Bad ideas in education

It seems like almost everyone agrees that education in the United States is in bad shape and there’s a huge array of possible explanations as to why and what we should do about it. However, most articles and editorials that I read on the subject miss the point entirely. When we talk about education there are two things to keep in mind. First, our school system wasn’t always bad. It used to be the envy of the world. Second, other countries still have good school systems. The kids in South Korea and Belgium are perfectly smart. Explanations like the kids today being too distracted by technology, too unmotivated, or just too dumb don’t hold up. We have to look for trends that are unique to the United States and to the past couple generations.

One possibility is the use of computers in the classroom, which I whined about in a GD thread last year. However, I think there’s a bigger bad idea that’s caused even more trouble: the idea that school should be fun.

This idea has lead some teachers and experts to try to pump fun into every lesson. This can have bad effects. For example, suppose we start with this math problem: “A pencil is four inches long. How many pencils would you need to line up to reach fifty feet?” By itself this problem is not fun, because a typical kid doesn’t care how many pencils it takes to reach fifty feet. A modern teacher might try to increase the fun by replacing pencils with candy bars, on the grounds that kids like candy bars more than pencils.

This, however, would be a bad idea for precisely that reason. Once you mention candy bars, many kids will start thinking about candy. And then they’ll think about how good candy tastes, and about how much they enjoyed the last candy they ate, and when they’ll next be able to have candy, and what sort of candy it will be, and whether they have enough money to buy candy at lunch time, and so forth. Soon the math is completely forgotten and their mind is filled with candy.

The same problem occurs in many situations and on a larger scale. For example, consider the recent trend to assign PowerPoint presentations rather than old-fashioned reports. A kid working on a written report about the Battle of Gettysburg will put most of his mental effort into things related to the Battle of Gettysburg, and thus he will (ideally) remember that. But a kid who does a PowerPoint presentation on the Battle of Gettysburg will put mental effort mostly into the details of the presentation: searching for pictures, choosing fonts, adding builds and transitions, and so forth. He’ll remember the PowerPoint but not the Battle of Gettysburg. The presentation is more fun but the report produces more education.

So, in summary, I think that education should be grim and joyless, kind of like it’s depicted in old-timey sources such as Mark Twain. Sure, it wasn’t any fun for kids to solve endless multiplication problems on slates with chalk, but they actually learned the right things.

I agree that candy and Powerpoint aren’t helpful, but am not convinced that “fun” is exactly the problem. Some of my most memorable learning was fun… because the learning itself was made fun, not for extraneous reasons.

An acre is the area of a rectangle whose length is one furlong and whose width is one chain.

you, and the people in charge of creating curriculums and setting standards need to so some serious research. having spent a significant amount of time doing that kind of research it seems the only people who feel as you do have a mistrust of children and a decided dislike of them as well.

If you are doing a traditional written report on the Battle of Gettysburg, you are not only learning about the Battle of Gettysburg, you are also learning (or, at least, getting practice in) how to organize your thoughts on paper, how to write clearly, and how to research a topic. Probably, a good student will expend far more intellectual effort on these matters than on absorbing facts about the battle, but that is not a bad thing at all. Developing these skills is a far more important educational goal than knowing facts about the Battle of Gettysburg.

If you have to make a PowerPoint presentation, you are not learning nearly so much about how to write well, but you are learning something about how to make PowerPoint presentations, which, very arguably (though sadly), is a skill that is at least as useful in todays world of work as being able to write good, well organized prose. I doubt if it makes much difference to how much you learn about Gettysburg, but that was never the real point anyway.

Actually, I have some doubts about the whole premise of this discussion. I do not doubt that American schools could be much better that they are, and that some (almost always in poverty stricken areas) are awful, but I am skeptical as to whether, overall, they are that much worse than they used to be, or that much worse than schools in other wealthy countries. For very different reasons, it serves political agendas on both the left and the right of U.S. politics to decry the state of American public schools. Basically, the left wants more money to be put into schools, and the right wants much more of the school system to be privatized. Both these agendas are served by saying that public schools as they are are in big trouble. It is thus very difficult to get an objective sense of just how bad (or good) the situation really is.

In a competitive environment the kid who does a flashy powerpoint full of errors should get stomped by the kid who did the PowerPoint with a well researched and presented report about the battle.

There would only be a concern if the wrong criteria were being used to evaluate which presentations were best.


Why not simplify the equation and leave out the Powerpoint parts, then?

Presumably because the ability to present in powerpoint or equivalent is considered a useful skill to have. And the same issues tend to remain anyhow, you get the kid who tries to use lots of colours vs the one who focusses on good writing.

But I agree that sometimes being too creative about asking for different presentation formats can sometimes cause problems in giving an incorrect impression about the importance of style over substance.


A wonderful display of point missing!

Grades are not the point of education. Actually learning stuff is the point of education. Education is emphatically not a competition. The only value of grades, and competition for grades, is that it can act as an incentive for learning. (It is arguable, indeed, whether competition for grades actually does more harm than good, since kids who consistently get poor grades are likely to be demotivated by their failures as much or more as the ones who often get good grades are positively motivated.)

The widespread misconception that improving education equates to raising grades, and that the point of education, for the student, is to win the competition for grades, really is a serious impediment to actually improving American education.

As for the PowerPoint issue, if the real goal of the exercise is to learn about Gettysburg, then the problem is not that the kid with the flashy PowerPoint may get a better or a worse grade than he really deserves, the problem is that putting so much effort into making a flashy presentation is likely to mean that he will have been distracted from learning as much as he might otherwise have learned about Gettysburg. (And that may be true whether he truly deserves the best grade in the class, or the worst. Even the student who learned the most about Gettysburg, and deservedly got the best grade, might have learned still more if he hadn’t wasted so much time on PowerPoint flash.)

However, as I have already pointed out, learning to make good PowerPoints is probably a more important educational goal than learning about Gettysburg anyway (although flashy PowerPoint does not at all equate to good PowerPoint, of course).

“A wonderful display of point missing!”

I agree.


The problem is when students expect every class to be fun all of the time. I’m battling one of my classes on taking notes because “taking notes isn’t fun” and then have to listen to them whine because they have no notes for an open note quiz.

“Can I borrow someone else’s?”:smack:

I disagree, mostly because in order to bring the pupils up to speed, there is a lot more that must be crammed into the curriculum than there was a century ago.

An approach that is working really well at the UK primary school where I serve as a governor is the integrated curriculum - it is project-oriented and the curriculum subjects are threaded and woven through it.

For example, the project theme might be The Romans - and within this theme, there will be the obvious history strand, but there will be mathematics tasks (i.e. calculating hypothetical provisions ordering, including forecasting, etc), writing, reading and research tasks (i.e. imagine you’re a soldier on Hadrian’s wall, write a letter home to your family), design tasks, as well as tasks where groups of children must work together (either defining their own roles, or fitting into predefined roles in the team), and so on.
It’s harder for the teaching staff to ensure that everything is adequately covered this way, but it really does work - because the themed projects are varied, the kids learn a lot of things without even realising they’re learning - they just pull out the skills they need to do the task at hand - and importantly, they learn how to work, how to work together with others, and how to research and self-learn.

In the great tradition leading from Rousseau to Marcuse, and in the very essence of democracy itself, I think the taught should be in charge of the classroom; setting their own schedules, holding votes on every action, demanding only such teaching they desire, and being superior to the teachers ( well, certainly the kind of enthusiasts who already boast ‘The kids teach me as much as I teach them’ ).
That, and allowing automatic firearms, would transform the educational scene.

This is funny timing. I’m actually literally sitting in a hotel room at a conference where I won a major teaching award mostly on the strength of an essay I wrote on this topic. This may be too long to be worth reading, but here it is:

I don’t eat my steaks with ketchup, and at the risk of revealing my snobbery, I look down on those who do. It’s not that ketchup is a bad flavor—it’s a great flavor, sweet and sour and tangy and salty. There is nothing wrong with ketchup, but it is really easy to like: there’s no subtlety to it, no hidden delights, no complexity. Three-year olds understand ketchup, and they’ll eat it all day.

Ketchup becomes a problem when we start putting it on everything all the time: on a good steak, a fine piece of fish, mashed potatoes, fried chicken, hash browns. There’s nothing wrong with liking ketchup. The danger lies in taking the easy way out: if you always put ketchup on everything, you never learn to love the more subtle flavors, pepper and garlic and rosemary and thyme, or the distinctive taste of the meat itself. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the pleasure of ketchup, but a life lived without ever tasting garlic is a poorer one.

Education faces the same problem. There’s an understanding that good teachers, good systems, are those that “make learning fun”. Students and parents love the class where “you don’t even realize how much you’re learning”. We treat learning like a bitter pill that needs to be sugar-coated and stuffed into a bunch of M&Ms in the hope that the patient won’t ever know it was there.

This conspiracy to somehow disguise learning as “something fun” entirely misses the point. Learning is fun, but it’s a complicated fun. It’s not fun like a roller-coaster or a rock concert or even a blockbuster movie. It’s a subtle pleasure, more related to the fun of building something out of tinker-toys or hitting a homerun: it’s the fun of accomplishment and understanding. Like all those joys, it takes a certain amount of practice, of frustration, and even of boredom, before we see it—but our lives our better once we learn to enjoy complexity and creation. It’s not something to shelter our kids from, but a gift we need to give them—a whole array of pleasures and joys they will only have access to if they learn to see them.

As a teacher, then, my teaching philosophy is to show my students how complex this world is, to get them to appreciate—to revel in—the complexity around them. I want them to watch The Simpsons and see not just slapstick, but biting social commentary. I want them to walk through a shopping mall and see not just pretty baubles, but a complex system of supply and demand, of international trade and compounding interest. I want them to have a drive to create, to build, to make—not just a desire to passively consume. I feel like my students are like tourists who are wandering the Louvre, looking closely at the floor and discussing the beautiful marble tiles. My job is to get them to look up and see the art.

People with this sort of passion for the nuances of life, people who instinctively move toward complexity instead of retreating from it, are much better prepared to handle life. Empathy is a learned skill, and comes from an understanding that everyone faces complex choices and deals with complex motivations. That empathy leads to more effective communication and, in the end, produces better friends, better spouses, better parents—people that form lasting and constructive relationships with the people around them. Not only do those strong relationships contribute to each individual’s happiness, they knit our society together.

I firmly believe I am educating citizens, not workers, and the skills I give them need to apply not just in a cubicle, but around the breakfast table, when they watch the news, and, above all, in the voting booth. I firmly believe that a young adult who sees and understands the complexity of the world will understand how the systems and institutions they depend on don’t “just happen”, but are the product of careful stewardship. I firmly believe that such an education will encourage them to step up and join their communities—their churches, their school PTAs, their neighborhood associations, their school, local, state and national governments—as volunteers, as organizers, as employees, and as administrators.

Above everything else, I strive to always remember that learning is a rare and subtle pleasure. My job is to find ways to help my students recognize and remember those joys, not think of them as a freak event: “I actually liked that book!” means they’ve enjoyed a book, but they haven’t learned to enjoy books. I remind myself every day that I can’t trick them into learning by getting a big enough bottle of ketchup: instead I must always be a careful chef.

Manda JO, congratulations! What an excellent essay; sounds like you are a fabulous teacher!

While I agree with much of the sentiment in the original post, I think I have to take issue with frowning upon the use of presentation software. Nearly every report I was ever required to do had as a requirement the use of audio-visual aids. Isn’t using PowerPoint just the natural progression from posterboard, markers, construction paper, magazine photos and glue sticks to modern technology? Certainly using PowerPoint to create a presentation at least exercises skills important later in life, as opposed to the aforementioned posterboards (unless, of course, the person goes into the non-computerized visual arts)?

I disagree. Education as a whole is not bad in this country. It’s a quality and resource distribution problem. The good schools in this country are pretty great. They are schools of every type; public, private, charter, etc. They are among the best in the world. You will not find to many really rich people that send their kids to China, Finland, or Singapore to be educated, despite their superior overall test scores. As much as we may lag behind in some areas, there is a reason companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, and Apple were created here.

What is a problem is that people who cannot afford good education have been left out in the cold to a large extent. This problem is not unique to education though. You can see the same issues in our health care system among other things. Even so, high school graduates today are more educated and knowledgeable than many college graduates of yesteryear. The problem is that the job market is more complex than it was then.

I am not sure this is really true. Reliable comparisons have not been available for that long. I know we Americans love to think we were/are always the best, but I not sure everyone else accepted that as a predicate. I don’t think people in Finland 50 years ago thought the average American was a refined, highly educated academic. We were largely judged by how people perceived our “exports” like NASA technology, military equipment, and computers. Those things were largely the product of an educated elite that still exists today.

What has been revered in the past is our university system. It still is largely revered today. Many of the best students in the world still want to come here for college. Harvard didn’t get any worse, its just that many other countries got better. Part of the reason it got better is because we told many of those foreign college graduates to leave once they finished studying, so they went back to their countries to build things there. Even so, it’s kinda foolish to think we always need to have the same relative advantage over everyone else rather than using our own standards.

The impact technology has is largely due to culture. Even if people around the world are exposed to the same stimulus, it doesn’t mean the results won’t vary due to culture.

Have you ever taught in a school, or worked with students? This seems incredible simplistic and naive. Computers are the BEST thing to happen to education in a long, long, long time. They are a tool like anything else, and thus, can be misused. However, any chance we have to educate the poorest among us in a similar fashion to the richest will ONLY come as a result of the computer.

Calculators are computers. Do you really think people were better off with abaci and sliderules? Do you think the ability to use scantrons instead of having to hand-grade multiple choice tests is a bad thing? Yes, just putting a computer in the corner of a classroom does not help anyone, but used appropriately, they are invaluable, if only because they same so much time, and allow us to become far more efficient.

Your arguments seem to boil down to these crotchety old man sentiments that kids must learn through “honest toil” or else there is no point. Sorry, but if that were true, why even bother teaching people, just let them learn things for themselves like the cavemen.

While I think this is largely a semantics issue here, I think you seem to be implying that something being fun means is it’s not serious, disciplined, or rigorous. When most educators use the word, they don’t mean students should play games all day, they mean that the lessons should be informative and somewhat entertaining and applicable. This can be acheived in many ways. Regardless, having that goal in mind is not a bad thing.

The two are not mutually exclusive. Kids still do written reports. Most kids that I know do far more written reports than they do powerpoint presentations. Both methods work as a method of presenting one’s understanding of information presented. I think you need to face the fact that scoeity has changed, and values certain skills more than others. That is not a good or bad thing. It just is. Just as the death of oral storytelling was not a death knell for society, the embrace of technology will not be a bad thing in the long run.

Nonsense. Things were largely grim and joyless because they were tedious and repetitive; two things that are terribly inefficient. The reason things are, on the whole, better than they ever have been is because we are so efficient. We can grow enough food to feed everyone, and we have enough energy to heat and cool our enormous houses. Things like youtube exist because they didn’t have to design the internet, the world wide web, video codecs, etc. themselves.

What is great about society today is the way it is because people weren’t wasting time figuring out trig functions by hand, or reinventing the wheel. In fact, the whole point of education is to create people that will eventually build upon the collective knowledge we’ve accumulated. To make the process grim and joyless means we are actively making things inefficient.

No it should be fun, but fun because the activities are fun.

Recently I discovered Vi Harts blog about math doodles. Not only did she make sense of some pretty obfuscated topic material, but she made it fun.

There is another essay floating around the net about learning math, but darned if I can find it.

The point is, you cant tack fun onto it, you cant make it a feel good activity. The benefits have to be intrinsic.

I strongly agree with Manda Jo. I teach preschool, and I hope most people would agree that it’s appropriate that much of the learning we do be “fun.” But I think it’s so sad when parents and others use the “it’s so fun they don’t realize they’re learning!” line because that is robbing the children of taking pride in their efforts and learning positive attitudes about the value of work. I try to constantly point out to them the educational purpose behind anything fun (or not fun), and the importance of their own effort rather than passive consumption of the lesson.
“Ms. Xoferew, can we watch another youtube video?”
“No, that video was helping you learn the words to the song we’re going to sing at the concert. We’re not watching videos just for fun.”
“Well, can I watch that same video again?”
“Not now. You’re also working at cooperating with friends in the block area and the dramatic play center. You’re trying hard and getting better every day. So please pick a place to play, and remember to ask, not grab.”

“But Ms. Xoferew, I’m playing with Ted! It’s a two person game, so Nicky can’t play.”
“Oh, you’re thinking of a play date. That’s when you can choose to just play with one friend. At school we practice playing with different people, and we practice playing with more than one friend. If you want to keep playing this game, you need to include Nicky.”

It’s also good when their work can have some significance in the outside world, and that brings a different kind of pride, motivation and pleasure much more meaningful than “fun.” We try to do this frequently.
“Ms. Xoferew, drawing this picture and writing three whole words on it is boring!”
“Do you remember why we’re doing this? We’re sending letters to the three year olds about their artwork that we looked at in the hall. How do you think this three year old will feel when she gets a letter from a four-and-a-half year old?”
“…Really good?”

great essay by Manda Jo

in response to the OP:

1 - oddly/wrongly allocated emphasis on technology. excel is a million x more important than powerpoint and yet my HS sister has done about 50 powerpoint presentations to 0 excel projects. my own HS back in the day issued (mac?) laptops to every student and yet did not teach anyone the difference between RAM and ROM, or even how to use it. then when they found out all kids did was surf the internet and play games, they went over the top in restricting functions until the computers were reduced to $1200 word processors. we couldn’t even get email because the free services were blocked, and we didn’t have *.edu accounts. i mean… this idea that computers are an educational panacea is about 100x as wrong as thinking that a TI-83 somehow makes math easier (which some school board members probably believe).

2 - no economics class. it’s an elective, but usually done as a labor of love by local teachers. the principles of supply/demand, utility, rational choices, etc. aren’t hard to grasp, and VERY important. micro aside, the macro concepts of banking, GDP, and international trade are also probably good ideas to familiarize all americans with. why don’t we make a bigger effort to teach that?

3 - english. i mean, good golly how hard is grammar? is it so hard that we need 10 years of public schooling dedicated to it? shouldn’t we have all the grammatical tools more or less mastered by the time we roll into HS? i remember sitting in class being bored to tears that we were going over a grammar unit AGAIN. the teachers looked disinterested, and the students moreso. yeah. we get it. an adjective modifies a noun. what? do 30 min of busy work and wait out the clock? ok.

i mean, if you shook up the curriculum and offered classes categorically like, world lit, brit lit, american lit, composition, creative writing, technical writing, etc. i’d understand. but a cookie cutter of 9th grade: 1/2 grammar, 1/4 romeo juliet, 1/4 steinbeck, 10th grade: 1/2 grammar, 1/4 macbeth, 1/4 great expectations… isn’t that just a massive waste of time?

I am a teacher and the switch from pencils to candy bars in the math problem in the OP doesn’t make it more fun. It’s still the same boring lesson. You could use “widgets” instead of pencils or candy bars. It’s the activity that matters not whether you use “pencils” or “candy bars.” And everyone keeps talking about “fun.” No, not fun, but “engaging.” It never ceases to amaze me that when I go to a district training session that the district keeps pushing us to have engaging lessons for the children, yet the training consists of teachers sitting at a desk watching 3 hours of Power Point presentations. Seriously, think of how humans like to learn. How do YOU like to learn? What things do you remember learning? Why did you remember them? Things that challenge you and engage you are what matters and what you remember.

To me, the biggest problem facing students and teachers today is the HUGE lack of critical-thinking skills. Students have been so ingrained to get an answer right for high-stakes testing that they are afraid to explore and try out different ways of thinking. It always has to be the “right” answer for them or they’re not even going to try. When I was in elementary school, I drew on any scrap of paper I could find whenever I had free time. Now, when I ask students to draw something for me, they invariably tell me they “can’t.” Why? Because they’re afraid to draw! They’re afraid they’ll get it wrong. We’ve stifled creativity and imagination in favor of drilling them in high-stakes testing.