When I was in Middle School (~12 years old, around 1971), we did a murder mystery exercise in class. The teacher passed out slips of papers with clues and then shut up. The children milled around aimlessly for a while, comparing slips. Finally, I got fed up, got everyone’s attention, and said, “OK. Everyone with clues about the murder weapon, go over there. Everyone with clues about the victim, over there.” Then I went from group to group, and we quickly solved the mystery.

I learned three things that day.

  1. Sometimes people need external organization to get things done.

  2. I can do that organizing.

  3. People will get mad at me when I do.

The lesson has affected my consulting. I suspect that my daughter’s homework today—identifying the parts of a knight’s armor—will not affect her future in the slightest way. Social studies no longer appears to involve the study of society. Not surprising, I suppose: too much risk of children drawing conclusions that will get their parents mad at the school, and who needs the hassle?

And the New Math rocked, by the way. It was good that I learned simple set theory so young, and the idea that there could be number bases other than ten was a good lesson in questioning the verities.

8 Responses to “Education”

  1. Kevin Lawrence Says:

    A big decision point in education is whether you are optimizing for people who will go on to be very good at a subject or for people who find it difficult.

    The continual refrain “we need more mathematicians, engineers and scientists” is usually implemented as “let’s make math and science easier for people who don’t like math and science” in the hope that it will attract more of them.

    The usual way to do this is to make math/science more like the non-science subjects - give them projects to draw on their art and presentation skills. Another way is to give the kids things to remember - types of rock and the differences between meiosis and mitosis.

    It never seems to occur to anyone that the kids who will go on to be great scientists might actually like science - and making it less like science makes them like it less.

    A favourite topic of mine. It makes me mad.

  2. BlueRaja Says:

    It always disappoints me how few people, even mathematicians, don’t understand something as simple as number bases.

    During Freshman science in High School, they taught us a number of completely random things, including number bases. I remember one of the questions on the midterm being “Why do people use base-10?”
    I wrote that it’s because “we have 10 fingers.”
    The answer was “because it is the most efficient base.”
    I argued that base-12 and base-15 were much more efficient (because they have more factors), that base-10 was completely arbitrary and had nothing to do with efficiency; the Babylonians even used base-60. I never did get the points, though…

  3. BlueRaja Says:

    Whoops, I meant “how many people,” obviously.

  4. Brian Marick Says:

    Interesting that both of you feel more strongly about weak math teaching than weak social studies teaching.

    The New Math was better for me than the Old Math, but I wonder whether that was true of most students. I have a knack for abstraction, but many many people don’t. I have a feeling that the New Math was designed by people like me for people like me. Some people will never be like me. I’m probably happy about that.

  5. Kevin Lawrence Says:

    I feel strongly that schools should give room for the more interested students to pursue their interests. Mine interests lay in the science.

    It would have sucked for art students or history students to be taught art or history at my level. I had no interest or ability at that *age. I’d like art or history syllabus to challenge the most able students.

    * I love and pursue both topics with gusto at my present age.

  6. Kevin Lawrence Says:

    > Mine interests lay in the science

    and not in the grammars. Bah.

  7. Ragged Clown » Blog Archive » For whom? Says:

    […] read Alan Kay’s Early History of Smalltalk. It was timely for me because Brian Marick’s mention of the New Math put me in auto-rant mode on how schools optimize for students who are unlikely to […]

  8. Education Blog Says:

    Your post makes one think! Great article. Thanks for allowing me to comment!

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