Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Insights on What Is Actually Taught In Classrooms - Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

Neil Postman summarizes the messages that are taught through the classroom environment as primarily these:
1 - Passive acceptance is a more desirable response than active criticism.
2 - Discovering knowledge is beyond the power of students.
3 - Recall and the collection of unrelated "facts" is the goal of education.
4 - Authority is to be trusted and valued more than independent judgment.
5 - One's own ideas and those of one's classmates are inconsequential.
6 - Feelings are irrelevant in education.
7 - There is always a single, unambiguous Right Answer to a question.
8 - Each subject is unique and distinct

He goes on to provide some examples of how these lessons are played out in adult life.

Take, for example, the message that recall - particularly the recall of random facts - is the highest form of intellectual achievement. This belief explains the enormous popularity of quiz shows, the genuine admiration given by audiences to contestants who in thirty seconds can name the concert halls in which each of Beethoven's symphonies had its first public performance. How else explain the great delight so many take in playing Trivia? Is there a man more prized among men than he who can settle a baseball dispute by identifying without equivocation the winner of the National League RBI title in 1943 (Bill 'Swish' Nicholson.)

Recently we attended a party at which the game Trivia was played. One young man sat sullen and silent through several rounds, perhaps thinking that nothing could be more dull. At some point, the question arose, 'What were the names of the actor and actress who starred in My First Nighter?’ From somewhere deep within him an answer formed, and he quite astonished himself, and everyone else, by blurting it out. (Les Tremaine and Barbara Luddy.) For several moments afterwards, he could not conceal his delight. He was in the fifth grade again, and the question might have been, 'What is the principal river of Uruguay?' He had supplied the answer, and faster than anyone else. And that is good, as every classroom environment he'd ever been in had taught him.

Watch a man - say, a politician - being interviewed on television, and you are observing a demonstration of what both he and his interrogators learned in school: all questions have answers, and it is a good thing to give an answer even if there is none to give, even if you don't understand the question, even if the question contains erroneous assumptions, even if you
are ignorant of the facts required to answer. Have you ever heard a man being interviewed say, 'I don't have the faintest idea', or 'I don't know enough even to guess', or 'I have been asked that question before, but all my answers to it seem to be wrong?' One does not 'blame' men, especially if they are politicians, for providing instant answers to all questions. The public requires that they do, since the public has learned that instant answer giving is the most important sign of an educated man.

What all of us have learned (and how difficult it is to unlearn it) is that it is not important that our utterances satisfy the demands of the question (or of reality), but that they satisfy the demands of the classroom environment. Teacher asks. Student answers. Have you ever heard of a student who replied to a question, 'Does anyone know the answer to that question?' or 'I don't understand what I would have to do in order to find an answer', or 'I have been asked that question before and, frankly, I've never understood what it meant? Such behavior would invariably result in some form of penalty and is, of course, scrupulously avoided, except by 'wise guys'. Thus, students learn not to value it. They get the message. And yet few teachers consciously articulate such a message. It is not part of the 'content' of their instruction. No teacher even said: 'Don't value uncertainty and tentativeness. Don't question questions. Above all, don't think.' The message is
communicated quietly, insidiously, relentlessly and effectively through the structure of the classroom: through the role of the teacher, the role of the student, the rules of their verbal game, the rights that are assigned, the arrangements made for communication, the 'doings' that are praised or censured. In other words, the medium is the message.

Have you ever heard of a student taking notes on the remarks of another student? Probably not. Because the organization of the classroom makes it clear that what students say is not the 'content' of instruction. Therefore, it will not be included on tests. Therefore, they can ignore it.

Have you ever heard of a student indicating an interest in how a textbook writer arrived at his conclusions? Rarely, we would guess. Most students are unaware that textbooks are written by human beings. Besides, the classroom structure does not suggest that the processes of inquiry are of any importance.

Have you ever heard of a student suggesting a more useful definition of something that the teacher has already defined? Or of a student who asked, 'Whose facts are those?' Or of a student who asked, 'What is a fact?' Or of a student who asked, 'Why are we doing this work?'

Now, if you reflect on the fact that most classroom environments are managed so that such questions as those will not be asked, you can become very depressed. Consider, for example, when 'knowledge' comes from. It isn't just there in a book, waiting for someone to come along and 'learn' it. Knowledge is produced in response to questions. And new knowledge results from the asking of new questions; quite often new questions about old questions. Here is the point: once you have learned how to ask questions - relevant and appropriate and substantial questions - you have leaned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or need to know. Let us remind you, for a moment, of the process that characterizes school environments: what students are restricted to (solely and even vengefully) is the process of memorizing (partially and temporarily) somebody else's answers to somebody else's questions. It is staggering to consider the implications of this fact. The most important and intellectual ability man has yet developed - the art and science of asking questions - is not taught in school! Moreover, it is not 'taught' in the most devastating way possible: by arranging the environment so that significant question asking is not valued. It is doubtful if you can think of many schools that include question asking, or methods of inquiry, as part of their curriculum. But even if you knew a hundred that did, there would be little cause for celebration unless the classrooms were arranged, so that students could do question asking; not talk about it, read about it, be told about it. Asking questions is behavior. If you don't do it, you don't learn it. It really is as simple as that.
Not only is Postman highly critical of the current goals and methods of learning, but he goes further by beginning to suggest what the goal of education should be. Rather than the goal of education being to know a large quantity of decontextualized information, the goal of education should be that students should be capable of learning relevant things. The goal isn't to learn stuff, the goal is to learn how to learn and what to learn. In today's classrooms, few people are taught how to learn, and no-one is taught what to learn. This is a major flaw with our present educational paradigm. It is one which requires a remedy.

The necessary means of achieving those two goals cannot possibly be a standardized approach, since every person is different. Individuals differ in their learning styles and they also differ in what they need to know. There can be no single answer to the question, "How does a person learn?" Instead, there are many various answers. Likewise, there can be no single answer to the question, "What does a person need to learn?" What a person needs to know to function well in life diverges greatly from one person to another.

While the educational goals that Neil Postman hints at are somewhat different than those that I view as the main goals of education, yet it remains that his observations are incisive and his perspective is clearly valuable in considering the best methods of education.


  1. "Have you ever heard of a student suggesting a more useful definition of something that the teacher has already defined? Or of a student who asked, 'Whose facts are those?' (etc)"

    Interesting story about Jamie Dimon, now CEO of JP Morgan, in his first year at HBS:

    "Two weeks into Dimon's first year at Harvard, recalls classmate Steve Burke, now COO of Comcast, they were assigned a case about a troubled cranberry co-op. "We'd just arrived, so we were all intimidated by this godlike professor," says Burke. "The professor starts discussing the cranberry case, and Jamie says, 'I think you're wrong!' We were all amazed." Dimon walked to the blackboard and wrote out his solution. The imperious prof was forced to acknowledge, "You're right," and Dimon immediately became a hero to fellow students."

    The good news is that the "imperious prof" was willing to accept Dimon's superior reasoning. The bad news is that this is evidently rare enough for the story to still be remembered.

    (Source: Fortune 3/06)

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