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Monday, October 18, 2010

Questions with Answers Are Easy

"What is the capital of Assyria?"

Sir Robin pauses. He can't remember. And, in this instance, how he responds is a matter of life and death.

Not so for the majority of children in school today. Such a question matters little.

I felt the same way as I read through student's answers to other questions. I couldn't shake the nagging thought, 'Why are these questions even on a test?'

Put another way: When was the last time you needed to recall an answer from something on a high school test? When has that information applied to your daily life?

These questions all have answers. These answers are all on the internet (or have been spelled out by your teacher). There is no reason, therefore, to keep this information in your head. If you need it, you will pick it up through the osmosis of daily usage. In other words: Questions with answers are easy.

I'm far more interested in questions without an answer. "What started the War of Independence?" is a question without an answer. Not that we don't know many of the significant catalysts for rebellion against the crown. But simplifying the motivation to "taxation without representation" isn't the full story. And it's certainly not enough to die for in battle.

I test well, so I understand the importance of regurgitating memorized responses onto paper. But right now, thinking back to the questions I was asked on tests, I realize I don't recall most of that content. Because, like the capital of Assyria, it doesn't impact my life. What does impact my life is how political undertones can incite rebellion.

I loved my Sonlight education because I talked about the difficult questions with my parents. I didn't realize until high school that regurgitation was the norm of modern education.

To laugh at students who have failed to properly swallow their lessons so as to vomit them up again at a later date feels lame to me.

Looking at test questions today, what do you recall of their answers?

 ~Luke Holzmann
Filmmaker, Writer, Empty Nester


Sebastian said...

I think it is possible to take the preference for knowing where the answer is to knowing the answer too far. There have been some interesting studies into how identifying and naming something changes ones perception of it.

A prosaic example, but my son likes to mix up "fancy" coffee. One day he brought my cup, all proud smiles. I couldn't put my finger on the flavor and was only thinking it was discordant (maybe maple syrup?). As soon as he said that he'd put chocolate into it, I had the sense of the flavors melding and becoming more acceptable and even enjoyable.

So while the capital of Assyria may fall into the category of the trivial at times, knowing that Nineveh was one of the capitals of Assyria might serve to connect historical and Biblical knowledge, putting the story of Jonah from a category of mythical into one relating to an actual place and time.

I would agree that just learning capitals of countries probably doesn't serve much. But if it is the first link in a change of associations, it can be a great service.

Karen Joy said...

I'm (mostly) with you. I really enjoy reading history and even science with my children, and pointing out things like author bias when the semantics are steering us one way or another. I *love* discussions about this sort of thing.

We had one this morning, in fact, revisiting the Lusitania. I saw a Military Channel documentary on it, and contrary to the Usborne World Wars book, it inferred that evidence shows that Churchill, who was part of the Admiralty, perhaps ordered the Lusitania to stay on course, even knowing that a German U-boat was in its way. The thinking was that, if Britain sacrificed the Lusitania, perhaps it would compel the Americans to engage in WWI.

Heady stuff. Troubling stuff, actually, for 11 and 13yos.

But, my point was that, in history, oftentimes, it's difficult to tell who was right and who was wrong. And that the "right" sides can make the wrong decisions. And do the ends justify the means? And what about unintended consequences???


Not that I'm saying the Germans were right in WWI. It's just that even the "good guys" can make life-altering, history-altering decisions, and investigating them can leave one queasy at times.

I *GREATLY* want my children to be able to think, not just regurgitate. I think the biggest failing of the American education system right now is that it is spitting out millions of children who only know how to regurgitate, and I might even be so brash to think that the generation of homeschooled American children may save the future generations of their publicly schooled compatriots. Or, at least lead them.

However, there are other things with which I draw the line, and say, "You need to remember this term." For instance, my 9yo, Wesley, does really well in grammar -- understanding grammar. But, he has trouble with the terms. He will forever ask me, "What is an imperative?" or, "What does compound mean?" (He knows what an object of the preposition is, or what the direct object of a verb is... and can even find more than one of them. But the fact that more than one makes it compound, he can't remember.) Now, it might be that he only encounters such questions on a standardized test. But, is it important that he remembers it? I think it is.

Sometimes, etymology and semantics are what make conversation and communication with others possible. Standards of education are important, at least to an extent. It's great that Wesley understands grammar. But if he can't explain it to others, can't explain what it is he knows, that can send him astray in a multitude of directions (not speaking just of grammar here).

Karen Joy said...

p.s. In your paragraph that starts "I test well", I think you mean incite. (Feel free to delete this comment.)

Luke Holzmann said...

Sebastian, good point. I agree that knowing/identifying things absolutely helps us put them into broader contexts and enables us to make connections. But those connections--such as your Nineveh example--are not made when the focus is on memorizing the name. So, as I tried to say in my post: Let's focus on the associations and the names--if important--will come too.

Karen, thanks for pointing out my typo. I hate when I do it, but it's nice to know when I can fix it. <smile>

Very important lesson: The good side can make bad decisions, do bad things, etc. The Bible contains many examples of that.

And very well said: "Sometimes, etymology and semantics are what make conversation and communication with others possible." Absolutely. But, I would argue, such things come about naturally. Or, in the opposite case, differences in semantics lead to confusion because the definition was assumed differently. Which is why it's important to define things.

As for grammar, I'm not a huge fan. I think there is value to really getting into it, but overall the focus should be on modeling good writing. The terms and ideas can be powerful when working out a difficult sentence. But, I for one, don't think in grammatical terms when I write. ...perhaps that shows



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