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An attitude about education

Posted: June 19, 2009
A few years back I included a little imaginary detour into a book I was writing about education, but one of my reviewers suggested that it showed I had "an attitude" about education. I granted that he was right, and deleted the story, accepting that my attitude was undoubtedly a flaw. Years have gone by now, and not having an attitude has done me no good whatever, so I might as well let my attitude out to tromp around in people's front yards if it wants. The point I was making was just that it's not hard to figure out how to get deep learning in education.

Here's the story I told. You can decide if it insults hardworking teachers: Let's say that on a lark and for a handsome salary, you decide to teach for a year in a tiny island dictatorship in the South Pacific. Your students are a number of palace children and the dictator's son Kim. Arriving there, however, you're alarmed to learn that the teacher before you vanished mysteriously. And you barely begin your first day's lessons when you receive a note that the dictator wants to talk to you afterward. Across his desk he tells you that he's been dissatisfied with his son's education till now and hopes that you will remedy this. He fixes you with a glare, says intently, "I want him to learn something!", and slaps the desk with his hand. You leave his office with intense eyes following you, and your task becomes simpler: Kim will learn something.

An hour before the end of the next day, you think AIt would probably be a good idea to have Kim really explicitly aware of what he's learned today. You don't want it to be regarded as superficial or vague, or be misread or unacknowledged. You tell him and his classmates, "At the end of every day from now on I'll ask you to write out what you learned from each hour. Once you identify it, you'll keep it permanently, and by the end of the year, you'll have a book of everything you've learned." Kim sets to work assiduously because he likes to please his father, writing out what he gained from the day and occasionally asking your help to clarify something. He ends the hour with three pages, and takes them home. "How did you father like your work?" you ask him the next day. "He liked it," Kim tells you with a smile. "He asked me questions and we talked about it." You sigh with relief and realize you've insured your position and possibly your life for the year. You'll teach Kim something, summarize it in writing so he can keep it, make sure he knows it, maintain it at that level of mastery by practicing it, and add to it daily.

In the tale of you and Kim on the South Sea island, parts were left out. What were Kim's age, grade, and subjects? Was he a good student or a poor student, his classroom a grass hut or a marble hall, his classmates many or few? The questions are important for only one reason: their answers don=t matter. For the outcome achieved in the story: We don't know how old Kim is. The three pages could be kindergarten letters and pictures or a teenager's typed printout. His age doesn't matter. We don't know what subjects he's learning. The subjects don't matter. We don't know whether he was previously a good student or a poor student. Surprisingly, even his ability, motivation, and interest don't matter. We don=t know whether there were many or few in his class, if the room was hot or cold, wet or dry. Conditions don't matter. We don't know whether instruction was interrupted or uninterrupted, and we ourselves tired or inspired.

A single principle can revolutionize their effort: Big pieces are comprised of little pieces, and little pieces of even smaller pieces. This may not appear at once to be slap-the-side-of-your-head obvious and momentous, but consider: The task is the same for all under all conditions. The requirements are to learn, record, and save. The changes begin with a teacher deciding--from every lesson, video, experience, reading, research, or discussion-- "What will they keep permanently from this?" and then do the obvious to cause that to happen.
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