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Cold Dead-Fish Education

Posted Mar 01 2013 12:00am

You have heard the saying, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.” Well, when it comes to education, we commonly feed our children cold dead-fish curricula, which they mostly soon forget. The problem is not so much the curriculum as that it is too often delivered at the expense of teaching students how to learn on their own and become lifetime learners. What a lot of them do learn is to shun learning and even hate school enough to drop out.

Fads come and go in education. There was “new math.” Then it was the self-esteem movement. There is the recent heavy emphasis on “hands-on” learning. Now the whole educational enterprise is obsessed with high-stakes testing.

None of these things are bad in themselves. It is just that they disturb educational balance and emphasize teaching students WHAT to learn as opposed to WANT to learn and HOW to learn.

The body politic stills insists we need to throw more money at education and that will fix things. Numerous studies show a lack of correlation between per pupil funding and educational achievement. The school district that spends the most, Washington, D.C., has the poorest educational achievement. Politicians and educators want more money. These are the same folks who think the cure for the federal deficit is to incur more debt so we can “stimulate” the economy. They don’t see the structural problems that are the real causes of economic stagnation. Likewise, they don’t see the real causes of educational stagnation.

Consider this: in terms of inflation adjusted dollars for education, there has been a drastic increase in spending on education in recent years, with very little evident benefit.  As for spending on education, see chart below.



But I recently had an experience suggesting that teachers in the trenches do “get it.” I gave a presentation on Feb. 28 at the Texas Middle School Teachers Association meeting. My session was in a time slot that competed with eight other presentations, yet every chair in my room was taken, while the other sessions had relatively few attendees. It’s not that I am a celebrity. These teachers didn’t know who I am. But they did relate to my topic, “Teach Students How to Remember What You Teach.” [1] I gave the same talk again an hour later and expected few to attend because I assumed that most teachers who were interested in this topic attended the first session. But in the second session, also competing against eight others, the room was again filled and teachers were bringing in chairs from other rooms.

Experienced teachers know that our schools neglect cognitive development. That’s psychology talk for teaching kids how to learn, remember, and think. I have been teaching first-semester college freshmen the last couple of years, and it is apparent that these students have a conspicuous lack of cognitive development, even though my university is highly selective in its admissions. Most of the freshmen lack strategy and tactics for learning and memory. Analytical and creative thinking are typically superficial.


I am doing what I can to help students learn how to learn and remember. Until my recent experience, I doubted that educational policy makers were interested. Maybe now there’s hope.


[1] I am available for speaking engagements or consultation on this topic. You can email me at billATSIGNthankyoubrainDOTcom.
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