02 January 2008

Disorganize the schools!

The NYT covers the--gasp!--new trend of tutoring students (mostly boys) who seem to be having trouble in school. OK, OK, it's not the tutoring itself which is interesting. We've known for some time that tutoring is among the most successful of teaching methods. It's the fact that the tutors aren't teaching subjects, they're teaching habits. In other words, ethical tutoring.

If you want to get 'em educated, you first gotta' get 'em organized.
(Photo by Jim Wilson for the New York Times)

As per their standard operating procedure, the NYT adds zero content to and only a confused, watery viewpoint on the conversation. (When will they stop "reporting" and start giving us the story?) We've known for some time that girls outperform boys in almost every subject until puberty hits, at which point boys edge ahead in math and science. But why? And what to do about it?

The NYT frames the problem as one of organizational habits--which is curious because it focuses not on the problem, but on the (stopgap) solution. Providing boys with better organizational skills will undoubtedly help them do better in school. But doesn't this beg the question of why schools demand that children be "well-organized" in order to receive an education? Why should high-school boys need to develop bureaucratic skills and habits in order to learn? After all, the world itself wasn't color-coded the last time I checked.
World Political Map 2004
A classic case of mistaking your map of the world for the world itself.

Too, the culture's perception of schooling has changed. I believe that parents used to be more focused on the education itself--what the child was learning, how s/he was doing in class, etc. There was a sense that the learning itself was the primary propellant provided by schools to children aimed at moving up in the world. Nowadays there's a great deal more focus on getting the certification at the end. It's the paper that matters--not the process. Especially with No Child Left Behind [free registration required], our focus become fixed on making the grade, and the means seem to matter little.

On top of our intense focus on the finish line, we still teach using methods which we know (and have known for years) don't work all that well. Is it any surprise that energetic, independent students should rapidly come to the conclusion that school isn't worth their time? Why not simply cheat, or cram for the test? And why worry at all, since that silly certificate isn't worth much any more unless you've got the right parents in any case?

Ultimately, it isn't boys who are less organized, it's our pedagogy (and indeed every institutional activity in our culture) which has become more rigidly organized. Turning in your not-very-interesting and not-at-all-important homework on time isn't equivalent to responsibility. It's just punching in. People who focus intensely on thing they themselves find trivial and meaningless are usually pretty unhappy. And no surprise there either.