16 August 2010


Earlier this year I suddenly remembered being taught in school to answer questions of the form “What is the difference between a delta and a wetland?” by copying the definitions of the two terms out of the book and putting the word while between them. Imagine writing this out in cursive on notebook paper:

A delta is a low triangular area of alluvial deposits where a river divides before entering a larger body of water, while wetlands are lands where saturation with water is the dominant factor determining the nature of soil development and the types of plant and animal communities living in the soil and on its surface.

...times twelve or so.

Looking back on it I have to wonder how on earth this happened. The event cries out for an explanation. What would make someone do this to a roomful of kids? Was it a case of perverse incentives? Incompetence? Or straight-up cruelty?

Another obvious question (if you're in my shoes) is if such a thing could possibly ever happen to a home-schooled kid. Sure it could. Parents can be incompetent too. Or cruel.

I try to be humane—I won't be committing this particular atrocity—but there are several things about homeschooling that give me pause. There are no good ways to measure whether things are going well. Finding out what I could be doing better is hard. As far as I can tell by searching the Web, not many people like me are doing this; or else they are all as strapped for time as I am. Most fundamentally, I don't know what I'm doing.

1 comment:

Blake said...

There is actually an explanation that doesn't involve negative adjectives: some people, myself included, actually learn through the act of writing out (either via long hand or computer) the information. For topics made up of facts to be memorized (such as definitions, multiplication tables, and the like) we don't really learn it until we write it out a few times, wait a little while, and then write it out again (this also applies for remembering events: I keep a calendar that I rarely look at, but once I enter an event into my calendar, I rarely forget about it).

For other people, especially ones who have a more visual or oral memory, I think that having them write out definitions like that is an act of cruelty. And even for people who lean by writing things out, this only really works for definitions and things that are possible to memorize. Richard Feynman describes how this went too far for physics teachers in Brazil, who taught their kids all of the definitions without delving into how those definitions translate into real-world objects producing physicists who could tell you how to calculate the static coefficient of friction for an object on a table, but not give a demonstration of static vs dynamic friction and how they differ.