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By Dr. Harry Tennant

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Sunday, December 19, 2010

What are schools for?

I just watched an interesting talk by a teacher, Diana Laufenberg, How to learn? From mistakes. She started her talk by pointing out how different the needs of education were for her grandmother, father, herself and now her students. Her grandmother and father had to go to school because that's where the knowledge was. It had to be transferred from the teacher's mind to the student's mind. Her situation was a bit different because with encyclopedias in the household, there was a lot of knowledge available outside the school. Today, students have an abundance of knowledge and information online, so why do they still need to go to school?

She went on to argue that because of today's information abundance, education should shift from providing the right answers (characterized by standardized testing) to an environment where students are challenged, they make mistakes, and they learn far more from their mistakes than they would otherwise learn.

But Ms. Laufenberg is wrong, isn't she? Schools have always provided far more than information. First, schools provide a value judgement on what is important to learn, the curriculum. One can disagree with what it is and perhaps that it is far to uniform across all students, but it is more than just information. Second, schools provide the necessary exercise and practice to make knowledge one's own. Let's face it, most of us tend to enjoy the fiction that if we're exposed to some knowledge, we've mastered it.

Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire.
--William Butler Yeats

Education must involve some bucket filling as well as some fire lighting. Ms. Laufenberg's very interestingly described assignments no doubt do a good job of fire lighting. When I look back on my own education, projects and reports stand out as some of the most enjoyable and inspiring things I did in school. And I wouldn't call doing practice problems in math class inspiring. But I'm very glad that I did those practice problems, and learned the prepositions and periodic table and the did the physics experiments and practiced writing paragraphs and so on. I'm glad my teachers took the time to fill my bucket so that when intellectual fires did start to burn within me, I had an adequate foundation on which and with which to build.

So, to my teachers for insisting that I do what they knew I needed to do: Thank you!

Posted at 8:16 PM 0 Comments

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