Because you never know what you’ll find

We are having people over for a Passover Seder tomorrow evening.   Mind you, only two of the people attending are Jewish (Joshua and our friend Jeff), the meal won’t be entirely kosher and we aren’t including a Haggadah reading;  so basically we are just inviting a bunch of people over for a meal on a Monday night.

Which brings me (kind of) to the point.  We were cleaning the apartment today, because traditionally you do a major spring cleaning before Passover.  This morning the focus was Ben’s room, because it had gotten to the point where walking in the door was almost impossible without tripping over something or smashing a rogue Playmobil figure.   So he was putting away things he wanted, and I was patrolling for trash and stuffing ripped pieces of paper and gum wrappers into a plastic bag, when I spotted paper sticking out from under his closet door.   I yanked it out, all prepared to add it to the growing collection of detritus, when I saw that it was an article I’d printed some time ago from an issue of Life Learning Magazine.   Don’t ask me how it wound up under the closet door in Ben’s room.   We always blame such occurrences on unruly house elves.   But no matter how it got there, I didn’t throw it away, but brought it out and read it.

Which brings me to the REAL point of this post, which is the essay by Roland Meighan entitled, “Eighteen Superstitions in Education”.   This thing should be required reading.     If you want to read the entire article, you can find it at   I don’t remember which issue this article is from, but you could do a search and then subscribe (which, as  always, I highly recommend even if you don’t have kids).     The article begins with the definition of superstition.   “Superstition:  misdirected reverence, a belief that is held by a number of people without foundation…[or, if you like, an adult hang-up]” Ha ha!

One of the best things about it is that its’ author was a teacher in the UK and now considers himself an ‘educational heretic’ who believes that compulsory schooling is an obsolete and counter-productive learning system. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts.   So not a granola crunching hippie we can all easily dismiss.    The first superstition he tackles is ‘Formal Instruction’.    “A common superstition is that formal instruction is the basis of the school system because it is a highly effective way of learning.” He then presents readers with a learning league table compiled by the National Training Laboratories based in Bethel, Maine,  which ranks learning systems based on the retention rate of the ‘learners’.   Guess what system has the lowest retention rate?   Yep, ‘formal teaching’ came in dead last, with only a 5% retention rate.    ‘Practice by doing’ on the other hand, has a 75% retention rate, and ‘teaching others’ 90%!   So you could say that the only person in school who is really learning anything is the teacher.

Of the 17 other superstitions tackled by Meighan in his article, my favorites are ‘Compulsory Shakespeare’, ‘Math’, and not surprisingly ‘Home-Based Education’.    In Compulsory Shakespeare Meighan writes that curriculum enthusiasts are often horrified by the thought of learners choosing what they want to learn.

‘What if the learners do not choose to learn Shakespeare?’ I always thought that Bertrand Russell gave the cool answer here when he said: ‘Shakespeare did not write with a view to boring school children;  he wrote with a view to delighting his audiences.  If he does not give you delight, you had better ignore him.'”

I happen to love Shakespeare, but reading his plays as you do a book is not nearly so enjoyable as seeing a production on stage, and I did not love reading Shakespeare in school.

The Math superstition is basically the same as Shakespeare. 

“‘What if the learners do not choose to learn Mathematics?’ Bertrand Russell, who should have a valid opinion since he was one of the world’s most renowned mathematicians himself, had this to say on the matter:

‘In universities, mathematics is taught mainly to men who are going to teach mathematics to men who are going to teach mathematics to….. Sometimes, it is true, there is an escape from this treadmill.  Archimedes used mathematics to kill Romans, Galileo to improve the Grand Duke of Tuscany’s artillery, modern physicists (grown more ambitious) to exterminate the human race.  It is usually on this account that the study of mathematics is commended to the general public as worthy of State support.’

Math is useful, however, if you are doing something like designing bridges, but the idea that we must all go through the Math experience to identify those who are good at it and need it later for specific tasks is about as sound as saying we must all study dentistry to enable some expert dentists to emerge.   When I was learning Math at school, then teaching it in school myself, and then watching my son learn it, the same heretical thought kept occurring, that surely there are better things we could all be doing than this stuff.”

And finally, on Home-Based Education:

“There is a superstition that home-based education is bad news.   On the contrary, the bad news is hard to find, unlike schools, where the bad news is reported in a constant flow of newspaper items.”

Amen to that.

After a week of depressing newspaper articles, this essay provided a much needed pick me up.   Which proves that cleaning the room now and then is a good idea – you never know what you might find!

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