Skip to main content

Crabs, Ballads, and Life Lessons (How Schools Fail 2)

Fellow blogger Lorraine Seal's comment on my last post, How Schools Fail: Lost Kids and a "Race to Nowhere", inspired me to add a new post instead of a reply.

It is true: the level of secondary education is higher in Austria than in the US - but only in the fields of encyclopedic knowledge and language instruction. As described earlier, in Schools and License Plates, Austrian schools show strong deficits in the teaching of critical thinking, team work, presentation, and creativity. Unfortunately these are qualities which are needed later on in the work place.

Austrian schooling sees the renaissance man as its ideal. This sounds good. Is it practical? In this day and age? With Wikipedia and google? Our daughter spent two years at an AHS in Vienna (a school which covers the US grades five thru twelve) and we got to see first hand that for this type of school neither the teaching methods nor the content have changed since I graduated from an AHS in Innsbruck in 1980: frontal instruction, six or seven hours of lecturing a day, more hours of homework plus lots of memorizing for tests and exams. (When I mentioned this stagnancy to my parents they laughed and told me that I was only voicing the concerns they shared as young parents decades earlier: my father who was born before WWII was taught the same content as I and my daughter, and by the same methods...)

An Austrian AHS teaches every little detail for the anatomy of the crab (segments and legs, their different uses and names) and it expects students to memorize the details. Add to the crab Alexander the Great's battles (every single one, years included!), the long list of dukes and emperors in the houses of Babenberg and Hapsburg, poems and ballads by Schiller, Goethe, Fontane, and Heine (some of which have two dozen eight or ten line stanzas) and and and, all for memorization.

Alexander the Great's life is fascinating, crabs are wonderful little creatures, and the German writers of the 18th and 19th century wrote some pretty exciting ballads. But which part of all this knowledge stays with a child if the knowledge is not acquired through independent research but via teacher's dictate? In our daughter's two school years in Vienna the instances where an instructor encouraged students to do some research of their own and present it to the class were rare and usually reserved for occasions where children needed extra credit to get their grades up a notch. Here, in L.A., where our daughter attends a low profile private school (K thru eight) such work is an integrative part of the curriculum.

This said, there is one area where Austrian schools excel: foreign languages. While Austrian children usually can carry on a conversation in English by the time they are 14 their peers in L.A. have almost no Spanish proficiency. The main reason for this discrepancy is obvious: in Europe many cultures coexist in a small space and many different languages are spoken. How would people communicate if they didn't make an effort to learn a common language? Another reason is the renaissance man ideal: how universal would a person's education be if he or she didn't know a foreign language (and some Latin)?

Again I long for the middle ground: a school where students are encouraged to become critical thinkers, problem solvers, team workers; where they learn that Alexander the Great was the first person to conquer the whole known world and an idol to later leaders but do not get lost in the memorization of battle dates; where at least one foreign language is drilled into them (memorization definitely has its place here!); where they learn to love German ballads (or their English language equivalent) because they are dramatic and deal with human conflict and errors, with hubris and humility, with the lessons life teaches and has taught since long before schools were invented. Hard to find, I'm sure. But why?

Comments

Lorraine Seal said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lorraine Seal said…
Christina

This beautifully written reflection on education bringS to mind what my husband and I have seen as deficit in Irish education. Of course, my comments can only be anecdotal and second hand because I have no children nor have I done any research into this. But there seems to be the same emphasis on acquiring knowledge in order to pass examinations in order to earn desired places in the university system at the expense of learning to think independently or creatively.

I think of the daughter of friends of ours, a very bright and hardworking young woman who earned a place at Trinity College Dublin in one of its most competitive and rigorous programs. She is a delightful person, bubbly and outgoing. But we noticed, for all her educational achievements, a lack of introspection and curiosity about the way the world works or, indeed, what motivates people to think and behave as they do. Naturally these qualities arise from an individual’s temperament, and she has many other gifts, but an educational approach that encourages research and critical thinking would nurture some intellectual curiosity, I’d think.

The other thing we noticed was the emphasis put on degrees and certificates in the Irish workplace. Work history and individual accomplishment seemed to mean little; what employment specialists – the gatekeepers – wanted to see were evidences of specialised education. This is a more recent phenomenon, and it may seem a leap from the points you make. I bring it up, however, because it seems an extension of an educational system that encourages rote mastery of a set of facts, leading to a test to establish knowledge successfully retrieved, proving competence that will be evidenced by a diploma.

I don’t mean to devalue degrees and certifications; however, they tell only part of the story. I come from a generation of students who, in our day, went to universities to learn more about the world and ourselves than could be expressed by our degrees. The kind of skills you mention – problem solving, dealing with conflict, team work – are not demonstrable through diplomas but through experience. Yet the Irish approach to education – possibly the Austrian one as well – seems to downplay these qualities in favour of what can be more readily measured.

It seems to me that the single-most important thing I learned in college, and fortunately this was in the first class of the first quarter of my first year at UCLA, was that through trying to marshal inchoate ideas and images into disciplined and grammatical sentences one can come to know what one thinks and whether it makes sense. Perhaps that’s what we should look for in a good education, assuming it is coupled with a grounding in facts.

Thanks for continuing an interesting conversation.

Best,
Lorraine
Lorraine -

As always, thank you for your comment and especially for sharing your insight into the Irish education system which definitely sounds like Austria.

Unfortunately some of the more preppy private US high schools seem to be going in the same direction (I call it backward). According to the documentary Race to Nowhere they are beginning to focus on teaching what can be tested and measured at the expense of critical thinking skills (http://www.racetonowhere.com/).

The L.A. screening of Race to Nowhere which I attended was facilitated by a lady who teaches at a local college. She mentioned that high school graduates now come in with perfect test scores but are looking to be hand held and mouth fed by college professors in a way that would have been unthinkable even ten years ago.

I know for my daughter, if there is one thing I want her to be by the time she moves on to college it is independent. That of course, as fellow blogger Debi would say, starts with the family.

Popular posts from this blog

Visions of Editors: How Good Stories Go to Waste

Recently I stumbled upon Visions of Mary, a war story by Joseph Richardson. The book begins in a present day emergency room in Tennessee: A physician, a good guy who takes his work seriously, fights to establish the identity of a man who was found wandering about in a snow storm. The M.D.'s questions bring up memories of World War II in the disoriented patient. Thanks to the lost man's recollections we eventually learn that he is Colonel John Stone, an American war hero. The colonel tells the physician how he enlisted and became a pilot, how he married his sweetheart, Mary, and how he almost died when the Japanese shot down his plane, the "China Doll," in the last months of the war. After the attack, Stone and his men found themselves on a raft in the middle of a shark infested nowhere called the Pacific. Without food, water and radio connection their death seemed imminent. The men's fight for survival is where the book turns exciting: plunged into this crisis,

Lyman, Whitford, Reality Check: A Career in the West Wing?

On a chilly Sunday night in February two young girls in jeans and light blouses were standing in front of the artists' entrance of one of two local art theaters in Pasadena, California. The pathway beyond the barrier, an iron gate, was barely lit. It stayed empty for a long time while the girls, shifting weight from one foot to the other, chatted and giggled. After a while a figure emerged from the shadows. The girls fell silent but it was the wrong actor. When the right man, Bradley Whitford, finally appeared he was wearing a bicycle helmet pushed way up on his forehead. Whitford is best known for playing Josh Lyman in the TV series  The West Wing   but on that night he had performed in the Pasadena Playhouse's production of Yasmina Reza’s   Art.  The girls stopped the actor, told him about their social studies class and how the teacher would have them watch The West Wing.  Whitford smiled, asked, "Which school is it?" and autographed the two print-outs the girls

Solid Rock, Human Transience (The Huntington 2)

Organic blend: Chinese garden at the Huntington The Chinese garden at The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino (L.A. county) is a magical place. It blends the man-made and the natural, architecture with trees, straight lines and curves, all in an organic way. Last week, as I was wandering the cobbled paths of the garden I decided to take a closer look at some of the rocks. I got to my knees, admired the shades of white and grey, the undertones of purple, green, and red; I let my hand glide over the limestone's spurs, cracks, and sharp edges, felt the coolness of the rock against my skin, its enduring solidity against my human transience - and decided to look up some facts. Spurs and cracks: 50 Chinese stone workers flew in to carve the stone Transplants in L.A.: 850 tons of rock The limestone rocks in the Huntington's Chinese garden are transplants. They were imported from Lake Tai in the Yangtze Delta in China. Acc