The Fundamental Problems of Education

My nephew James Swenson, who teaches math at the University of Wisconsin, posted something on Goodreads about his fundamental frustrations with and questions about the educational process. He doesn’t claim to have the answers, but his questions go deep, I think.  I’d be very interested in other views on this:

Because I’m a college math professor, How Children Learn [by John Holt] is a hard book for me to deal with.

Today, I spent the day grading final exams. The students’ performance was tremendously discouraging. Many problems were left completely blank; in many other cases, the students wrote things that were not even false – just meaningless – or otherwise failed to address the exam questions at all. It is hard to escape the feeling that the students and I have largely wasted the last four months. The worst thing is that, for the most part, the students are smart, and they like math: most of them are pursuing degrees in engineering.

This is depressing, but it is completely routine. When teachers get together, we complain about students: they do not know how to work, how to budget their time, how to take responsibility, how to study, how to think. And, as I recall, when students get together, they complain about teachers: we are mean, we are unfair, we set up unreasonable expectations, we are boring, we have no idea how to teach. No, this is not the whole story of anyone’s education, but it is perfectly common: familiar to everyone. I do not think my school is any worse than the rest.

It should not have to be this way – and John Holt has set out to rub my nose in the fact. But I have known for a while, anyway, because I’m a parent of two kids, and anyone who spends a lot of time with little children must be amazed by their ability to learn, and their love of learning. They are intelligent, curious, and persistent. Usually, I describe the phenomenon wistfully: “If I could learn mathematics the way a one-year-old learns everything, I would be unstoppable.” Holt’s colleague, Bill Hull, put it more mordantly: “If we taught children to speak, they’d never learn.” (p. 56)

Holt’s thesis is that formal schooling systematically destroys children’s love of learning and molds them into ineffective thinkers who are crippled by the fear of failure. Today, I feel like I’ve seen a lot of strong evidence to support this. More evidence, some of which is very moving, is collected in Holt’s earlier, excellent book How Children Fail.

So let’s stipulate that I agree completely with everything Holt wrote here. What I really need to know if how I can change, to do my job better. Mostly, Holt avoids this question. “To discuss this in any detail would take a book in itself.” (p. 185) His primary conclusion is that children “ought to be in control of their own learning, deciding for themselves what they want to learn and how they want to learn it.” (p. 185) He adds, “My aim… is not primarily to persuade educators and psychologists to swap new doctrines for old, but to persuade them to look at children, patiently, repeatedly, respectfully, and to hold off making theories and judgments about them until they have in their minds what most of them do not now have – a reasonably accurate model of what children are like.” (p. 173)

Reading this, I feel the urge to stand up and cheer, because I feel Holt is taking my side against the professors who taught my (few) education classes, which were worse than useless. It is less comfortable to identify myself as one of the “educators” in question.

I do not think that Holt is offering me direct advice that will help me to teach better. Maybe he would even identify the job of a college professor as different in kind from that of an elementary-school teacher. My students may not have grown into their final, mature personalities, but they are not children. Also, by choosing a college, selecting a major program of study, and registering for classes, they have exercised a certain amount of control over what they are to learn. Finally, they have typically been students for three quarters of their lives: they have developed strongly fixed patterns of behavior which use in reaction to new intellectual challenges, surely including some behaviors that are specific to mathematics classes.

More to the point, I think Holt is writing about systemic reform: minimally, one school at a time. In How Children Fail, Holt makes a big claim in this direction: “We could safely throw out 90% of the standard curriculum, because the students are throwing it out already.” (paraphrase) Maybe this is true, but it’s not a tenable option for an individual teacher.


From my perspective, the fundamental (implicit) promise that I make to my students at the start of each semester is that I will provide them with an opportunity to learn the information and develop the skills named by the course title and described in the syllabus. These things may, or may not, be useful to them in future classes, or in later life, but they are intrinsically valuable. The students, if they take full advantage of this opportunity, will leave the class as better people than they were when they registered.

My students (to generalize) focus on a different aspect of the bargain: I, the teacher, will credential them by awarding them a certain number of credits, along with a letter grade, if they will do most of what I tell them to do. If they do this often enough, they will become eligible to apply for certain jobs that are preferable to the ones they could have gotten before.

All of this is true: The student is entirely correct, and so am I. The problem is that our different emphases make it hard for us to work together.

You can recognize the problem by thinking about a short conversation that I’ve had over and over again in the past two weeks. [Many other examples would do equally well, but this one is on my mind right now.] The student begins by asking, “What do I need to get on the final to get a C in the class?” I check the online gradebook for the necessary data, then solve a linear equation in one variable to get a numerical answer. I suppose it’s not obvious why this conversation makes me angry, but I will try to explain what goes through my head while I’m answering the question.

The first point is that the student should not need to rely on me for the answer to this question. The student has all of his/her grades, via the online gradebook – the same place I get them. The system by which the letter grade is derived from the raw scores is also on the website, in the syllabus. The process by which I figure out the answer to the student’s question is taught in our remedial math courses, so the student is certainly expected to have mastered it before registering for my class. In fact, I’ve been relying all semester on the (generally correct) assumption that the student can do this perfectly well. Thus, asking this question is a small way in which the student rejects responsibility for his/her own education.

The second point is that it is useless to know the answer to the question. I expect and hope that the student will spend the two hour examination period doing his/her best to solve the problems on the exam: they would be ill advised to answer only 50 points’ worth of questions, even if 50 points would be sufficient to ensure the desired C.

Finally, why is the student focused on the C grade, specifically? [Yes, this is essentially always the case.] The student’s primary goal for the course is to get a C, because this is the prerequisite for the third semester of calculus. And there is no problem with wanting to satisfy the prerequisite, unless that is your primary goal. If so, you should be asking why the school does not allow students to register for Calc 3 unless they’ve been at least somewhat successful in Calc 2. Correct answer: no one else is equipped to learn Calc 3. Instead, your primary goal should be to develop the knowledge and skills that make up second-semester calculus. This, and not the grade, nor even the diploma, is the reason to attend a university.

None of this would matter, except that the goals one sets tend to determine one’s behavior. When you’re assigned to do a homework problem, do you skim the relevant section of the textbook hoping to find an extremely similar example? Do you copy someone else’s solution from Cramster (the Internet’s patron saint of academic dishonesty)? Do you skip it, and hope that it won’t be graded? These things could help you get an OK homework grade without doing much work. None of them is much help, though, if your goal is to learn something. In this case, you’ll have to look at the homework problem as a puzzle to be solved, and take an interest in it. You have to build a model of the problem in your mind; make a plan and follow through. You have to care about the problem! Ironically, people who act this way get the best grades, with the least amount of effort and anxiety, especially around exam time. Learning the hard way is hard, but it’s easier than the easy way. (I believe I’m quoting Granny Weatherwax, from Lords and Ladies.) This ground has been covered thoroughly in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is among other things a very insightful exposition of how to learn.

It is very difficult, though, for me to tell my students any of these things, because (continuing to generalize) they are thinking of me as a judge, not as a guide. They’re not wrong: I play both roles. But they distrust my advice, because they think of our class as a game they’re playing against me. This also makes it very difficult for them to ask me questions, or to reveal anything to me about the way they’re thinking, in case they might be mistaken. In short, they are afraid.

Holt has a lot to say about the prevalence of fear, and how it makes smart people act stupidly, especially in school. [This is the heart of How Children Fail; it is less central here.] He calls us to recognize how much children are afraid in school, and argues (I think) that empowering students is the only viable solution, because their fear is a function of their lack of power in the classroom. I think he’s mainly right about this, except that I think the power differential is intrinsic, at least as long as schools retain the credentialling mission that my students primarily value. Once again, Holt brings me to a place where I’m both dissatisfied with the status quo and convinced that, ultimately, it cannot be corrected.


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3 Responses to “The Fundamental Problems of Education”

  1. Andy Rowell Says:

    Thanks, Tim. James is a fine writer and this is superb reflection. Thanks for sharing it. Much to think about. We recommend Tim’s parenting book to folks regularly.

  2. James Swenson Says:

    Thanks, Tim and Andy, for the kind words. And I’m sorry about the typos, which are mine, not Tim’s.

    By the way… I spent Friday night at a graduation party for Courtney, one of our math majors, who’s on her way to an internship in an inner-city high school. I’m tremendously proud of her — she did her work well, with energy and enthusiasm, and with a craftsman’s pride.

    At the party, Courtney introduced me to her brother, also a math teacher, as “the only professor who ever gave me a C.” The brother, without a pause, gave the right answer:

    “No, he didn’t.”

    She understood immediately, and laughed. All three of us knew he was right; it’s the students, not the professors, who determine the grades. [We also knew that the course in question is hard: one where it’s reasonable to be proud of earning a C.]

    She isn’t the only one: I get to work with many students who are motivated, creative, and diligent. They are the reason I chose my job, and the reason I still love it.

    I just wish that we could find a way to pass on what Courtney knows to my less successful students.

  3. Bob Prud'homme Says:

    Dear James,
    I also am a college teacher, and I produce some of those “engineers” we send your way. I teach Chemical Engineering. I certainly sympathize with your frustration when students fail to engage in the learning process. However, I find a fundamental flaw in what you describe as Holt’s thesis: His primary conclusion is that children “ought to be in control of their own learning, deciding for themselves what they want to learn and how they want to learn it.” (p. 185). If the challenge were only to have students who can think clearly that might be fine. But in our technological society there are certain things that have to be mastered before you can think creatively. To let students control their own learning and hope that some of them will rediscover calculus or Bohr’s model of the atom and then to jump 40 years ahead to find the flaws with the Bohr atom, is pretty wishful thinking. Our learning system steers more to Holt’s view than the Chinese or Korean views of education. But we are being creamed by those educational systems.

    I think it is much more of a cultural attitude about the value of learning that is at stake. Those societies (and to some measure the Asian families in our American system) believe learning has value. They both hold that up as a value and discipline their children to excel. The result are students who enjoy learning because they are good at it. We saw the same thing in our son Brad being forced to take piano, and loving piano when he became good at it.

    James, I would bet you have a disproportionate number of Asian (or Asian American) and Indian (or Indian American) math majors and graduate students. And they enjoy the subject.

    Best wishes,

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