17 August 2011
Posted by DAVID BC TAN under: Book Review.
TALK TO ANY SCHOOLTEACHER and pretty soon you’ll hear how kids today are so difficult to teach. Sometimes it’s the issue of discipline, but mostly it’s about how disinterested they are in learning. “They just don’t care,” said a secondary school teacher to me once. “Nothing in school really interests them – all they want are tips to pass exams.”
So universal is this lament, the solution to disengaged students is practically the Holy Grail of education reform. Indeed, in his book Beyond the Classroom, Dr Laurence Steinberg offers a summary of data that confirms a large number of teens place school low on their list of priorities, with up to 40% just going through the motions in class. A third admitted to inattentiveness, mind-wandering and lack of interest, while another third said there’s nothing much worth learning, that they got by goofing off and fooling around.
When Beyond the Classroom was published in 1996, research led Dr Steinberg to declare that alienation of youngsters from learning was becoming ‘chronic.’ It appears others share his bleak outlook as well.
What has happened in the last decades to make students view school as a nuisance? Why has the value of learning – and doing well in school – taken such a beating? What can we do about it? Dr Steinberg offers a different perspective by arguing that we first have to pay attention to factors outside the classroom that influence attitudes, behavior, and performance in school:
“No curricular overhaul, no instructional innovation, no change in school organization, no toughening of standards, no rethinking of teacher training or compensation will succeed if students do not come to school interested in, and committed to, learning.”
In one study, foreign-born Asian teens outperformed native-born Americans on virtually every factor correlated with school success. Even American-born teens whose parents were foreign-born outscored those whose parents were native-born Americans. However the more they were Americanized, the less committed these immigrants were to doing well in school. Here’s the rub: assimilation into American culture by new immigrants showed declining education achievement and mental health with each successive generation. It was observed that contemporary US society pulled students away from school and drew them toward social and recreational pursuits instead.
There is something in the environment in and outside school that pours scorn on learning and Dr Steinberg calls it the socialization of indifference. I believe the package of traits common among American youths – academic indifference and disengagement – is increasingly present here in Malaysia. I once explained to a colleague that one reason our kids were homeschooled was we wanted to be their primary influence, and not their peers. As everyone knows, what’s happening in our school isn’t a pretty sight, I said. “Yes, but they won’t get to socialize with others their age and miss learning what’s good from their friends too,” he replied.
There’s a good reason why Dr Steinberg termed school disengagement an adolescent malaise. “Whoever walks with wise people will be wise, but whoever associates with fools will suffer,” says a proverb in the Bible. If a child spends an average of 6 hours in a class of 40 kids 5 days a week, it’s going to add up to a lot of foolishness in a a year. And that’s not counting the number of hours spent on tuition with more kids every week. (Plus the number of hours immersed in recreational media and hanging out with friends online and off ).
When everything around you is about dumbing down and just getting by, it’s hard to see education and self-mastery as worthy pursuits. When apathy to learning is perpetrated by the friends your kids socialize with and in the media they consume, good luck if you think all this is not going to make a dent on your son or daughter.
By educating our children at home, homeschoolers are standing up to the insidious socialization of indifference. I know it’s not a decision to be taken lightly. But given the current depressing statistical findings and the educational alternatives available, I am convinced homeschooling is the way to go.
2 August 2011
Posted by DAVID BC TAN under: Book Review.
Laurence Steinberg’s Beyond the Classroom offers a very disturbing look at the state of education in US schools. I think we can agree with the author that before we start fixing school, we ought to think about forces outside the classroom that’s contributing to the decline of student achievement. He lists three, but we’ll look at the first.
Top on the list is what is termed the glorification of stupidity. We’re living in an age where foolishness is the defining characteristic trait of our heroes and it’s having a profound but unhealthy impact on our kids. Think Wayne’s World, Dumb and Dumber, Beavis and Butt-head, TV’s long-running series The Simpsons, to name a few. What is it about stupidity that fascinates us and our adolescent children in particular?
Dr Steinberg does not say that students have become less intelligent, but that they have become less interested in being educated than they were in previous generations. While he does not offer hard data, he believes the widespread popularity of these characters at a time when intellectual achievement is especially low does not appear to be a mere coincidence. “Never before have so many lead characters been defined by their lack of knowledge, their disdain for education, and their limited intellectual abilities. And never before have characters like this served as role models for so many young people,” he adds.
Bart Simpson’s dysfunctional family and lazy, ignorant dad Homer may be a bag of laughs, but the joke’s on us when we ignore the message these characters send, that stupidity is, uhm, kewl? You can say the same for the animated series South Park (which the author does not name), with its crude language and dark humour. South Park was written for adults, but it has a massive following among teens who are outside its intended audience , and you’ll be hard pressed to find a teen who doesn’t know Kenny and his maladjusted antisocial friends.
Perhaps you might be wondering if I’m making too much of an American issue (“Hey, Malaysian students doing well, what. Look at the number of straight A students in our SPM!”) It’s very simple – I believe there is a great commonality to human ill. With wealth and a growing middle-class, come the same kind of problems confronting the first world and pretty soon we too will have to pay the social cost of unrestrained capitalism, rapid urbanization, and the loss of a moral centre. Sure, go ahead and reform school, but it will go nowhere if everything outside the classroom undermines it.
Dr Steinberg’s book is a view from the frontlines. The broader issue of schooling has lessons for those of us who want to do better at homeschooling our own kids, so it’s important to understand what we are up against. Please note that homeschooling is not about isolating our kids. It’s insulating them with habits of heart and mind so they can tell the difference between what’s good, and what’s crude and rude. And isn’t that one of the things education seeks to accomplish?
The socialization of indifference.
31 May 2011
Posted by DAVID BC TAN under: Public Schooling.
SCHOOL TEACHERS do an amazing job each day but it’s an unenviable one. Sure, it is a ‘noble’ profession shaping and nurturing young minds, but no matter how well-equipped or resourceful, there’s only this much a person can do.
If raising a child or two at home is as ‘stressful’ as it is often made out to be, imagine the extraordinary demands made on a teacher who is expected to deal with 40 attention-deficit kids in a classroom.
Funnily enough, a lot of parents think nothing about leaving their own darling children in the care of overtaxed and overworked teachers in underperforming and over-politicized schools. Why then do parents who balk at the idea of teaching one or two children at home because they are ”not qualified” or lacking in patience assume that these same poor teachers are super-equipped and eminently qualified to teach a classroom of 40 or more at one time?
Here’s something I picked up which is unfunnily true and tragic, which illustrates my point:
Being interviewed by the school administration, the eager teaching prospect said: “Let me see if I’ve got this right. You want me to go into that room with all those kids, fill their every waking moment with a love for learning; and I’m supposed to instill a sense of pride in their ethnicity, modify their disruptive behavior, observe them for signs of abuse; and even censor their T-shirt messages and dress habits.
“You want me to wage a war on drugs and sexually transmitted diseases, check their backpacks for weapons of mass destruction, and raise their self-esteem.
“You want me to teach them patriotism, good citizenship, sportsmanship, fair play, how to register to vote, how to balance a checkbook and how to apply for a job.
“I am to check their heads for lice, maintain a safe environment, recognize signs of anti-social behavior, make sure all students pass the mandatory state exams, even those who don’t come to school regularly or complete any of their assignments.
“Plus, I am to make sure all the students with handicaps get an equal education regardless of the extent of their mental or physical handicap. I am to communicate regularly with the parents by letter, telephone, newsletter and report card.
“All of this I am to do with just a piece of chalk, a computer, a few books, a bulletin board, a big smile and on a starting salary that qualifies my family for food stamps. You want me to do all of this, yet you expect me not to pray?”
Now you know why it didn’t take much to convince my wife and I to keep our kids at home and homeschool them ourselves.
15 March 2010
Posted by DAVID BC TAN under: Education.
MORTIMER ADLER was a philosopher, educator, and author. Together with educational philosopher Robert Hutchins, Adler went on to found the Great Books Foundation, which seeks to promote the reading of Great Books and western classic literature as a means to develop reflective and responsible thinkers. He also served on the Board of Editors Encyclopaedia Britannica since its inception in 1949, and was its chairman from 1974. As a thinker and scholar, Adler’s ideas on education were not always in tandem with conventional wisdom. Here’s a gem from Adler that should make for an interesting conversation.
That would be the case if our schools and colleges were at their very best, which they certainly are not, and even if the students were among the best and the brightest as well as conscientious in the application of their powers.
The reason is simply that youth itself — immaturity — is an insuperable obstacle to becoming educated. Schooling is for the young. Education comes later, usually much later. The very best thing for our schools to do is to prepare the young for continued learning by giving them the skills of learning and the love of it. Our schools and colleges are not doing that now, but that is what they should be doing.
To speak of an educated young person, rich in understanding of basic ideas and issues, is as much a contradiction in terms as to speak of a round square. The young can be prepared for education in the years to come, but only mature men and women can become educated, beginning the process in their 40’s and 50’s and reaching some modicum of genuine insight, sound judgment and practical wisdom after the age 60.
This is what no high school or college graduate knows or can understand. As a matter of fact, most of their teachers do not seem to know it. In their obsession with covering ground and in the way in which they test or examine their students, they certainly do not act as if they understood that they were only preparing their students for education in later life rather than trying to complete it within the precincts of their institutions.
There is, of course, some truth in the ancient insight that awareness of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom. But, remember, it is just the beginning. From there on one has to do something about it.
And to do it intelligently one must know something of its causes and cures–why adults need education and what, if anything, they can do about it. When young adults realize how little they learned in school, they usually assume there was something wrong with the school they attended or with the way they spent their time there. But the fact is that the best possible graduate of the best possible school needs to continue learning every bit as much as the worst.
How should they go about doing this? In a recent book, I tried to answer the question, “How should persons proceed who wish to conduct for themselves the continuation of learning after all schooling has been finished?” The brief and simple answer is: Read and discuss.
Never just read, for reading without discussion with others who have read the same book is not nearly as profitable. And as reading without discussion can fail to yield the full measure of understanding that should be sought, so discussion without the substance that good and great books afford is likely to degenerate into little more than an exchange of opinions or personal prejudices.
Those who take this prescription seriously would, of course, be better off if their schooling had given them the intellectual discipline and skill they need to carry it out, and if it had also introduced them to the world of learning with some appreciation of its basic ideas and issues. But even the individual who is fortunate to leave school or college with a mind so disciplined, and with an abiding love of learning, would still have a long road to travel before he or she became an educated person.
If our schools and colleges were doing their part and adults were doing theirs, all would be well. However, our schools and colleges are not doing their part because they are trying to do everything else. And adults are not doing their part because most are under the illusion that they had completed their education when they finished their schooling.
Only the person who realizes that mature life is the time to get the education that no young person can ever acquire is at last on the high road to learning. The road is steep and rocky, but it is the high road, open to anyone who has the skill in learning and the ultimate goal of all learning in view–understanding the nature of things and man’s place in the total scheme.
An educated person is one who through the travail of his own life has assimilated the ideas that make him representative of his culture, that make him a bearer of its traditions and enable him to contribute to its improvement.
28 May 2009
Anyone who has ever sat through a normal class will immediately agree that what is taught is not the same as what is learnt. It’s such a simple principle, yet one of the most overlooked. The most colourful curricula and the most dedicated teacher do not guarantee that learning has taken place. I know that sounds so discouraging, especially to a homeschooling mom or dad who thinks that the right curriculum and a whole load of enthusiasm get the job done.
Consider this provocative list of top ten mistakes in education and you’ll see what I mean. I say provocative because it turns what a lot of people believe education is all about on its head, homeschoolers included. Although the author had in mind teaching structures in traditional schools, the list is just as relevant to parents who educate their children at home.
Mistake #1: Schools act as if learning can be disassociated from doing.
There really is no learning without doing. There is the appearance of learning without doing when we ask children to memorize stuff. But adults know that they learn best on the job, from experience, by trying things out. Children learn best that way, too. If there is nothing to actually do in a subject area we want to teach children it may be the case that there really isn’t anything that children ought to learn in that subject area.
Mistake #2: Schools believe they have the job of assessment as part of their natural role.
Assessment is not the job of the schools. Products ought to be assessed by the buyer of those products, not the producer of those products. Let the schools do the best job they can and then let the buyer beware. Schools must concentrate on learning and teaching, not testing and comparing.
Mistake #3: Schools believe they have an obligation to create standard curricula.
Why should everyone know the same stuff? What a dull world it would be if everyone knew only the same material. Let children choose where they want to go, and with proper guidance they will choose well and create an alive and diverse society.
Mistake #4: Teachers believe they ought to tell students what they think it is important to know.
There isn’t all that much that it is important to know. There is a lot that it is important to know how to do, however. Teachers should help students figure out how to do stuff the students actually want to do.
Mistake #5: Schools believe instruction can be independent of motivation for actual use.
We really have to get over the idea that some stuff is just worth knowing even if you never do anything with it. Human memories happily erase stuff that has no purpose, so why try to fill up children’s heads with such stuff? Concentrate on figuring out why someone would ever want to know something before you teach it, and teach the reason, in a way that can be believed, at the same time.
Mistake #6: Schools believe studying is an important part of learning.
Practice is an important part of learning, not studying. Studying is a complete waste of time. No one ever remembers the stuff they cram into their heads the night before the exam, so why do it? Practice, on the other hand, makes perfect. But, you have to be practicing a skill that you actually want to know how to perform.
Mistake #7: Schools believe that grading according to age group is an intrinsic part of the organization of a school.
This is just a historical accident and it’s a terrible idea. Age-grouped grades are one of the principal sources of terror for children in school, because they are always feeling they are not as good as someone else or better than someone else, and so on. Such comparisons and other social problems caused by age-similar grades cause many a child to have terrible confidence problems. Allowing students to help those who are younger, on the other hand, works well for both parties.
Mistake #8: Schools believe children will accomplish things only by having grades to strive for.
Grades serve as motivation for some children, but not for all. Some children get very frustrated by the arbitrary use of power represented by grades and simply give up.
Mistake #9: Schools believe discipline is an inherent part of learning.
Old people especially believe this, probably because schools were seriously rigid and uptight in their day. The threat of a ruler across the head makes children anxious and quiet. It does not make them learn. It makes them afraid to fail, which is a different thing altogether.
Mistake #10: Schools believe students have a basic interest in learning whatever it is schools decide to teach to them.
What kid would choose learning mathematics over learning about animals, trucks, sports, or whatever? Is there one? Good. Then, teach him mathematics. Leave the other children alone.
The above was written by Dr Robert Schank, founder of Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University. If you want to be a better educator – whether you’re homeschooling or unschooling or teaching in a traditional school – you’ll want to pay his site Engines for Education a visit.
18 May 2006
Posted by DAVID BC TAN under: Malaysian schools.
C.S. Lewis was an unhappy victim of public schools and he said so in his autobiography Surprised By Joy.
“If the parents in each generation always or often knew what really goes on at their sons’ schools, the history of education would be very different.”
You can see I am a pessimist by inclination. Unlike my friend – let’s call him Bob – who thinks one can’t possibly maintain sanity in Malaysia without a modicum of hopeful thinking. It’s easy to walk away, he says, but you can still make a difference if you work at it, try hard enough, push the envelope. I have had dreams too, if not for present realities that have all but convinced me that one ought to work towards change. So I’ll be working harder on alternatives, away from the present oppressive system. It’s one of the primary reasons I homeschool.
3 December 2005
Posted by DAVID BC TAN under: schooling.
I get nervous with all the hype over preschool. California’s initiative in pushing for the Preschool for All Act, if successful, could help make Universal Preschool a reality. The fact that advocates are talking about compulsory preschool for 4-year olds as if it would solve social ills and correct educational deficits, is disturbing.
Here in Malaysia, the education ministry too harbours similar ambitions but infrastructure and funding at this moment are major obstacles in the way. I’m glad for that. Some zealous educators point to Head Start as evidence that preschool works. Wendy McElroy sounds the alarm in an article in Foxnews titled, Will Universal Preschool Give All Kids a Head Start? and points to new studies that show otherwise:
McElroy also has this to say about government’s dangerous presumption:
I understand there is a place for preschool, but I certainly don’t see why the state should usurp the role of parents and take over their kids at such an early age or at any age. Compulsory preschool! This then is the bigger issue and it is utterly appaling to me. Is not the damage done to families by state-sponsored schooling already self-evident?
10 November 2005
Posted by DAVID BC TAN under: Malaysian schools.
AB Sulaiman makes a no-holds barred commentary on the state of education in Malaysia following our local universities’ slide in international ranking. His frank and painful analysis leads him to admit that the unintended consequences of social engineering in the country is the 800-pound gorilla in the way of progress.
4 May 2005
“Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavour are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions that claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question.”
Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society
What Illich was criticising was the way schools (and other similar public agencies) turn us into slavish consumers who must depend on professional producers (whether government bureaucrats or corporations) to tell us what’s good or right for us. When homeschoolers take responsibility for their own education, they are resisting what he called “approved measures of social control.” You could say homeschooling is a form of deschooling in practice, because we see education as a lifelong commitment to formal and incidental learning utilising new approaches that foster life values, not dead knowledge.
I would take that to mean values that express love for God in heart, soul, mind, and strength – and love for our neighbour as we love ourselves.