Saturday, September 12, 2009

Myths about left-brain schooling

A recent Harper's Magazine article perpetuates the myth that our schools focus narrowly on academics at the expense of everything else. In particular, writes Mark Slouka, a national obsession with creating jobs and keeping big businesses happy is causing math and science (or what he calls "mathandscience") to rule the school at the expense of everything else.

While Slouka claims that mathandscience has crowded out the humanities, others, faulting No Child Left Behind, have claimed that reading, writing, and arithmetic have crowded out art and music.

Of course, if one were to get out of one's armchair and visit an actual classroom, one would observe that:

1. "math" and "science" classes involve less actual math and science than ever before.

2. while art instruction may no longer exist, neither does penmanship instruction, phonics instruction, or the direct instruction of mathematics.

3. art production is alive and well in the myriad posters, cartoons, dioramas, 3-D models, props, and costumes that students are required to produce for their language arts, social studies, "math," and "science" classes.

Today's students aren't being trained to do much at all, let alone to be cogs in the capitalist machinery. Rather, they are guinea pigs in the Constructivist experiment that dominates the least capitalist sector of our society.


TerriW said...

Pardon the mildly off-topic comment -- but I just noticed the link to your book for sale now on Amazon. Long time lurker here, so I'm looking forward to it -- I just pre-ordered it.

Katharine Beals said...

Thanks, Terri! Hope you enjoy it and find it helpful. Do you have kids you'd call "left-brain"?

Beth said...

I don't think it's fair to blame Constructivism. I expect a real Constructivist would be just as appalled by what goes on in the classroom as you are, although for different reasons.

If Constructivism was being done well, you'd see kids being genuinely interested, and genuinely following their own train of thought. That's a completely different issue than "make a poster describing your academic goals."

TerriW said...


Oh, yeah. I already have one child who sorts and classifies like crazy. My husband and I are both nerdy math/science/computer types, so the luck of the genetic draw favors left-brainers in our family.

(We homeschool.)

Dawn said...

I think even though art gets into math and english these days by way of projects it's degrading art as well as those other subjects. Art is as much based on skills and work and practice as math. Expressing yourself is something you can only do after you've acquired the skills to do this. And I say this as someone for whom drawing has always been tremendously important.

Perspective, light, structure, tools, exercises, etc. THAT's what makes art. This half-assed stuff they incorporate into math or english not only cheapens those subjects but cheapens art.

Hope that made sense.

vlorbik said...

not cogs but *lubricant* for the cogs.
the cogs are made to last longer.
(anyway they used to be.)
"constructivism" when that
keeps the peace; other lies--
"critical thinking", for example--
when *they* serve...

there is no such thing as constructivism.
just a bunch of related cliches
that one sometimes hears bandied about
so people can cover over their
real opinions about education.

there *is* critical thinking.
(it's just unusual in schools.)

vlorbik said...

drawing has been important to me
on and off. certainly i've always loved
*other* people's drawings but for me
actually working at it has come in
short and infrequent bursts
(of, say, several weeks ... sprints
for some previously-unreached
level of attainment).

so i don't know much about drawing.
but i know this about art.
*artists* make art.
and exercises are highly optional.

i've set *myself* exercises sometimes.
but it can be corrupting:
practice for the sake of practice
is better than nothing
(and necessary if one is
in some big fat hurry
to get to some finish line
real or imagined).
but it isn't art.
not yet.

this is entirely a matter of attitude,
in case that isn't clear.
(i suppose even batting practice
could be art on my model here
if you're *really*
swinging for the fences...
or rather, if you're working
at *changing* your swing...)

i know very well and have told
anyway dozens of students
(i haven't known it very well
for *long*) that it's a darn good
idea in studying a math book
(in particular) to copy its drawings.

even if one is indifferent to
developing drawing skill in
any other area (if that were
possible; everyone would
*like* to be able to draw
of course if they only weren't
afraid to try)... this is a good
thing even if only to learn
the *math* better.

you think you know
what you're looking at
but you won't have looked close
until you actually try to copy it:
the *reasons* things are
as they are seem to emerge
through movements of the hand.

the skill is essentially just
*be much more careful*
(about looking at things
[an already existing drawing
and one's own] here;
about reasoning in maths;
about hearing and controlling
sounds in music...
what have you).
the trick is to care.
for a long time.

part of the point in my "copying"
example is that
by telling myself i'm studying
maths not art i free my mind
from certain false notions i might have
about how best to *study* drawing
and just go ahead and *draw* something.
in this case, lessons in perspective
(for example) will be built in
but it's just something that happens.

and exercises are usually
somebody *else*'s idea.
artists generally have to convince
themselves (at least!) that
they're working with
ideas of their *own*....

school systems are indifferent
to the plastic and performing arts.
but outright *hostile*
to the art of teaching.
caring about *anything* is dangerous;
caring about caring is subversive.

thanks to dawn for an offhand remark
inspiring of a pretty lengthy ramble.
let me just finish by adding that
i don't think our positions are
actually all that far apart.

Beth said...

I completely agree with Dawn that the "creative" projects are an insult to real creativity and art.

george said...

I read that article and found it to be almost content-free. It did not clarify what it even meant for "math and science to rule the school".
Losing arts programs is not the same as math and science ruling the school; indeed, music and art have a great deal of mathematical content
(e.g. "Mozart effect"), although that is often viewed as a right-brain connection.

george said...

It's important not to overgeneralize about "visiting an actual classroom".
I have been substitute teaching for 4 years and have visited actual classrooms at least 150 days/year for the last 4 years, observing a lot of variation (even though they were all in the same school district).
I don't know what the regular teacher does when I'm not there, but I do know that it is common for some drill and practice to be left as something for me to supervise and assist the kids in doing, when I'm subbing in a math class.

There was a vicious battle about math standards at the national level in the previous decade and the result was by NO means a win for the "constructivist" side. Yes, there is still a lot of that being practiced in a negative and damaging way in a lot of places, but there are also places where it has been tried and deemed to have failed. Educational praxis is a patchwork kind of thing, even within communities.