Arnold Kling  

School Reform

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Expanding an idea I first tossed out on this blog, I write,


A simple way to separate the teacher from the exam is to exchange grading responsibilities. For example, have the teacher of "algebra 2" make up and grade the final exam given to the students taking "algebra 1" from a different teacher. Chances are, the algebra 2 teacher has a good idea of what it is really important for students to master in algebra 1.

...With the standard practice, where professors make up their own exams, the students put pressure on the professor to make the course as easy as possible. If instead the exam were made up externally, then the pressure would be on the professor to teach the course rigorously.


The latest issue of The New Atlantis has an article by Matthew B. Crawford saying that we should bring back shop class. He argues that we are losing our knowledge of industrial-age manual labor skills.

My reaction is that we have to realize that in a modern economy all sorts of traditional skills are in less demand. How many 19th-century jobs require skills that are still relevant today? Should we also have classes in farming?

I actually think this might be an idea worth considering. Imagine we had a hundred-person economy that could not trade with outsiders. It could have abundant natural resources (water, forest) but no man-made resources (electric plants, cars, MP3 players). It would have to provide its members with food, clothing, sanitation, and shelter (could it do much else?). What knowledge and skills would you want the hundred people in such an economy to have? Would young people today benefit from learning those skills?


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COMMENTS (17 to date)
Jody writes:

Actually, in rural Tennessee there are classes on farming. I have a second-cousin who taught farming. She's now a principal, but I believe the course is still taught.

Bruce Charlton writes:

I think this post emphasizies our rather shaky grasp of the function of formal education. My feeling is that the implicit function is the inculcation of abstract systematic thinking - which is necessary for modernizing societies, but is not a spontaneous human attribute (we are naturally 'animistic').

Anyway, I wrote about this: www.hedweb.com/bgcharlton/multi-d

This is put forward as a plausible unifying hypothesis, explaining why general (abstract, systematic) education has been for many decades increasing in both duration and inclusion in all modernizing societies.

Matthew Cromer writes:

Absolutely. You never know when you might find yourself on Oceanic flight 815! [smirk]

KipEsquire writes:

By that reckoning, no law school graduate should ever need a bar exam review course, since the professors are already, hopefully, teaching for a test that is not their own.

Doesn't hold up empirically, though. Go figure. (Though other economic factors are admittedly at work too.)

conchis writes:

My understanding is that this is how things typically work in Oxford (the exchange of grading responsibilities, not the farming courses); though I'm not sure the professors there have ever been particularly susceptible to student pressure to grade more easily - indeed, some courses seem consciously to wear their failure rates as badges of honour.

Billy Shears writes:

There's something about hand work (artcraft, farming, construction, etc) a little bit numbing but it also builds a contact between the person and the world, that I guess it's important when educating a child. I myself am completely deprived of any of these skills,(besides playing the guitar) but I keep trying any once in a while... just for the sake of it. And it's comforting.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Going by the current Discovery Channel lineup, we would need about 40 custom chopper builders, 10 dimwits to work for Boydd Coddington, 25 crab fisherman, 24 shark experts, and Mike Rowe to do everything else (i.e. the "Dirty Jobs").

Excellent essay Arnold. As I mentioned on TCS, you could make a tiny industry out of suggestion #1.

meep writes:

I take actuarial exams (which are essentially pass/fail), and there are various companies that supply study materials and seminars to cover material on the exams.

I've taken the seminars and used the study manuals, and those companies definitely have an incentive to cover the materials well. However, this is just to get you ready for a professional exam, so it's not like they do much grading or give you homework. The actuarial student does most of the learning on their own, and the seminar is to summarize the material and get over hard points. One seminar giver did do a sample question, which she graded as if it were the actual exam, and gave pointers on how to tackle the exam itself.

I think the AP classes would work well like this, if your class grade was based on the score you received on the AP exam.

There are a lot of things you learn in shop class that have nothing to do with actually working in a shop of any sort.

Presumably, most people live in a house that has electricity, as well as containing a quantity of furniture. Shop teaches you enough of the basics to be able to fix children's toys, to repair most furniture, and to rewire a light switch or electrical socket.

And while I can certainly afford to just call an electrician to replace the bad light switches in my new house, it's sort of nice that I don't have to, and can instead walk into Home Depot to spend $15 on a few parts that I can go home and install in an hour.

This also makes me somewhat more impressive to my son, who at two and a half years of age has yet to display any real interest in or aptitude for embedded systems programming. Tools, however, fascinate him.

Cyberike writes:

Shop classes have always been about learning practical, everyday stuff you might use, like tools and the development of a mechanical aptitude. But the bigger issue is that shop classes appealed to the (admittedly small) fraction of students who had a more hands on learning style. There is leass and less content in our schools for those with this learning style, which makes school harder and less relevant for those students.

Do you remember those classes that you thought were boring? How about if every class in school was that way for you? We need shop classes, if only to give some students something to look forward to, something to get them through the other classes that those students are just not interested in. The bottom line is that you cannot teach students that are not interested in learning.

Give them something to regain their interest.

Tim Swanson writes:

Your last point regarding a closed economy run by highschool students is what Maria Montessori envisioned for Junior High and High School students. It was the "Erdkinder" program and it worked like so:

The students would live in a self-sufficient town in which they operated a farm, a hostel and a general store. They would raise the livestock and attend to crops. They would then harvest and sell them.

She not only wanted to teach the students a "hard work ethic" but also how economics works at a micro scale.

Here is one example of it in practice: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hershey_Montessori_Farm_School http://www.montessori-ami.org/congress/2005Sydney/paperdk.htm


In a nutshell: The Montessori Erdkinder model was a farm-based boarding school where students would live throughout the year and manage a hostel or hotel for visiting parents. The students would sell farm goods and other products in their own store. Farm management and store economics would form the basis of meaningful academic studies. The Erdkinder would also posses a "museum of machinery" where students could assemble, use, and repair their own farm equipment. The Erdkinder curriculum would encourage self-expression through music, art, public speaking, and theater. Students would also study languages, mathematics, science, history of civilizations, cultures, and technological innovations.
(source: http://www.uky.edu/HES/rcfc/vol6no2/page9.html)

K writes:

If teachers will dumb down their own exams under pressure then having a second teacher prepare the exam is unlikely to fix the situation.

The same teachers will then bargain for a better deal with the teacher preparing their exam. Those who hang tough for high standards will lose friends and influence at the school.

Why do you think schools don't have higher standards now? Mostly because life is more pleasant if you do not.

Kent Gatewood writes:

Dr. Kling would you convince Mr. Glassman at TCS to adopt your comments format. My learning style would benefit.

RW writes:

The country will always need individuals to perform manual labor, and classes such as shop is a great place for students to begin learning hands-on skills that may be needed when they are older. Not everyone is an academic, and many prefer to use their hands more than their minds. For some, that is the only way they can learn, and there should always be classes, such as shop, available to these individuals. It may be the only way they will be able to make a decent living when they get out on their own.

Personally, I have had several manual labor jobs and I found them to be very rewarding. There is something about working with your hands that can be extremely satisfying.

MR writes:

Classes like a shop should be kept around. These are for the students who need the hands on work to learn the work better then sittin in a classroom learning it out of a book. This type of class also gives a student something to look forward too ... instead of a boring major class .. that learns everything out of a book.

David Rossie writes:

I took classes at York in the UK and I believe their assessment process is something like the proposal you suggest. Adjudicators from other universities may take part as well. I'm not sure who creates the exams, though they are bound by regulations from the department.

Brian Simmons writes:

I found this article by Arnold King to be quote interesting and I agree with his opinion on school reform. The idea of a traditional shop class should not necessarily die with the economy of the 19th century. It may not be a necessity to the market, but there is still value in learning new things and working with your hands. I know a large number of very intelligent people, who have no idea about the very basics of using any kind of tool. Although academics are essential to a well-rounded education, the relationship between humans and some sort of physical labor is also important in a sense. I know that I am not going to be one of those people that have to call someone every time something around the house breaks. Maybe that is more important to me than most people because I have always been taught that my education is very important, but it should be a springboard for laziness. Many people in today’s society would not think twice about making a phone call if a problem occurs rather than embracing a challenge and at least attempting to solve the problem first. I’m sure many people in service industries would not embrace the offering of such courses, but, could you really blame them? The offering of shop related courses should not have a profound affect on the economy, but more importantly they could broaden some people’s views on a well-rounded education.

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