Thursday, July 18, 2013

Those Seven Myths of Education

Christodoulou's seven myths:
1 – Facts prevent understanding, 2 – Teacher-led instruction is passive, 3 – The 21st century fundamentally changes everything, 4 – You can always just look it up, 5 – We should teach transferable skills, 6 – Projects and activities are the best way to learn, 7 – Teaching knowledge is indoctrination

She's pretty much nailed it. Here's my take on it.

1 – Facts prevent understanding

Actually, there can be no understanding without facts.

If I don't know that 8*7=56, I can't do much arithmetic without a calculator - and that means I have no understanding. I can't realize when I've punched the wrong value in the calculator or hit the wrong key.

If I don't understand distributive property, I can't do much algebra, and I can't multiply 102 * 57 in my head. Knowing those things means that I can take them a few steps beyond  the simplistic and apply them to much more complex things.

If I lack facts, then I will fall prey to misinformation. I will believe because it looks okay and says some things definitively. Facts that I know are my only shield against lies I'm told.

We'll work together. Pull !
2 – Teacher-led instruction is passive, or "Collaboration is the only way because the students will discover their own knowledge and it will be more powerful for them; they'll be engaged and learn more." 

I recall a very smart kid named Chris who was always first ... with the wrong answers. He would catch on quickly, but he had a way of speaking that other students had learned to trust and so now, they would all have the wrong idea. Once that got in their heads, it was quite difficult to change it.

It's the same thing that happens when Jenny McCarthy opens her mouth about vaccines. Or when a person holds a politically extreme position (left or right, no matter). The idea is fixed. As the teacher, you need to make sure that the right information gets out first.  You need to give them the mental shield against misinformation.

For me, it boils down to this question, "Who should be teaching the kids? Should it be Chris, who is learning this for the first time or me, the teacher, who knows what's going on?"

New teachers take note: The school is paying you $40k+ for a reason ... you have several more years of coursework and understanding.

What are you waiting for?  You don't have to talk for forty minutes straight but you are the recognized keeper of knowledge here; you have studied, written, been tested, researched and spent time at this. Some of what you have learned needs to be transferred.

3 – The 21st century fundamentally changes everything

No, it doesn't. You will be dealing with fundamentally the same kinds of minds that you went to school with. They have the same fears and needs, the same hopes and desires, the same weaknesses and strengths.

Sure, there are more toys in their pockets, but you're probably just as addicted to them. If it messes with your mind or distracts you endlessly, it will have the same effects on the students.

The tools are different now, but the learning is the same, the goals are the same, and the pitfalls are the same.  The kids are hormonal and angsty just like you were, pressured and anxious and worried about college or girls or boys ... or a girl or a boy. When they get out, they'll still need math, science, English, history, Arts, languages.

Just like you did.

4 – You can always just look it up.

You can only look something up if you know that you don't know, and you can't check your source if you know nothing about the topic.

What's wrong with the following story I just made up?
Old man Smith was a curmudgeonly sort but happy, outgoing and pleasant. On this particular day, he had left his warm bed at 5:30 in the morning to mount his harvester and head out to the fields. He had hoped to get all of his haying done by noon but the baler was giving him trouble and the fifth-wheel on the hay wagon went flat. 
Nothing, grammatically. In RealLife, though, you can't bale wet hay or it burns down the barn, you don't use a harvester for haying, there isn't a fifth-wheel on a hay wagon and it isn't a tire so it won't go flat, and "curmudgeonly" is the wrong word in that context. How much did you look up? And what did you look up? And where?

Or did you do just as every student does ... read it and move on, assuming that everything was fine?

If you don't know something, you can't be expected to look up and fix what you don't know is wrong. If you don't know that sin(4°) is positive but sin(4) is negative, how would you know if you got it wrong? What should you look up? Type sin(4) into Google or wolfram and you get
Must be the right answer - the internet said so.

5 – We should teach transferable skills

The skills that I learned in school more than 40 years ago were pretty basic and I transferred them to the new world pretty easily. There's a reason that everyone still requires math, science, English, history, Arts, languages.

Teach skills. Math skills, writing skills, whatever your discipline requires. They'll transfer just fine.

6 – Projects and activities are the best way to learn

If you have no idea what you are doing, how are you supposed to start? How do you get over that hurdle caused by a lack of knowledge?

Start with a transfer from the sage to the students. Then build them up from total noobs to something just a bit better. Now you can have them work on a project but remember the one salient fact ...

Work is different than learning.

Don't expect them to teach themselves and then accomplish some big project. They need you to do your part first.

Not sure that any of this year's graduates
fit this particular mold.
7 – Teaching knowledge is indoctrination

No. Teaching lies is indoctrination. Deliberately teaching misinformation is indoctrination. Forcing your students to spout your political views or parrot your religious teachings is indoctrination.

Critical thinking looks similar to and is often confused with an attack on indoctrination. If they challenge you, then you're doing it right.

Don't confuse acculturation with indoctrination. The kids also need to know how the world works and what is expected of them. It's not evil to explain what kinds of behavior with result in being fired.

Public schools are rarely guilty of the brain-washing they're accused of. Private schools do it constantly but since it matches the expectations of the parents, it's apparently okay.

I enjoyed our little chat. thanks for stopping by.


  1. The problem I keep having with most of the pieces I read about the "new ways" of education is that they all throw the baby out with the bathwater. What I really like about this post is that you acknowledge and prove how dumb and dangerous that line of thinking is.

  2. It's too bad this is only available as an ebook. I'm currently very much enjoying reading it, and this is the sort of thing I want to have taking up space on a physical shelf.

  3. This was wonderful. Thanks!

  4. Agree with lots of things but... on the baler point... what's to stop a teacher saying that and a student now knowing that they aren't giving the correct information? Having a teacher give the information doesn't necessarily get around the problem that if you don't know something, then the first time you come across it, some of it might be incorrect.
    This doesn't mean that you can just "look something up" but the reasons why that might be limited are not necessarily because you can't verify. If anything, being online makes verification easier because you can check multiple sources, whereas in a classroom you are reliant on one teacher and you have no way of checking the "truth".

  5. Julia Skinner @theheadsofficeJuly 21, 2013 at 10:33 AM

    Thanks for this. Have seen so much about this book and got lost in the responses. you have set things out for me in a clear way.

  6. I am very glad I found your blog...great post...thanks!

  7. Number 4 made me smile. I am so glad I will never have to turn another hay bale again, though.