Saturday, November 21, 2009

The good student

At the library, leafing through A Mathematician’s Lament, Paul Lockhart’s jeremiad about the incompetent teaching of math in our schools, I was stopped by this sentence:

Many a graduate student has come to grief when they discover, after a decade of being told that they were “good at math,” that in fact they have no real mathematical talent and are just very good at following instructions.

Though never particularly adept at math myself, I was always a good student, an “A” student, an honor roll student. I was a teacher’s pet, because I wanted to please my teachers. Most of my fellow students thought me odd — probably still do — and some of them bullied me. I was a bookworm and uninterested in sports.* My teachers were more my friends than my fellow students, and I wanted to please them. The way to please them was to give the right answer.

That was the pedagogy I grew up under: There is always one right answer to be discovered, and the purpose of education is to produce students who get the right answers. It works for things that are susceptible to rote learning. Spelling, for example. You can teach phonics and instruct students in the general principles of spelling, but English is such a promiscuous, mongrel language that its numerous maddening exceptions simply have to be memorized, like Chinese characters.

Rote learning is not, however, of much use in teaching students how to think. If you keep giving the right answers long enough, you get to college, and you can skate a long time there on right answers. But I got as far as graduate school without fully understanding that scholarship is more about framing the right questions.

One day in my second or third year of graduate school in English at Syracuse, Professor Peter Mortenson — almost as an aside — described to my class that scholarship is a conversation. Trying to arrive at a deeper understanding of a text, you look at what previous scholars and critics have said about it. You notice something that has been overlooked, or you see something that is mistaken that you can try to refute; thus you enter into the continuing conversation on that text or that issue. Another student said afterward that it was the first time that any of his teachers had explained so lucidly what the enterprise of criticism was.

In retrospect, I see that that was the beginning of my discovery that, as much as I liked books and talking about them, I was not cut out to be a literary scholar. I had gotten to be pretty good at sussing out the answers the teachers wanted to hear, but without much talent for forming those questions myself.**

Fortunately, I found a career an editor, where what analytical ability I do have is put to use. And I try in my classes on editing to train my students to frame questions. But analytical thinking is hard to start with, and many students appear to come to college after a dozen years of conditioning to guess what answer the teacher expects to hear. That is why my students discover every semester that if they just look blankly at me long enough, I will break down and tell them what I see in the text. I hold out as long as I can.

I invite you to write in comments on this post about your own experiences in school, and to speculate on the reasons for the inadequacies. Does get-the-right-answer pedagogy persist simply because it is easy? Or are there deeper reasons for it — perhaps that we don’t want to train the young to be analytical thinkers because they will question us and grow up to be troublemakers rather than docile employees? Do we value learning, or do we merely admire credentials? Over to you.

*I still loathe all known forms of sport.

**To suss (largely a British usage, is to realize something or figure it out. It derives from to suspect.)


If a reader of this blog should order a copy of the book listed below from, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.


  1. I was an A student until I wrote what I felt about Macbeth (that it was a comedy not a tragedy). My classmates warned me not to cross this particular instructor, to always just spit out in my papers exactly what he said about everything, but I didn't care, because, for me, that would have been a waste of time. I was there to stretch my brain, to practice supporting what I thought, so I wrote what I thought, and I got my first D. (With comments that everything about the paper except it's thesis was A work--which is interesting, because if everything else was A work, doesn't that mean I supported it well?) That was more than 20 years ago. I wonder if that professor is still insisting on seeing his own thoughts turned in a thousand times a semester.

  2. I was always disappointed by what passes for middle and high school science education. Like the math student you describe, a "good science student" is good at following directions and replicating another persons findings. This is part of why I rarely enjoyed science classes, and thought I was "bad" at them. I was always much more interested in seeing what would happen if I mixed *these* chemicals together, or asking the unanswerable questions that would just annoy my teachers. I have been happy to discover that, in the medical research world at least, "doing science" has very little to do with what one learns in science class, but has much more to do with creativity of thought, and ability to question.

    I was, luckily, able to attend an undergraduate institution which tricked me into loving science, St. John's encouraged me to figure out not just what the right answer was, but how someone might have gotten there. We even took stops along the way to address "incorrect" theories. Reading about Lamarkian evolution, while "pointless" because "that's not how it works" has given me some perspective on modern epigenetics. I think the focus on "what is right" prevents students of both math and science from searching for other answers, indulging their own lines of questioning, and questioning why something that works is the best way.

  3. P.S. I felt that Macbeth had been misidentified as a tragedy in the same way that Love in the Time of Cholera was misidentified by so many as a romance (instead of the hilarious farce that it is). Hearing people talk about it that way got my hackles up.

  4. I discovered rather quickly in college that I wasn't cut out to be an English major. More concrete subjects appealed to me, which is why I think I ended up being an editor. You can clearly explain to someone that a fact/source/idea is absent or that this sentence is missing a verb. My frustration appeared when I was expected to explain the deeper meaning of a text and add to the findings of some literary scholar. I never much liked puzzles of that nature.

    I like evidence-based study with its neat(er) answers. That's probably because few teachers challenged me to think or really critize. My main motivation in school was learning facts and ideas, not how to analyze them.

  5. I noticed in high school that there were two types of "good students" -- people who knew the right answers and people who knew how to work the system. Most of us in the second category were also in the first, and learned when a teacher wanted creativity and when not to bother. We also learned to work together to get what we wanted. Thus, I, who devoured books, explained them chapter-by-chapter (which was how we discussed them in class) to the future math major who helped me pass algebra.

    In undergraduate school, I once asked a Spanish teacher if she'd rather I spout her answers or work on something creative, and she bluntly told me to regurgitate. I was in a rebellious phase, so I flunked the class and took one with someone else.

    It is possible to be a creative thinker and still work the system. The people who get in trouble are the honest scholars.

  6. I am both a good student and someone who knows how to give the right answers. I learned in kindergarten (in the 50's) that coloring outside the lines or with the "wrong" colors was not rewarded. And I really wanted to be rewarded. So I developed into a kind of schizophrenic or Jeckell/Hyde student: I became very good at taking tests, very good at listening to all the cues the teachers gave for how to get their approval and I did so...most of the time. As a high school senior, having never taken a single home ec course, I won the state wide Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow Award, based on a test. Pissed off A LOT of people..,

    But I had regular lapses. I got kicked out of Sunday school when I was 10 years old (in a church that will remain nameless) for "asking too many disruptive questions" and "placing the souls of the other children in danger." In the 9th grade I was sent to the office for challenging a teacher who insisted that Gunga Din was an American Indian. As copy editor of the school paper I again was sent to the office for refusing to agree to printing a false story that made the school look good. As valdictorian of my graduating class, I handed off the speech to the fifth ranked graduate so that I could pray a prayer (I wanted the prayer to be inclusive, and I knew it wouldn't be if prayed by others in the class).

    I knew that I got good grades because I tested well. I knew that I had friends with C averages who were smarter than most of the rest of us. It wasn't until I went to college as a mature student, and then on to graduate school, that I felt anywhere near at home in the academic settings. And then I loved it so much that I never really wanted to leave.

    So, when I teach, I encourage all the questions, outside the lines thinking and wrong colors I can. Some people enjoy that, others don't. But at least I feel a bit more honest... bottom line is that I think that most people do not really learn unless there is a bit of an irritant (like uncomfortable questions) that causes them to open up their psychic skin and let the new ideas in.

  7. I'm republishing a comment Beth Drummond Casey made on Facebook:

    John, when I first came across the Lockhart piece last year I sent it to all the bright young people I could think of who were in the throes of pondering what to do with their lives, in hopes they'd consider becoming teachers. I agree with the previous post: wise,curious and deep-thinking teachers and highly engaged, thoughtful parents are the key to counteracting an appalling reality in many schools today.

    The problem you describe is a big one, especially since the invention of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). While the spirit of that legislation did have kids' best interests at heart - especially kids growing up in poverty - in practice the law has intensified the pedagogical and curricular emphasis on right answers as the be all and end all.

    In fact, the very existence of some of our least-resourced schools depends on kids getting LOTS of right answers on the standardized tests for that is the most important measure of whether or not a school is successful in the U.S.

    The daily news alerts us each day to the impact a population can have that does not think deeply and critically. (Birthers movement, anyone?)

    NCLB was not around when most of today's adults were coming through school. If thinking deeping and critically is a problem in public discourse now, what will it be like when the current generation of students is middle-aged? I shudder to think...

    There are many out there in the K-12 world today who are counteracting the effects of this right-answer-based education system. (Baltimore's public school head Andres Alonso is one of them.) But still - it's an uphill battle.

  8. A comment from Facebook by Lisa McLendon:

    I think part of the problem is that there are some things where there is one right answer and these kinds of things you need to know and understand before you can even start thinking critically and asking deeper questions. Not just math; for example, you need to know what the Constitution says before you can have a debate or ask questions about how particular laws or ideas fit into it.

    Part of the problem also is that it can be very fine line that separates a "creative" approach to something from total BS. I chose the linguistics track in graduate school rather than the literature track for several reasons, one of which is that I love literature. One would think that would draw a person to the study of literature, but I couldn't bear to pick apart beloved novels and approach, say, Dostoevsky from a "postcolonial" perspective or some such, and I'm not very good at BSing my way through such an assignment. I also learned in graduate school that knowing a lot of things isn't nearly as important as knowing where to find them and what to use them for.

    When I teach Russian, especially the introductory course, the students get frustrated because with some parts of a foreign language, you just have to memorize. There's no way around it -- if you want to talk about what you bought at the store or what you're wearing to the party, you HAVE to know those words to communicate. Or further along, it's no good to read Pushkin if you don't understand what he's saying -- not just the dictionary definitions of the words, but their connotation and significance in a larger context. Lay the foundation with facts, then develop the skills and give the perspective for thinking, exploring, debating.

    As a nation, it appears that we neither value learning nor admire credentials; whoever shouts the loudest has the floor (and the viral videos), willful ignorance is considered a virtue of "real" people, and "elites" are roundly criticized for any attempt to bring facts, nuance and reason into a discussion.

    And to answer your original question, I was a good student and I knew how to give the right answers. I'm very fortunate: my parents and teachers (including lots of nuns) instilled in me the value of knowledge as well as the value of learning and thinking.

  9. A comment from Facebook by JoAnne Schmitz:

    My critical thinking skills were honed by _Mad_ magazine. It's sharp and funny enough to get a young person's attention, and adopts a questioning stance that doesn't veer into paranoia or nihilism.

    Sure, it's easier to grade on facts than reasoning.

    But there's a sizeable group of parents who are just as much to blame as the educational system for wanting kids who know the right answers to questions rather than kids who have great critical thinking skills.

    Remember the outrage over MSPAP because it tested, not what the capital of Montana is, but how you would, for example, design an experiment to find out how much water is in an odd-shaped bottle?

    Remember reactions to "new math" -- because it wasn't rote drill learning of times tables, it was communist and evil and taught children theories rather than facts.

    Yet "new math" is what got me to understand math as something other than a series of rules you apply to a set of symbols on a piece of paper to get to the answer in the back of the book. New math makes math *live*.

    There's also the fact that women don't have to be teachers, nurses or secretaries any more if they want to work outside the home. The brilliant women who dedicated their lives to teaching can do something else, get paid better, and not have to deal with stifling bureaucracy or whiny snot-nosed (or gun-toting) kids. That's not to say that teachers today are lousy, just that teaching is now competing for brilliant women with other professions."

  10. A comment on Facebook from Nancy Nicholson:

    yep, when I was a young girl and said I wanted to be a teacher, my parents' friends replied that I was "too smart" to be a teacher! Who did they want teaching their children?

    It is harder planning lessons that teach kids to think instead of just memorize and recite. And parents want their kids to come home from kindergarten with their folders loaded with worksheets. They question what we did all day if the folder is empty.

  11. Please forgive my incorrect "it's" (and whatever other typos there are). I should never type before coffee in the morning.

  12. I laughed out loud when I saw that you "hold out as long as you can"; I do, in the university classes I teach, too. My students are mostly juniors and seniors who are flatly shocked that things might not be what they seem—although they are engineering majors who are supposed to be developing bright new technologies.

    I also learned to color inside the lines and in the right color in the 50s, but I never got the hang of second-guessing the teacher and playing the system (and I wasn't bright enough to memorize everything I was supposed to know). But I learned how and where to look for answers, and in a world of information explosion, that may be the best thing, next to the notions that knowledge is a conversation and life is a negotiation, that I can give the kids today.

  13. Wow, a lot of the comments/experiences echo what John Holt wrote about in his many books, including Teach Your Own, in which he explained that he had given up on the idea of reforming the schools and became an advocate for homeschooling. And like one of the commenters above, he had found that vocal parents who objected to any kind of change were the biggest obstacle to improving schools.

    I pulled my kids out of school when my son was starting third grade. He was having a hard time learning to read, and his teacher's response was to make him miss recess to "get his work done." In fact, he was (perhaps still is, though you can't tell anymore) dyslexic. When I took my son out of school, we spent most of our time at various local parks to make up for all that lost recess time!

    Being something of a free-thinking creative hippie type, I soon fell in with the unschooler crowd, where we met a lot of families with bright, curious and fun kids. I didn't really instruct my kids at all, we just went out and explored the world.

    As for my kids, they are now aged 19 and 21 and have very little interest in "right" answers but do ask a lot of questions. One is now an honor student in the local community college and in the process of screening 4-year institutions to continue her education (her requirements in a college: creative writing, philosophy, and horses). My son (the dyslexic one) is participating for the second year in a youth theater group that performs Shakespeare, and is learning to design Web sites.

  14. I'm the opposite - I cannot memorize and cannot remember procedures. In spite of this, I was best at sciences in school. [and at math until higher level calculus].

    I don't test well, but I am good at gaming the system so none of my teachers ever figured out what I was doing and my learning disability was never diagnosed. I knew that I was doing things differently than the other students, but since it had always been that way, I never questioned it. [The disability is related to dyslexia, but with different manifestations. I figured it out myself during a presentation on new learning methods while I was in graduate school; I discussed it with the lecturer afterwards.]

    My first encounter with testing vs. intelligence was around seventh grade when I took an IQ/psychology test. The school psychologist told me that I should avoid math and science since I would never be good at it. Fortunately, in that area I was very confident and realized why the test results would indicate that; I decided that the test and psychologist were wrong. [The test could not be easily gamed in some areas and other areas tested speed and accuracy which my learning disability prevented me from doing well.]

    The first big disappointment with a teacher was in ninth grade biology. This teacher wanted the students to regurgitate what was lectured. I put a correct, but not included in the lecture, answer on a test and was marked wrong. I showed the teacher the book I got it from (an Advanced Placement study guide) and was told "that wasn't what I taught." I made her "troublemaker" list when I proved her wrong on another test question (after class, not publicly). Luckily for me she went out on leave after the first two months of class or I would have gotten in a lot of trouble.

    I actually managed to get Bs in Spanish class mostly be gaming the system - I should have gotten Ds. The written tests always had reading comprehension questions with a page of Spanish text. I would use those sections as a source for grammar and vocabulary for the test. I would get high Bs or As on written tests and Ds on the oral tests.

    Fortunately, most of my high school teachers appreciated the fact that I always wanted to know "Why" and did not just memorize what I was told.

    College changed the game. In some classes I did great because the professors were teaching the "Why" and structured the tests and homework so that regurgitation didn't work. Since I had trouble with the memorization and procedures, whenever I could I avoided classes that were based on that. I picked my major and classes so that I could survive - some majors and classes would have been impossible for me. [I even took a graduate level class to substitute for a required undergraduate class taught by a Professor who believed that a successful engineer had to have a photographic memory.]

    I took a linguistics class and did very well. It was based on deciphering and comparing grammar from different languages - very little memorizing, mostly puzzle solving in that same manner I gamed my other classes. Here they were teaching me to do what I had already done to survive in school.

    One of my favorite science professors used to have "Why" questions on his tests; he would ask the student to explain things without equations - many in the class complained that it was unfair.

    My professional career has been similar. I seek out positions where I do troubleshooting and research and avoid tasks that require crunching numbers or analysis.

  15. And they're off!! Taking the opposite point of view from the teacher for the hell of it and simply because you enjoy being a smart-aleck (tiresomely adolescent) doesn't get you very far. As the Russian teacher (ut supra) points out, some things are right, correct and immutable and you have to memorize them to get to the really meaty stuff. So whining about "rote" just wastes time: if you want to read Caesar, Rousseau or Mozart's letters in original 18th-century German, you'll have to learn the fundamentals first. They are the means whereby in any substantial field you can name. (Forget majoring in "Television." Any idiot can learn to point a camera: the trick is for someone to know at what to point and why. Those people are few and far between: if it moves and has a mouth, shoot it.) The argument that secondary education doesn't teach critical thinking is specious: it isn't designed to. Those grades are supposed to teach fundamentals such that by the time the miserable creatures get to college, or work or whatever comes next, they have acquired the means to think and inquire on their own. That doesn't mean an extended adolescence in which one suggests that MacBeth is a comedy, simply to annoy another teacher: at some point one is expected to back up your point with evidence, not simply more smart-aleckness.(Jonathan Miller thinks Lear is funny and directs it appropriately. I think it a stunning collection of unhappy, rather unpleasant people, always a blueprint for the occasional comedic moment. MacBeth can at times be seen as a Scottish-Elizabethan "Scenes from a Marriage," much more interesting than Bergman ever conceived, and happily lacking all those staring Nordic blue eyes.) A friend once told me about a high-school lacrosse coach who had a young man on his team who had been "raised" without any rules, regulations or consequences. The child merely did what he pleased, regardless of the outcome. One can only imagine what he was like in the classroom. Encouraging children to question everything before they know anything,to be obstreperous for the sake of it, and resolutely to refuse to do what's necessary to get on and get out, is not helping them to grow or find what interests them: if this isn't one of the goals of education, it should be. Addendum: Please stop preening about your disdain for sports. We know. It serves no purpose.

  16. As many others here, I was blessed with a good memory and other gifts that made school a breeze. I don't know if I was trying to please teachers, though, so much as trying to be right--even in college, there was an awful lot that was simply right or not, and something in me responds to rightness. I wonder if there's a connection between this and my own near-total lack of interest in sport, where things are so messy and outcomes so uncertain even after the fact. (Pace Patricia the Terse, I'm thinking that announcing one's dislike of sport may not be preening but rather inviting reflection.)

    As for the choice between rebelliousness and conformity, I appreciate those who flout the rules and flunk the courses. But it always felt to me as if I were the rebel, turning in the assigments and memorizing the facts and listening in class while everyone else kvetched and goofed off and talked about little but the last game (if we'd won) or the next (if we'd lost).

    Not surprisingly, though I'm in some respects analytical, I don't think I have a critical mind. I rely on the Letters column--these days it's the Comments section--to remind me that my enthusiastic agreement with the article of last month, or the post of twenty minutes ago, is misplaced, as will be my enthusiastic agreement with the letter or comment demolishing the original article or post. I don't know that I'm getting any more truly critical with the years, but I've gotten so far as to develop a certain hermeneutic of suspicion.

  17. Pointers to two things I just read, both highly recommended: the essay "Why Nerds Are Unpopular" and the short story "Status Quo". The first is the clearest exposition I have ever read of why American schools work as they do, and why the smart people in them are persecuted. The short version: smart people don't want to play the popularity game that dominates high schools, as it's all-consuming and they have better things to think about; and unpopularity is contagious, so one of the ways to keep your popularity rank is to ostracize or bully those at the bottom.

    The second was published in a science-fiction magazine in 1960, and is about how the Fifties didn't, in this version, turn into the Sixties. Ignore the flying cars; the relevant sciences here are sociology and political science. As things actually turned out, the Movement wasn't as centralized as the author expected and consequently not as vulnerable, and in many respects the Movement won: just compare the discourse used in the story for women compared to what we'd expect to see today.

    Patricia: Maybe you should change your epithet to "the Trenchant"?

  18. Many a graduate (i.e. the mathematician, his editor, etc.) could benefit from a clearer understanding of the singular vs the plural. I might give more credence to "someone" bemoaning the incompetence of our educational system if "they" didn't make grammatical errors while "they" did so.

  19. Patricia the Terse's comments will probably generate a lot of rebuttal because she misses the fact that most of the commenters realize the importance of learning the basics before you challenge the dogma. The complaints are mostly about the teachers who believe that memorizing is everything. When rebelling, one must understand the risk and be prepared for the possible consequences.

    This reminds me of another method I used to cope with unreasonable "rote" teachers and associates. I would rebel by using satire; the unimaginative rote teachers/learners would miss it and the thinking ones would appreciate it. It satisfied my need to vent frustration while avoiding a dangerous confrontation.

    In high school I learned the hard way that I needed to keep it subtle. One time I did this to a substitute teacher's busywork assignment and she sent a recommendation to the teacher that I be sent for psychological assessment - the teacher returned the assignment to me with an added note saying "very creative."

    In college, I satirized a visual design assignment by taking it to an absurd extreme. The instructors loved it and praised my breaking boundaries and rejecting preconceived notions of art. In making fun of the instructors I actually did what they wanted.

    One time my satire both failed and worked at the same time. I had rebuilt some laboratory equipment and the next user sent me a nasty message about how I ruined it. I inspected the apparatus and found that the vacuum leak he complained about was caused by an obvious mistake in assembling his equipment that joined with the apparatus (one that he should have found in a couple of minutes of inspection). My response was a polite description of the problem and a detailed procedure for using the equipment written at a third grade level in colored pencil. Instead of being insulted at the demeaning instructions, he thanked me for the clear procedure. [I now write all procedures at that level.]

  20. Dear Patrice the Terse: Geez! Just in case you didn't read my post carefully enough, I didn't choose my thesis to annoy my instructor. I did not particularly care if my choice did annoy him, but that is not the same thing as choosing it to annoy him. I did what gave me the chance to discover my own thoughts on Macbeth, practice supporting them, and hopefully get some helpful feedback in response from my instructor. I took a risk hoping to get the education I was paying for (I wasn't paying for grades), and I avoided a boring regurgitation of someone else's thoughts.

    However, none of this means that I'm against rote learning or memorization at all. Seriously, you have to know what you're looking for before you can find it. You have to know the difference between "its" and "it's" in order to correct them when editing. You have to know the elements of tragedy and comedy in order to claim a play is one or the other.

    One of my most disturbing encounters with a failure of the education system was when I was subbing in an "advanced" 8th-grade algebra class. They were half-way through the semester and had a routine in which homework was assigned, they got to start (or even finish it during class), and then the correct answers were given to them the next day. I was supposed to simply give them the correct answers. I noticed most of the class having to copy down the first answer I gave them (so most had gotten it wrong), so I offered to work the problem out with them on the board. Everyone looked up, and one said their teacher never did this with them. Then the two-part shock came: 1) As soon as I said something along the lines of "OK, let's solve for X" they kind of glossed over. After a bit of back and forth with them, it became clear they did not even know that determining the value of the variable was the point of algebra or how to get the X alone to solve for it. 2) Once they got this, and I showed them how to get the variable by itself, and they could see they had to perform some basic division, they ALL looked down at some little card. I went over to see what they were looking at and was told that that is how they find out what 15 divided by 3 is and that they just carry the card with them all the time! These were 8th-graders, and they had never been required to memorize the multiplication tables. I felt sick. How can you put anyone who can't multiply 5 by 3 into an algebra class? The nuns who taught me never would have let me out of 2nd grade if I didn't know my tables yet. When the bell rang, one boy came up to me shaking and thanked me for showing me how to do it, saying he had not understood it at all until then and he had been trying so hard. THAT from an 8th-grade boy is incredibly brave.

  21. In geometry class back in the '50s I never understood why we students were asked to prove theorems that others had proved centuries earlier. I was willing to accept on faith that the theorems were true and even to memorize and apply them. Shouldn't that be enough? It never occurred to me that we students ought to learn to think. I always thought of school as a place that taught stuff. Much later, after I'd forgotten all the stuff I learned, I wished I'd learned to think. Of course I might have forgotten that also.

    Regarding right answers, it must be harder to assign right grades if there are no right answers.

  22. I'm with Patricia the Terse. We lawyers have a courtroom rule: "Don't ask a question if you don't already know the answer." If you just ask questions without bothering to actually learn any information beforehand, you'll look like a dunce and end up in community college or live as homeless actor.

  23. Patricia the Terse but Sometimes SympatheticNovember 23, 2009 at 3:22 AM

    One of the more obvious problems with K-12, and particularly 7th-12th grade is the appalling education given to those who would teach. Rather than a required Bachelor's and Master's degree in a field, they are forced into Schools of Education, where they learn nothing of substance.Tell me how a teacher can teach French to 7th-graders, when he's spent far too much time being taught statistics and lesson planning by someone with an EdD? Another hurdle, and I don't know how to get around this, are the SAT scores of those who plan to teach: they are, for the most part, among the lowest in the country. I don't know if this reflects a lack of imagination among those people or low standards set by the worthies in Education programs. At one time, certainly before the regrettable 1960s , the public schools mostly taught - and taught well - what various private schools now teach. It may be possible to change everything, beginning with mandatory school uniforms, about the public schools: there are so many vested interests that are terrified of a system that benefits students rather than unions, politicians, lobbyists, Schools of Education and enormous bureaucracies that the task seems impossible.(I suppose closing all public schools, firing everyone who works in and for them, and starting over at the foundations might help. A little revolution now and again is a necessary thing.) erosebud likes "rightness." So do I. I like the guilty to be punished and the innocent set free. I like Dickens because the Uriah Heeps of the world get what they richly deserve. I like to watch sports now and again because I like to see things done well and it's great fun to see an organized, judged competition in which most play by the rules and those who don't are benched or give up points to the other team. (The NBA and NFL are exceptions: the thuggier they are the better the chances of being recruited, having a salary the approximate size of the GNP of Belgium and having all criminal charges dismissed by ignorant, incompetent judges.) I like balance and symmetry, which I suppose are components of "rightness." But rightness isn't always tidy. Sometimes the only way to get things to come right is to man the barricades. I must now away to conjugate some irregular verbs: my basketball team delivered a stunning blow to UNC this weekend, there was some figure skating on this afternoon and there is no Michelle Kwan to redeem the US team, and I've been sooo distracted....

  24. Add: It's also possible to have learning and credentials.Long after the credentials are unnecessary, the things learned are still satisfying. (Conor, -ari, - conata sum.)

  25. I continue to be amazed by how stupid--I can't think of another, better word--many lesson plans are. Several years ago my son, then in elementary school, took an exam on the French and Indian War, which his class had just covered. One question asked the kids to pick one emotion to describe how the American colonists felt when the French lost the war and left North America. Such as "happy," "sad," etc. Only one emotion. No possibility of mixed emotions. And only one emotion for all the colonists, as though they all felt the same way.
    p.s. John, thanks for explaining "suss." I knew what it meant but not its origin.

  26. I'm sure the colonists worried lots about how they would "feel" apres le guerre Francais. It's the infantile "how do you feel" rather than "what do you think" that dilutes so much teaching. How one "feels" about the Pythagorean theorems is irrelevant, save that the proofs are constructed beautifully. This gooey baby-talk component of so-called teaching is what makes many of us want to head for the vomitorium

  27. I am a secondary teacher in international schools, originally working in public schools in the states.
    I have discovered that much of bad teaching stems from one of two things: teachers who simply push students because they feel a need to get through the curriculum or, they are simply not engaged, interesting human beings themselves. Unfortunately, the majority of teachers I have come across fit into one of these two categories.