« The rejection letter I'm too politically correct to send | Main | Supertanker and canoe Phillips Curves, and inflation targeting »


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

So did the kid win the argument?

Getting practice writing at that age is never a waste of time, because the person's handwriting almost certainly only to get worse as they get older. It's like physical fitness: some limits of competance are set at a young age.

Awesome. So the revolution has begun?

(I am unbelievably square.)

I think the word "boy" in the title is important. Would a girl be equally likely to have responded the same way? Is it just a stereotype, or are girls really more eager to do busywork to please the teacher? (Of course, I'm not telling you anything you haven't thought about already.) I also wonder, though I'm really unsure about this, whether it would matter if the teacher was man or woman, and how that would interact with boy/girl??

Nick - "I think the word "boy" in the title is important"

I agree. I thought of titling the post "Why boys struggle in school." But then didn't, because lots of girls get irritated by busy work too, and there are lots of reasons boys struggle in school that are unrelated to the school curriculum, e.g. video games.

I think there is some truth in the stereotype that girls are more concerned about pleasing/averse to conflict, and boys are more concerned about winning/don't mind fighting. There's a huge literature on questions like "do boys do better with male teachers," but it's too nice a day to go and look up references. I think gender does structure the student/teacher interaction though.

Another way in which the fact it's a boy matters is that boys may have worse fine motor coordination than girls do - the whole "nimble fingers" idea. So boys may find this kind of exercise particularly tedious, but also benefit disproportionately from it - being able to write stuff by hand is a valuable skill.

By the way - what's your guess as to the teacher's actual gender?

W. Peden - I agree with you - handwriting is another skill that is going the way of mental arithmetic. Because people have about as much need for it on a day-to-day basis. Notice that the worksheet - given the use of the names Sharon (peaked at about 1950 according to wolframalpha.com) and Ken (peaked in mid 1960s) - probably dates from the mid to late 1960s, when handwriting was much more important.

Robert - "So did the kid win the argument?" I don't know what happened next, the incident took place a few years ago.

Huh. I recall doing something similar when I was in Grade 3. My teacher wasn't pleased.

Frances: "By the way - what's your guess as to the teacher's actual gender?"

My *guess* is female. For 3 (Bayesian) reasons:

1. most junior school teachers are female.

2. *maybe* boys are less willing to accept the authority of a female teacher?

3. **maybe** female teachers like the kids to do busywork more?? (Yep, I'm stereotyping there, but some stereotypes are true. Though the "drill sargeant" is a male stereotype.)

W. peden. I think that was why he wrote so clearly.

I did some marking for a teacher I was staying with last year. Grade 2 or 1 math. I don't think it matched my stereotypes, some girls would rush through the instructions as well, but I'm not sure. The one interesting thing that I do remember was a girl who was consistently wrong with certain additions below ten but was perfect with the same numbers in the teens and 20s. We put it down to symbolic manipulation vs fingers or mental images, but it was odd. 3+4 = 8. Vs 13 + 14, or 13+4.

Interesting to me the assumptions being made in the comments as to why the teacher asked for the correct sentences to be written again. My sense was that the principal reason one would do that is to re-enforce the grammatical points illustrated in each sentence. From what I have read about teaching and coaching a key element of learning and solidifying the concept is to engage e student directly. I saw this issue for both my son and daughter in high school when they were asked to study for a test. They would happily read what they were supposed to but balked at taking notes or summarizing the concepts in their own words. They consistently made the argument that this student made in his note that it was a waste of their time. At best they would highlight text and assume that this was enough to ground the idea in their heads. It usually was not enough and by the time they finished high school they had changed their study habits accordingly.

Although, the fact you asked me that question does suggest, in Bayesian terms, the teacher was male! ;-) (It wouldn't be news if the teacher were female).

Nick you're right. You could have added reason 4: a male teacher wouldn't have said please, he would have just written "see me."

Stephen - good for you!

Edeast - even when male and female distributions are different, e.g. in height or weight, there is a huge amount of overlap - there are lots of women who are taller than the average man.

Rene - great to see you on the blog! The title "A lesson in mastery" was chosen, in part, to raise this question - what does one have to do to master a skill or knowledge? I agree with you that writing stuff out is a great way of absorbing the material (that's why I don't put everything that I do in my lectures in the powerpoint presentations). But wouldn't "use these words in a sentence" or "write a new sentence using the underlined words" be a better exercise?

Here's a question for you - do you think these kinds of dynamics play out differently in public v. private schools. In public schools, at least in Canada, the full force of the school's authority always backs the teacher. In private schools, parents pay, so there is (I think) more concern with customer satisfaction.

Is it ironic that I find the boy's handwriting easier to read than the teacher's?

I'm guessing the kid was prescribed ADD meds for lack of focus? God forbid we not produce another generation which designs redundant fields in application forms and other irritating repetitions which are not used for consistency checking but just because of laziness in information sharing. A better exercise might have been to require the student to write under each line why s/he felt the word should be capitalised, since the test does not screen out students who X random words and thus get some of them right.

Yep, just checked with the teacher I'm staying with now in jakarata. Both points, difference of distributions, and private school administrators checks out. However the students respect both male female teachers, cause its asia? Much different in central america, machismo, etc.

I totally missed the double entendre in the "Lesson in Mastery" bit!

Hmmm. Rene's comment makes sense.

Thinking of the private/public bit from my English experience, the private schools were stricter. Private schools could and did credibly threaten expulsion, as a last resort, and the parents really didn't want their kid to end up in a state school. State schools were stuck with the kids.

In public schools, at least in Canada, the full force of the school's authority always backs the teacher.

Oh? My partner is a teacher. If a parent decides that their kid should not do homework, there isn't anything that can be done. Also, while it's possible to give a failing mark on an assignment, you can't give a failing mark for a year.

Yildo: you can't give a failing grade for anything? Or for just not doing any homework?

(In my day, it was one hour's detention for not doing homework and handing it in on time. Unless you had a good (as judged by the teacher) excuse. Then they would flog us to death and dance on our graves,... *if* we were lucky. I made that last bit up of course, but not the first bit.)

Maybe the whole "ease up on discipline" thing was just a secret plot to make boys do worse? Dunno if there's a class and ethnic angle too. Tiger Mom or strict schoolteacher; take your pick.

Yildo - to say nothing of petty rules like "you can't take off marks for late work, behavioural outcomes are separate from learning outcomes" and lists of pre-approved phrases that can be used on report cards - the only things that change are the words always/usually/sometimes/with difficulty. My blood runs cold when I hear people start talking about "accountability" "outcomes" etc in the higher education sector - I would *hate* to put up with the kind of mindless bureaucratic regimentation high school teachers have to deal with.

But as a parent, whenever I have complained about something, the school has defended the institution/the staff/the status quo. People don't complain, because they know it's futile. The same thing happens in universities also, but at least in universities there are official appeal procedures, ways for students to appeal their grades, and university students have more choice as to their professors/majors/universities than high school students do where I live.

I have a strong dislike of the "girls are teacher-pleasers" trope: that kind of generalization/stereotype/prejudice has no useful role to play in discussions about education.

I've seen girls left out of gifted programs in favour of boys with similar marks because, in the words of the teacher, the girls were "teacher-pleasers". As an averse-to-conflict male who always did his homework, my good marks were never written off that way. The trope is yet another lazy way to belittle girls' academic achievements.

I was just about to apologize for the bad-tempered tone of my comment, but that doesn't seem appropriate.

Tom - excellent comment.

I just got this in from psychodave via facebook: "On a semi-related note, Roosevelt was a democrat AND a Democrat, so that's a helluva ambiguous question"

It is sad to see an exchange in a Canadian school that uses obviously American material. Or does "a tour of the south-west" mean a visit to Windsor?

Tomslee - or to White Rock, Saanich, and the Gulf Islands?

I would hate to have to write out 17 sentences for no reason other than someone else decided it would be good for me. In the same situation I would have resisted passively doing a poor, incomplete job. So much of elementary school is like this. The motto could be "hurry up and waste time." Yet so many things that need to be learnt are not being mastered. How many kids leave school with a good understanding of fractions or long division? I see that it is mostly those kids who have parents who teach them themselves or who hire tutors for them.

Tomslee: it doesn't matter whether you like it or not. What matters is: is it true? Suppose it is true that boys, more than girls, won't do what the teacher wants without discipline. Would that have policy implications? Don't you think it might be a good idea to ask whether or not it might be true, rather than just dismiss it as a stereotype, and therefore obviously false?

"Why do you hate boys so much, and not want them to do well?" Sorry, couldn't resist. Yes, that would be an unwarranted accusation on my part, but I have heard it the other way around far too often. And boys are doing badly at school. And something must be causing it. And if men don't stand up for boys, who will?

And tom: you can consider the tone of my comment to have been much milder than it could have been. A much more bad-tempered comment from me could have been just as appropriate or inappropriate as yours.

Nick Rowe,

One could generalise that question into the single most pressing question in education policy (as far as I'm concerned) which is this: children are different, but most education is monopolistic and monopoly tends towards uniformity; how do we deal with this conjunction?

I think it's also notable that the most useful and successful elementary school teaching devices also seem hilariously pointless at the time e.g. I had no idea why I was learning to rhythmically recite the multiplication tables from 1 through 12 ("Why only up to 12?") but I'm glad that I learned them. What's rather Hayekian about the whole affair is that not only was I unaware of the reason for the process, but I imagine my teachers also didn't know. Yet, given that that kind of teaching has been under philosophical assault over the last 100 years, knowing why these things are effective becomes an important task for social and cognitive science.

W Peden: that's a sensible and reasonable perspective.

But right now I'm too angry to respond to it.

Nick, the phrasing you use ("eager to do busywork") takes it out of the realm of fact and into the realm of interpretation. I am prepared to buckle down, you are eager to do busywork. I thrive under pressure, you procrastinate. If we are going to generalize, let's at least keep value-laden phrases out of it.

The bit I find particularly amusing about this scan is that the student's complaint is properly capitalized and punctuated, while the teacher's note is neither. That would seem to destroy the teacher's moral authority in this case. Maybe the other commenters found the irony so obvious as not to merit mention?

Rachel, agreed, and this raises the question: how to fix it? You or I might have had that exact same worksheet when we were in school - there's this incredible institutional inertia.

W. Peden - I agree with you about the importance of knowing what works and why. That's another huge can of worms.

bluntobject - yes!

Nick - sorry to bring stress to your weekend.

Tom - think of Nick's position as "difference masculinism" -i.e. a variant on difference feminism - and seeing social relations as constructed by gender. Nick really does want to live in a world with greater gender equality - or, at least, he would like both women and men to know how to fix cars and cook. (Please correct me if I'm wrong, Nick).


I'll confess that overlooked the teacher's lack of capitalisation of the "s", because I wasn't raised to join up the lower case "s" with other letters on the right-hand side at all. I had just assumed that the line from the "s" to the "e" was bad handwriting.

Very funny Frances.

Guys, I think she's pulling our leg, at least with respect to the claim that this was used by a Canadian school in the 21st century (unless it was a private school). First, it presumes a familiarity with Western (read: European) civilization and culture (Elizabethan? Centaurs? Mercury? Middle Ages? In a country where 50% of the population thinks John A Macdonald is a brand of scotch?) that hasn't been taught in Canadian schools (maybe except for Alberta) in decades. Second, any material based on such a presumption would now be deemed irredeemably racist and any teacher who used it disciplined. Third, and perhaps definitively, it exhibits a concern for the fundamentals of the English language which has long since been abandoned by the educational establishment ("Who cares if he spells cat with a "q" and a "z", worrying about spelling stifles creativity!").

Bob's comment raises a related issue.

There's some sense that boys are doing less well in school in part because schools aren't as boy-friendly as they once were.

This worksheet (which has to date from the 60s or 70s at the latest) is a good reminder that the idea of going "back to basics", with an emphasis on rote and repetition, may be boy-unfriendly - and girl-unfriendly, for that matter.

This reminds me of a book my coworker showed me about funny exam problems:


One of the main lessons of secondary education is to follow orders. A lesson in slavery, if you will. ;)


Of course the flip-side is that while the rote learning and repetition strategy may be unpleasant for boys (and girls), if you think that little boys are basically glorified monkeys, it might actually inflict learning on them in a way that a less structured regime doesn't. I don't much care if they like it, i do care whether they learn something.

A written exchange under a completed English assignment in my child's exercise book.

Teacher: This is not what I asked you to do.
Child: I did what I thought was right. If it's wrong it's your fault for not explaining it properly.
Teacher: That is unacceptable, see me please.
Child: I'm really truly sorry.

I think she's pulling our leg, at least with respect to the claim that this was used by a Canadian school in the 21st century

I completely missed this, yet it's obvious once it's pointed out.

Tom, Bob Smoth - no more details will be forthcoming but, yes, it was used by a Canadian public school in the 21st century.

George - course as a teacher myself I have a somewhat mixed reaction to "it's the teacher's fault" - sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't.

Bob Smith - In grade 4, my child had a truly terrible teacher who made the students memorize lists of facts about the provinces of Canada including "What is the only island province?". That summer we went on holiday to Prince Edward Island. My child was surprised to learn that we had to take a bridge to get there "Don't you remember that PEI is the only island province?" Absolutely zero understanding came out of all of those hours of drill.

Rote drill might inflict learning - I'm glad that I can name the provinces of Canada from E to W without thinking, because it's very handy in interpreting regression coefficients, where the output comes as Prov_1, prov_2, etc. But it might not. I think this kind of worksheet really doesn't promote learning - students learn nothing from FDR was a Democrat if they don't know what a Democrat is, or who FDR was for that matter, or have any context to place these facts.

e.g. I had no idea why I was learning to rhythmically recite the multiplication tables from 1 through 12 ("Why only up to 12?")

The more you memorize the faster you'll be... But the real shocker is that they don't teach some of the most obvious of tricks. For instance, it's quite common to tip 15%. This provokes wide spread befuddlement when out to dinner with people well into middle age. I cannot help to go into teacher mode here... So you known how to divide by ten right and divide by two right? Well you just divide by ten get A, then. Divide by 2 get B and add a and b.

It's a wonder for people. The same applies to to large number multiplication tables. What's worse is the sense of shame some kids get as other kids suck up to he teacher by memorizing something pointless. Just teach the shortcut... Or more specificially teach order of operations and algebra first. Even before fractions!


"For instance, it's quite common to tip 15%."

Not here, with our (in)famous Scottish (lack of) generosity!

Still, we learned the technique you described as part of learning how to calculate VAT back when it was 17.5%: one just has to add the additional step of dividing B by two and adding A and B and C. Now VAT is 20%, I wonder what schoolteachers use to get kids into the habit of that kind of procedure.

Jon: "But the real shocker is that they don't teach some of the most obvious of tricks. "

The tricks you describe get back to the point Rachel mentioned earlier about the lack of understanding of fundamental math concepts, esp. fractions.

My mother-in-law taught me the fast way of multiplying by 25 - divide by four and add two zeros. It makes works because

The so-called "tricks" actually involve real understanding of the nature of mathematical operations - discovering why a trick works is a great way of learning math.

I have a degree in mathematics, but it still amazes me how many people did not learn those tricks. I never was very good at rote memorization, so I relied on those kinds of techniques. I use them sometimes to impress people with my ability to calculate things in my head in the time it takes them to get their calculator. Usually I can only manage approximations, though. Ie, knowing that 412 x 592 is similar to 400 x 600 = 240,000.

I was recently tutoring someone in grade eleven math (exponents, in particular) who had been out of high school for a few years. I was dismayed to discover I had to go back to the basics of algrebraic manipulation, order of operations and even multiplication/addition. I was upset that our education system had so totally failed someone.


The term "rote drill" probably wasn't the right term for me to use since it is both pejorative and, in this case, inaccurate. The better term would have been "practice". The purpose of the test you posted is presumably not to help students memorize that "Elizabethan" and "Middle Ages" are capitalized, it is presumably to allow students to practice the application of the rules of capitalization (I.e., what gets capitalized, what doesn't). Repetitive, maybe, but not obviously an ineffective way to learn.

In any event it's not an "either/or" proposition. I agree with you that memorization/repetition doesn't impart critical thinking or creativity. But on the other hand, without a basic level of competence/core knowledge, critical thinking/creativity is of little value. Take writing, creativity is great, but not when it comes to spelling, grammar and punctuation. It doesn't matter how creative you are, if your reader doesn't have the slightest idea what you're saying. Or take "rote memorization" of names/dates/places in history class - obviously not high level history. On the other hand, those core facts matter. No matter how critical a thinker you are, if you think Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1942 (another example from one of my father's students), your understanding of his role in starting that war is going to be wrong.

Bob - in a couple of weeks I'm going to be exhorting a class of 26 students (at last count) to write. Anything. Anything! ANYTHING!!!! A large percentage will struggle - people don't select into economics because they like to write essays!

Copying out FDR was a Democrat is easy. My students could do it no problem - and wouldn't complain. Any assignment of the form "Do well-defined activity X and you are guaranteed of outcome Y" rarely generates complaints.

If I was doing this assignment I would follow the "put an x beside the words that should be capitalized" part with something like:
Create sentences using the following words. Use correct punctuation and grammar:
boy scouts
united nations

"A large percentage will struggle - people don't select into economics because they like to write essays!"

Tell me about it, I used to TA economic history courses at UofT (and essay courses at Ryerson)! Painful doesn't begin to describe it. Mind you, as my father can attest, that isn't a unique phenomenon for economics. The number of his first-year HISTORY students (a field where writing essays kinda goes with the territory) who struggle with the intricacies of a simple essay is depressing.

As for your proposed exercise, on the narrow capitalization point, you're kinda giving away the capitalized words, aren't you? More to the point, some of those are words/phrases which have ambiguous capitalization. If I write that "Pierre Trudeau was the prototype of a modern liberal" is the lack of capitalization on "liberal" correct? Depends on what I mean. What if I write that "The path was explored by two boy scouts". Is the lack of capitalization evidence that I don't know to capitalize Boy Scouts, or do I mean to say that the two scouts (in the generic sense), who are boys, explored the path. The advantage of the list in the original post is that it provides sentences with relatively unambiguous meanings (the FDR example aside, although even then, reading the sentence as a whole and thinking about when this list was originally prepared, it's likely that "Democrat" was intended). A creative writing exercise might not achieve that end.

In terms of the copying out portion of the exercise, we're assuming it was intended to reinforce the lesson about capitalization, in which case, it seems pointless. But was that the purpose? What if the intent was to get students working on their handwriting? (Since the exercise clearly dates from an era when that was still considered an important skill.) True, coming up with their own sentences might be more effective at testing their punctuation, grammar, creativity etc., but if the point of the exercise is practice handwriting, than rote repetition might be more efficient (since students don't need to take the time to create sentences, and in assessing the students, the teacher at least knows what they're trying to write and can figure out their mistakes).

I almost failed first year history twice, due to writer's block. I wasn't afraid of essay structure, it was the mistaken belief that I was expected to write something novel or accurate about actual history. It seems like an impossible subject if you take it seriously.

Andrew, I too have a math degree. I think that if the beauty of math enchants you then the failure of schools to teach math seems tragic. When I tell people that I studied math they often report that they are bad at math or don't like it. I usually respond that they might have liked it more if they had been taught better and get a tale of woe. I hear about angry, inpatient teachers, difficult explanations, being rushed through material. Anyone interested in better math teaching should check out the story of John Mighton and JUMP math.

I almost failed first year history twice, due to writer's block. I wasn't afraid of essay structure, it was the mistaken belief that I was expected to write something novel or accurate about actual history. It seems like an impossible subject if you take it seriously.

This rings true to me. My HS was very focused on writing short essays. Our final exams senior year were marathon writing sessions with scant time. I did well... Still I got to college and quickly discovered my writing was not very good. Some critical marks from the instructor helped but so did seeing the work of some of the better students.

There is still a certain halting quality to my writing today but I eventually learned to focus more on the rhetoric and less on accuracy. The professors loved those papers. Sure, I had supporting evidence, but I would never regard my arguments as staying within the bounds of what could be known.

Then again, most public policy essays don't seem to stay within the bounds of he known either...

Did anyone notice that question 16 is factually incorrect? Mercury was the Roman name of the Greek god Hermes.

Robillard - I didn't! Perhaps the worksheet is just a really really subtle way of imparting critical thinking skills?

The comments to this entry are closed.

Search this site

  • Google

Blog powered by Typepad