‘If I need geometry, I’ll learn it then’

Scott Hamilton is the Forrest Gump of education reform, although with a lot more IQ points and fewer chocolates, I write in an Education Next profile.

He worked for Bill Bennett in the U.S. Department of Education and for Benno Schmidt at the Edison Project. He authorized charter schools in Massachusetts, co-founded the KIPP network, quadrupled the size of Teach For America (TFA), and introduced blended learning at urban Catholic schools. He’s been around.

Now 47, he’s started a new initiative called Circumventure, based in San Francisco. Through surveys, focus groups, field tests, and interviews, Circumventure is asking fundamental questions: Do people want what schools are offering? If not, what do they want? Can technology make it happen?

Being a “good learner” is valued by the students and parents he’s interviewed. Being “well educated” is not. “Young Millennials and their Generation Z siblings” believe they don’t need school to learn new things. They’ll do it all themselves—if and when they feel like it. “Teens think, ‘I’ll never use geometry. If I need it, I’ll learn it then’.”

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  1. The trouble is, you might not know you need it, and when you do know, you’ll no longer have time or motivation to sit down and work your way through an entire geometry book on your own. An awful lot of life requires a certain amount of background knowledge–stuff you just know, that you can’t necessarily google at the moment you need it.

    This is especially true in science; if, for example, people knew more general science, they wouldn’t spend thousands of dollars on holistic water scams and suchlike. Or history–sometimes I see people make amazing mis-statements about historical events, but who is going to google and digest large chunks of history on the fly?

    • Crimson Wife says:

      Except that if someone hasn’t used it in 5+ years, he/she is unlikely to remember enough to get by. I’m finding that now it teaching my oldest child in our homeschool. She’s gotten to the point where she’s past all the arithmetic and very basic algebra that I can remember because I actually use it in my adult life. Now she’s working on things that I haven’t used at all since I took the GRE as a college senior in 1998. I know that I learned the topics back in jr. high but that’s about all I remember.

      • I also homeschool, and I’m finding that I can tutor my kid in math very well as long as I make sure to spend part of my summer going over the book to refresh. I don’t know that I could learn algebra for the first time very easily, but having learned it once years ago, I’m finding it very easy to understand and explain now. I struggled with algebra (largely, it turned out, because I had terrible teachers until nearly the end of high school), which is a help since I now understand where my daughter is struggling and can explain it.

      • I am not finding it hard to refresh.those Dolciani C problems that were a challenge in high school are obvious now, 25 years later. The calc is easy too. The diff eq I never needed in my engineering jobs, but it was useful for physics classes and those concepts useful in the jobs. I guess I learned it well enough to retain, than ks to Mrs. Z in high school (a Normal school grad) and various profs, all of whom understood the difference btwn presenting and teaching.

  2. Learning things ‘when you need them’ isn’t necessarily as easy as it sounds. At the homeschool co-op where I teach, we are finding that there is a huge difference in how students do in high school science classes that seems to depend on their early exposure to the subjects. Our co-op has changed its offerings for elementary and middle school students to give them a broader exposure to science after finding that the student who are really struggling are encountering the subject matter for the first time, while others are adding more information to the basics that they’ve already seen. It doesn’t seem to be purely a matter of interest or intelligence. It’s a lot easier to add details to ‘hooks’ that you already have than it is to start at the beginning whne you need to learn something quickly.

    • On http://www.oilf.com site.here’s a recommendation of an ES-MS basic earth science course on DVD – developed by Zig Englemann. It’s from EffectiveSchoolPractices.org – look under the store page. I assume there are other science programs and programs in other subjects. FWIW

    • Lulu: I’d add that there’s benefit from prior conditioning – learning how to think scientifically or abstractly. It’s not entirely about hooking into prior facts; there’s also attitudes and belief structures behind those things.

      “Learn it when I need it” – unfortunately, some subjects touch so many others; you’d be crippled in them. Trig without geometry? Calculus? Physics??

      If this learn it when I need it was so obvious; you’d think people would be better at retirement planning and personal finance. Look at the mess we have there; and it’s across generations. Sorry, I don’t buy it – it’s juvenile and irresponsible. One more step on the self-confidence, no skills continuum.

      And when did “well-educated” become an antonym for “good learner”? They seem like a great pairing.

      • I agree – grad school is basically 5-7 years of ‘learning to think like a scientist’, with a side of ‘research focus’. I’m usually teaching on several levels – we have a healthy dose of ‘how to read the junk science in the news’, enough science detail to get all of the class informed, and enough extra details to let the truly interested understand how it all works. Actually, getting students (high school and college) to understand that the definitions and details are just tools for them to use when they think about real life issues isn’t always easy. Those who ‘get it’ are often impressed with all of the new insights they have as they read news articles.

      • Crimson Wife says:

        How many people, even among college graduates, ACTUALLY need higher level math? I took trig and calculus in high school because I needed them to get into a good college, but in my adult life, I never need anything beyond very basic algebra.

        • It depends on what you end up doing. The engineers that I know use it a lot, apparently. As a molecular biologist, I never thought I’d use it…and then one day I was working with a FACS machine, sorting cells, and lo and behold, there was calculus in how the sorting was calculated. You could get by without it, but somebody had to understand it enough to figure out the parameters for the experiment. I was lucky enough to inherit a protocol, but that’s not always the case. I’m really thankful that I’ve never had to calculate flux through a donut or some other such thing, though. :-) But, the engineers that I know, who really do understand calculus, find surprising places to use it…it’s probably similar to the way that I actually set up an algebra problem to figure things out, while some folks just guess numbers until they get something that works. A machinist that I knew (who went vo-tech and got a good job out of high school) was planning to go back to college to take trig and calculus so that he’d understand what he was doing. My students are surprised where they can apply their newfound understanding of biology, and I’d imagine that’s true for a lot of subjects.

        • Deirdre Mundy says:

          You know, it’s funny. I majored in Classics. Thought I’d never need my math again. Then I ended up teaching math… almost accidentally. Now, I’m a writer. No math right? Wrong. I’m currently writing ‘Real World Examples” for a Pre-Calc textbook. I’m having to read scientific papers (skill I learned in my magnet HS program I though I’d never need), understand the math, and then translate into clearly written articles for HS kids.

          If I hadn’t taken all that math and learned it well, I’d never have been able to get this job, which is interesting, pays well, and fits around my homeschooling/housework.

          You NEVER know what you’re going to use later on, which is why you should learn everything you can.

          • My husband uses a lot of algebra and calculus in his work (in software). Several years ago when my baby sister was still in HS he had her and a friend come over for help in calc. He looked at their assignment and said “Oh, hey, I’m using this at work right now.” They about fell over.

        • Crimson,

          The issue is that math teaches problem solving, critical thinking, and analysis skills, most of which are sorely lacking in today’s high school or college graduates.

          I remember a parent stating in a legislative meeting on education that her kid would never need algebra because he was going to be a firefighter. A firefighter in the audience told the committee that without a working knowledge of algebra, he would never pass the firefighter’s written exam in order to join, and he’d never make it past engineer (which is the next level up from firefighter).

          It’s better to have taken it and need a refresher course in something, than have the door slammed in your face because you never bothered to take the subject in high school because you didn’t think you needed it.

          On average, a person will change jobs 13-15 times during their working lifetime (or higher), and many people are shut out of jobs due to a lack of education or skills.

  3. Mike in Texas says:

    Are we supposed to be impressed he worked with Bill Bennett? The same Bennett who has confessed to losing 800K a year gambling? The same Bennett who hooked up with a felon to form an education company?

    Not impressed. Just another know nothing.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Nice smear by association, Mike.

      I pray to God this is not the kind of reasoning you’re teaching to children.

      • Mike’s point of view is perfectly understandable since he believes that only teachers should be allowed to express opinions on the public education system.

        Mike, you also believe teachers should be in charge of the public education system as well, correct?

      • Mike in Texas says:

        Stacy and Allen,

        Did I say anything that wasn’t true?
        I didn’t even touch on his work with Edison, a company of edu-systers.

        I teach my students to examine the evidence, but nice try at smearing me. You should meet up with Allen, you two seem to have a lot in common.

        • You teach your students to examine the evidence? Then make some available for examination. All you’ve provided so far is a bunch of unsubstantiated accusations.

          But we’ve been down this road before so for the uninitiated I’ll just hit the high points.

          The major theme of the post is a trait which Mr. Hamilton claims to have observed among kids currently in the public education system and their parents. You completely ignored it in favor of a personal attack on Mr. Hamilton which consists not of any transgressions on Mr. Hamilton’s part but of guilt by association.

          The reason for the personal attack on Mr. Hamilton is because Mr. Hamilton’s committed the cardinal sin of creating competition for the district-based public education system which Mike holds to be sacred and without blemish other then the fact it isn’t run by and for teachers.

          As for your attempt to play shadkhin, it’s unnecessary. Stacy and I are both members of an international cabal of evil dedicated to overthrowing the pubic education system. We commute to the secret lair of our order via a system of underground, vacuum-powered tubes and receive our orders through our fillings.

          If you ask me nicely I’ll show you our secret handshake.

  4. This attitude is one that presumes that geometry is some body of knowledge to be absorbed when “needed”. I see this in many of the arguments against math instruction as a required study. It misses completely the value of the instruction. The value of geometry is not in the specific proofs and corollaries, but, rather it is in the training of the mind in the ordering of thoughts and rigorous thinking.

    For some reason schools have become enamored with facts. The facts, the specific knowledge, are just how instructor (teacher) helps the student to educated, which is the discipline of the intellect. Sadly, with the emphasis on the testing of lower order thinking, i.e., multiple choice tests, our “education” cartel has abandoned the goal of guiding the students to becoming educated.

    I go to this explanatory note from Webster’s, 1913 to keep from confusing education with the instruction provided by the “education” system:

    “Usage: Education, properly a drawing forth, implies not so
    much the communication of knowledge as the discipline
    of the intellect, the establishment of the principles,
    and the regulation of the heart. Instruction is that
    part of education which furnishes the mind with
    knowledge. Teaching is the same, being simply more
    familiar. It is also applied to practice; as, teaching
    to speak a language; teaching a dog to do tricks.
    Training is a department of education in which the
    chief element is exercise or practice for the purpose
    of imparting facility in any physical or mental
    [1913 Webster]

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      Education may be “discipline of the intellect” as opposed to “[t]he facts, the specific knowledge.” However, schools have always–and I mean always–tested and given grades for specific knowledge. And lots of that testing has been “short answer”: multiple choice, fill in the blank, true/false.

      No doubt a major reason for this is that testing for “discipline of the intellect” is difficult and time-consuming. In many cases, I suspect it is impossible under the circumstances of mass public education.

      The difference today is that outsiders make up the tests and insiders can’t fudge the results. That takes away a fair amount of the insiders’ power and discretion.

      • Always? The multiple-choice test was only introduced into wide usage in 1914 as a means to expedite the sorting of individuals in the call up to WWI. In fact, 2014 is the centennial of the movement toward what Professor Frederick Kelly, who instigated its usage for the emergency called “a test of lower-order thinking for the lower orders” when he advocated not continuing the widespread use after the war.

        This does not mean that multiple-choice testing cannot be used, but, as we’ve seen, the teaching adapted to the test rather than the test providing an insight into the teaching. This is nothing new, here is a quote from 1919 on the impact of teaching emphasis on students:

        “The way pupils study, depends on what is emphasized. …The reason that mechanical memorizing is the main part of study in the elementary school, high school and university, is that reproduction is the primary thing required. If boys and girls find that the teachers’ questions ask for a reproduction of the text, they will memorize before thinking and without thinking. If, however, there is a thought question, it will cause them to organize and analyze the subject matter of the book, and then mechanical memorizing can not occupy such a prominent part.”

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          I fear I was unclear. I said “schools have always–and I mean always–tested and given grades for specific knowledge.” I then continued that “lots of that testing has been ‘short answer’: multiple choice, fill in the blank, true/false.”

          I didn’t mean that there has always been a large usage of multiple choice questions. I meant that there had always a large usage of “short answer” questions, questions that are easy to grade. Other examples of “short answer” questions might be, “Name the three principal exports of England” and “Define biology” and “What was the purpose of the 1885 Congress of Berlin?” Even, “What was the ‘Scramble for Africa’?”

          I completely agree that students who care about grades will try to get good at what they think will be tested. However, since it is almost always difficult and time-consuming to grade on understanding, there will be never be much testing on understanding.

  5. Michael E. Lopez says:

    If I need to lift 300 lbs. to save my child, I’ll start working out then.

    And that’s all I have to say about *that*.

    • Mike in Texas says:

      I know people who say, “When my child reaches school age then I’ll start paying taxes”, as if that $6 million school filled with teachers is going to materialize out of nowhere.

      • Deirdre Mundy says:

        Really? How do they get away with that?

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        How do they do that? Work off the books? Buy everything on the black market? Own a home they’ve hidden from the government or rent from someone who has?

    • SC Math Teacher says:

      Angry at myself for not coming up with that analogy!

  6. Victor Davis Hanson said it best: “A pump is not water.” We don’t need a society full of Wikpedia ignoramuses.

  7. Mike in Texas says:

    As we know Allen you’re allergic to facts but here’s some on Bennett anyway:



    And here’s some info on Hamilton’s former employer, Edison schools:


    And here’s some more about Hamilton’s cronies:


    And you never answered my question, did I say anything that wasn’t true?

    • I assume you’re using the imperial “we” in that first sentence since you don’t seem to speak for anyone but yourself. As to the rest, fraudulent intent can be constructed from carefully selected truths although you don’t seem willing to so constrain yourself.

      For instance, in your effort to smear Mr. Hamilton by association you drag in the gambling habits of one of his former employers even though there’s nothing beyond the fact that he does gamble for you to use as a smear.

      Then there’s another of your usual tactics which is to try to pass off an editorial as hard news. In this case the book by Kenneth J. Saltman. Heck, the point in his book to which your link points is just more of the sort of contentless insinuation to which you are partial. Not too surprising since Saltman was a mighty warrior in the late, unlamented “Occupy” spasm the value of which can be measured by how swiftly it’s receding into blessed amnesia.

      So I did answer your question. Now, why don’t you answer mine? When am I going to get that invite to teach one of your classes?

      • Mike in Texas says:

        You got that invite last year. YOU didn’t follow through on it. In fact, I believe I invited you to come spend a week.

        • Yeah, in the same sense that you invited me to spend a night in the Lincoln bedroom in the White House. Writing the words isn’t the same thing as taking the action.

          But I do enjoy playing John Stossel to your Randi Wiengarten.

          • Mike in Texas says:

            Writing the words isn’t the same thing as taking the action.

            You should know

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            allen, I watched John Stossel. I read John Stossel. John Stossel employed a friend of mine. allen, you’re no John Stossel.

          • Thinly Veiled Anonymity says:

            And then he said something about your MOMMA.

            Are you going to stand for that?

        • Oh Mike, you were the one who issued the challenge assuming I wouldn’t call your bluff. It’s been called. Now the ball’s in your court so make the arrangements and I’ll show up.

          Roger, you’re no Lloyd Bentsen.

          Pleasantly enough it’ll be the likes of Mr. Hamilton who’ll have the last laugh thanks to a help from people such as yourselves. While you clearly believe smirking’s the equivalent of cleverness and condescension the equivalent of understanding a large, and increasing, portion of the electorate isn’t impressed with excuses you have on offer nor the assumptions you’re so desperate to protect.

          Cheer up though, you’ll have an opportunity to live through the historically momentous end of the public education system.

          • Mike in Texas says:

            Let’s see, last year I told you I would need to get some info from you to proceed with your visit. You refused to provide it.

          • That’s not the way I remember it but what do you need to know?