"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Nerds: A powerful resource being wasted

Sadly, it may be news to some teachers that nerds hate your class as much as the "cool kids" do. Yes, those kids who always read the assignments, have their hands up in class and ace the tests have as much or more contempt for the way school is conventionally conducted as the kids who are struggling.

Following are some excerpts from an essay by Paul Graham, an expert on programming languages and on technology startups called "Why Nerds are Unpopular:"
I think the important thing about the real world is not that it's populated by adults, but that...the things you do have real effects. That's what school, prison, and ladies-who-lunch all lack. The inhabitants of all those worlds are trapped in little bubbles where nothing they do can have more than a local effect...

When the things you do have real effects, it's no longer enough just to be pleasing. It starts to be important to get the right answers, and that's where nerds show to advantage. Bill Gates will of course come to mind. Though notoriously lacking in social skills, he gets the right answers, at least as measured in revenue...

Another problem, and possibly an even worse one, was that we never had anything real to work on. Humans like to work; in most of the world, your work is your identity. And all the work we did was pointless, or seemed so at the time.

At best it was practice for real work we might do far in the future, so far that we didn't even know at the time what we were practicing for. More often it was just an arbitrary series of hoops to jump through, words without content designed mainly for testability. (The three main causes of the Civil War were.... Test: List the three main causes of the Civil War.)

And there was no way to opt out. The adults had agreed among themselves that this was to be the route to college. The only way to escape this empty life was to submit to it.

Teenage kids used to have a more active role in society. In pre-industrial times, they were all apprentices of one sort or another, whether in shops or on farms or even on warships. They weren't left to create their own societies. They were junior members of adult societies.

Teenagers seem to have respected adults more then, because the adults were the visible experts in the skills they were trying to learn. Now most kids have little idea what their parents do in their distant offices, and see no connection (indeed, there is precious little) between schoolwork and the work they'll do as adults.

And if teenagers respected adults more, adults also had more use for teenagers. After a couple years' training, an apprentice could be a real help. Even the newest apprentice could be made to carry messages or sweep the workshop...

Teenagers now are useless, except as cheap labor in industries like fast food, which evolved to exploit precisely this fact. In almost any other kind of work, they'd be a net loss. But they're also too young to be left unsupervised. Someone has to watch over them, and the most efficient way to do this is to collect them together in one place. Then a few adults can watch all of them.

If you stop there, what you're describing is literally a prison, albeit a part-time one. The problem is, many schools practically do stop there. The stated purpose of schools is to educate the kids. But there is no external pressure to do this well. And so most schools do such a bad job of teaching that the kids don't really take it seriously-- not even the smart kids. Much of the time we were all, students and teachers both, just going through the motions.

In my high school French class we were supposed to read Hugo's Les Miserables. I don't think any of us knew French well enough to make our way through this enormous book. Like the rest of the class, I just skimmed the Cliff's Notes. When we were given a test on the book, I noticed that the questions sounded odd. They were full of long words that our teacher wouldn't have used. Where had these questions come from? From the Cliff's Notes, it turned out. The teacher was using them too. We were all just pretending.
[Side note--personally I cringe whenever I administer a test in my classroom I have not written or created the database for myself. I believe that I should be testing what I taught and how I taught it. Thus I have a distaste for department-wide tests, although of course I comply with department and school policy. I just think those policies are misguided and dysfunctional.]

Everyone yearns to be of value, to do and make things that are valuable, which is exactly what most of schoolwork denies. That is why winning a game, or a band competition or putting on a successful show is so much more important to students than handing in an essay which only the teacher will read. This is doubly damaging to the super-competent students, who can see through the charade and recognize the emptiness of the entire exercise.

Judging from my own adult children and their circles of friends and associates, we have raised a generation of auto-didacts and sharers. This is exactly what we're supposed to be aiming for--to create lifetime learners. But I sense that this behavior has either developed in post-secondary education or in reaction against the style of secondary education dominant in the US today (or both). Young people today have become self-educators because we have failed them, yet the thirst for learning has survived nonetheless.

The downside to this is that we have lost the opportunity to direct this thirst toward areas and subjects that our former students might not have considered. People's interests and proclivities tend to be set in early adulthood (until perhaps late middle age, when we seem to start branching out again) and a high school teacher who has turned a computer geek off to literature, for example, has probably lost them for most of their adult life.

We need to tap the nerds in our classroom as a resource--not as little assistant teachers, but as learning leaders. And to do that, we are going to have to create learning tasks that are more authentic, that have more intrinsic value, and convey a sense of worth--both for the work and the worker--than much of the busywork we engage in today.

The nerds are watching.

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