Why Them Kids Don’t Learn Nothing

This is the first article in a series inspired by Paul Lockhart’s essay A Mathematician‘s Lament.” It is a meditation on Art, Mathematics and Education. This first part is primarily about education. The second part, “If Triangles Could Fly” talks about art as a process of discovery and the third part, “How I Learned to Stop Caring and Love the Verse” is a story of my first experiences with poetry.

I’m not sure if you noticed, but there are a lot of people who think our system of education is fundamentally broken. In fact, gallons of ink and billions of pixels have been conscripted to communicate how much danger we think we’re in and solutions we will never implement. It helps that every one of these thinkers and nearly everyone in the audience went through some version of the same story, giving us all common ground on which to debate. If nothing else proves the theory that we have educational problems, that everyone can read an article damning our system and nod their heads for most of it should do the trick. Unfortunately, a lot of those people nodding will suggest or support solutions that only escalate the problem. So it goes.

I’m one of the many who look back on my trip through school with cynicism, not just because of my own experiences, but because of what I watched the system do to my friends. I was lucky, too. I attended a well funded, middle-class public school. We didn’t have serious problems with violence to deal with, and we had enough money in the budget to keep our textbooks less than 10 years behind the times. I was able to join a marching band that provided school-owned instruments to the students going without, and the students in art class had, you know, art supplies. I could have had it a lot worse, yet most of the problems endemic in my school system were the same as those both above and below my school’s means. The blow was softened by economic factors, but we still got bludgeoned a bit.

Paul Lockhart’s excellent essay “Lockhart’s Lament” goes into (25 page) detail on the problem of our mathematics education in our school system, and he gets everything right except his assertion that our mathematics curriculum is more onerous than the rest. I understand why he thinks this; I would have said the same about my own art of choice while saying that at least in math, there’s occasionally a verifiable right or wrong answer to keep mean spirited teachers at bay. As Lockhart notes, though, the facade of absolute correctness in mathematics makes it that much easier to teach incorrectly. So it seems we’re both right; our subjects of interest are taught in the wrong way. The logical conclusion can only lead to depression: we aren’t teaching much of anything correctly.

What other subject shuns its primary sources— beautiful works of art by some of the most creative minds in history— in favor of third-rate textbook bastardizations?

-Paul Lockhart, “A Mathematician’s Lament”

The answer is: all of them. Much as I thought that forcing the Pythagorean Theorum on kids at least taught a true thing, Lockhart believes forcing every high school student to progress through the same three Shakespeare plays (Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar, and Hamlet) at least does not shun some of the most important literature written. He’s correct in a way, but much as requiring the memorization of the Pythagorean Theorum is inferior to allowing children to explore why triangles work the way they do, memorizing facts about a work they must agree is good before they’ve read it is inferior to allowing children to discover what makes art great – and to define greatness on their own terms.

The same can be said for every discipline we teach, save for, perhaps, graphic arts and music. These subjects are not on a standardized test and have not been reduced to a series of educational milestones, and so the teachers of them have more latitude. The flip side is that these are the first subjects to lose their funding for precisely the same reasons. The people who went through band or chorus or art got something out of it. It’s just not available to kids in every school.

English teachers know that spelling and pronunciation are best learned in a context of reading and writing. History teachers know that names and dates are uninteresting when removed from the unfolding backstory of events. Why does mathematics education remain stuck in the nineteenth century?

-Paul Lockhart, “A Mathematician’s Lament”

I wish to God Lockhart was right. The problems in our curriculum run as deep as they can, corrupting every subject the demons of standardization can get their hands on. If teachers knew that spelling and pronunciation were learned in the context of reading and writing, multiple years would not have been spent diagramming sentences. If history teachers knew that names and dates were uninteresting when removed from their narrative context, there would have been something on my history tests beyond names and dates. If social studies teachers cared about producing civil-minded students, we would have discussed the Declaration of Independence and not memorized it. Our entire educational system is stuck in the 19th century, and shows no sign of getting out.

When the No Child Left Behind act was passed, in all its Orwellian name-reversing glory, it calcified a system that puts plain facts above context, creativity and analysis. Encoding a silly, memorized equation within a poorly written word problem actually makes it more insidious than the initial trauma of memorization because it pretends to be about something other than rote fact-cramming. Beyond all arguments about how best to make students interested in subjects, and how to build context for them, fact-cramming simply does not work. Years ago on Saturday Night live, Father Guido Sarducci advertised his Five Minute University that would teach only the things you’re going to remember: Supply and Demand, “¿Como está usted?” and “Where is God?”. That’s it. And that’s about all people remember from a curriculum composed of fact-cramming.

No mathematician in the world would bother making these senseless distinctions: 2 1/2 is a “mixed number,” while 5/2 is an “improper fraction.” They’re equal for crying out loud. They are the same exact numbers, and have the same exact properties. Who uses such words outside of fourth grade?

-Paul Lockhart, “A Mathematician’s Lament”

I’m reminded of my middle-school English classes, where we were tested on the definition of words like “gerund”, “participle” and “transitive verb” on a weekly basis. Outside of school – hell, outside of middle-school – no one proofreads a friend or colleague’s work and writes about their use of a dangling participle. They comment on words and punctuation that decrease its readability. That’s how we approach writing: how well does it express what it means to say? No one diagrams a sentence during proofreading, and the time spent diagramming sentences in fifth grade does not produce more readable work. The word “gerund” will likely never pass the lips of 90% of the people out of school.

Much as Lockhart is disturbed by the redundant nomenclature in math curriculum, I look back at my time in English classes and shudder at how they nearly destroyed the curiosity and love I had for language. 2 1/2 and 5/2 are equal in the same way “John watched as his soup boiled over.” and “John watched the pot as soup boiled over the edge.” mean the same thing. That one uses a transitive and one uses an intransitive verb is unimportant. The differences lie in clarity and impact, just as they do when you choose to write a fraction as 2 1/2 or 5/2. Learning names for the differences before discussing how they read is counterintuitive.

High School Geometry: Instrument of the Devil

-Paul Lockhart, “A Mathematician’s Lament”

Why is our education system failing? Every subject in our curriculum reaches some point analogous to High School Geometry. Literature has Composition, Social Studies gives us Civics and Science teaches us Physics. Each of these classes take a core idea in its discipline and strips away everything save for rules without context that must be memorized and applied across the same sequence of homework problems, over and over again.

Composition is the damned art of putting words on paper, yet the class does little save forcing students to work through predefined style templates on a limited list of topics. Physics is the study of how the universe functions, but is taught the same way as Lockhart describes Geometry: lots of symbology, little crashing objects into one another. And as for Civics, a class which purports to cover the implications of the American Experiment, it can’t bother to do more than require its students memorize the names of our court systems. My civics class could be passed using nothing other than the Awesome Notebook passed down from classes past. Yours could as well, I’d wager.

I wish Lockhart was right. I wish that only mathematics was so corrupted as to teach its students effectively nothing. He’s not, and it’s not. Our system of education is built on principles so faulty that it should have collapsed years ago. We condemn buildings this unsafe and then we implode the things so that they won’t accidentally crush their occupants. Until we do the same to our schools, students will continue to emerge with their curiosity and creativity left as little more than splatters on the Chemistry Lab floor.

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One Response to Why Them Kids Don’t Learn Nothing

  1. M. Wargula says:

    Are there any teachers left who think creativity belongs in every discipline. This makes me think of my college freshman Algebra class. I took it because I was attracted to the bold letters that read. For the non math or science major.
    I thought it was some code for a cakewalk.

    Instead it was the most rewarding and difficult class. My professor said, “I’m not going to tell you what you are supposed to learn. At the end, you’ll tell me.” I was horrified, and then loved it. I earned a 4.0, the only time up to that point, in mathematics, and learned that I liked it. Math which I was told over and over again, I’m not good at, because it bored me.

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