Why I teach stuff

Jessica Lahey teaches stuff, she writes on Coming of Age in the Middle, which I’ve added to the blogroll. One of her Twitter “followers” has posted what purports to be a quote from Albert Einstein: “I never teach my pupils. I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” Lahey disagrees.

I can see how this sentiment would be attractive to teachers, because it implies that all we have to provide is an inviting atmosphere, a bubble of trust and creativity with comfy chairs to cradle students’ tushies, and the rest will magically happen.

Creating a supportive atmosphere for learning is just square one, writes Lahey, who teaches at a Core Knowledge school dedicated to teaching content.

My youngest son, Finengan, is in third grade, at my Core Knowledge school. Three times a week, he leaves the comfort of his classroom and attends a bona fide history class. Not “social studies,” but capitol-H History class. Content. History. Facts.

This month, he’s learning about the Vikings and Rome, Leif Erickson and Julius Caesar. When he gets to fifth grade and Dr. Freeberg’s reading of The Odyssey, he will have a context for the journey of the hero, lust for power, and land, and exploration. This might evolve in to discussions of Napoleon, colonialism, and slavery. In sixth grade, when I finally get my pedagogical talons in him, his web will be sticky enough to hold on to Julius Caesar, the geography of the Roman Empire, the literal and figurative meaning of “alea iacta est” and the controversy surrounding the quote “Et tu, Brute?”

“America’s educational system contains enough empty platitudes and kitten posters,” Lahey concludes. Students need to learn “real content” to create connections that will enable new learning to “stick.”  (I’d bet boys enjoy learning about Viking explorers and Roman conquerors.) Her analogy is weaving strands of knowledge into a sticky web that catches new facts and ideas. I like to think of knowledge as Velcro, which is made of many small loops and hooks. The more Velcro, the easier it is to learn more.

What would Disney learn in school today?

Would we give (Disney) an outlet to express his creativity or, better yet, foster it? What would his school day consist of? Would he draw a sketch of Mickey Mouse, only to be ridiculed by his teacher because he should have been practicing his times tables?

I am sure that in today’s high-stakes testing environment, Disney’s creativity would be stifled by countless hours of basic reading instruction. He might not even have an art class due to funding shortfalls and a resulting budget that clearly places the arts at the bottom of the priority list.

Short-sighted administrators reject “critical thinking, creative thinking, and problem solving” as “fluff,” writes Colucci, who teaches gifted elementary students. Teachers are forced to spend time on mindless test prep instead.

Teaching reading and math basics to students who’ve already mastered the basics is a  waste of time, even if the only goal is boosting test scores. But I don’t think schools of any era have been set up to nurture geniuses.

Walt Disney developed his artistic talent by taking private art classes on Saturdays and in night school. He dropped out of high school to serve as a Red Cross ambulance driver in World War I.

Thomas Edison attended school only for a few months.

He was taught reading, writing, and arithmetic by his mother, but was always a very curious child and taught himself much by reading on his own.

. . . At thirteen he took a job as a newsboy, selling newspapers and candy on the local railroad that ran through Port Huron to Detroit.

As a 10-year-old boy, Albert Einstein read Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Euclid’s Elements with a family friend. Einstein left high school early, complaining “the spirit of learning and creative thought were lost in strict rote learning.” (Depending in which account you believe, he ran away or used a doctor’s note.) Unlike Disney and Edison, Einstein went on to study at a university.

It’s very hard for any conventional school to cater to the needs of a 10-year-old who is  turned on by Kant and Euclid. Geniuses have to make their own way.