“WHAT is the use of this?” is probably the most asked question in school, whether spoken or unspoken. And it is the question most often ignored by teachers, giving such formulaic and even smart alecky answers as “you’ll find this useful for college,” or “you’ll need it to get a passing grade in my class.”
They do not understand that unless they answer this “why” with all sincerity, their teaching amounts to nothing, and their students are merely learning by rote, which is probably the most ineffective learning style there is because when summer vacation comes, you’ll be lucky if they remember even 10 percent of whatever they were able to memorize just to “get a passing grade.”
Indeed, students who understand why they are learning something, who display genuine interest in the subject, are those who do well in it -- and even if they don’t understand it in the allotted time, they will persist until they get it.
In 1929, Louis Benezet, the superintendent of schools of Manchester, New Hampshire, wrote the following to a colleague:
“In the first place, it seems to me that we waste much time in the elementary schools, wrestling with stuff that ought to be omitted or postponed until the children are in need of studying it. If I had my way, I would omit arithmetic from the first six grades. I would allow the children to practice making change with imitation money, if you wish, but outside of making change, where does an eleven-year-old child ever have to use arithmetic?
I feel that it is all nonsense to take eight years to get children through the ordinary arithmetic assignment of the elementary schools. What possible needs has a ten-year-old child for a knowledge of long division? The whole subject of arithmetic could be postponed until the seventh year of school, and it could be mastered in two years’ study by any normal child.”
He then proceeded to convince teachers in his school to conduct and experiment. They would eliminate teaching any form of arithmetic from the first to fifth grade. Instead, they would focus on allowing their students to express themselves, to learn to read and reason, to tell stories and give their own opinions. The result was astounding:
“The children in these rooms were encouraged to do a great deal of oral composition. They reported on books that they had read, on incidents which they had seen, on visits that they had made. They told the stories of movies that they had attended and they made up romances on the spur of the moment. It was refreshing to go into one of these rooms. A happy and joyous spirit pervaded them. The children were no longer under the restraint of learning multiplication tables or struggling with long division. They were thoroughly enjoying their hours in school.”
But even more astounding was when Benezet introduced arithmetic in the sixth grade level, these 12-year old kids who had no previous formal training arithmetic were very quickly able to catch up and even perform better than their peers in traditional schools. They did especially well in story problems that required a mix of general understanding, analysis and plain common sense. Benezet performed the same experiment in other schools in Indiana and Wisconsin, with the same results, showing that this was not merely due to chance or a fluke accident.
When we teach less, children learn more.
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