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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Deficits in working memory – but not ADHD

The go-to diagnosis for kids who have trouble learning, focusing and following directions in school is ADHD. Even leaving aside official diagnoses, when we look at the way parents and teachers talk about these children, it doesn’t take long for ADHD to pop up as the label of choice regardless of the actual problem.

In The Learning Brain by Torkel Klingberg, the author points out that kids who have deficits in working memory may be misdiagnosed with ADHD. People with ADHD often have problems with working memory, but not everyone with working memory issues has ADHD.

What’s working memory? There’s a colorful description of it here: “your brain’s Post-it note.”

Working memory helps you retain and process incoming information, such as a set of directions with multiple steps, the thread of a conversation, unfolding stories, math problems and other academic exercises. Even if most of this information never makes it to your long-term memory, you need to hold onto it for the present time to carry out different tasks successfully.

Working memory diagram
(Image links to source: usablealgebra.landmark.edu)

You can see why kids with working memory deficits struggle at school. And given that working memory and attention are closely intertwined, the label of ADHD hovers over these kids. It doesn’t help that when kids are struggling with schoolwork and falling behind their classmates, they often get restless, act out, or let their attention wander – which further reinforces the notion in people’s minds that they have ADHD.

And in kids with both ADHD and working memory deficits, the concern is that people will focus on controlling (medicating) any hyperactivity, at the expense of addressing the working memory problems.

Taking a break to enhance memory

Incorporate short breaks into your learning/studying/reading, and it’s more likely that you’ll retain the material better, even several days later.

However, not just any break will do. In the study cited at the link, the breaks involved “wakeful resting” – nothing too mentally taxing (the experimenters had participants sitting in the dark with eyes closed for ten minutes). In real life I guess you could sit back and relax for ten minutes but more likely you’d be checking email, answering the phone or getting up to walk around, and maybe some of those activities would interfere more with memory consolidation than quiet sedentary relaxation.

The study’s participants had to remember short stories. I’m not sure how long the stories were. Is it good to take breaks only after shorter chunks of material, or is this strategy still effective for bigger chunks? Does overall coherence of the material matter more than length? (e.g. where you’re stopping to take your break: mid-paragraph vs. mid-sentence?) Furthermore, the stories were presented aurally; would that make a difference – hearing the material you’re hoping to retain instead of reading it to yourself?

The participants in the study were elderly adults aging normally, a refreshing change from the usual practice of using college students (undergraduates are easy to recruit; you don’t even have to pay them, just make it mandatory for them to participate in research studies to fulfill some kind of course requirement). However at some point the experiment probably will be replicated with college students to see if all the results are generalizable to younger adults too.

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?