What students don’t know

April 10, 2008 at 2:00 am 1 comment

Kim PhotoSenator Joseph McCarthy investigated people who protested the war in Vietnam, better known as the Second World War. Fortunately, that war was over before Christopher Columbus sailed to America;otherwise, we might have never experienced the Renaissance.

You see anything wrong with this? Hopefully, you know that McCarthy was after Communists in the 1950s; that WWII took place between 1939-1945; that Columbus supposedly discovered America in 1492 when he sailed off into the ocean-blue; and that the Rebirth took place in Europe from the 14th Century through to the 17th Century roughly. If you didn’t know that the Vietnam War wasn’t WWII, then hit those History text books now!

Unfortunately, a survey of 1200 American teenagers aged 17 years found that only a few thought the above opening paragraph was a bit odd. 20% couldn’t name the enemy in WWII; more than 25% thought that Columbus hit the US after 1750; and 50% didn’t know a thing about McCarthy or what the Renaissance was. The real clanger from the survey IMHO was that nearly 25% didn’t know who Adolf Hitler was and thought he was a munitions manufacturer.

Perhaps you’re not saddened or alarmed by this. Perhaps you think that the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Doris Lessing, is an old goat when she said in her acceptance speech: “We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers”.

I haven’t been a teacher for over 15 years now, so I’m open to being slammed for the following suggestion. But I wonder if schools and teachers are so now heavily focused on test-based accountability that excellence in education has been shafted. So History and Literature are nice to haves, for example, but not really important in a world filled with computers. So you have kids being churned out of schools and they’re computer and internet literate, mobile phone and sms savvy, sure. But these are basic skills and I’m not sure they really fully equip one to participate successfully in a civil society that requires you to know (surely) the history and culture that formed one’s national community and the broader global community.

The same survey said that in 2006, 15- to 24-year- olds reported reading an average of seven minutes a day on weekdays and 10 minutes a day on weekends, preferring instead to get their information from the internet.

Now prior to reading this survey from Common Core, I might have dashed off a post bemoaning young people being glued to vacuous video game sites or wandering around in Second Life or twittering away with their friends. All at the expense of reading a classic or studying some history. But I’ve reflected on this a bit more and I’m prepared to say that (gasp!) with social networking sites, blogs and so on, we are producing a generation who are darn good story tellers and marketers. They are baring their souls and wearing their hearts on their sleeves when they blog about their inner most thoughts and desires.

In my day (whoa: getting old when I say this), I would lock myself in my bedroom and scribble in my diary. Those ones that had a lock and key. This is the older form of blogging I guess. Yet, I would have been mortified if anyone had read how I thought Michael F was a spunk. I guess Anne Frank’s diary is just the same as a blog. But whereas my diary writing was a private space, separate from my social activities with friends, today’s storytelling youth merge the social with the private. Does this produce a richer context? Does it produce more interesting people? Does it matter that they can’t recite “In 1492 when Columbus sailed the ocean blue”?

I’m still not sure but read the report. Let me know what you think.

Entry filed under: Education, Schools and schoolchildren, Useful resources.

Out of my way! The world through my eyes

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. John James O'Brien  |  April 20, 2008 at 7:26 am

    The same dynamic seen in teaching for tests can be found in the “purchase” of certificates in the workplace. Knowledge–more importantly, the capacity to build knowledge, recognize its strengths and its limitations and act accordingly, seems to be just a bit too much work in both schools and the workplace.

    I remember a time when my own circle at boarding school made a joke out of one’s fellow’s lament, “it’s HARD”. It became a rallying call to figure it out, make it work, push through and not give up! Today, “it’s hard” seems an acceptable reason to do nothing. Teaching at the university level in North America, I faced pressure not to fail students like those in the report. Responsible for certification maintenance in a professional body, I faced significant challenge when attempting to re-instill lost rigour in the process. As a directorate officer in Hong Kong, more senior officers were taken aback by my view that job descriptions should touch upon competencies and accountabilities!

    Hearkening to the futures study pointing to 2018, I think that ability to re-focus from testing rote learning will make the difference. Hu Jin Tao is pointing in that direction. Is George Bush? Hmmm…bad example.


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