I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. -- Thomas Jefferson

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Why Taking Classes is a Lousy Way to Learn

I suppose that most homeschoolers get questions of the sort “But where will she take algebra class?’ or “Won’t he at least take the normal classes in high school?”

Most American adults’ own experience has ingrained in them the idea that “taking classes” is the natural way to learn “academic” material.

From a “human engineering” viewpoint, I find this bizarre.

Suppose that you were starting from scratch to design a system that would do the best possible job of teaching serious, challenging material to children (or, indeed, adults).

On the face of it, would the best way to do this be to have one teacher simultaneously servicing a very large number of students? Or would it be better to have a single tutor dealing one-on-one with each student throughout much of the day, meaning of course that the tutor could only have a handful of students?

Would it be best to toss a couple dozen students together and have them move at the same pace despite their varying abilities? Or would it be best to let a student move at his own pace, depending on his innate abilities and the ease or difficulty he is currently having with the material?

Is it best to learn a subject from a single textbook expressing the style, perspective, and knowledge of a single author? Or is it better to read several books on a subject to see different perspectives and approaches?

Do most subjects naturally fit neatly into a three-month or nine-month time frame (i.e., a school quarter or school year)? Or should the natural, logical structure of the subject itself, and the needs of the student, determine the time-frame during which the subject is covered?

Those questions readily answer themselves.

A normal classroom situation, with one teacher presenting the material to dozens of students at once, with the students moving in lockstep together through the material, in a time-frame determined not by the logic of the subject but by the constraints of the school-year, is quite obviously not the optimal way to learn.

For most subjects, there are really only two reasons for using traditional classes as the framework for learning.

First, treating children as if they were interchangeable parts, subject to a factory model, is easy and cheap for adults. One teacher for thirty students is a lot cheaper than one teacher for two or three students. And, if a teacher has thirty students, it is certainly convenient for her to pretend that all those students can proceed at the same pace, that they should read from a single textbook, etc.

The second reason is “socialization”: all of us who went through traditional schools know that the traditional schools certainly do not “socialize” all students to be kind, trustworthy, or tolerant. But traditional schools do serve to accustom all students to the idea that the way society works is like an assembly line.

To put it bluntly, taking traditional classes trains you to accept the hassles of dealing with the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles), the IRS, etc.

Are there no situations where group learning makes sense?

There are a few activities that are inherently group activities: I don’t see how you can learn to play football without being part of a team or to play a symphony without being part of an orchestra. Also, there may be situations where equipment is so expensive (e.g., lab equipment) that it has to be shared among a group of students.

So, yes, there are times when something like a classroom situation might make sense. But, these are rarer than one might think, simply because the disadvantages of group learning are so great.

For example, three years ago, our kids took a weekly Chinese class: I had been teaching them Chinese, and, since I am not fluent in Chinese, it seemed obvious that the class would work better.

It didn’t. Even though the other kids came from homes where Chinese was spoken in the home, and even though our kids were the youngest in the class, our kids read Chinese characters better than any of the other students. The teacher was a native Chinese speaker, but almost all of the speech one actually heard in the class came not from the teacher but from the other students, who spoke Chinese even worse than I do. Our kids’ learning of Chinese slowed to a crawl.

So, even in this case, where there were some obvious shortcomings to homeschooling, the disadvantages of group learning proved so great that homeschooling still turned out to be better.

Let me make clear that I am not arguing for an education that is lacking in structure or planning. You are not likely to master French or calculus simply by random, casual reading (although random, casual reading might be the initial impetus that got you interested in French or calculus). Nor are you likely to master French or calculus by having good intentions to learn those subjects “someday,” without any planned time-frame (though the process of actually learning the subjects may cause you to revise the time-frame that you originally laid out).

Nor am I suggesting that kids (or adults) should simply kick back and forget about serious learning once they are free of “classroom discipline.”

On the contrary, my point is that serious learning means not slipping in to some pre-fabricated one-size-fits-all classroom situation but rather proactively working out a means to teach each individual student in the most efficient, thorough way one can find for that individual student.

Getting an “A” from the teacher in a classroom is an easy way for a student (and her parents) to be convinced she has achieved something.

Too easy.

The real question should be: what have you really learned? What skill or knowledge do you now possess that you did not have before you studied all this?

Does this mean all kids should be homeschooled?

If taken literally, “homeschooled” is perhaps too narrow a term. Kids can be and should be, to some degree, “library-schooled.” Almost all adults are, to some degree, “on-the-job schooled.” And, you learn theater by being “on-the-stage schooled,” sports by being “on-the-sports-field schooled,” etc. If finances allow, it may make sense to hire a tutor outside the home (an obvious example would be a piano teacher) to tutor a “homeschooled” child one-on-one in a particular subject.

So, no, I am not saying that it is optimal for all education to be within the walls of the home, carried out solely by the parent.

But, if “homeschooling” means schooling primarily under the family’s control and not carried out within a traditional classroom format, yes, in that sense, it would be a good thing if all children were “homeschooled.”

A classroom environment is not an effective means of using a child’s time and energy to enable him or her to develop his intellectual capability to the fullest.

We place very little value on children’s time. Although we know that the period from birth to their early twenties is, for most people, the last period of their life when they will have the time and energy to devote much of their effort to learning, adults do not generally care whether children are learning efficiently or whether the time and energy they put into schooling is largely wasted.

They’re “only” kids.

That is why the majority of American children grow up so woefully uneducated. We adults are willing to waste their childhood, their best opportunity to become educated human beings. Why should the kids themselves value learning when we adults seem to care so little about whether they are provided with an optimal framework for learning?

The traditional classroom approach for educating children is certainly convenient for adults. But it is almost never the optimal way for a child to learn.


  1. There is a lot here to think about. Excellent post!

  2. Yes, saddly for most of the school children around the world, we have to shake our heads in agreement to your post.

  3. I mostly agree with your post. However, it has been my experience with an outside class one of my daughters takes that the kids really want to learn, even though the class is very large. It's a Bible study class and not what would normally be considered a core academic class - like math or language arts. But the particular kids involved are really interested - or at least their parents make sure they behave in the class so others can learn. At any rate, it's been a good class.

    I read several teachers' blogs via Google Reader, and got one the other day that talked about how much he loved his after-school tutoring job. But he said something that really stuck in my mind. He said he loved his tutoring job because that handful of students really WANTED to learn. They paid attention and really were enthusiastic about learning the material. That, in turn, makes him adore tutoring these kids.

  4. Hi, Mia!

    I'm not trying to be dogmatic about kids' taking classes: as I tried to indicate in the post, it is not that hard to come up with situations where a class does make sense.

    What I did want to emphasize is that the attitude of "We want to learn something, so we must have a class" is wrong on the face of it -- for pretty obvious reasons, this is not the optimal way to learn most subjects.

    Rather, the attitude should be: "Are there really special circumstances that make it desirable to take a class to learn this, even though taking classes is not usually a good way to learn?"

    I think that this perspective on taking classes is likely lead to better decisions about what really best serves educational goals.

    Your point about having motivated students is, of course, absolutely right. I also think one problem with traditional classes, especially when they last six hours a day, is that they sap motivation. One of the things we noticed in the Chinese class that our kids took was that our kids were the most highly motivated. I think that was largely due to the other kids' having already spent six hours during the day in a classroom.

    Those kids were just sick of classes and disinclined to spend another hour-and-a-half in the evening in a classroom. For our homeschooled kids, it was actually an interesting experience.

    All the best,