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Education and discipline

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brianvds
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« on: February 16, 2014, 09:27:49 AM »

One constantly hears news of the lack of discipline in South African schools. I get the impression they have the same problem all over the western world now: in short, children have turned into hooligans. They do not learn even basic manners at home, and in schools discipline has basically been abolished. It is perhaps too early to tell what, if anything, the effect on society is going to be. Perhaps we turn into a more liberal and enlightened society. Or perhaps we all turn into a complete basket case a la Greece.

Another story I hear is this: westerners who go teach in countries like Korea and Japan are deeply impressed by how disciplined the children are, but at the same time note that the kids are generally not at all creative and take no initiative. If you don't tell them to do this or that, they don't do it. If you do tell them, the instruction is carried out promptly and precisely.

So are the Asians a bunch of zombies? If they really are, one has to wonder why Korea and Japan are world leaders in science and technology. The days when they merely copied the west are, as far as I can tell, over. I.e. the strict discipline in their schools doesn't seem to prevent them from innovating. The same thing was true in 19th century Britain and Germany: draconian discipline in schools and at home, and yet hugely creative and innovative societies, that practically invented the modern world, not to mention take over half of it.

How come? I thought draconian discipline destroys kids' souls and creativity?

On my long morning walk today, a theory came to me, but I am not sure how to test it and would like to hear some views. It is this: creativity and initiative and leadership are qualities that you are born with, or not. People with those qualities will rise to the top, irrespective of their schooling. But in nations with extremely disciplined schools and homes, the leaders then have a highly disciplined and educated work force to do what they are told. And this is what makes a nation successful.

I.e., most people are thoughtless zombies by nature, and there is not a thing that education can do about it. Discipline them, and you end up with highly efficient automatons. Don't discipline them, and you end up with hooligans.

If my theory is correct, then we are creating a catastrophe in our schools by our attempts to allow children's "natural creativity" (which most of them simply don't have) to develop in conditions of zero discipline. If we want to become the next South Korea, we should discipline the living bejesus out of them, secure in the knowledge that the cream will rise to the top anyway, and will then have disciplined workers to build the country.

Well, there you have it: some thoughts I had this morning, that may be essentially correct, or may well border on utter insanity.

What say you?

Oh, and here's Bertrand Russell on the issue:

http://www.personal.kent.edu/~rmuhamma/Philosophy/RBwritings/eduANDdiscipline.htm

He has his own ideas, but I find it noteworthy that even as liberal a thinker as Russell considered it a daft idea to let kids run wild, and he gives very good reasons for it in his essay.

One last thought. One of the subjects I teach is art. I disliked the government curriculum and available textbooks, so I created my own. Here are drawings by two of my grade 5 pupils:





I would like get some feedback from members here. Are the drawings any good? Am I succeeding or am I leading them towards artistic apocalypse? In art I can afford to experiment, because failure in teaching them this subject will not have too disastrous an effect on their lives! But it is very difficult to objectively judge one's own work, so I would like to hear some other views.


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Mefiante
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« Reply #1 on: February 16, 2014, 11:32:35 AM »

I think your ideas ring true about children either having some specific innate talent or not, and if not, it’s a very difficult task, perhaps an impossible one, to inculcate it by the time they get to school.  Moreover, I agree that a large fraction of children in SA already suffer permanent cognitive damage sustained at home, mostly due to poverty, by the time they get to school, and perhaps this is the gravamen of the problem.  In contrast, there are many cases were parents, usually parents of means, have introduced to their child in its infancy some or other activity and encouraged it, and such children quickly turn into prodigies in their early youth.  One recent SAn instance is the young jazz drummer who is currently the youngest student enrolled at UCT.  In such cases, it could of course always be argued that the ability to master the craft in question has always been latent in the child anyway, so it is hard to see how one might test or falsify the hypothesis.  What is clear is that exposure is essential, and the earlier, the better.

The issue is further complicated by some obstacles.  Besides assorted moral and human rights concerns, experimentation in this context is something very few parents would allow.  Elsewhere on the forum I once made the point that collectively people are living in something of a delusion about child rearing and education.  There is a widespread belief that one can train anyone to do anything — at least anything involving cerebral activity.  But when it comes to physical activities such as sport, we’re not too wary to say to kids, “Sorry, but you’re just not good enough to play on the school/provincial/national team.”  In stark opposition to the assumption that all young children are greedy intellectual sponges, we see SA’s abysmal literacy and numeracy rates among school leavers, even those who made matric.  And it’s more than a bit glib to point the finger solely at the teachers and the school system for this tragedy.  Kids are not the bottomless wells of infinite potential that parents and state authorities would wish them to be, and any suggestion that this is not so is loudly shouted down as obstructive and churlish, even oppressive.

I don’t know what the answer is but it seems we need an urgent rethink of basic education in the light of national priorities and the national status quo.  Trying to copy what is done in other countries is probably not optimal to begin with.  Then again, does the government genuinely have an interest in an educated populace of sovereign individuals capable of eschewing groupthink?



Regarding those drawings, I’m not sure what sort of feedback you would like.  While there are minor differences between them, the two drawings are clearly of the same scene.  Did you show the pupils a photo or drawing and ask them to render the scene from memory?  Or did you first explain to them the basic ideas around perspective and focal points, and then describe to them in words the scene you would like them to draw?  Something else?  That is, what is the process that prompted the drawings to take the arrangement they have?  Did you place any restrictions or special requirements?  The reason I ask is because this process is important in order to gauge the degree of abstraction and contemplation that was needed to produce the drawings, as this would affect their instructive value.

In terms of their execution, the requirement seems to have been pencil and ruler.  Some of the elements are disproportionate (most obviously, the lines on the road) but this is something one finds frequently in African art.

'Luthon64
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brianvds
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« Reply #2 on: February 16, 2014, 13:45:01 PM »

One recent SAn instance is the young jazz drummer who is currently the youngest student enrolled at UCT.  In such cases, it could of course always be argued that the ability to master the craft in question has always been latent in the child anyway, so it is hard to see how one might test or falsify the hypothesis.  What is clear is that exposure is essential, and the earlier, the better.

Yup. Perhaps it is possible to turn any average kid into Mozart or Einstein, but the school cannot do it. It is way too late by the time kids get to school.

Now one solution that is implemented by the school I work for is to have a preschool, where kids are enrolled while still in diapers, and they spend their whole day there, every day, in the presence of adults who supervise them, play with them, stimulate them and speak nothing but English to them. I find that kids that went through that process do indeed cope way better when they reach primary school than kids who spent their first few years on grandma's back in a Limpopo township. But preschool or not, the vast majority of kids are still dumb as a brick, so I am increasingly of the opinion that Einsteins and Mozarts are born, not made, or at least, that they cannot be made without the potential already being there.

One has to ask then, given that the vast majority of kids will one day do menial or technical work, why do we have so many academic schools and virtually no vocational ones? The reasons, I suspect, are almost entirely political. Denying reality has becoming a national pastime.

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But when it comes to physical activities such as sport, we’re not too wary to say to kids, “Sorry, but you’re just not good enough to play on the school/provincial/national team.”  In stark opposition to the assumption that all young children are greedy intellectual sponges, we see SA’s abysmal literacy and numeracy rates among school leavers, even those who made matric.

This is something that struck me too: when it comes to sport, we have no problem at all with the belief that there are talented and untalented kids. But when we hold the same belief about academic prowess, we are suddenly evil elitists (not to mention Eurocentric - oh, the horror.)

Quote
I don’t know what the answer is but it seems we need an urgent rethink of basic education in the light of national priorities and the national status quo.  Trying to copy what is done in other countries is probably not optimal to begin with.  Then again, does the government genuinely have an interest in an educated populace of sovereign individuals capable of eschewing groupthink?

If my thesis is correct, the government will never have to worry about a populace capable of critical thinking. That will remain the domain of a small number of individuals, whether we have good schools or bad ones. What we DO have at the moment though, is a school system that not only fails to teach kids how to think, it fails to teach them anything at all. They leave school with no skills of any kind. At the school where I work, the principal goes through staff at an incredible rate, hiring and firing assistants on an almost weekly basis. The only ones who manage to stick it out are immigrants, who are willing to actually work and are not the products of South Africa's public school system.

Quote
Regarding those drawings, I’m not sure what sort of feedback you would like.  While there are minor differences between them, the two drawings are clearly of the same scene.  Did you show the pupils a photo or drawing and ask them to render the scene from memory?  Or did you first explain to them the basic ideas around perspective and focal points, and then describe to them in words the scene you would like them to draw?  Something else?  That is, what is the process that prompted the drawings to take the arrangement they have?  Did you place any restrictions or special requirements?  The reason I ask is because this process is important in order to gauge the degree of abstraction and contemplation that was needed to produce the drawings, as this would affect their instructive value.

The reason why I wanted some skeptical feedback is because the kids themselves, the school principal, the parents and all my friends are in ecstasy about those drawings and apparently think I have almost god-like powers as teacher. This is wonderful for the ego, but the thing is, the reason why the drawings all look good, and also all look the same, is because I showed the kids how to make them, step by step, making my own drawing on a big piece of paper stuck onto the board and then having them follow along.

Which is to say, I followed the Japanese/Korean model: I eschewed trying to get them to be creative and instead showed them how to do it, and strictly made sure everyone was following my instructions and not goofing off (something at which ten year-old kids are experts :-). Silly spoonfeeding or sensible way to do it? I genuinely don't know, but I know from personal experience that the vast majority of primary school kids cannot work independently at all. Without someone showing them how to do it, they would never get anywhere close to making a drawing in perspective, or indeed doing anything else.

If my assumptions are correct, this way of doing will in no way prevent genuinely talented kids from quickly progressing beyond what I teach them, while the non-talented ones will have acquired at least a basic skill. On the other hand, they don't learn to take any initiative. But perhaps most of them simply can't anyway. That seems to be the assumption in Asian countries.

I once attended a Japanese fair hosted by a Japanese school in Johannesburg (where the children of diplomats and business people on long term assignments are schooled). I was quite astonished at the academic and artistic skills of those kids; even grade ones made absolutely beautiful brush drawings and flower arrangements. What was very striking though was the same phenomenon you see with my own students' drawings above: it all looked the same. The kids were not exercising autonomous creativity; they were in all probability following instructions step by step.

As I mentioned before, I genuinely don't know if this is perhaps the way to go. It doesn't seem to prevent talented Japanese from becoming hugely accomplished scientists and engineers. During above-mentioned drawing lesson, another thing struck me: the class was remarkably quiet and studious. Even a lad who usually spends more or less all his time teasing girls, throwing things around and generally disrupting the class, was glued to his drawing for a whole hour and was making a real effort (and his drawing worked out well, just like everyone else's). Had I simply given them paper and told them to be creative and "just draw something, whatever you like", most of them would have done nothing at all.

Quote
In terms of their execution, the requirement seems to have been pencil and ruler.  Some of the elements are disproportionate (most obviously, the lines on the road) but this is something one finds frequently in African art.

You see it a lot in children's art in general, and indeed in the art of any untrained adults. I have been drawing for almost three decades and I still make proportion errors myself. :-)

Anyway, my impression with the drawing lesson was that the kids greatly enjoyed it, and all seemed to feel a genuine sense of accomplishment at their drawings - many adults told me and the kids they would not be able to make drawings like that. But did the children learn critical artistic thought? Probably not.

Anyway, as I said, art is perhaps not the most critical of their subjects. What bothers me most is that while all of them can read quite fluently, virtually none of them understands a word of what they read. But I suppose that's a topic for another thread. :-)


« Last Edit: February 16, 2014, 14:02:07 PM by brianvds » Logged
Faerie
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« Reply #3 on: February 17, 2014, 08:25:30 AM »

I'm not one for "strict" discipline in schools, and I utterly detest the fact that schools in general want to have a 1000 odd drones reporting for class every morning, all of them dressed exactly the same and woe on the one who carries his bag in the wrong hand.

I do however, believe that a stimulated child is an obedient one.  My thoughts on the art lesson is that all children need the initial guidance of "How" before they can become truly creative individuals in future.  Kids copy adults from infancy, and its how it should be, the problem with the "bringing kids up with psychology" is that people think that kids should figure things out for themselves, which is simply madness as they are incapable of figuring out anything without an adult either showing them or pointing their noses into the right direction.
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BoogieMonster
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« Reply #4 on: February 17, 2014, 10:48:01 AM »

Fearie, yes and no. I owe a great debt of gratitude to my father's belief that I should be given things I'm interested in and then left alone.

The story goes that when I was a toddler, barely speaking, he once noticed that I was fascinated by a little light (LED) on a power supply. This power supply had a switch, and was plugged into a wall-plug which also had a switch. So he decoupled everything dangerous from it, told me I could play with it a bit, and just kept working, making sure I don't do anything that could electrocute me. ... I recall none of this. But he says I started figuring out if I turn this switch on the light is on, if I leave it on and turn that switch on it goes off, etc... His (admittedly rose-tinted view) assessment is that I learned the basics of a logic AND gate (computer stuff) by the end of the evening. He then built a little circuit I could plug in to this power supply. It had various "prongs" that would give different voltages. I quickly learned, by experimentation, about the "polarity". ie: Which prongs make it work, which prongs don't work, and which prongs result in smoke and tears. Soon after I was given an ice-cream box containing resistors, batteries, lights, switches, motors, etc. that my dad had removed from various broken appliances and once again just left alone. I learned a lot.

So the years went past, I father would "point" at things that I was showing interest in, fair point on that, but then would leave me be. I read books on programming, selected by myself from my father's collection, asking the occasional question. I was handed bags with spares and told to service the car. I fixed plumbing, learned to wield mostly because I was fearless, got burned, got into trouble, got an appreciation for how shit it is to file down those wields, etc. etc. I was allowed to experiment all I wanted and I will thank him for it to the end of my days. It is definitely why at one point I felt confident enough to start building an airplane in my garage in spite of knowing next-to-nothing about it.

Today I will be running a BOLD test of a technology I dreamed up. I have no idea what the roadblocks will be but I'm going to try it anyway, solving problems as they come. I've been training my entire life for this.

NOW, stop yawning because I have a point to this, incl. to Brian's post: In our age we are seeing the start of the end of manual labour. Our mineworkers keep striking and just this week the mines expressed a sudden interest in automation.. "for safety reasons". Something we're quite far behind the rest of the world already. We will come to a point where having mindless automata for workers will not be necessary anymore. We cannot assume that because this was needed in the past the same will hold in the future.

And I don't think this will be the end of work. There is a LOT to be done before we run out of knowledge work to do... and we neeed people skilled in knowledge work to do it. We also need people somewhat skilled in it to help them. As much as a lot of people maybe don't have the aptitude to do it, we should highly encourage it as much as humanly possible. It should not arise "in spite" of the system in those bright few who are capable. We need to get those without natural talent at least minimal skills in this area. ASAP.

So, yes, guided. I agree with you faerie. Discipline, absolutely, but I don't think we should be training people the same way we did for the industrial revolution. The requirements have changed and even if we don't get 100% of geniuses, we need to push people towards this goal as much as far as they are capable. Even if that means we just stop discouraging it, and let them explore.

And no I'm not advocating the total chaos we sit with now.

My 2c.
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Faerie
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« Reply #5 on: February 17, 2014, 11:48:27 AM »

Boogie - your father took an active interest and pointed your nose into the right direction (in the right way).  Its the difference in parents instructing their kids to "go play" and parents who suggests "lets get the colouring book and crayons out of the cupboard and you draw me a picture while I cook".  As kids get older, as a parent you should be able to identify certain interests (as your father did with you) and provide the stimulation/stuff needed that goes along with it.

The opposite also holds true though, my mother is really artistic and I recall as a four year old attempting to draw a forest scene with Bambi and Thumper et-al bouncing around a green field, I got up to go do something else and when I returned a while later, my mother "improved" my drawing.  I never ventured into anything creative again, and its more than 40 years later.

I wonder how many of Brian's artclass has gone home to try their hands at something more free-form?  Perhaps you can ask that question of your class as a matter of interest Brian?
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brianvds
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« Reply #6 on: February 17, 2014, 15:21:57 PM »

I wonder how many of Brian's artclass has gone home to try their hands at something more free-form?  Perhaps you can ask that question of your class as a matter of interest Brian?

I will, though I doubt if any of them were that interested. Some of the kids did voluntarily try out the grade 4 art project, mind you. In fact, everyone except the grade fours seemed to enjoy it. :-)
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