After spending an hour with my students and me in our virtual classroom
(in PennMOO) one evening, discussing among other things the form and
process of teaching, Jim O'Donnell contributed this pedagogical allegory.
From: "James O'Donnell"
Subject: Mrs. Shoppach Date: Mon, 17 Apr 1995 00:08:19 -0400 (EDT) In grade four, Mrs. Shoppach would give us penmanship exercises. She would write a poem on the blackboard in her fine palmer method hand, and we had to copy it, in pencil. The rule was simple: NO ERASURES. If you erased once and handed it in, you got an F. Very simple. Now you can see what she was doing with 9-year-olds. Getting them to *slow* down, calm down, control their stray bodily fluids, get a little discipline. Makes sense. So we'd sit there copying, then after a few minutes, you'd hear "Rats!" and a kid would crumple his paper and start over. You had to get it 100% erasure-free or you had to come back after school to finish it. Now this exercise taught us two very useful things: (1) good penmanship, and (2) truly extraordinary erasureship. Because, face it, you *can't* do "The Village Blacksmith" perfectly every time at that age, and it was a *bore*. So you studied the situation, bought good fresh soft rubber erasers, learned to write lightly without pushing grooves into the paper, learned to erase carefully around the blue lines on the paper without abrading the surface of the paper -- she'd hold the paper up to the light and could see where you had abraded it. So the ideal erasure just lifted the pencil mark off the paper and didn't touch the *paper* at all. Most of us got pretty good at it. She only caught me once, and gave me the only F of my grade and high school careers. (Kids crowded around and cheered, but that's another story.) I looked at the paper with the F on it and did *not* say, "Gosh, I have sinned, I must go and mend my ways." I looked at it and said, "Geez, she's *good*! I gotta get me a better eraser and work on dealing with those crossing strokes right at the blue line." And I did, and she never caught me again. Now on long reflection years after, I realized that the genius of that teaching strategy was that *both* parts were important and useful. It's important to learn how to calm down and write neatly, but it's *also* important to learn how to cope pragmatically with unrealistic demands on your time and talents. How good do you *actually* have to be? Which assignments can you short-sheet? How much of the reading do you really need to do? THOSE are real-life, real-world skills, because you're going to be juggling multiple demands forever. And indeed, in that case, the skills of erasureship that we learned were exactly congruent with the skills of penmanship -- they helped us *directly* produce written work that was neater, cleaner, more legible, etc. My point is the one that I was making in the MOO tonight. The content of what we teach is one thing, but the form in which we teach it, the way we manage the classroom and the assignments and the evaluation, all those are equally important parts of education. A chief piece of what you do in college is learn how to juggle several courses *and* your life without anybody checking up on you. Now in the classroom, the traditional lecture format seems to me absolutely dead; the seminar that leads to people going away and writing (for grad seminars, often writing them weeks or months later) private little obsessive papers proving how smart *they* are -- there's *some* use to this, in that you learn things, but the behavior that these practices inculcate is of no use, and in many ways wildly counterproductive, when applied to the real world. My challenge to Alph, the Sacred Trotskyite River, is to go on thinking and working on how we adjust our practices as well as our content, to optimize results. jo'd
Last modified: Thursday, 20-Jun-1996 13:04:56 EDT