This week's homework asks: How has education changed since you were a child? Do teachers or schools do anything differently now than when you were young?
Imagine sitting in a one-room school house, with boys lined up on side and girls on the other, with only a single, wood-burning stove to keep the room warm. Each class occupies a single row, from the littlest in front to the biggest in the back. You are to be absolutely silent, memorize the lessons in your textbook, and wait for your turn to be called to the teacher's desk, where you will recite your lessons. If you make a mistake, the teacher might hit the palm of your hand with a ruler.
No whispering was permitted in school, and no fidgeting. Everyone must be perfectly still and keep his eyes fixed on his lesson. Almanzo and Miles held up their primers and tried not to swing their legs. Their legs grew so tired that they ached, dangling from the edge of the seat. Sometimes one leg would kick suddenly, before Almanzo could stop it. Then he tried to pretend that nothing happened, but he could feel Mr. Corse looking at him.
Farmer Boy is the story of Almanzo Wilder. He would one day grow up to meet and marry Laura Ignalls but that was still far in his future. The novel is set in 1866, when Almanzo was nine years old.
I first read the story a full 118 years later, when I, myself was nine. It was shocking. They had only one room for the entire school?! And the teacher could hit you? Well, actually, our principal could hit us, too...But they just had to sit there and memorize everything? Wait, that sounds just like the lessons I had to do...
Fast forward another 34 years to the present and I'm a teacher and I know a lot of kids and sometimes I read Farmer Boy with them. They're still shocked, but only a little, because while teachers and principals these days are in no way allowed to strike students, they still ask kids to memorize their lessons.
So, here we have a contrast:
In just over 150 years, we have gone from this:
When Royal had been in the primer class, he had often come home at night with his hand stiff and swollen. The teacher had beaten the palm with a ruler because Royal did not know his lesson. Then Father said: “If the teacher has to thrash you again, Royal, I’ll give you a thrashing you’ll remember.”
to a general understanding that corporal punishment does not aid learning. At all. I mean, read that paragraph again - the teacher has Father's tacit permission to beat Royal (Almanzo's older brother) because Royal hadn't learned his lessons! Can you imagine the reaction from parents and administration if a teacher were to try that today? So, obviously, that is a change for the better.
And yet, we're still asking kids to just memorize things.
We know, as teachers and educators, that memorization is far from the most effective learning tool out there. We have decades of research and experience that tells us that, for modern students, being able to find effective answers and thinking through problems is much, much better than merely being able to fill in data points on command.
But we all also have to teach to the tests, don't we? And, to teach to the tests, we have to force students to memorize key pieces of data so they can fill in the right mark on the bubble sheet. It's disheartening and it's illuminating that in 150 years, we've managed to come so far and yet still have so far to go.
For myself, I remember having to memorize things in school. And I know that it has its place (times tables, what a verb is, etc.) but that can't be all that school is. I try to make sure my students know that they don't really have to know who did what when they just need to be able to find out that information when it is required. Like on a test...
So, to answer the homework question - what has changed since I was a student - corporal punishment has been done away with, which is a good thing, and a disheartening amount of education is still just memorization for testing purposes, which is, inherently, a bad thing.
What do you think? Do you have similar experiences? Are you in a teaching position now where you never have to assign memorization tasks? Do you think it is the best technique ever and I'm way off base? Let me know! I'd love to discuss any and all of this with all of you.
Oh, and go read Farmer Boy if you never have, or maybe read it again. It's a fantastic book and paints a picture of a lifestyle very different (and yet somehow the same) from most of modern life.
Thanks for reading!