Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

Children are not railroad trains

"Timetables! We act as if children were railroad trains running on a schedule. The railroad man figures that if his train is going to get to Chicago at a certain time, then it must arrive on time at every stop along the route. If it is ten minutes late getting into a station, he begins to worry. In the same way, we say that if children are going to know so much when they go to college, then they have to know this much at the end of this grade, and that at the end of that grade. If a child doesn’t arrive at one of these intermediate stations when we think he should, we instantly assume that he is going to be late at the finish. But children are not railroad trains. They don’t learn at an even rate. They learn in spurts, and the more interested they are in what they are learning, the faster these spurts are likely to be." ~ John Holt, How Children Learn (1984), p155

John has certainly identified the problem, the question is, how would we build our system differently?

A lot of people have identified this problem, but I have seen less solutions to it than people expressing their outrage at it. It is certainly true, we do treat children like railroad trains, and expect far too much regularity in how they learn.

Further, our education system has become more like an accelerating railroad train in which each year children are expected to be able to do more sooner. Algebra in 8th grade. Reading in kindergarten. Essays in 5th grade. Why do we feel the need to keep up with the Joneses?

Designing a new system will be tremendously difficult. We have an enormous amount of cultural inertia in our current system. It is a difficult problem! How can we take a system wherein we fund students to attend school at a ratio of one teacher for every 20 children (on average) and find ways for each of these children to learn everything we feel is important in order for them to become adults?

Here are some suggestions, which are by no means exhaustive.

  1. Trim the list to that which is really important.
  2. Cultivate a desire to learn more, and the ability to learn for oneself.