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Put Away the Pompoms

Why do 90% of today’s American high-school students not want to study science, technology, engineering and math? According to The New York Times, it is mainly because these subjects are taught in ways that don’t engage the interest of students—traditional ways, which haven’t changed since Sputnik. Why, then, are shoals of Asian students attracted to these subjects, which are taught there in ways just as old-fashioned, if not more so? Until that question is answered, calls for pompoms and tap dancing by math teachers will be pointless.

The Times article sideswipes a more real issue twice: once when it mentions that students whose families provide a solid upbringing with a culture of support for schooling are more likely to succeed in these subjects, and once when it mentions that scientists and technicians are perceived as clueless nerds. A couple of years ago I noted a third reason, also reported then by the Times: “It’s too darn hard.” This does not mean that merciless math teachers require eighth graders to study differentiation, but rather that students whose classrooms have been sandboxes of Jungle Gym Math for years crumple under the pressure when they finally have to study something difficult, and don’t manage the effort needed because they simply haven’t learned to do so.

Like the Times, I am all in favor of qualified teachers. They presumably like the subject they chose to qualify in, and did well in it. They can therefore proceed confidently and enthusiastically where an unqualified teacher will have to rely stepwise on his or her teacher’s guide, a sure recipe for boredom. But in a milieu where they are disrespected, or where their pay on an hourly basis as a teacher is not much different from the janitor’s, why should qualified persons want to teach? It will do no good to jump up the curriculum and then hire mediocrities to present it in classrooms. (And it will do no good to try and gull qualified candidates with make-believe ad campaigns and have them quit after they discover what much teaching is really like.)

But even with a good curriculum and teachers, teaching will fail without some readiness by the students to meet the demands of schooling part way:

1.     They need nurture (by parents or others) in a culture that promotes and values learning.

2.     They must disabuse themselves of idiotic stereotypes, such as that of the nerd[1].

3.     They must not suppose that teachers need to earn their respect like a dividend; rather, they must regard respect as part of the capital endowment of civilization.

4.     They must be ready to roll up their sleeves and do a job of work.



[1] Brought up as I was partially in the Pre-Cambrian world of boredom before Sputnik, I cannot recall ever hearing the word “nerd” applied to anyone for any reason at any point during my education.

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