Tag Archives: culture

Try this at your school’s next holiday play

If you’re wondering why India is earning a reputation for outpacing the rest of the world in math and science, here’s a data point:

Students of the St Michaels Primary School in Mahim celebrated Children’s Day in a unique way. Instead of reciting poems and participating in fancy dress competitions, these students stumped their parents with their expertise with numbers and logical reasoning.

Intelligence enhancement programme, the brainchild of school’s manager Fr Hugh Fonseca, saw children babble out Vedic mathematic formulas and do complex calculations in a flip second with ease.

“It was wonderful to see my child go up onto the stage and fearlessly rattle out those numbers in front of a huge audience without hesitation,” said Naseem Sheikh, whose son Maqdoom recited skip numbers both forwards and backwards. Echoing her sentiments was Uday Babu, an engineer. “My son Ganesh is a lot more confident now.”

The programme, which began two months ago, entailed training the students in Chess and Vedic mathematics. “The emphasis was on all-round development of the child and not just imparting bookish knowledge. We want to mould the young minds as early as possible, hence the programme is for the Class I students for now,” said C Raji, a teacher training the students in Chess and Vedic mathematics.

Can you imagine this kind of thing being tried in an American school?

Actually, I could see this kind of thing happening, and I think many kids would like it, especially the chess part. But I think a vocal plurality of parents and administrators would freak out — the parents because math and chess are nerd things and therefore unnatural and sinister; the administrators because they want to make parents happy. If that semi-cynical assessment is correct, then it’s a sad statement about our culture, and remember that it’s the culture, stupid.

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Filed under Early education, Education, Math, Student culture

Culture vs. science education

Peter Wood has a tour de force editorial today in the Chronicle, titled “How Culture Keeps Our Students Out of Science”. Snippet:

Students respond more profoundly to cultural imperatives than to market forces. In the United States, students are insulated from the commercial market’s demand for their knowledge and skills. That market lies a long way off — often too far to see. But they are not insulated one bit from the worldview promoted by their teachers, textbooks, and entertainment. From those sources, students pick up attitudes, motivations, and a lively sense of what life is about. School has always been as much about learning the ropes as it is about learning the rotes. We do, however, have some new ropes, and they aren’t very science-friendly. Rather, they lead students who look upon the difficulties of pursuing science to ask, “Why bother?”

[…] A century ago, Max Weber wrote of “Science as a Vocation,” and, indeed, students need to feel something like a calling for science to surmount the numerous obstacles on the way to an advanced degree.

At least on the emotional level, contemporary American education sides with the obstacles. It begins by treating children as psychologically fragile beings who will fail to learn — and worse, fail to develop as “whole persons” — if not constantly praised. The self-esteem movement may have its merits, but preparing students for arduous intellectual ascents aren’t among them. What the movement most commonly yields is a surfeit of college freshmen who “feel good” about themselves for no discernible reason and who grossly overrate their meager attainments.

Wood goes on to trace the failings of postmodernism and relativism for preparing our kids for science and math. Go read the whole thing. I believe he is dead-on, and the article is full of money quotes such as:

Talk to recent college graduates and you are likely to hear something like: “Asian students are just better at science and math.” That is a verbal shrug, not a lament. The reward of 16 years of diversiphilic indoctrination turns out to be a comfort zone of rationalizations.

Wood does make a serious omission in his article, and that is the effect of popular culture on students. This is something I have blogged about over and over again. Kids are immersed in a culture that trains them for laziness and entertainment and deprives them of opportunities for hard, sustained efforts of the mind that are eventually rewarded. They are constantly bombarded by messages that say math and science are uncool, too hard, lame, etc. and nobody is systematically fighting that cultural flow. Elementary school teachers have a chance to inculcate the math and science “bug” in young kids and train them up with good basic skills, but many fail to do so because they themselves are ill-prepared in, and ill-disposed towards, science and math. (Note that this is not all elementary teachers — but certainly too many of them.)

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Filed under Early education, Education, High school, Higher ed, Math, Student culture, Teaching