Notes on Popular Culture: Those 21st-Century Education Blues

Posted by Michael Borshuk On 12:42 PM


Teaching, as anybody who's attempted it knows, is hard work. That is, imparting skills, encouraging reason, nurturing critical thinking-- That's hard work. Providing information is not so difficult. Loading up a classroom of students with information to be memorized and then offered back later in some rote-friendly method of assessment (like, say, the dreaded multiple-choice exam) is not such a burden on the educator. And isn't rote the norm, in the age of excessive standardized testing and No Child Left Behind?

All of this grumpy prelude is a way of introducing how fascinated I was by the interview I heard with MIT professor Sanjoy Mahajan the other day on Robin Young's public radio show, Here and Now. Mahajan discussed the Benezet experiment in New England public schools in the 1930s, in which teachers, realizing how much rote had come to dominate pedagogy, taught less math to students before the sixth grade. The result? Students outperformed those who were memorizing their arithmetic functions from the get-go in elementary school. The rationale behind the experiment was that creativity and reason and common sense were being outright stifled by the emphasis on memorization that governed most arithmetic training. As Mahajan proposed in his interview, this rationale might be extended across the curriculum, up into post-secondary education. It's a worthy challenge for professors: that is, how might we force ourselves away from asking students merely to internalize undigested information--a skill that seems virtually needless to me, given how easily information can be accessed these days--and move, instead, toward nurturing creativity and problem-solving in a more developed sense.

There's a brief, accessible article about the Benezet experiment, from Psychology Today, posted here: "When Less is More."

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MICHAEL BORSHUK is Associate Professor of African American Literature at Texas Tech University. He is the author of SWINGING THE VERNACULAR: JAZZ AND AFRICAN AMERICAN MODERNIST LITERATURE (Routledge, 2006), and numerous essays, reviews, and encyclopedia entries on African American literature, American modernism, and music. For ten years, from 1999 to 2009, he wrote on jazz regularly for CODA MAGAZINE. His fiction has appeared in ANTIGONISH REVIEW, DALHOUSIE REVIEW, ELYSIAN FIELDS QUARTERLY, SHORT STORY, and 34TH PARALLEL.

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