THE TECTONIC SHIFT IN EDUCATION
MAY 3, 2011. As I was about to post this piece, it suddenly occurred to me younger people might not understand my use of the word “drill.”
I learned about it, first-hand, when I was 11 years old. In school. In 1949. Our teacher gave us arithmetic drills every day. For instance, we had to work at our desks converting ten fractions into percentages. Then we took home 20 more fractions to convert. Of course, we had no calculators or computers.
In drills, you take a procedure and use it over and over. Eventually, with practice, it’s like cutting warm butter with a sharp knife. It used to be called elementary education…
Back in the 1970s, I was working as a tutor at Santa Monica College. One day, I walked by a store front a few blocks from the ocean and noticed the business inside was an educational company.
I walked in and spoke with the boss. He told me they were just getting off the ground, and prospects were bright. They were on the cutting edge of programmed tutorial pamphlets.
Each pamphlet, he showed me, covered a different subject, and the learning was done in small chunks. After each lesson, there was a quiz (multiple choice), and if the student entered a wrong answer, he would be guided to a “branch-page,” where he would receive a small injection of the material he’d just fumbled…and then there would be a new quiz of four or five questions. If he passed, he’d jump back on the mainline train.
I said I could write a pamphlet like that in my sleep, and he proceeded to lay out the attractive $$ possibilities for me. A nice slice of royalties on each item sold, in perpetuity, and new work available on into the future.
He gave me a trial run. I went home with an assignment to create ten pages of a pamphlet on something; I think it was decimals and fractions. I returned the next day with the pages, and he sat back and read my work. He nodded as he turned the pages, and then he stopped.
“What are all these drills?” he said.
“Well,” I said, “after I introduce a new concept, I make sure the student gets it by giving him twenty or thirty examples, and he has to come up with the right answers.”
He shook his head.
“No,” he said. “That’s not what we want.”
“It’s not in the modern style,” he said.
I said, “It’s not an issue of style. The student has to get the material. He has to drill on it. A lot.”
“No,” he said. “That won’t work.”
So an argument started. After a few minutes, it got pretty heated. I walked out. No deal. We were poles apart.
I thought about what had just happened. He was right, of course. The wave-front of education was all about finessing material…making it seem as if the student was understanding what he was learning.” Making it SEEM.
In other words, it was all nonsense.
Gloss, not substance.
In the ensuing years, I watched this trend expand to grotesque proportions. The old-fashioned way was disappearing like vapor in the wind.
Way back in the day, I had learned in school through drills. That was the heart and the proof of the process. The teacher would explain a new concept, demonstrate it on the blackboard, give us a few examples to chew on and solve, go over them, then assign 20 or 30 more examples to work on for homework. The next day, we would bring the homework in and the class would go through it, step by step. Then there would be a quiz. Then we would move on to the next new concept. Baby steps. Drills. More drills.
In order for this kind of education to work, though, you need a certain stability of environment. You need the notion of ACHIEVEMENT. At home and in school. It has to be a given.
No coddling, no explaining things away, no excuses, no laying on of the lard of self-esteem. With the right backdrop, the old style of education can work. Without it, you’re pushing a two-ton rock up a cliff face. You may as well give up before you start. The students won’t sit still for drill, drill, drill. They’ll do anything to worm out of it.
During the 1960s, the whole society caved in and gave up the ghost. The education system, such as it was, crashed. I was there, as a teacher, part of that time, and I saw it happen. It foundered on just this point. Repetition. It was as if minds had gone soft and couldn’t perform.
Broadly speaking, the basics of arithmetic went out the window. So did spelling, grammar, and the ability to write coherent sentences. Poof. The amount of scut work it took to build a basic education became unacceptable.
When I read tracts about the intentional undermining of the American educational system, I sense truth in them, but to me the real crash was all about what I’m discussing here.
You can bring up drugs, horrible junk food, the influence of TV and the Internet, large classes, and so on. You can say they all make education a tougher job. Sure, I don’t deny any of that, but the rubber meets the road in REPETITION. The grind. You can either do it or you can’t. If you can’t, everything you learn is faked. It SEEMS to be real, but it isn’t.
I saw early signs of the collapse in 1961, when I landed a part-time job teaching kids math in a posh private school in the Northeast. I had nine boys in each class. They were all at least two grades behind where they were supposed to be. I tried drilling them on remedial topics, and they couldn’t take it. They weren’t just floundering. They wanted to fight for their right to be ignorant.
The principal and I had a chat. I told him what was happening and he said, “Education, we’ve always known, is repetition and drill, until they get their legs under them. Your kids can’t do it. They’re bailing out, at age twelve and thirteen. We don’t have the environment to back up what you want to do. Ease off. Skate through the year. Otherwise, you’ll go nuts.”
Some people think repetition and drilling are brainwashing. Well, if the lessons are about saving the world or learning how to put on a condom or being nice to everyone, then yes. In that case, someone’s opinions are being pushed into kids’ brains. But if you’re talking about arithmetic, spelling, and reading, then no. If you’re going to teach those subjects, there is no other way. You can’t wave a magic wand and make spelling come true under a floating rainbow. No amount of praise and encouragement is going to stand in for the grind.
I knew that the first day I walked into a classroom as a teacher, in 1961. I knew it because I had learned that way.
When people tell me kids can’t learn without computers on every desk, I make them wish they hadn’t. It’s a preposterous lie. It’s driven by a vague (usually politicized) notion of what education is all about, a notion that “puts the children first.” The children aren’t first in school. That’s a twisted version of kindness. More than that, it’s a surrender of authority to young people who don’t have authority. I’m not saying a teacher has to be nasty or machine-like. But a teacher has to instruct. In schools, learning comes before the personalities of children, and anyone who says different is lying. Is a fool.
Of course, if schools are about something other than learning, then yes, there are all sorts of things you can do to make the kids feel good and enthusiastic. You can take them out for ice cream. You can have them collect garbage and sort through the cans and pull out the glass and plastic. You can have them plant a garden and spend three hours every day tending the flowers.
But straight-down-the-line academic learning? I don’t think America has much fire left in its belly for that. It’s not the lack of public money. It’s not the missing programs. It’s a generalized fatigue that came after the big surrender, when teachers and administrators and parents decided that the pressure of repetition in the classroom was intrusive and invasive, a social misstep.
After that moment of surrender, all sorts of stories were made up to explain what was going wrong with education of the young. The stories were all off the main point, because very few people were willing to face the truth.
Somewhere around 35 years ago, a professor of philosophy at Amherst College decided he wouldn’t accept any more papers from his students, if those papers were full of spelling errors, were written badly. This caused an uproar. The students who couldn’t perform went into a full-bore tizzy. Now, Amherst is supposed to be a very good school, one of the best in the country. And yet those elite kids couldn’t write a decent paper. They couldn’t execute the fundamentals of the English language. How did they ever get into that college?
The NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress), an ongoing project under the auspices of the US Dept. of Education, tested 8th graders in 1992 and 2009, for reading skills. In both years, the “advanced level” was reached by 3% of the kids.
That’s a disaster. But if you go to the NAEP site and read about the test results, you won’t discover any sense of alarm.