Sunday, June 29, 2008

Four Question About Babysitting

I have four questions that I use all the time to demonstrate how important our high school educations were, one for each of the four major academic subjects. Here they are, and the point I think that they demonstrate.

  • English: What is the rhyme scheme of a Shakespearean (i.e. Elizabethan)  Sonnet? (Bonus: What is the meter?)
  • Math: log (A*B) = ?
  • Social Studies: What century was The Declaration of the Rights of Man? (Bonus: What century was The Universal Declaration of Human Rights?)
  • Science: What is the atomic number of Nitrogen? (Bonus: What is its atomic mass?)
I've been asking people these questions for at least 10 years, perhaps as many as 20, and I never expect anyone to get them right. In fact, in all these years, I've only met one person who got all four right. I don't think think that I've had even a handful get more than one right. The vast majority don't get any of them right, or think that they might get one of them right.

And yet, I always explain, we were all taught these things. The odds are they we were tested on each of them. 

So, if we don't remember these individual tidbits today, then why were we tested on them back in school?

Well, Ted and Nancy Sizer wrote, "Education is the worthy residue that remains after the lessons have been
 forgotten." I wholly agree with them. This, therefore, begs the question of what is the worthy residue that remains of those lessons, the one where you were working on the information I asked about above?

I think that the answer is, "None." The odds are that those lessons did not leave any worthy residue. And if that is true, the lessons were part of your education. Instead, they are part of your babysitting. If that is true, high school was about keeping you supervised and out of trouble, instead of about teaching you anything.

But this is not about condemnation of chemistry, poetry, logarithms* or Enlightenment Thinking. I think that all of those lessons can be geared towards meaningful education, can all contribute to a worthy residue. Unfortunately, they rarely are. 

*Actually, I would like to condemn  logarithms. I don't think that they should be part of the algebra
 curriculum anymore. We don't use slide rules, so it is far less important that we understand logarithm. Those weeks should be spent on something else. So, I suppose I should change my math question to, "What is the quadratic formula for? (Bonus: What is the the quadratic formula?) 

My point is that we know that students will forget today's lessons. Maybe tomorrow, maybe in a week, maybe in a year, but almost certainly in five or ten years. Knowing that, why do we bother? Are we making sure that for the thousands of hours that students spend in high school they are getting something that lasts? Are they learning larger lessons worth learning for a lifetime? 

Unfortunately, doing this requires an incredibly thoughtful approach to schooling. This is not compatible with the standardized testing the we do. It is not compatible with how we evaluate teachers (i.e. lessons taught in isolation). It is not compatible with short term evaluations of schools. There is so much about the American system of schooling that would need to be revisited if we were to making those lessons worth students' time.

But with doing that, isn't high school just about babysitting?



  • Engligh Elizabethan Sonnets: abab,cdcd,efef,gg & iambic pentameter.
  • Math Logarithms: log (A) + log (B). The quadratic formula is to solve quadratic equations (i.e. those with x-squared, but not cubed or higher, and only one variable), and is

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