Saturday, March 02, 2013

the tortoise and hare...

Banding veneer made from walnut, maple and mahogany.
I've been reading Pestalozzi's How Gertrude Teaches Her Children, and in comparing what he describes as his method and what we see in American education, I'm reminded of the race between the tortoise and the hare thorugh you may wonder which is which. In American schools, these days, the idea is to prove through standardized testing that children have been jackrabbitted ahead grade by grade, when in truth, children learn at a pace that is their own unless you force the issue and by forcing learning you teach children to resist learning, to feel less than competent learners, to resist authority and to hate school. The standardized test in American schools has become more important than the needs of the individual child. And there is a great shame in that. I want to be careful not to lay blame on teachers for this. The problem is in the system and the widespread lack of understanding of child development. If you give children a great foundation of experiential learning they will jackrabbit ahead on their own.

I'll remind again of Finland's schools. In Finland, children do not begin reading until they are in what would be for our children third grade. By the time their children and ours are tested in the PISA international study they surpass American readers in reading, have learned Swedish, Finnish and English languages, greater mastery of math and science while having had school reading for 25% less time.

Can we please begin to see the idiocy of the American position in this? Both Republican and Democratic administrations have maintained the view that we can test our way to better education.

So what do kids in Finland do in school for first and second grades if they aren't reading? Most Finnish primary school teachers have masters degrees in education paid for by the Finnish government. They study child development and teach children to get along with each other. They develop lessons that engage the hands, whether in woodworking or textiles or some other craft, or through science experiments, carefully building a foundation of sensory experiences upon which to build knowledge and understanding. They work with psychology and what are understood to be the laws of human development.

One of the things we are learning from neuroscience is what early educational theorists had observed first hand. Children do not all mature at the same rate. An example is recent research as children and adults watched Sesame St. Researchers with MRI looked in particular at the intraparietal sulcus, which is a small fold in the surface of the cerebral cortex, the maturity of which determines a child's ability to do math. The intraparietal sulcus also controls finger movement and sensing. If all child development was on a clock and unrelated to their developmental activities, education as it is now in America might work better than it does. On the other hand, children mature at rates that are highly personalized and not unrelated to the physical activities in which they have been encouraged and engaged. For instance dance and music are not unrelated to capacity for reading and math.

Here is what Pestalozzi observed in his day, and please ask yourself whether you see any similarity to these days in American education:
And when I ask again: What are the unmistakable consequences of thus rudely despising these laws, I cannot conceal from myself the physical atrophy, one-sidedness, warped judgement, superficiality, and presumptuous vanity that characterize the masses in this generation, are the necessary consequence of despising these laws, and of the isolated unpsychological, baseless, unorganized, unconnected teaching, which our poor race has received in our lower schools.

Either we lead the children through knowledge of names to that of things, or else through knowledge of things to that of names. The second method is mine.
When you give children real work to do in school (as in wood shops) they are grounded in reality, curious because they have use for what they learn, and self-confident because they have been tested by real life. And let's remind ourselves that education is not a race. Children are neither hares nor tortoises. During the Bush years the educational initiative was called "No Child Left Behind" and of course all children were left behind. Now in the current administration we have "Race for the Top"... another competitive school funding scheme likely to leave children in the lurch as it relies completely on standardized testing to get results. You can cheat in tests, but not so well in real life.

In the wood shop today, my apprentice made a cross cut sled, and I've been working on veneered tea boxes using shop made veneer bandings to surround beautiful slices of veneer.

Shown in the photo is my new miter sled, designed for cutting veneer bandings to accurate length. Works great.

Make, fix and create...


  1. I had to read the comment by Pestalozzi a couple of times before I understood it.
    But an interesting observation.

    Living in Denmark, where education is free, it is strange that our public school system is a lot different from the Finnish.
    Right now there is a lock-out of the teachers prepared by the league of municipalities (the actual employers of the teachers). DUe to disagreement as to how many hours a teacher shall use for actual teaching, and how much time can be spent on preparation.

    A thing that strikes me as very odd is: When one country invents a new and powerfull weapon or a medicine, all other countries immediately want to buy this system and use it for their own citizens.
    But when one country develops a really good method for teaching (Finland). It is seemingly largely ignored in other countries.

    It is strange that we can acknowledge that other people can make great medicine, but we won't accept the fact that someone else "invents" a good method for teaching.

    Have a nice weekend

  2. Jonas, The interesting thing about education is that it is a uniquely personal experience for each of us. They say that it takes 10,000 hours to attain mastery in something. By the time students have been through 12th grade in the US, they have spent many more than 10,000 hours in school and nearly that many watching TV. So each should feel entitled to claim mastery of each. So that makes us all experts at being in school and watching TV, one we like and the other many learn to despise. Those who master schooling and like it go on to devise the education of others, but there is an almost inescapable egotism to it, that interferes with their interpretation of the validity of other methods particularly those which are not dependent on computers and stuff that corporations can sell to schools to make more money.

  3. Doug,

    Maybe "physical atrophy, one-sidedness, warped judgement, superficiality, and presumptuous vanity" are the point of education as it works here. The only item left off the list is rampant consumerism.


  4. Mario, I can't imagine Pestalozzi made very many friends in education as a result of that comment, and perhaps there was some loss of good temper in translation. Pestalozzi was regarded variously as a kind man and a dottering fool. I think he was a genius.

    After a time trying to get kids engaged in things they do not care about, and comparing that with their rapid progress in learning when their passions are engaged makes one wonder why the system has been kept as it is unless there is some devious purpose behind it.

    And I suspect there is something of the profit motive behind so much of it.

  5. Worse things are being said these days than anything Pestalozzi came up with about education, on both sides of the issue. And the test fanatics rule the debate. So the real education of most kids happens outside of school, and that isn't necessarily a positive thing.