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September 24, 2003

The Forest and the Trees


We’ve discussed a few times why kids seem to get out of school these days having worked like galley slaves yet without able to put much context or background around what they know. I mean, I know my daughter does notably more home work than I did in high school—and I did more than most of my fellow students—and yet she is often at sea in discussing current affairs or political questions, despite being one of the sharper tool in the shed.

I went to high school parents' night a few days ago and figured out at least one reason why kids today do so much homework and yet don't develop, for want of a better word, much perspective. At my daughter's school there is tremendous emphasis on what I can only describe as "teaching to the test." Every teacher is shoveling a lot of material at the students and, on top of that, every teacher is making them crank through lots and lots of reinforcement exercises.

Let me give one example. My daughter is taking physiology. Her teacher first gives the kids a reading assignment in the textbook. The kids must take notes. The teacher then lectures on this material. Then the teacher hands out an exercise sheet—which the kids have to copy and hand back, to save paper(!!!)—with multiple choice questions about the material lectured on. On Thursdays, the kids can come in (on their own time) and find out the correct answers to these multiple choice questions. The tests for the class will be taken almost verbatim from these multiple choice question sheets.

So on the one hand, all this makes things very clear indeed as to what you need to do (or write on the test) to get an “A.” On the other, it leaves these kids no time to ponder nuthin'. I walked away from our ten-minute session with my daughter's physiology teacher and thought, Jeez, that's just one endless memorization exercise.

Granted I never took physiology so I have no idea if there is, or ever was, an alternative way to teach it, but what I saw seemed to offer no more possibilities for life lessons or higher thought than being told to memorize a 100 digit number for your final exam. It's doable, if you're sufficiently motivated, but to what end?

And the issue is not confined to this one science class. Similarly narrow but very labor intensive challenges are thrown at them in history. Last night I helped my daughter cram for an exam on a lengthy portion of William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” Doing so meant I had to scan the pages of this omnibus volume for the first time in several decades. While Shirer’s book isn’t poorly written, looking at it last night made me realize how much such essentially extraneous detail (like the parliamentary maneuverings around the breakdown of the Weimar Republic) it forces you to crunch through to get to the highlights. (Obviously, not a problem for people familiar with the broad outlines of the story and looking for more detail, but quite a problem for high school students!) And, of course, for all its wordiness, you can’t really understand Shirer’s book without knowing something about the modern history of Germany because many of the issues attendant in Hitler’s rise to power can be traced back to the doings of Bismark and, in some cases, Frederick the Great!

And the sad thing was that I doubt my daughter is really in a position to think about—or will ever have time to think about—questions like: what was it about Germany’s situation in the 1920’s and 1930’s made the Hitler phenomenon possible?

BTW, I am not waxing nostalgic here about the 1960s, when many of my fellow students were full of political opinions that they didn’t begin to have the necessary knowledge, either out of books or from life, to evaluate. My problem with my daughter’s school is that the kids are so busily focused on cramming in the trees that they don’t have time to even contemplate the forest.

Man, am I glad I'm out of high school.



posted by Friedrich at September 24, 2003


Interesting---I remember when I learned about the history of the Third Reich in highschool, one of the things they specifically went over were the elements in Germany in that time frame that made its rise possible. It was "on the test" so to speak. Not to the level of a PhD, but enough to have the context---including the Weimar Republic. What are they teaching them instead, I wonder, that they wouldn't have time for that?

Posted by: annette on September 24, 2003 3:50 PM

Mr FvB,

Boy, did you hit one of my hot buttons with this post.

I got to teach my 8th grade daughter some elementary economics last night so she could do the critical thinking question for American History--"How did the development of efficient spinning machines effect the agriculture in the South before the Civil War?" Apparently the basic concepts like labor, raw materials, supply, demand etc weren't talked about at all.

We spend two to three hours per night doing homework. And you are right--they drill the heck out of kids but dont really help them think about anything. It's mostly about making the grade. In some areas I think it's necessary to drill--math and grammar,for example. But most of science, history, literature is really about understanding the ideas or concepts as well as memorizing the facts and that seems to take precedence.

I recently made a deal with my 16 yo son. If he can give me a coherant reason why Tolkein (his favorite writer) structured the world he created so that only the Hobbit could take the Ring to the fire, I would give him take him to the bookstore and hand him a $50. We'll see how he does.

Posted by: Deb on September 24, 2003 4:07 PM

This is the first in many years I don't teach first year students on a Dutch university somewhere, and I am not sorry about that. Over the last decade secondary education has changed tremendously over here. I can't say that I was taught much useful knowledge in the early 1980's, but the only thing that children learn today are skills.

So, they are much better debaters then we would have been, if only they would have had some basic knowledge to support their train of thought.

It seems they're tremendously good at looking things up. Though I can't understand how anyone can be any good at looking things up if they can't distill the useful facts from the elements that were needed to tell the story. Such a pity the rise of Internet access coincided with the greater demand for skills.

[As an inhabitant of a country that was occupied by Nazi Germany in WWII we got the lot of course. Fairly early on even. And I used to have German banknotes and stamps from the time of the hyperinflation as well, I remember].

Posted by: ijsbrand on September 24, 2003 4:11 PM


This is why we are surrounded by twenty and early-thirties somethings who know many many things but could not figure out a Sesame Street game of "guess which one is not like the other."

There was plenty of this when I was a youngster, but being a brat I paid no attention and told outright lies in in-class study groups (more than once, my outright lies ended up as part of earnest but clueless student's study notes and final report.

Sometimes, I think, the narrow focus was a way of allowing those who were not actually familiar with the material to teach a class from a study guide. I think? Oh, I freakin' know it.

Incidentally, despite my crappy education in substandard public schools, I did not get the Disneyfied version of American History that one hears so much about.

Posted by: j.c. on September 24, 2003 4:50 PM

I don't think you can generalize for all schools. I went to a public high school and don't recall the teachers emphasizing a whole lot on memorization rather than understanding. But then again, half the time, I was zoned out during the lectures so who's to say I'm not one of those dumb twenty-somethings?

Posted by: sya on September 24, 2003 5:24 PM

How much of this phenomenon is bad schooling, and how much of it is simply being sixteen?

For a teenager, putting things in context doesn't come easily. Neurologically, the part of the brain which connects actions to long-term consequences doesn't completely develop until one's mid-twenties.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on September 24, 2003 7:47 PM

Tim--if that is true, and I am not doubting you at all, what is the point of schools trying to teach it? Critical thinking is a buzz word in the state mandated public education standards here is WI yet if what you say is true, then are the kids physically unable to learn it?

If kids have no context to place things in, isnt it the purpose of education to give them some sort of context. WWII happened and you can learn dates and facts all you want but if you dont understand what came before and what happened in Europe after, why do you need to know facts?

My 16 yo son is currently in an American Government class where he is learning about the debates leading up to the creation of the Constitution. Interesting, cool stuff. Slavery and states rights were issues talked about but when I ask him how the resolution the origanal framers came up with to those issues effected later history, particularly in the South and West, he has no clue. This is after a Freshman American History class. What without why is meaningless.

Posted by: Deb on September 24, 2003 9:12 PM

Tim--if that is true, and I am not doubting you at all, what is the point of schools trying to teach it? Critical thinking is a buzz word in the state mandated public education standards here is WI yet if what you say is true, then are the kids physically unable to learn it?

Okay -- let's untangle some of these issues.

First, the term "critical thinking" is a shibboleth. Nobody knows what it means, and if you can't define it, you can't teach it or learn it. So just ignore it.

Instead, focus on the student's ability to formulate a claim and construct an argument in support of that claim. This is a well-defined skill which can be taught and learned in a matter of weeks. (See Greg Colomb's book The Craft of Argument for step-by-step instructions.) It won't make your student an instant philosopher; it won't improve his or her ability to make personal decisions; and it won't enable him or her to integrate basic knowledge into a larger, cohesive context. In short, there won't be a magical awakening or transformation, and your teenager will still be a teenager, with all the muddle-headedness that entails. But your teenager will be well prepared for college-level work, which I take it is what you really want.

Even so, a knowledge of argumentative form and structure cannot be deployed unless the student also possesses an adequate, subject-specific knowledge base. For example, your son can't write about economics unless he knows something about economics. Your daughter can't write a paper on Wuthering Heights until she has read the book (preferably more than once).

Now, what can a high school teach, and what can high-school students learn? In a nutshell, it boils down to cultural literacy, research skills, and the ability to construct a written argument.

1. Cultural literacy: Students must have a general knowledge base which will enable them to communicate with and understand other people. E.D. Hirsch's books on "What Every [nth] Grader Should Know" should prove an excellent starting point.

2. Research skills: Students must know how to find information they need but do not yet possess, and how to evaluate whether the information they have found is reliable. In particular, they should know how to use a dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia, index, a library, a card catalog, a computer database, and the Internet.

3. Written arguments: Students must learn how to persuade others that their opinions are knowledgeable and reasonable. Again, Greg Colomb's book The Craft of Argument is a jargon-free text that explains just how and why a written argument works.

Mastery of these areas -- especially over a wide variety of subjects -- is a tall enough order for any teenager. However, it will ensure that he or she can perform social, academic and workplace-related tasks under fairly close instruction and supervision.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on September 25, 2003 3:22 AM

Entirely off topic as usual - Fried, you should not have posted this. Remembering my high school days has led me to remember a certain very clever fellow's insane false information from biology class and as a - and this is very serious - consequence I've been fighting giggle fits for almost 24 hours and there's no telling how long this will continue.

Let's hope my former classmate is now one of the rich. God knows he deserves it.

Posted by: j.c. on September 25, 2003 10:57 AM

The memorization and rote grade-oriented work you describe is why parents should not put too much emphasis on grades with their kids. It is better to judge your kids progress, knowledge and thinking skills by just talking with them about a variety of subjects and see how they handle it. Many smart kids are bored to death with much of what you describe and their grades reflect it, even though they may be more talented than a kid that is driven to get the grade over all else.

Posted by: Bill on September 25, 2003 2:17 PM

"How much of this phenomenon is bad schooling, and how much of it is simply being sixteen?

For a teenager, putting things in context doesn't come easily. Neurologically, the part of the brain which connects actions to long-term consequences doesn't completely develop until one's mid-twenties."

If that's the case, then how did most human beings throughout history get by without being treated like children until their mid-twenties?

Even today, some 18 year olds get to wander around without a keeper, and a some of them even have real jobs and families. Not as many as in previous generations, but there's still some.

I recall some other studies that showed that the very structure of the brain was affected by what its owner learns and practices. So in a society like ours, where people generally aren't expected to "connect actions to long-term consequences" until their mid-twenties, I'm not surprised that the part of the brain that connects actions to long-term consequence isn't fully developed.

Posted by: Ken on September 26, 2003 8:10 PM

If that's the case, then how did most human beings throughout history get by without being treated like children until their mid-twenties?

Check your history again.

In Western European societies until the mid-twentieth century, children frequently lived with (or near) their parents until their late 20s. In most cultures, extended families -- with multiple generations living under the same roof -- still provide the support, stability and supervision which teenagers and young adults need in order to make responsible choices.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on October 3, 2003 12:27 AM

The other half of Tim's point is that for most societies in the West up until the Industrial Revolution, children were taught all necessary skills and thier trades at home or in a apprenticeship situation. The unnatural situation of teaching children as a peer cohort is a modern invention.

Posted by: Deb on October 3, 2003 10:03 AM

This is a very good Website. I returned back to school to get my Bachelor's Degree in Marketing Communications. I am 4.0 student. I will graduate in May 2004. However, as an adult I understand the importance of an education. I do a lot of research in the library and the Internet. Nowadays one must master the Internet in order to survive in college. I have probabaly contacted over 50 libraries to retrieve documents to write on a paper. Students in my college are bogged down with so many papers to write and test after test. More importantly, I believe that school in general are more concerned with the grades instead of actually wanting students to comprehend why or what they learning. I like writing and hate test. I absorb information better when I research. I read alot. Furthermore, schools believe that more is better. I believe that quality is better. I plan on teaching part-time in the future. I hope the school system will change. I agree with some of the respondents. When I went to grade school they spent time on making sure kids understand how to write sentences and how to research. In today's society, they just throw kids out there with a lot of homework and and say go for it.

Posted by: Elaine King-Payne on May 1, 2004 11:21 AM

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