What did you learn?

Little Bookworm went off to school today with her “motor project.” It began a month ago, when she came home with a small motor — a small cylinder with two wires sticking out the bottom and a little spindle coming out of the top. If you press the wires to the two ends of a battery, the spindle spins.

Little Bookworm’s project was to glue something to the top of the spindle that would revolve when the wires were connected to the battery, then to place the “finished project” in a theme decorated shoe box. After umpteen hours of working on it — and my contribution of glue gun labor — Little Bookworm marched off to school with a shoe box that had a drawn on the back wall a ferris wheel and a wonderfully maze-like roller coaster. The motor was mounted on a block and, affixed to the top was a disc of paper which had attached to its edges strings, and on the bottom of those strings, little squares of paper representing passenger seats. The final result is very charming.

When it was finished, I asked Little Bookworm, “So, what did you learn about motors?” Her answer: “Nothing.” “Well, what did Ms. Teacher tell you about the project when she assigned it?” Answer: “Take it home and make a diorama showing the motor spinning.” “Did she explain how a motor works?” “No.” Lest this simply be Little Bookworm not paying attention, I asked the same questions of two other classmates in the neighborhood. They, too, saw this as an arts and crafts project, without having any idea about motors.

The motor project was a home project. There’s also been a lot of arts and crafts time in school, because of the “Mission project.” California 4th graders all study the Missions that the Spanish put in place between San Diego and Sonoma, beginning in the 18th Century.

Here’s what I can tell you about missions, based upon just my memories of my 4th grade public school studies 35 years ago: The missions were built by the Spanish, who “owned” California. The Catholic priests came out with the soldiers and traders, with the plan that they would convert the Indians to Christianity. The missions were built along a highway called “El Camino Real,” which still exists today. Each mission was built to be no further than one day’s horseback ride from the next mission, making them sort of like motels for Spanish travelers. The Indians did a lot of labor building the missions. They worked there, were schooled there and, when they died, were buried there. The missions were built of adobe brick, a combination of mud and straw. They had very thick walls, which helped keep them cool in the summer and warm in the winter. And on and on. I’ve since developed a more mature understanding of the missions (this kind of knowledge), of course, but it exists almost side by side with my original exposure.

At Little Bookworm’s school, they’ve been “building” missions from milk cartoons, plaster of Paris, kidney beans (for the tile roofs), fake grass and trees, etc. Done with a lot of parent help, they are arts and crafts marvels, and quite lovely to look at. So I asked Little Bookworm, “What did you learn about the missions?” “The priests built them using Indian slave labor.” Well, that’s a bit PC for the very complex relationship that existed between the priests and the Indians (since the former viewed the Indians as souls to be saved and raised up, not only as primitive laborers, while the Indians viewed the priests as powerful beings who were not felled by smallpox and who were accompanied by men with all powerful guns and horses), but it’s still an answer and accurate so far as it goes.

“What did they use to build them?” “Adobe, which is a mixture of manure, straw and mud.” (Good answer, and I’m so glad she didn’t say milk cartons and plaster of Paris.)

“Who were the priests?” “I don’t know.” That’s still okay, because I don’t really expect the school to teach them the nuances of 18th and 19th Century Spanish Catholicism.

“Where did the priests come from?” “Spain.” (Yes! She knows a hard core fact.)

“Why were the priests there?” “I don’t know.”

“Why were the Spanish in California?” “I don’t know.”

“How come California was Spanish and not American?” “I don’t know.”

“What purpose did the Missions serve?” “I don’t know.” (She was thrilled to learn about the motel and “one day’s ride” aspect.)

“How did the priests get the Indians to work on the Missions?” “I don’t know.” (A little explanation here about guns, disease and faith.)

And on and on. Frankly, I wouldn’t mind how little she knew if I didn’t know that she’s spent at least 20 classroom hours on this project. That means that, out of 20 classroom hours, the only hardcore information she’s taken away is that priests came from Spain, enslaved Indians, and built Missions out of adobe bricks made from clay, straw and manure. That strikes me as a very poor return on time spent.

I’m harping on this because it ties in to my constant gripe about what I see as the public school system’s profound misunderstanding of arts and crafts. Thirty or forty years ago, educationalists figured out the obvious, which is that not all people learn through words, but that some people are better visual or tactile learners. The logical thing to do, and the thing that you see in my beloved Montessori, is to focus on key issues related to any given subject, but to give kids the chance to study and express the information through the medium most natural to them. The schools, instead, simply abandoned the idea of conveying lots of information, or enabling the kids to learn lots of information, dumbed down lots of subjects so that they could be turned into giant arts and crafts projects. The Mission project is a perfect case in point.

To my mind, the best way to have taught the kids about the Missions would have been to get the kids excited about Missions. Tell about the great explorers casting out from Portugal and Spain. Explain about the discovery of the Americas. Tell about the Spanish greed for gold, silver, land and Christian souls. Tell of the brave explorers, the vile killers and the good (and bad) Fathers. Tell about the Indians’ first horrifying exposures to guns, horses and disease, three things that left many of the survivors believing that the Spaniards were either inherently superior or had tapped into a better religion. And so on. It doesn’t have to be a pretty story, but it’s not either the simplistic story of my youth (Spanish brought God) or the simplistic story of my kids’ youth (Spanish brought slavery). It’s a rich and exciting story of greed, faith, warfare, disease, innocence, etc. It’s a most exciting narrative if it’s not sucked of its life so as to support a milk carton infrastructure.

By the way, this is the type of story that can be read or told in a couple of mornings at school. Having piqued the kids’ interest, then tell them to do research and come back with a project that reflects a certain aspect of this era, or of the Missions specifically, or whatever. Depending on their skills, the children can write an essay, draw cartoon panels, make a diorama, write play, or do any other thing that enables them to take what they’ve learned and integrate that knowledge into a unified whole. I know kids can do this because I’ve seen them do it.

As it is, after 20 hours, my daughter learned almost nothing about the Spanish in California or about the Missions — but she learned a whole heck of a lot about milk carton construction techniques.

Be Sociable, Share!
  • http://thomaschronicles.com/ Thomas

    Howdy Book,

    It’s no secret that education ain’t what it used to be, but spending 20 hours on constructing milk cartons is a tad bit excessive, ain’t it? Sure, education should mix concrete learning with a bit a fun. I don’t object to that. But…

    Ah well. It is what it is. I think our public education system has gotten to the point where, in many areas, if you want your kid educated, you have to do it yourself. So many kids I’ve met (and even my peers) are woefully ignorant of America’s history.

    I asked a co-worker who Alexander Hamilton was and received this response, “Didn’t he invent electricity?”

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com/ ymarsakar

    I still think it is easier to “grade” and “see” and that this is why teachers favor such visual arts projects.

    It is not so much that they dislike challenging the students with critically important and complex subjects, but that they are under a specific set of pleasure-pain responses. What motivation do they have in challenging themselves? A good set of motivations for the self, will be demonstrated in the standards set for that teacher’s students. But if you lack such motivations for self-improvement, then it becomes all too easy to get a nice looking art project that looks nice, but doesn’t require much critical thinking on the teacher’s part.

    I think few teachers actually like grading homework or projects. The repetition perhaps is a factor or maybe it is the stupid things turned in by the students. But that’s just a thing. A failure by the students to meet the standards is not the same thing as a teacher failing to set the standards high enough.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com/ ymarsakar



    The second link gives you a graphic demonstration of the Wankel engine. Both visual and engineering based.

    Wankel-rotary engines are used in UAVs, because they produce more work per unit of mass-volume.

    I think any kid who can turn a crank and remember the force he needed to apply, and what the result was, can get a grasp of the basic principles behind the internal combustion engine and its variations. Maybe not the mathematical equations, but certainly the physical processes can be explained and learned.

    Is it doable? If you have 20 hours, what isn’t doable?

  • Lea

    Any good children’s museum would explain motors better than an arts and craft project and would make a good field trip. I used the Hirsch books, what you should know in the 1,2,3,4,5,and 6th grade to make sure that what was needed to know was known.

  • Trimegistus


  • http://bdroppings.blogspot.com/ Bill C


    You are not impressing me with Montessori education. I am starting to lean towards home schooling. My experience in school before my wonderful time at a Jesuit high school was hippy teachers who taught nothing (catholic school) and indifferent teachers who were warehousing us (Chicago public schools). I just know I am not as well educated as my parents and I think I could do a better job than a teacher who has all the distractions of a classroom full of children.

  • Brian Levine

    If you feel this way now, all I can tell you is that it gets worse.

    Wait till you get to WW II and all the kids know is that we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and put Japanese-Americans in camps. Among other things they have never heard of are Nan King, Bataan or Okinawa.

    Then there’s the day where you watch the teacher say the same thing four different ways. 1) say it for the “aural” kids, 2) write it on the board for the “literate” kids, 3) paint a picture for the “visual” kids, 4) make a lot of motions (similar to charades) for the “kinesthetic” kids. Mind-numbingly, agonizingly boring.

    I have two kids who went to highly rated elemtary schools in Cardiff and Encinitas. These are upper middle class neighborhoods north of San Diego.

    I am not exagerrating how bad it is.

  • http://ymarsakar.wordpress.com/ ymarsakar

    California seems to have some interesting public schools.

  • CA high school student

    What I’ve learned from almost twelve years of public schooling is that history and English, unless your child chooses to enroll in an AP class, are best taught at home or by the student himself in a library. Great battles, political intrigue, grand adventure – all these are left out. As I recall, the Moon Landings of the Apollo missions were given one-sixth of one page in my American History text; the Space Race overall was given about one-third of a page.

    As for English? I recommend “Thank you, Ma’am,” “Wild Bird,” e.e. cummings’s poetry, perhaps some Longfellow and certainly Kipling’s “Just So Stories” for children between the ages of 6 and 12. (Younger children may have to be read to.) For a good series, “The Boxcar Children” numbers 1 through 16 are excellent.

    Most youngsters whose parents are making sure they are educated should be able to deal with books such as Black Beauty, White Fang, Anne of Green Gables, the Secret Garden, and Bruce (by Terhune) when they reach middle school or a little before. Some students will have trouble with pronunciation, but that’s to be expected.

  • DensityDuck

    It’s a sad statement that everyone’s excited about kids reading Harry Potter. “Oh, well, at least they’re reading!” Right. That’s like saying that it’s okay for them to stuff their faces with McDonald’s and Hershey Bars, because at least they’re eating.

    Does this mean that they shouldn’t read Harry Potter? Well, no. I’m saying that you can’t just say “oh, he read Harry Potter, that means I don’t have to get on his case about reading.”

  • Stu

    “The logical thing to do, and the thing that you see in my beloved Montessori, is to focus on key issues related to any given subject, but to give kids the chance to study and express the information through the medium most natural to them.”

    The sentence above doesn’t parse. How do you intend that it should read?

  • http://bookwormroom.wordpress.com/ Bookworm

    What I was trying to stuff into one sentence, Stu, was the idea that you get kids excited by a subject. For example, you tell them the rip-roaring story of the Spanish conquest. Not in excruciating detail, but as a real story of good and evil, discovery and loss, etc. Then, you tell them to prepare a project about the Spanish conquest. You do not tell them: “build a diorama,” or “write a play,” or “prepare a 10 page report.” You do tell them your project expectations: “Explain how the Mission system developed.” “Learn about and report back on the relationship between the Spaniards and the Indians.” “Be sure to include information about the importance of gold to the Spanish conquest.” But, otherwise, you let the kid choose the way in which he or she does the report. In other words, you, as teacher, determine the substance, but the kid gets to decide upon the form.

  • Pingback: Education's narrow PC focus « Bookworm Room()