There were no sex classes. No friendship classes. No classes on how to navigate a bureaucracy, build an organization, raise money, create a database, buy a house, love a child, spot a scam, talk someone out of suicide, or figure out what was important to me. Not knowing how to do these things is what messes people up in life, not whether they know algebra or can analyze literature.”

— William Upski Wimsatt

(I do not necessarily agree with the exact examples given in this quote, but I do agree with the principle.)

Disclaimer: I have not made any attempt to verify the attribution of these quotes, nor have I read them in the original contexts. I caution both that quotes are often misattributed and that a reading in context can change the implications considerably.

Note on typography, etc.: The original typography might have been changed in detail for technical reasons, but should be true in principle. The inconsistent use of quotation marks is present in the original. The numbers are taken directly from the original page. (In all cases, referring to the state at the time of my opening the page.)

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Written by michaeleriksson

May 29, 2019 at 8:54 am

A few thoughts on educationrealist

with one comment

In December, I read large portions of the blog educationrealist.* I found it particularly gratifying that the author (henceforth “Ed”) verifies a great number of my opinions on schools and schooling with “from the trenches” information regarding current U.S. schools.**

*Already briefly mentioned during a recent blogroll update. I wrote most of the below a few weeks before publication, based on keywords and short descriptions gathered in December. Taking up writing again today, I can no longer recall much of what I had intended to write for the remaining keywords. This has led to some points being considerably more abbreviated than others. I was torn between throwing them out altogether and keeping the short version, but mostly opted for the short version. With hindsight, I should also have kept more links.

*My opinions are based on a mixture of my own experiences from Swedish schools in the 1980s and early 1990s, reasoning from principles (of e.g. human behavior and abilities), less detailed accounts by students or teachers, and discussions by (mostly) other outsiders. Correspondingly, there was a risk that the non-trivial changes over time or when moving from country to country had mislead me. This does not appear to be the case.

Among the interesting observations to be made:

  1. There is a strong component of innate ability to school success.

    This has corollaries, many contrary to what politicians tend to believe, like: It is not possible to teach everyone everything with a reasonable effort. A one-size-fits-all* school system will fail many students through under- or over-challenging them and through necessitating pedagogical compromises. Over-education is wasteful and unproductive at best. Ignoring group differences in “academic talent” is a recipe for failure.**

    *Ed usually discusses this in terms of (absence of) “tracking”, which is one way to make the school system “multi-sized”. I note that during my own school years more-or-less no such efforts of any kind took place. Cf. e.g. some discussion of skipping grades/being held back in [1]. No in-year acceleration or other differentiation, from which I could have benefited greatly, were available to the gifted. The first true differentiation took place in (the rough equivalent of) senior high-school, where students self-selected into more specialized programs based on interest, with some minor filtering based on previous grades when there were more applicants than places.

    **This especially with an eye on racial variety (which was almost a non-issue during my own school years, with an almost homogeneous population). Many posts deal with racial realism, the evils of various affirmative action measures, etc., approaching the statistics driven topics of “The Bell-Curve” from a more practical/personal/anecdotal angle. However, in the big picture, this is not limited to race—I note e.g. how German news-papers and politicians ever again complain about how the German system would hinder working-class children, without even considering the possibility that the differences in outcome could be partially caused by differences in (inherited) abilities that affect the respective probability of the parents being working-class and of the children doing poorly in school.

  2. The grade system is broken through rewarding effort, compliance, whatnot over actual ability and performance. Indeed, the picture painted is much bleaker than during my own school years, where there was a strong subjective component in the teacher’s evaluation, but where, at least, performance was measured through tests—not home work.

    This is particularly interesting in light of an earlier text on admission criteria, where I oppose the suggestion to remove Högskoleprovet (“Swedish SATs”) for admissions to higher education in favor of a purely GPA based admission.* If we assume that the same trend is (or will be) followed in Sweden, the correct resolution would be to abolish GPA admission and rely solely on Högskoleprovet… (But just as Ed complains about the dumbing-down of the SATs, there is reason to fear that Högskoleprovet is suffering a similar faith. There certainly is a constant fiddling with it—notably, to ensure that boys do not outscore girls.)

    *Swedish admissions are centralized and use numerical criteria—not interviews, essays, extra-curriculars, …

  3. The negative effects of destructive students on others can be considerable.

    Interesting sub-items to consider is what type and degree of disciplinary measures should be allowed, and the benefit of splitting students into groups that are more homogeneous in terms of e.g. interest and behavior. (Yes, the latter might make it even worse for the trouble students, but they are not exactly thriving anyway—and doing so would improve the opportunities for everyone else.)

    I did some minor reading on this from other sources (but did not keep links), and found some stories that make even Ed’s experiences, already well beyond my own,* look harmless—including a female teacher writing about regularly crying with frustration in the evening…

    *To speculate on the difference, I note that I spent a fair bit of my school years in small classes, that anti-authority attitudes were not yet as wide-spread, and that Ed has taught many classes of a remedial nature. Racial factors might also play in, e.g. in that the cognitive differences in the class-room are greater in the U.S. or that many minority boys have a deliberate “tough” image. I know too little of his situation and experiences to say anything with certainty, however.

  4. Student motivation is highly important, and often something that the school system fails at (but which is often blamed on the student).

    This is the more depressing, seeing that a knee-jerk political reaction to school issues is to increase the time spent in school, which obviously will reduce motivation further even among the motivated, let alone the unmotivated. It also comes with other problems. Someone fails in school due to lack of motivation? Put him in summer school so that he will enter the following year already “school tired”. Let him repeat a year to prolong the torture. Let him take remedial classes to make his days longer. Etc.

    The correct solution is, obviously, to attack the lack of motivation (which is very often to blame on the school/teacher/school-system/… in the first place). If this problem cannot be fixed, other efforts are pointless or even harmful. If it can be fixed, the strong students will advance on their own, weaker will at least have a chance, and we have to have enough realism to be willing to part with the too weak students at an earlier time than “year twelve”.

  5. Politicians and education reformers are often very naive.
  6. There is a lot of trickery with re-classification of children, artificial passes of courses, and similar, for the purpose of making schools look good (or “not disastrously bad”?).

    A particularly interesting variation is the confusion of classes for/students in “English Language Learning/er” and special education: Apparently, many students who should be in special ed are put into ELL based on excuses, e.g. because the parents were first generation immigrants, while the child is a reasonably proficient native speaker who happens to do poorly in school. This way, the failure in school can no longer be blamed on the school (or, God forbid, the possibility that not all students are equally smart)—but on an alleged language handicap.

A point where his experiences (and some citations?) do not match my expectation is the competence level of teachers: He repeatedly expresses the view that the effect of increasing the subject* competence levels or minimum test-scores** of teachers has little effect on student outcomes. There is even some speculation on a negative effect on Black students, because they appear to do better with a Black teacher, and increasing the test-score limits would reduce the proportion of Black teachers. My own experiences with teacher competence are very different, but I could see a possible reconciliation in teachers affecting different students differently, e.g. in that a dumber teacher will bore/under-challenge/annoy/whatnot the bright students, while a brighter teacher might similarly over-challenge or have troubles with adapting to the dumber students—leaving the total effect on the student population roughly constant. (Similar explanations could include e.g. brighter teachers being stricter on dumber students when grading than dumber teachers are, resp. dumber teachers failing to appreciate good answers from brighter students.***) If this is so, we have an additional argument for segregation by ability (combined with corresponding choices of teachers); while ignoring teacher competence would be particularly bad for the brighter students.

*E.g. requiring better math knowledge in a math teacher. This in contrast to e.g. pedagogical training, where I am uncertain what his stance is—apart from a negative opinion of some of the training actually on offer.

**On some type of qualification test for teachers. Similar statements might or might not have been made concerning e.g. SAT scores or GPA.

***With several of my own less bright teachers, what I said sometimes went well over their heads. More generally, I have made the life-experience that stupid people often are under the misapprehension that someone brighter disagrees because he lacks insights that they have, while the true cause is typically the exact opposite—he has insights that they lack.

Looking at Ed, himself, he appears to do a great deal of experimentation and tries to improve his teaching over time. There are a few things that appear to work well for him and that could prove valuable elsewhere, including (big picture) running a hard line against students, treating students very differently depending on their behaviors/need/abilities/…, and attempts to motivate his students, as well as (on the detail level) many pedagogical tricks and techniques.

Unfortunately, there are a few other things that strike me as negative, even if some of them might be a result of external circumstances, e.g. that the school system leaves him with no good options or that he must make compromises between the interests of the students, his school, society, whatnot. This applies especially to his “D for effort” policy, which makes him a contributor to problems that he, himself, complains about, e.g. misleading grades and remedial students making it to college (while still being remedial). My take? It is never “D for effort”, it is never “E for effort”, it is absolutely never, ever “A for effort”: Unless actual accomplishment results from the effort, it must be “F for effort”. (Which, to boot, makes for a phonetically better saying.)

Another negative is a considerable mathematical naivete for a math teacher,* that is likely the cause of some weird ideas that are more likely to hinder than help his students, e.g. that higher order polynomials (or functions, depending on perspective) are arrived at by “multiplication” of lines** (i.e. first-degree relations like y = 5x + 3). Yes, this is a possible perspective, but it is just a small piece of the overall puzzle, and it strikes me as highly counter-intuitive and pedagogically unsound as an approach. (In my preliminary notes, I have a second example of “identifying numbers graphically only”, but I am not certain what I meant. It might have been something like requesting students to draw a graph and find the y-value from the x-value by measurement, instead of calculation, which would be pointless as an “only”, but could be acceptable as a preliminary step or to demonstrate the occasional need to use other methods than pure calculation.)

*In all fairness, he, unlike many others, understands and acknowledges that his understanding is superficial when he moves beyond the classes that he teaches.

**Generally, there is an extreme over-focus on geometry; however, I am not certain whether this is caused by Ed or the school (or the text-book publishers, politicians, whatnot). This includes e.g. viewing functions more-or-less solely as graphs, root learning of sine and cosine values, and similar.

Yet another is “lying to students” (see excursion), as demonstrated e.g. in a post on “The Evolution of Equals”. This post also shows some examples of enormous efforts being put in to teach the trivial to the dumber students, who might not belong in high school to begin with—at least a basic grasp of the equals sign should be present years earlier. Move them out of school or to some more practical course and use the freed teacher resources to teach those teachable… (Some other posts make a better job of displaying a great effort with little return, but this is the one post for which I kept the URL.)

Some other points could be seen as positive or negative depending on the details. For instance, he does some type of interactive/quizzing teaching that expects a “chorus answer” from the class. This might keep the students alert and force them to at least rote-learn some material—but it does not allow for much true thought and it does not demonstrate any deeper understanding among the students. I would certainly have found it annoying (or worse), had it been applied during my own school years.

Excursion on a generic solution to tracking, acceleration, etc.:
I have for some time considered taking a more “collegey” approach to school as a solution (sketch) to some problems. I see some support for this in the non-integrated approach taken to e.g. math in Ed’s descriptions.* What if the material to be covered, even in year one, is broken into rough packages of four quarter-semesters per semester and topic—and the students then go through these packages in whatever tempo they can manage? The strong students will soon move ahead of schedule, be it in general or in their favorite topics. Similarly, the student with an interest in a certain area, e.g. math, can move ahead in that area. The weaker students can take their time until they have mastered the matter sufficiently well. Etc. Exactly how to handle the teachers in this scenario is not yet clear to me, but it is clear that mere lecturing** to the class would have to be considerably reduced or combined with a division of people based on the package that they are currently involved with.

*Math was integrated through-out my own school years. While I do not see this as a pedagogical problem, it does limit flexibility.

**With some reservations for the first few years, I consider lecturing to be highly inefficient, often boring, and increasingly only suitable for weak students as we move up in grades. Strong students are able to learn mostly on their own and based on books. Cf. an earlier text on college material. In at least a U.S. context, it also helps with hiding the problem of sub-grade-level literacy—better to reveal and address the problem.

Excursion on memory:
A recurring issue is that Ed’s weaker students often actually do learn how to do something—but have forgotten it again by the next semester. This is likely partially caused by a too superficial understanding,* but it could also point to many simply having very weak long-term memories. Revisiting some past interactions with others, such a weak memory could explain quite a few incidents that I had hitherto considered rooted in e.g. an original pretended understanding or agreement,** willful non-compliance using pretended ignorance as an excuse, too great a stupidity to be able to make even a trivial generalization of a known fact, or similar. (Whether weak memory is the explanation I leave unstated, but it is something that I must consider in the future.) A twist is that I have partially not considered memory an issue, because I thought my own memory poor and rarely had such problems—but in comparison to some of Ed’s students, my memory is excellent…

*Understanding does not only help with recollection, but can also be used to fill in many “blanks”. Of course, in terms of school, it can require a teacher with the right attitude: I recall an oral examination (on the master level, no less) where the professor asked for a formula. I had not bothered to learn the formula, knowing that the derivation was very easy from first principles, and set about deriving the formula. He immediately interrupted me, stating that he was content with the formula and that the derivation was out of scope. Apparently, he expected students to blindly memorize the formula, while having no clue how it came about…

**Something that also occurs among some of Ed’s students, as might some of the other items mentioned.

Excursion on lying to students:
“Lying to students” roughly refers to giving them a simplified (or even outright incorrect) view, which is (perceived as) good enough for now and which they can easily understand—without telling them that it is a simplified view. The result of this is that those who do not progress in their studies believe things that are not true, while those who do progress have to unlearn and relearn things in a highly unnecessary manner. A particular complication is that it can be very hard to be certain what opinions/knowledge/whatnot, gathered over a prolonged time period, corresponds to what state of knowledge. In many cases, the simplifications can make something harder to understand for the bright students, because it simply does not make sense or because the non-simplified version is (in some sense) cleaner. A very good example is the theory of relativity taught on the premise that the speed of light in vacuum is fixed* vs the premise that there is an upper speed-limit on causality or information, which light reaches in vacuum—the latter is much easier to see as plausible, leads to more natural conclusions, etc.** To toy with a simpler example in Ed’s direction: Compare the teacher who says “It is not possible to subtract a larger number from a smaller number!” with the colleague who says “If one subtracts a larger number from a smaller number, the result is a negative number—but that is for next semester!”. Which of the two is more likely to have confused students the next semester? Possibly, to the point that other claims made are no longer seen as credible? Which is more likely to peak an interest into what negative numbers are? Possibly, to the point that ambitious students read ahead or ask for explanations in advance?

*In all fairness, this could be based less on a wish to (over-)simplify and more on historical development. Even so, it should not be the starting point today.

**Consider e.g. questions like “What is so special about light?!?”, “Why must it be the speed in vacuum?”, “What happens when light travels through a crystal at a lower speed?”, …

Written by michaeleriksson

January 14, 2019 at 10:42 am

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