In another good column, Marion Brady reflects on roof trusses and ritual knowledge.
Blame this column on a truckload of roof trusses I followed into town yesterday afternoon.
Longtime critics of my columns know that one of my favorite subjects is the curriculum. I'm convinced that too much of what kids are made to study is "ritual knowledge," taught not because serious people have given serious thought to its value, but simply because it's been taught for generations. I've sat in enough meetings as a publisher consultant to know firsthand that such is the case. To my question, "Why include this in the book?" the answer has often been some version of "Customer expectations."
Why, other than customer expectations, has algebra come to be a required subject? For me, over the years, what I learned in geometry has been of far greater use. Where are the studies that argue convincingly that, given the differing paths students' lives will take, algebra should be required and geometry not? Or that given the variousness of those paths, either should be required?
My major complaint about the curriculum, however, isn't about whether or not particular school subjects should be required, but about what's emphasized IN those subjects. This is where mere ritual knowledge is most often evident:
The world's longest river is ( ).
( ) wrote, "These are the times that try men's souls."
The chemical symbol for the element potassium is ( ).
A complete sentence should contain a ( ) and a ( ).
There are millions -- no, an infinite number -- of facts like these for which students could be held responsible, and nobody is sorting out the important ones. Neither is anyone seriously questioning the idea that mentally storing facts is the purpose of educating.
Is it? Well, for Neil Larrimore, Michael Avitzur, Michelle Bergeron, Teddy Nadler and Andy Aaron knowledge of facts has paid off pretty well. They're the top five money winners on television quiz shows. But for most people, the ability to recall random facts doesn't seem to have much to do with anything else, such as success in a job. One recent quiz-show winner, a policeman, has thus far been unable to pass the exam on which his promotion to the next grade depends.
There are all kinds of facts, ranging from useless to critically important. Knowing that the Nile is the world's longest river is almost certainly a less important fact than knowing that, historically, navigable rivers have had much to do with population distribution. That fact, in turn, may be less important than knowing that the nearest local river is loaded with enough mercury to make eating fish from it a bad idea.
But the whole issue probably doesn't deserve the attention it gets. When, with two or three clicks of a computer mouse, I can find something as trivial as the names of the top money winners on television game shows, I conclude that teaching facts, and tests that make students accountable for remembering those facts, is pretty much a waste of brains.
Which brings me back to that truckload of roof trusses.
Seeing them, I thought of how radically their use had changed house construction. I grew up in old houses with roofs supported by rafters rather than trusses. Rafters made attics big and open. Big attics allowed all kinds of stuff to be stored. They were also great places to play in winter. A child playing in an attic and finding, say, a father's first-grade paper showing that he once had trouble writing within the lines will likely think a little differently thereafter about the father. A grandchild, holding up a grandmother's wedding dress and marveling at its tiny waistline, will surely see the now-more-ample grandmother through different eyes.
There may be a relationship between roof trusses and how the young feel about their elders.
I'm not saying that that particular relationship is important enough to teach. It isn't. I'm saying that what IS important -- far more important than an ability to recall facts -- is the ability to recognize relationships BETWEEN facts. That's where important facts COME from. Surely, America's future would be safer in the hands of those skilled in recognizing possible cause-effect relationships, than in the hands of those skilled in mentally storing soon-to-be-forgotten facts.
If that contention isn't outrageous enough to arouse the ire of traditionalists, try this: That truck, with its load of trusses, provides more useful raw material for teaching physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, history and the social sciences than a whole shelf of textbooks.
Marion Brady, a longtime educator, lives in Cocoa. He wrote this commentary for the Orlando Sentinel. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This column is from the Orlando Sentinel, January 6, 2004