The main peril of factory education: boredom

(I made the following comments in this morning’s newsletter, and a friend suggested that they’re good enough to be in a stand-alone post.  Incidentally, if you’re interested in getting the reasonably daily Bookworm Room newsletter, you can sign up here.)

I’ve been working with some students helping them to review for the first semester AP European History exam.  I know British history extremely well, and the rest of European history fairly well.  This means that, when the students have questions, I usually have answers.

The problem I’m having is with the picayune nature of the questions.  History is a wonderful, fascinating, lively story, one that reaches back into time and up into the present.  It’s a brilliant tapestry on which individuals both small and great play out their destinies.  History is the best novel and the most exciting movie.  Except . . . that’s certainly not the way these students are learning it.

Savery Steam Engine

Instead, the kids are condemned to memorize both important events and isolated factoids that might make them stars on Jeopardy.  This factual relativism, which attempts to raise the mundane to the same level as the significant, wastes time and utterly fails to teach historical trends or inspire any love for the subject.  Being required to memorize the names of the three men whose work brought about the steam engine that powered the industrial revolution (Savery, Newcomen, and Watt) is infinitely less interesting and to the point than understanding about a society’s energy needs, and then seeing the wonders of the way in which harnessing energy brought about the Industrial Revolution.

The study questions reminded me, painfully, of a never-to-be-forgotten-or-forgiven test I took back in a 9th grade English class.  Although we hadn’t read Moby Dick, one of the questions asked us to identify the book’s author.  The four choices were:

Moby Dick book cover

a.  William Shakespeare
b.  Nathaniel Hawthorne
c.  Herbert Melville
d.  Herman Melville

I knew Melville wrote the book.  I knew his first name started with an “H.”  And I guessed the wrong H-name, which lowered my test grade from an A to a B.  It wasn’t a big deal (I still got an A in the class), but I’ve never gotten over the injustice of that stupid question.  Rather than testing knowledge, it tested almost meaningless minutiae.

That was more than thirty years ago, but public schools are still obsessed with the meaningless, even as they’re incapable of giving color and life to the things that matter.  How frustrating for the students.

I can only hope that my blog’s content today is more interesting and more useful than the stuff they’re teaching in the schools.

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  • David Foster

    Indeed, I’m not sure which is worse…the pointless memorization, or the reaction against pointless memorization:
    “Make a poster of Melville’s Great White Whale. Include a thought bubble showing how the whale might have felt about the people who were trying to harpoon him. Make another poster showing how the selfishness of Americans demanding whale oil in Melville’s day parallels the selfishness of Americans today who are selfishly using the last of the world’s oil to power their selfish SUVs”

  • ami

    I disagree about the main peril, although most people haven’t figured out that ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ are mutually exclusive, and I’ll give you five bucks if you can’t identify which one takes up the majority of time in public schools.

    The biggest peril in public education is the indoctrination that is fed to the children all day long every day. The month spent on MLK vs the 20 minute lesson on George Washington.

    The hypocritical ‘it’s baaaad to cut down trees!!’ written on, of all things, PAPER. While sitting inside buildings made with wood.

    The testing, which does nothing but measure how many meaningless facts one has memorized and can regurgitate on a fill in the bubble test.

    I work inside a school. It’s a ‘good’ school. And really, the adults there care very much about the kids, and treat them kindly.  But the kids aren’t learning. They’re being taught.

    One more thing the government has messed with and gotten wayyyy wrong.

  • adam

    Boredom in the face of indoctrination can later blossom into a renaissance of honest curiosity, having been tempered with experience.

  • Danny Lemieux

    History isn’t a fact book. It is a panorama of the human experience.

    I was once taught a history lesson by a man in a school that bordered a forest near the battle site of Waterloo. He really caught my attention when he mentioned that you could still see the ruts in the forest where Wellington dragged his cannons to the battle site. I spent a lot of time looking for those ruts and found them! I have loved history ever since that moment.

  • JKB

    Worse still, this type of requirement causes even less learning
    The way pupils study, depends on what is emphasized. The methods that are best to develop a sound knowledge of geography in pupils, will, as a rule, be the best to teach them how to study geography. The reason that mechanical memorizing is the main part of study in the elementary school, high school and university, is that reproduction is the primary thing required. If boys and girls find that the teachers’ questions ask for a reproduction of the text, they will memorize before thinking and without thinking. If, however, there is a thought question, it will cause them to organize and analyze the subject matter of the book, and then mechanical memorizing can not occupy such a prominent part.

    No use putting the effort in to think about what you read when what you have to do is either memorize the spoonfed “facts” or pull out the facts yourself.  You don’t read for understanding just for key tidbits, isolated, unrelated and unconnected to anything else.
    Now the sad part is that quote above is from a book on teaching how to study published almost 100 years ago.  So the knowledge was out there, it’s just “modern” education doesn’t want to know it.  Add in, isolated facts are easier to machine grade and require less effort and thought from the teacher.  
    Having a degree in Physics, I was exposed to Watt, et al, many times but I never had the adventure until I read ‘The Most Power Idea in the World” which traces the development of the steam engine from the creation of patent law to the first steam locomotive.

  • gpc31

    There is a reason that there are mathematical prodigies galore, but no child-prodigy historians.
    Aristotle stated the matter succinctly:  “A young man is not equipped to be a student of politics; for he has no experience in the actions which life demands of him, and these actions form the basis and subject matter of the discussion” (Ethics 1095a2).  There are some things that only experience can teach.  Youth unconsciously compensates for its ignorance with enthusiasm, passion, energy, and imagination (for the future lies before them–they see only infinite possibilities, and invariably lack the tragic knowledge of constrained historical pathways). So you must first engage them on an emotional level in order to engage their imagination, apply their intellects, and so enlarge their limited experiences.  Impossible to do on that on the basis of a formulaic, standardized test for the masses.  (Can you say GRAPES?  Geography, Religion, Art, Politics, Economics, Social Classes…) The AP is necessarily a paint-by-numbers scheme — not bad in its cartoonish outlines, merely lacking in the rich palette of felt human experience.  Dual reading in History and Literature on one’s own is still the best approach; there is nothing like the thrill of personal discovery.  (I will quote two lines of Twain here:  “Never let schooling interfere with your education” and “Work is whatever a body is obliged to do.”) It doesn’t have to be high-brow; Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy will do nicely until they encounter Gibbon.  But is all for naught unless you read, and inchoate until midwifed by a gifted teacher.

  • David Foster

    A case can be made that the quintessential technology of the Industrial Revolution was not the steam engine but rather textile machinery–the power loom and the various forms of spinning machine. Indeed, Richard Arkwright’s famous spinning device was called the “water frame,” reflecting its original power source. A significant % of the early textile industry was water-driven. The Jacquard loom, which allowed mass production of patterned fabrics, was in its early incarnation hand (or foot) powered…this device was enormously important in the evolution of information technology. I wrote about it here…Cool Project: An Open-Source Loom

  • David Foster

    The question of why the industrial revolution happened mainly in Britain rather than in, say, France, is an interesting one. It was addressed by D S Cardwell in a book that I reviewed/excerpted at Chicago Boyz…interesting discussion thread.
    Innovation and Social Structure

  • Dennis Elliott

    I was fortunate to have been in grade and high school from 1950 to 1962 and teaching was somewhat different then. From the sixth grade on I had exceptionately good history teachers and was further fortunate in that I lived in the vicinity of where the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars were thought, and directly adjacent to a battlefield of the War of 1812. While I struggled with context (I found as an adult that those instances in school where I was not able to grasp concepts all occured when I was not provided with context) the major themes and specific information was endlessly exciting to me.
    I have found also that, at 68 I have a far better appreciation of the scope of history (and all of those old subjects, really) and read with far more understanding and pleasure as Aristotle indicated in the quote above. Good teachers, really good ones are a treasure and should be recognized above their peers. The union push for equality of results rather than opportunity will never allow that to happen of course. More’s the pity.

  • Libby

    One of my favorite teachers was for high school American History. He gave out these busy-work assignments that asked a detailed question for every 2-3 paragraphs in the assigned text book chapter (which he never read because I inserted many silly comments & questions into each worksheet that he never acknowledged). However, in class we did these wonderful re-enactments: stock market trading on the day of the crash (he shut down trading 20 min before he told us he would!), land negotiations between US govt. and Indians where we Indians ended up squished into a 4×4 space, attempting to establish peace among nations to prevent a world war, etc. Learned more getting sucked into the various crises than I could have ever read in a book or learned from a lecture.

  • JKB

    David Foster, possibly true but until the steam engine, the size of the revolution was limited by the size of the river bank and the flow rate of the water.  We could view it as that nasty old coal fired steam engine saved us from a world where every river bank was blocked by factories and every river slowed to a trickle by water wheels.  The steam engine let sub prime land be used for industry leaving prime flood plain for cultivation.

  • JKB

    David Foster, 
    Wouldn’t our comments make an excellent class discussion to teach about the industrial revolution?

  • Dennis Elliott

    Apparently, though, my English teachers weren’t that good—or was it me. Obviously I meant “exceptionally” rather than “exceptionately”, above.

  • David Foster

    JKB…absent the steam engine (or the internal combustion engine), I think we would have had industrialization, but it would have been limited by availability of waterpower…land on streams with water rights would have become VERY expensive. We would have even had electricity, but much more limited and expensive…probably electric lights but no air conditioning, for most people.
    There’s a whole species of Left-leaning writing from the 1930s about how wonderful the world would be if the world ran mostly on hydropower and electricity…ironic, given the Left’s current desire to destroy large dams or at least never build any more.

  • JKB

    Of course there would be no horseless carriages, development away from hydro capable rivers would be limited, rapid movement and migrations of people would be limited, the US Southwest would be undeveloped as would LA and San Diego.  Etc, etc.  Much of the central US would still be farmed by horse.  Oh and more land would be in crop production rather than returning to wildlands.
    There would be no snail darters, salmon, migratory birds, wetlands, etc.
    The steam engine facilitated the modern environmentalism by removing the river from the center of production and transportation.  Not to mention creating prosperity so that many came to have the time and money to worry about nature rather than survival.

  • edge of the sandbox

    I grew up abroad with old-school essays and math problems that I had to write out step by step.  I always felt that multiple choice is unfair.  It’s not just that the ability to recognize the name of an author doesn’t mean that the student can recall the name in an essay.  Students can misread the options.  When it come to math problems, students can make more than one mistake and get the correct answer without knowing how to solve the problem.  If they don’t get the right answer, it doesn’t matter whether they made a minor error or don’t have the grasp of the concept; they can’t get partial credit.  I can go on.  The main lesson of multiple choice test, especially when it comes to humanities, is that no deep knowledge of the subject is required.  You can wing it.