Dickens Depicting Terrible Child Education

One of the best things about Dickens is his description of places. Even his better characterizations depict a person as a landscape of crags, folds, and crumpled postures.

I’m in the middle of one of his novels, Dombey and Son, and so far one of my favorite descriptions is of a school for boys run by the respectable Doctor Blimber. Blimber takes the young sons of wealthy families and forces on them a grueling study schedule that relentlessly stuffs knowledge into their brains until they risk becoming stupid or deeply depressed. (The head boy, a Mr. Toots, loses the ability to form coherent thoughts.)

Dombeyson serial cover

By Bradbury & Evans (Christies Auction House) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dickens compares Blimber’s little school to a “great hot-house, in which there was a forcing apparatus incessantly at work” –

Mental green-peas were produced at Christmas, and intellectual asparagus all the year round. Mathematical gooseberries (very sour ones too) were common at untimely seasons, and from mere sprouts of bushes, under Doctor Blimber’s cultivation. Every description of Greek and Latin vegetable was got off the driest twigs of boys, under the frostiest circumstances. Nature was of no consequence at all. No matter what a young gentleman was intended to bear, Doctor Blimber made him bear to pattern, somehow or other.

The boys are also compared to sad birds making cheerless noises in the house:

… and sometimes a dull cooing of young gentlemen at their lessons, like the murmurings of an assemblage of melancholy pigeons.

The descriptions are funny, but at the same time, Dickens is depicting a depressing environment and its unwholesome effects on the children and teens who are trapped in it.

Even though every moment of their day is scheduled and, for the most part monitored, the boys are neglected. Their needs and their individual temperaments, talents, and inclinations don’t matter. (Dickens is setting himself against a blank slate type of attitude, where every child starts out more or less the same – and, if the teacher wishes it, can be squeezed into the same shape.) They lose their spirits. Learning isn’t learning; it’s a steady force-feeding with thick, flavorless food. Their parents don’t seem to mind, because attending Doctor Blimber’s school is the expected thing to do. It’s respectable.

Doctor Blimber knows how to prepare kids for life, so that they enter adulthood mentally and/or emotionally crushed and ready to discharge whatever tedious duties are laid before them. Only, he would never see it that way. He would see it as cultivating their minds on their path to a respectable adulthood.

Just to end this post on a modern note – a recent article from Fast Company talks how U.S. schools often fail to prepare kids for college. A major issue is how kids receive assignments that aren’t sufficiently challenging. The emphasis is more on funneling the kids through to the next grade than on teaching, particularly teaching them to think critically and creatively and to persist on challenges. (Of course, cramming knowledge into them Blimber-style isn’t the answer, not least because it doesn’t teach creativity or critical thinking.)

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Counting counts for young children’s math performance in school

The Count from Sesame Street

Does your preschooler know how to count from one to ten? How about from one to twenty?

And is the child really counting or just reciting the number sequence?

Preschool-aged children can know the order of numbers from one to ten or twenty, much as they know how to recite the letters of the alphabet in their proper order. But counting is not only about knowing the numbers in order; it involves assigning each number to an object being counted in a given set (e.g. the ducks on a page in a book) and understanding that the last number in the sequence is the total number of objects in the set.

One reason the distinction between recitation and counting is important on a practical level is that preschoolers who are able to both recite numbers and count with them perform better at math when they enter elementary school, according to this study.

Teaching counting can be a simple matter of integrating it into day-to-day activities, as the researchers recommend:

“When adults read books with children, they can count the ducks on the page. They might count the leaves that fall to the ground outside or the number of carrots at lunchtime.”

I think regularly using math in everyday life also teaches kids that math isn’t a weird and difficult subject. Many kids fear math and see numbers as abstract nonsense. Incorporating math into simple daily activities (counting money, telling time, sharing toys or candies equally among friends) may show them otherwise.

Studying musical training and brain development

Child playing in the YOLA program

A new study is underway to investigate the effects of 5 years of musical training on the brain, starting from when children are 6 or 7 years old. The children are participating in a program that gives kids a free education in music and free instruments; they’ll be compared to kids who are matched on age, socioeconomic background, and different cognitive measures but who don’t have a musical education.

This is an interesting study, but how will researchers interpret some of the findings? Let’s say the study shows improvements in various aspects of cognitive ability and social and emotional development throughout the five years of musical education. To what would we attribute this outcome? Is it something specific to music education, or would you see it in any long-term intensive extracurricular program that teaches kids something? Maybe you’d need to add a third group of kids to the study who are enrolled in a free non-musical education program that has a similar social/communal aspect to it.

(The image above links to the webpage of the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles at Heart of Los Angeles – the group who’ll be collaborating with the researchers on this study.)

Classrooms around the world

This post from Brainpickings displays some of Julian Germain’s photos of classrooms around the world.

Here’s one from Argentina:

Argentina natural science class

There are so many stories in these photos, in the faces of the students, in the way each classroom looks. Some of the classrooms are overcrowded and short on materials; each has its own atmosphere. A question that comes up in one photo after another is: What conditions are best for learning?

Educational resources for kids with dyslexia

Eight sites worth a visit if you’re looking for resources – including worksheets, suggested activities and games, and other educational advice for parents and teachers – helpful to children who have dyslexia. (Updated July 2018.)

1) American Dyslexia Association Free Worksheets
Over 1500 free printable worksheets targeting different skills areas.

2) Reading Resource
Links to worksheets, suggested activities, and information on dyslexia.

3) Strategies for Summer Reading for Children with Dyslexia
Advice on encouraging reading and setting up a summer reading program.

4) Dyslexia Online
List of links introducing and discussing dyslexia, with some teaching tips as well.

5) Dyslexia Tutor
Blog with updates on research and educational developments and insights.

6) Dyslexia Classroom Resources
A compilation of dyslexia classroom resources including sites providing worksheets, ideas for activities and games, and advice for teaching strategies that could be used by both teachers and parents.

7) The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity
Includes a pages for parents and educators with advice on teaching kids and cultivating their well-being. Also emphasizes the strengths of kids with dyslexia.

8) Dyslexia-related FAQs from Reading Rockets
Contains further links to pages with teaching strategies, resources for finding tutors, and other information.

The safety of negative criticism

In a class I took a few years ago, the professor assigned readings every week and instructed the students to come up with some comments or discussion questions in response. The readings were primarily research articles in psychology and neuroscience.

At one point the professor brought to our attention that most of the time our comments were negative and critical. “The researchers could’ve done XYZ but they didn’t” or “You can’t use an ANOVA for these data, can you?” or “They didn’t perfectly control for XYZ so their results are less conclusive.” These comments usually weren’t followed up on with alternate suggestions, so the professor would try to coax them out of people. “How would you have improved on the study?” she’d ask. But what’s more, she wanted a substantive discussion of the bigger picture questions. She started to demand more questions larger in scope and accompanied by people’s own ideas for experiments. The discussion had a different intensity then, more energetic and thought-provoking than when students just sat around picking at other people’s work.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s important to pick apart ideas and recognize a study’s limitations and flaws, whatever they happen to be: abuse of statistics, a poorly chosen subject population, a set of conclusions that’s too bold given the relatively weak results. That’s all a necessary part of critical thinking. Regardless of whether you’re a scientist or not you need to be able to evaluate people’s claims and see what merit they have.

But it’s also important to think in a more positive sense – generating ideas, asking questions, relating one topic to another and considering the implications of different findings. Fewer student comments referred to the strengths of any given study, only the weaknesses.

I remember at the time thinking of why negative remarks naturally dominated our discussions until the professor stepped in:

  • We were afraid to look stupid. If we offered our own ideas they could get shot down and maybe show the workings of an immature mind. What did we know? We didn’t want to take risks. Picking at other people’s mistakes protected us from the most part from criticism, and this was important because we worried too much about what others thought of us.
  • Some of us wanted to look like hotshots in a game of one-upmanship. It was less about the research, more about scoring points off of other people.
  • We were emulating certain professors. The one who ran the class wasn’t like this, but over the years I’ve known other professors who liked to devote their seminars to shredding the work of academic rivals in a mix of scholarly rigor and personal enmity (recently I watched a movie that explores this toxic mix).
  • We were on the receiving end of frequent critical evaluation, sometimes of a very negative kind, so we liked being able to dish it out. It gave us a feeling of power.
  • Making small focused negative remarks took less effort than also trying to think of solutions or come up with new ideas or questions to investigate. Granted, our critical thinking, even if it was mostly negative criticism, took more mental effort than just blindly accepting or rejecting something without justification; we did our homework. But for lack of time, training, knowledge or willingness to put in the effort, we stuck to picking things apart.

One reason I respected the professor who taught that class was her balanced approach to criticizing other people’s work. She looked for flaws, but also for possibilities. She encouraged debate and discussion but didn’t permit nasty remarks. The idea was that we were supposed to take risks, and think more widely and broadly than a purely negative approach would allow, while also being perceptive enough to delve into the nitty-gritty details of a research study and understand its limitations.

Staying purely negative would have been a safer option. In playing the part of ‘superior critic’ we wouldn’t have had to confront our fears, insecurities and weaknesses as much, or take as many risks. And the discussions wouldn’t have been nearly as productive and inspiring.

One reason scientific literacy is important

PhD Comics Science News Cycle

Two worthwhile reads from ActionBioscience.org: Why should you be scientifically literate? and Scientific literacy in the classroom.