Thursday, February 19, 2015

Why is school so popular and learning so not?

This is an outtake of sorts from Singapore Math Figured Out for Parents.  Sometimes I whack out a passage in white heat, when an idea seems important, intending to come back and turn it into something that fits the tone of the work.  This is one such passage.
But I don't think the ideas in it will make it into the finished book; they are my ideas, it will be my book, but I doubt that ultimately they will belong together.  I kind of think they won't. Certainly if I decide this point is vital to the book, I'll have to put it in more temperate language. So when I hit that point in the outline and re-read the text from months ago, I thought, yeah, out with it. That's why I have an outtake bin, and that's why the outtake bin is usually just Text Purgatory before being sent on to Bit Heaven.
But when I went to cut it, I thought, no, I don't want to lose these entirely.  So here's a small random slice of the kind of thoughts that lure me down rabbit holes, as I keep trying to pursue that question about what the best way to teach math should be.
In terms of performance and readiness, the Singapore Math approach beats all the things you are likely to have encountered in the great majority of American schools, from the strictest math-facts-drilling Sister Mary Knucklewhacker to the loosest hippie-ish "I'm Bruce, I'm like, your guide to math discovery. Let's just look at these numbers and feel positive today, 'cause numbers are, like, the cosmic dance of love and harmony. There's even a thing called a harmonic function."
My guess is that although Singapore Math is very worth talking about, since the main point of American educational debate is to secure funding and ongoing employment for the academic partisans of the approach the speaker champions, it is quite likely that conservative politicians will go on running for school board on a platform of "make them learn shop and retail arithmetic so Grandpa will know what they're doing," and liberal politicians will persist in the "trust the educators (who mostly aren't very good at math) to care for your children." And neither of those positions will have much to do with Singapore Math, but its fate in our schools is apt to be decided by that pseudo-debate anyway.
What if we thought about what really matters in the math education debate, in the very long run?
The real problems are two.  One is that Americans don't know enough math to know what math is actually good for. We can only fix that problem over generations, as each generation gets a bit better clue than its parents and demands somewhat better math instruction than they themselves received. 
The more serious, nearly ineradicable problem, is that as a culture we like school a lot but we're not very comfortable with learning. 
Think how well school fits with our values and how badly learning does.
School strives to treat everyone equally; learning makes people unequal because they learn different things (by choice or chance), at different speeds, and in different quantities. 
School provides comforting routines -- you can count on kids making hand-tracing turkeys for Thanksgiving, they're probably reading at least some of the same stories that you did when you were a kid, the cliques are mostly the same, everyone still complains about school lunch, and although the person occupying the niche changes, the class clown, popular girl, all-round achiever, cheerful jock, bleak-spirited artist, and so forth are eternal. Learning introduces your kids to things you never heard of, suggests constant reappraisal of the received material in light of new knowledge, and very often even suggests that there are new people to be and new ways to be them.
School gets people ready for slots in society; learning equips people to climb out of them. 
School, whether it intends to teach tolerance or chauvinism, orthodoxy or radicalism, is built around students repeating back what they're told, and evaluates them on the quality of that nth-generation copy; learning is about acquiring the authority that comes from one's own well-prepared mind. 
Ultimately, school is a comfy place of routines and fitting in; learning is demanding and frustrating and may or may not ever pay off, and when it does pay off, it might very well decide to pay the neighbor and not you, if they made better choices or just did a better job of learning.
No wonder most people, in their hearts, prefer school.
And no wonder it's very hard to keep the school from blocking or damaging the learning.  To learn some things, intensive drill and memorization is needed, and that breeds a sullen lack of enthusiasm in an environment that likes pep rallies and group singing. To learn other, different but equally important things, quiet isolated reflection and intense concentration is needed, and school is above all else a social place. The graceful and always varying cycle of observation-analysis-synthesis-deconstruction-reobservation falls afoul of the orderly locksteps of read-regurgitate-forget, plagiarize-write-collect-credits, or question in, answer out, like a couple of champion rollerskate waltzers on a floor full of people doing the Electric Slide. School's necessary drive to hammer a few testable round pegs into high-scoring square holes -- the endless game of "all you need to know for the test is" becoming "all you will ever know" becoming "all you will know for about a week" -- distorts and warps the processes people learn by.
Some people who love learning anyway bend school to their purpose; that, I think, is what can be done with Singapore Math. A few people who love learning and can't stand school just go somewhere and learn, and God love'em for that, they're the best hope our miserable species has. But the great majority, who would rather not learn, likes school just fine. It's a great place to not learn.