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26: How to Teach History, Etc. Ergonomic Teaching, Ergonomic Education

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26: How To Teach History, Etc. Ergonomic Teaching

I went to an excellent private school from grades seven to twelve; then I went to a great college; I was taught in orderly classrooms by dedicated, well-educated people. But here’s my summation: not a single course, even at such fine schools as these, was taught as well as it could have been. I’ve puzzled over this a great deal. It’s as though nobody was asking the question that I find so fascinating: how do we do this job--teaching the young--as efficiently as possible.

Corporate America has decided that paying $1000 for an ergonomic chair is a sensible investment. Supposedly, these ergonomic chairs are cunningly engineered to work with every part of body and mind, ensuring peak efficiency. But what about ergonomic teaching? Does this field even exist? It would have only a single mystery to solve: how does one teach the greatest amount of information with the greatest ease, on the part of both teacher and student?

Our top educators sometimes claim to be interested in this topic; they are forever hailing some new strategy said to revolutionize the classroom. But their claims usually focus on psychological or social goals, not academic progress. (Additionally, their ideas often turn out counterproductive. I’ll discuss a few examples in the Epilogue.) In any event, I am writing to encourage speed and efficiency, at all levels. Let's help children to read and do math as quickly as possible. With that foundation they can move on to science, history, literature, art, philosophy, or anything else. If we are going to force children to be imprisoned inside a classroom, let’s not add insult to injury by wasting their time.

A premise throughout this article is that facts, along with being profitable, are also fun, that knowledge can be a joyous thing. Conversely, to systematically deprive young people of facts and knowledge, as our schools sometimes seem designed to do, is a sad thing. Famed teacher Gilbert Highet, from his long experience, concluded: "No one knows, no one can even guess how much knowledge a child will want and, if it is presented in the right way, will digest."

Whatever the task we’re working on, isn’t it obvious there must be faster ways and slower ways to do it? As we’ve all studied American History, let’s consider how we might improve a course in that subject. Herewith four strategies that can increase educational efficiency:

 
I: MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL,
COMMIT TO THE SUBJECT.
American History, is it? Very well, let us strive to teach all the American History that a given class can reasonably absorb. I mean the important people, dates, events, decisions, wars, inventions, social currents. Who, when, where, what, why. History! We’re talking history. The facts. All the facts. Nothing but the facts.

One of the first things our faux-educators do is to dilute, delete or delay. Oh, our children don’t need X. They can’t handle Y. They won’t understand Z. A second strategy is to wrap the entire course in a politically correct gauze, so that, at the end of the semester, the students have wallowed in dozens of feelings and opinions but have not learned much history. Marvelous sleight of hand.

Biology teaches what is. History teaches what was. They should both be taught in the same spirit: here are the facts.

Social Studies, which dates from the 1920s, was a forthright attempt by so-called progressives to control the teaching of geography, economics, civics, current events and history, and in general to emphasize those aspects that would lead students to feel let down by their country. In short, too much propaganda, too little history.

Please, as little PC as possible, as little of the typical Social Studies attitude as possible. Just historical facts! The stuff that actually happened once upon a time!! How hard it is at this point to reclaim the obvious; but how we do so is simple. Commit to the subject. Biology? French? Geometry? Volleyball? Doesn’t matter. The answer is always the same: school and teacher need to make a genuine commitment to the subject.

Obviously (to me anyway), future teachers ought to major in the subjects they will teach. Conversely, to give one example, future History teachers majoring in Education or Sociology illustrates a problem too often found in American education. There's no serious, passionate commitment to content.

 
II: EXPLOIT VISUAL AIDS.
AND EVERY OTHER KIND.
Ergonomic education surely requires massive, continuous use of maps, photographs, diagrams, paintings, models, memorabilia, Hollywood movies, more maps, reenactments, computer simulations, museums, internet sources, in short, EVERY POSSIBLE OBJECT that students can look at. Or touch. Or listen to.

What do you think is the first visual aid that students should be shown in a history course? I’m sure I know. (It was never shown to me; and I have often reflected on all the essential information I picked up only in later years.) First item: a raised relief map. Ideally, every student would be able to handle and touch this thing. See those large harbors? That’s where the cities formed. See those rivers? They created frontiers and barriers; they also created instant highways for trade and exploration. Feel those mountains? They shaped the movements of armies and settlers.

I was 35 before I knew what the Continental Divide is and what its significance is. If I had seen it, I would have understood the whole thing in a minute. I was never told, or not adequately. If you aren’t told, you don’t know. Judging by surveys and by watching grotesquely ignorant Americans on Jay Leno’s Jaywalking, the volume of stuff NOT told is reaching right up to the Continental Divide.

Looking back, I am amazed at how little I was shown what famous people looked like in their prime. They always show Walt Whitman as this old guy with a white beard; that’s not the charismatic character who wrote Leaves of Grass! Why not show historical figures as young people so that students can identify with them? Why not show famous people at the time of their first great deed, the breakthrough invention, the battle, whatever? LaFayette, I found out decades later, was a gawky kid when he came here to help the American cause. He was married and the father of several children, but only nineteen. Wow! How’s that even possible? Everybody would want to know.

Here’s some more things you could show for any year and place in history: typical dwellings, modes of transportation, furniture, street scenes, stores, clothes, medical instruments. Pictures are worth 1000 words--everyone says this. And yet I was rarely shown stuff that is readily available.

We have evolved so fast technologically that it’s probably impossible for young students to imagine a world without cars and computers. Today’s students need to be constantly reminded that, for example: the fastest mode of travel in 1776 was the horse; the steam engine does not yet exist, never mind the gasoline engine; cooking was done over burning wood; light mostly came from whale oil. Etc., Etc.

The goal is to set the stage--concretely, vividly, memorably--on which history occurred. Then to try to engage all the senses, all the time.

You might be thinking: so, Mr. Price, is there NO trick to which you wouldn’t stoop?? Probably not! Indeed, a perfect class is probably a concatenation of what could be called cheap tricks. If the students feel they are having fun, if they often think, hey, this is easy, then the battle is half-won.

Indeed, telling future teachers about the best tricks and techniques is precisely what our education schools should be doing (not the barren theorizing they love to waste time on).

Anecdote: my college had a famous chemistry professor; when he lectured about the flammability of hydrogen, he touched a bunsen burner to a large balloon--it exploded loudly, brightly. At that instant, the lecture hall went dark, and news footage of the burning Hindenburg appeared where the balloon was. I can still see the scene exactly as it happened.

Teaching, traditionally, has been talking. Talking’s fine, but words are much more memorable if all the senses are engaged. And as you’ll see, “memorable” is the main concern here. Can we say that a course is well taught if students remember little of it a year later?

Add your content here
III: REPEAT, REPEAT, REPEAT.
THEN SAY IT AGAIN SOME OTHER WAY.
Probably the greatest sin in all the courses I took was the relentless tendency to start at the very very beginning and work their way, tediously and fatiguingly, to the very very end. Everything is mentioned once, in a long slow unfolding. I call this the A-to-Z approach--which has to be the worst way to teach anything. By the time the children reach H, they have forgotten A to E. When they reach S, they can’t see how any of it fits together. By the end of the course, everything’s fading to gray. Isn’t that the cliché? “I don’t remember anything I learned in high school.”

Unfortunately, most teaching is like a single thin coat of paint. Do you want a pretty piece of furniture? You’ll need two or three coats of paint. Five is better. Rolls Royce puts 20 coats of paint on its cars! That's how they build up a deep lustrous shine.

Ever look at the putting greens on the PGA tour? Or the diamonds in professional baseball games? All that grass has been cut three times, from three different directions! I suspect this is the ergonomic paradigm for how every subject should be taught. At least three times, from three directions. At a minimum, sketch out what you will tell them, A to Z. Tell them. Then describe what they’ve learned. But always with different points of emphasis.

A variation is to rush ahead, give previews of coming attractions, tease the audience, make them impatient for more knowledge. I call this approach "blitzkrieg teaching." The Germans tried to advance far past enemy lines, twenty, even fifty miles, and then come back and mop up pockets of resistance. A good analogy. In teaching as in war, a sense of momentum is vital. Move past wherever the students are, but in such a way that now they’re grappling with the subject, they’re wondering, hey, what happens next? Ask provocative questions (the kind that real historians ask): suppose other leaders had other policies, would history have been different; could a particular event have been avoided?

The opposite of blitzkrieg teaching, all too common, is where a class will camp out on a small piece of ground and stay there for hours or days. I saw, on the internet, a proposed "lesson plan" for teaching some small bit of color theory. The kind of thing that should take five minutes; and then come back to it the next day...Instead this teacher wanted to bombard the class with incremental details. For two hours. I'm not sure I ever would have understood it.

Should we teach about forest or trees? Both, of course. Zoom in for close-ups. Pull back for wide shots. As often as possible. Explain the big theory or principle, then give several small examples.

In all these ways, layers of information are built up. Structures of knowledge are created. Not just a hodgepodge of isolated facts.

I believe, if I were teaching American History, I’d teach the whole subject in the first hour. Put six marks across the top of the blackboard--1500, 1600, 1700, 1800, 1900, 2000. Five minutes on what the Spanish and Portuguese did that first century. Then our Colonial Period for five minutes, right up to the War of Independence. Show where it happens. Make the students copy this diagram. Okay, the country starts...Whoops, the War of 1812, right here. Four decades of building tensions--the Civil War. What a war, what a story! Lincoln’s dead. The Crash of 1872. And then a huge growing dynamo--the USA. So many inventions, so much new wealth. War with Spain. We cross the line labeled 1900. An era of giddy innocence is about to be shattered forever. World War I. The Wasteland. Roaring Twenties, Depression Thirties. People can’t get on their feet. Boom, World War II. All ends as well as could be hoped, except mean Joe Stalin wants the world. Fifty years of horrid Cold War. Finish the hour by handing out a list of the top ten theories devised by historians to explain the success of this country--gene pool, exceptionalism, capitalism, Providence, freedom, protected by oceans, resources, luck, greed, etc. Pull the students into guessing which theory is right. (Final sentence of the day: “Think deeply--you’ll be writing a paper defending your choice.”)

That’s on Monday. Tuesday to Friday I’d divide the course into four big blocks, and do one each day. So, by the end of the first week, these students would know more history than the typical high school graduate learns in a year. They’d have a sense of time and historical perspective. They’d know the Big Picture....But the course has just begun. Now we pile on the details, the personalities, the romance, the shadows, the light. Isn’t this exciting?

 
IV: MATRIX TEACHING:
BUILDING STRUCTURES OF INFORMATION.
Let’s suppose we want to teach 10 facts. The ergonomic way is to find some link between two or three of those facts and explain that cluster. Then find another cluster with three facts, and teach that. Relate the two clusters. Attach the other facts. Maybe add a few additional facts for context. We’re building something like a tinker toy, a molecule, a matrix. The goal is a structure with perspective and depth, something three-dimensional.

My general sense is that every subject should be taught in terms of other subjects, and every fact should be taught in terms of other facts. That’s why analogies, metaphors, parables, comparisons and such are so popular and effective. (Poetically, no fact is an island unto itself; each is part of the main.)

Here’s a trivial example of something a teacher might say: “The shortest distance across the English Channel, from England to France [touches map; points to photo], is about 21 miles. Which is also the distance from M to N [two cities that students know]. So when you hear that somebody swam the English Channel, think of swimming that distance--in cold water, against hard currents. That distance has been a big factor in English history--Hitler wanted to invade but how do you take an army across that water? You might walk this distance in five or six hours. The world’s best swimmers need about 7 and a half hours to cross...” The single goal here is that not one student ever forgets the English Channel is water 21 miles wide.

The idea is to pile facts on top of related facts, like new floors rising from a foundation to become a skyscraper. The whole point is to make all this information stick in the memory. So, one might say, all good teaching involves turning each course into a giant mnemonic device. (Mnemonic. Ergonomic. Isn’t it interesting we have to go back to Greek words to talk about effective teaching? The Greeks and the Romans were fascinated by the challenge of organizing, retaining and presenting information. Contemporary educators, on the extreme other hand, regard memorization--always called “rote memorization”--as a plot against the young. Question: if you don't remember something, do you know it?)

I’m always amazed when I see books teaching one word at a time. The fast way to teach vocabulary is to find large clusters of related words. When students see the deep link, bingo, the words more quickly fall into place. Consider these flashy fellows: carnivore, carnival, carnation, carnal, incarnate, reincarnation, carnassial, carnage. What a list! Each word tells an epic story. What could possibly tie them all together?

The biggest cluster I know of (nearly 40 words such as director, rigor, rictus, dirigible, regime, regicide, Roger) descend from the Sanskrit root rg, which denotes straightness; this cluster is worth a half-hour in any school. Or a cluster could be related to a job site (e.g., words used at a medical lab) or a profession (e.g., lawyer). Or an event or a famous person’s life.

Another of my favorite devices I call Great Dates. Here the teacher emphasizes years in which many important events take place. 1861 is a perfect example of a Great Date: Lincoln inaugurated; South fires on Fort Sumter; war declared; two Battles of Bull Run. Jump to 1865: Lee surrenders; Lincoln assassinated; carpetbaggers descend on South. You need dates to create an armature, a skeleton, an organizing structure to bind together all the new information you acquire. But learning lots of miscellaneous, scattered dates is not ergonomic either.

Americans are lucky: because of our four-year election cycle, our history can more easily be reconstructed. For example, if Lincoln is inaugurated in 1861, we know he was campaigning in the Fall of 1860, and the voting took place in November, 1860. Probably American History could be strung out on 20 Great Dates for younger students, maybe 30 or 40 for teenagers. If Great Dates make school easier, then it’s a Great idea!

Another aspect of the matrix approach might be called Bridge Theory. Here, the emphasis is on using the KNOWN as a bridge to the UNKNOWN. No matter how little somebody knows, you start there; you work with the life and experiences of the students. It’s astonishing to watch subjects taught as if in a vacuum. (I always suspect that Biology should be taught in terms of the human body. Every student has one of those.) As you’ll see in #3: Latin Lives On, I have long been obsessed with how much more quickly students could learn both Latin and English vocabulary if they first saw this list of 333 words identical in Latin and English. “Look--you already know lots of Latin!” I also read about a man who teaches Spanish to executives. He is paid for speedy results. Not surprisingly, he first waves a list at them--2000 words the same in Spanish and English! Smart guy. And smart teachers get it immediately.

Bridge Theory says start with the known; walk across that bridge. If students know nothing, then lovingly describe what you’ll be telling them. That information becomes the bridge.

 
AND IN CONCLUSION:
I have faith in people. I work on the assumption that anything can be taught to anybody. Let’s take nuclear physics. How much can I absorb? Very little! But I have a right to know that much. What our educators do is lope off whole areas of knowledge, on the pretext that, oh dear, our children can’t handle that. How do we know? Teach them the really simple stuff. See what happens. Education should never be all-of-X or none-of-X. That’s sophistry. They love to prune, our educators do. After a while, the tree of knowledge is no bigger than a cactus shivering in Canada.

Educators will say, “Oh, our children can’t learn Latin,” which is probably true. Does it follow that those children won’t be permitted to know about Rome, or about Latin roots and origins? (My educators apparently decided I couldn't handle Greek, which might well be true. But I sure do wish somebody had bothered to teach me the Greek alphabet. You don't have to be in a fraternity to run into this thing all the time.)

Most adults cannot “handle” Shakespeare if by that we mean all the plays. Okay, so let’s try a few lines. Let’s wallow for an hour in one of those great speeches. I believe seventh graders could enjoy this. (But please--none of that nonsense where kids read the thing for homework and a teacher says, “What do you think it means?”) No, we jump right in, a major blitzkrieg. Play an actor’s rendition. Explain what the odd words mean. Play another actor’s rendition. Tell what the subtleties mean. Read it yourself--hammy and dramatic. Then show a clip from a Broadway production of this scene. Explain the last subtleties. Now we’ve used up 20 minutes and we’re on a roll. Ask if any of the students would like to read it. Let others act it out. Use any pretext to keep repeating the words. At the end, this is the goal, these kids will have Shakespeare in their brains for life.

If ergonomic education is all about building up structures of information,
it follows logically that every subject should be taught every year, again and again. Put another way, every subject that children will be expected to know at the end of high school should be taught in first and second grades.

Why would we not do this? In every area of human knowledge, there are basic facts a child can grasp. In math, geography, history, physics, literature--there’s a lot that can be taught. In France, children just like ours are taught science and history in the first grade; every child has to memorize a poem each week.

Kids have skin and cuts and blood. They can start to learn biology and medicine. Surely we can talk about the sun, the moon and the stars to first graders, and the earth going around the sun. We can talk about simple maps and diagrams, and basic machines. Then you do it again in second grade, but with a few more details. Then in third grade, with maybe an hour of details. By high school these kids will be whiz kids.

Let’s get creative! Let’s get ergonomic!

First step: we have to abandon a lot of the ideas that “modern” educators put on the table. These people advocate leveling. Do you want your kids leveled? Do you want your society leveled? On the contrary.

Our educators, with all their theories, Piaget-this and John Dewey-that, somehow make schools manifestly inefficient. Our expectations have been stunted. That’s why we need lots of ergonomic research (by engineers and scientists, not educators) to find out what is possible. And what works best! Then we need more competition so that good ideas can replace bad ideas.

Want to know the best way to teach anything? Use the Golden Rule of Education. Imagine how you’d like to be taught that topic yourself. (I’ll bet your first thought is: Well, I’d like it to be PAINLESS and EASY and, at the end, I know ALL THE IMPORTANT STUFF about the subject. Exactly. Now, at least, we’re pointed in the right direction.)

Or imagine how a group of ladies-who-lunch would like to be taught, or imagine how a group of senior citizens would like to be taught. Further imagine that you need to do a great job because you hope to be invited back!

Here’s the crux of our problem. Too many of our educators think they are in the social engineering business (not, alas, intellectual engineering). We know they aren’t all that interested in efficiency. How could they be when they routinely denigrate standards, grades, testing, competition, achievement, memorization, excellence, Valedictorians, prizes, phonics, multiplication tables, Honor rolls, homework, gifted programs, learning basic arithmetic, or learning very much of anything at all.

I’d suggest we need to start over, at a higher level of seriousness. Toss out the detritus from the past century. Start anew with love for the subject and respect for the audience. Whole new worlds of educational excellence will open before us.

END

 
 

 
--EPILOGUE--
which is followed by 7 lovely addenda
First, a few of the counterproductive ideas we have to contend with; then we’ll try to figure out why there are so many in American education:

NEW MATH: this thing was in development for MANY years, but the nation needed only about five years to realize it was a failure. A math pedagogy that resulted in nobody learning math? Hmmm? Do you think that could happen by accident? (Just a guess, but if the New Math people were actually serious about teaching math, I think we would have seen lots of music, playing cards, games, jingles, cartoon characters...every trick in the book that might help.)

WHOLE WORD: this clunker is the reading equivalent of New Math. A pedagogy that guaranteed that nobody becomes literate. The premise here was that learning 100+ phonics rules was way too difficult; so the children would be made to memorize 100,000+ English words one at a time. Insanity, pure and simple. With the result that we now have 40,000,000 functional illiterates. Rudolph Flesch explained the problem in two bestsellers (1955 and 1980) but still the educators kept pushing Whole Word. They still do.

CONSTRUCTIVISM: A big concept, for many decades, is that students should discover or invent basic concepts and insights for themselves. Teachers shouldn’t teach math, science, or whatever. Students can “construct” them. Try to imagine what we have here. Vast chunks of civilization have to be discarded so that children can rediscover them. The argument used by educators is that when children figure something out for themselves, they really know it. There’s some truth to that. Problem is, we don’t have years to let this rediscovery process unfold; there’s lots of things you need to know this week. Usually the fastest thing is what we’ve been doing for a million years: someone who knows tells you. Constructivism, as typically practiced, is the opposite of ergonomic; it’s a gimmick guaranteeing glacial progress.

SAGES OR GUIDES: Perhaps the biggest campaign of the last few decades argues that students don’t need a Sage on a Stage but a Guide by their Side. This is dogma in our ed schools. But is it true? Sure, it seems appealing that a teacher would interact privately, intimately, one-on-one with a student...But what are the other students doing? If a teacher spends a few minutes with each student, that means that more than 95% of the time, the teacher is talking to someone else, not you. Notice also that this sophistry cleverly relieves teachers of the obligation to be Sages! Please, be Sages, get back up on your Stages.

My sense is that teaching must be a team sport, that the entire class must be swept along together in a rising tide of excitement. All the students must learn the same things, and be able to discuss them outside the class. Retained information, that’s a goal. A shared culture, that’s another goal. A Guide by their Side fragments and disrupts everything. Again, the idea is totally anti-ergonomic.

(Indeed, I would go the other direction and argue that there are many bits of information that could best be taught to large groups in short sessions. I’m thinking of items that cut across many fields and tend to be ignored in all of them. For example, time zones. How many time zones are there? Why that number? I’ll bet most adults couldn’t answer these simple questions. A principal with a globe and flashlight could explain (to the student body) everything an adult needs to know in ten minutes. Then, during the day, various teachers could pick up the topic as it relates to science or geology or history or politics. Total time on topic: less than an hour. But we can be sure all these kids understand time zones.)

New Math, Whole Word, Constructivism, Bilingual Education, Open Classroom, Child-Centered Education, Active Learner, Cooperative Learning, Invented Spelling, Effective Learning, Mainstreaming, Whole Language, Alternative Assessment, Fuzzy Math, New New Math, Mathland, Outcome Based Education, Higher Level Thinking, Critical Thinking, and more I’ve missed....I estimate there’s been dozens of these bad ideas in play, each reinforcing the others. Why--oh why--so many bad ideas? Let me try to explain:

MEET JOHN DEWEY: the easiest way to understand what happened to American education in the 20th century is to get to know John Dewey. Allow me to introduce him. A small, shy professor. Quite smart. Vastly influential. He believed in collectivism. He really couldn’t stand the idea of individual differences and personal achievements. He expressed his horror many times at the very idea of a young person sitting alone reading a book. So here’s his goal: a group of children, always a group, doing something not too difficult so that none can move ahead. Cooking, sewing, building a house, singing, really for Dewey, what mattered was that the children were together, in a group (you can't say this too much). Interacting. Interdependent. Like legs on a centipede.

Well, no rocket science is required to predict the educational system this busybody would try to impose on us.

It’s a crazy paradox but our most famous educators were not that interested in education as most of us understand that term. They wanted socialization and leveling. They wanted a happy group. In practice, they were content to settle for a mass of C students. John Dewey and his followers, whatever words they used, became engaged in the process of secretly dumbing down America’s children.

Sure, Dewey thought he was a good guy. Precisely the same way that Castro thinks he is. They would both argue that it’s good to keep people at the same level, even if it’s a low level. This is fairer. Well, socialists think this way, that’s a fact. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether you want that thinking in your public school. Antonio Gramsci, a real Communist, said that if you want to help poor children, you’ll give them lots of academic skills. Take that, John Dewey.

To be fair, it gets a little murky when you try to figure out why a whole profession acts in a crazy way. I keep hoping one of the old-timers will write a tell-all book. In the meantime, I’m satisfied the top educators knew what they were doing, and stuck ruthlessly at it.

Can’t go down that road yourself? Fine. But then you are left with the main alternative theory: our educators were just hopelessly incompetent, decade after decade. Because the record plainly shows that the intellectual landscape was littered with scores of ideas that never quite seemed to work. Incompetence at this level merits putting these people out of office, don’t you think?

Anyway, to wrap up this Epilogue, Dewey simply didn’t care that much about academic progress. He had nothing much to teach and all year to teach it! As a result, his mind gave little thought to anything ergonomic. He diminished our sense of the possible. What I hope we’ll see is a much more pragmatic approach to education, where real teachers are let loose with the goal of making real advances, for all students.

Remember how shocked everyone was when Marva Collins opened a private school in a poor Chicago neighborhood and she made those kids stand tall and go to college? So inspiring. If our educators weren’t such ideologues, Marva Collins could have replicated her success all over the country. I’m hoping she or her successors still can.

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ADDENDA

I: RELATED ARTICLES ON THIS SITE: "21: A Tribute to Rudolph Flesch" covers the reading wars and the ed wars for the entire 20th century; "25: Phooey on John Dewey" discusses Dewey's career. "30: The War Against Reading" extends the research in #21.

These three articles provide many quotes from our main educators. If you ignore my commentary, I won't be offended. But please look long and hard at what these people said.

"20: The Quizz" illustrates how little is taught in many schools. (Article explains the sophistry variously called Critical Thinking and Higher Level Thinking, which argues that children who know nothing can have highly intelligent discussions about the aforementioned "nothing." The natural sequence, of course, is that children learn some facts, and then be encouraged to think about those facts.)

 

II: STANDARDS: Virginia, where I live, seems to be a leader in making students pass basic proficiency tests. These tests are called SOL's, or Standards of Learning.

Here's the revealing, almost comical, part. Certain teachers, or organizations more probably, never stop complaining about how they have to "teach to the test." Apparently this is like walking the plank. In the old days, according to these laments, classrooms were places of freedom and creativity where kids learned so much more because they were not expected to learn anything in particular! Does anybody believe this?

Newspapers here cooperate way too much in this wailing by running similar letters over and over.

Most curious to me, you never see anybody take the ergonomic slant: Well, if they have to learn these 500 facts, here's a better way to do it...

Personally, I tend to suspect kids from Virginia are lucky. They'll have an edge over kids from other states.


III: THE PRINCIPAL PRINCIPLE....Principals are usually the single most important ergonomic factor in any school. (One might say they are a small-town Mayor and Sheriff combined, and set the tone for whatever happens in a school.) No matter how brilliant, resourceful, and ergonomic the teachers are, they need the steady support of a strong Principal. My sense of it is that Principals can help a great deal by “selling” the school and education in general, by mentioning career options, by talking occasionally about the future. If children, just now and then, could be encouraged to view the world from the perspective of their parents, their teachers, or themselves as adults, they would tend, I suspect, to be more interested in their own education.

If there's a second most important ergonomic factor, I'd say it's this: get serious in the first grade, and never let up. Sure, kids need play and foolishness; they need sports, games and exercise. Run them ragged. But in the classroom there should be an air of seriousness: we are here to learn how our world works.


IV: "DESIGN AND DEVELOPMENT"--A PROPOSED COURSE FOR HIGH SCHOOL SENIORS THAT ILLUSTRATES ERGONOMIC EDUCATION: Most of the years I lived in Manhattan, I was running my own small design business. I became aware of something rather surprising: almost EVERY project starts as a sketch on a napkin. A logo, a brochure, a billboard. Sure, you say. But also a car, a house, a city! Anything, everything.

There is a process you go through that I call Design and Development or D&D. A rough sketch; a finished design; a mock-up, dummy or model. Then you have to actually make the thing, which means “sourcing.” A printer, a manufacturer, an artist, or any other sort of supplier that can complete the loop. You’ll need packaging and sales materials.

Note that my work creating a brochure had its own D&D cycle, which in turn was part of a client’s still larger cycle.

Bottom line; it took me more than 10 years to realize that everybody was going through the exact same process, sometimes small (a logo), sometimes huge (a skyscraper).

I propose that a one-month D&D course would be a great plus for high school seniors. Spend a few days explaining the concept and possible cycles; then the class would divide into small teams. Each team would pick a project and carry it through from sketch to store. You’d want competition--other classes could vote for best D&D project.

Everybody who will ever run a business could benefit from such a course. Even doctors and lawyers would benefit; they will often be part of a D&D cycle (perhaps when serving on a board) and not even realize it. Even if you never engage in D&D yourself, this course would make you appreciate all the cycles going on around you.

Such a course might be called inter-disciplanarian. But what I like is that it’s pan-disciplinarian. Teenagers would have to engage in real business. They’d have to do design and learn some CAD. They’d have to write copy and create ads and find suppliers. All of this is part of a smooth unfolding loop. It’s just like the real world. I believe a huge amount could be learned in this one four-week course. And it’d be fun. That’s ergonomic.


V: "THE ART OF TEACHING"--I just put a review of Gilbert Highet's book by that name on Amazon. Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

"Bad teaching wastes a great deal of effort, and spoils many lives which might have been full of energy." ---- "No one knows, no one can even guess how much knowledge a child will want and, if it is presented in the right way, will digest." --- "A teacher must believe in the value and interest of his subject as a doctor believes in health." ---- "No one ever knows enough history." ---- "It is a crime to starve a growing talent, but many teachers, out of sheer idleness, commit it every year." ---- "The good teacher is a man or woman of exceptionally wide and lively intellectual interests." ---- The young "must learn to work, because they will assuredly have to work all the rest of their lives; and to teach them that work is unnecessary or avoidable is to deform their characters."

This last one nicely sums up the entire article: "And yet the sense which teachers must strive hardest to develop in their students is a sense of structure: the power of grasping a broad historical process, a large geographical nexus, the plot and purpose of a great book."

I would like to see a Gilbert Highet Fan Club is every education school in America. You'd know a Renaissance is upon us.


VI: ENGINEERING AND MANUFACTURING: perhaps no part of my own education is so curious to me as the fact that NOT ONCE did a teacher look at some common object (stapler, gold chain, soda can, wrist watch) and say: "Now, let's reflect for a moment upon the engineering and manufacturing genius that went into making this thing possible!!!"

Kids ought to be encouraged to understand and appreciate all the behind-the-scenes skills and activities that make our complex society possible.

Perhaps we can not take college-bound kids into shop classes. But we could certainly bring "shop" into everybody's classes. How are things made and distributed? It's a fascinating question and a natural way to bring another dimension or layer into any discussion. "Modern Marvels" on the History Channel shows what can be done.

Also curious is that I grew up in a city with lots of big ships and a Ford factory. But not once was I taken to these places. What a waste. Educationally, I am fond of field trips for a perhaps unexpected reason. Anything outside the normal routine makes children think they are "getting away with something." I always did. Okay, let them think that. I say it relaxes their defenses. Children are more likely to be open and receptive in an altered environment.


VII: ADVICE FOR A TEACHER. A woman going back to teach asked me for suggestions. I have to point out I'm not a teacher and I don’t know her field. Nonetheless, these are the main things that came to mind, and nicely summarize the article:

A) EXPLORE AND EXPLAIN YOUR PASSION. Spend some time talking enthusiastically and personally--lots of sentences starting with “I”--about what you LOVE about this field. Hit 5-10 major points. At the end you say: “Now, I’ve just given you a preview of the topics we’ll be studying in this course. At the end I know you’ll be as PASSIONATE about them as I am.”

B) VISUALS, MAPS, MODELS. The typical lecture is no longer the best we can do. Pretend you are a producer at the History Channel--you know there has to be something interesting on the screen at all times; eye and brain demand visual input. The spoken words are now voice-over, explaining what the students are staring at or examining. In this approach, the teacher provides a guided tour of what might be viewed as an “intellectual city”--that is, your field.

C) PARABLES, PERSPECTIVES, PARALLELS. This is the hard one. The challenge is to find every possible fact and embellishment that will explode the meaning and memorability of other facts. Borrow widely. Ask your friends for help. Have a party. Show them what you are teaching and ask for suggestions on how they would DRAMATIZE the material. Let’s put it this way: if by the end of the year, you have managed to weave in fascinating facts from a dozen other fields (Music, Greek History, Political Science, etc.), that’s the ticket.

D) EMPHASIZE WHAT’S NOT KNOWN AS WELL AS WHAT IS KNOWN. Constantly mention the big questions in your field, the issues that people are working on today. Let students think of themselves as explorers on still existing frontiers.

NOTE RELATED ARTICLES:

"32: Teaching Science"

"39: How To Teach Physics, Etc." 

Ergonomic teaching; ergonomic education. How schools can be made more efficient. Why educators are not as interested in efficiency as they might me.

© Bruce Deitrick Price 2009-11

 
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