My mother put Mrs. Crane on a pedestal. In fact, my enduring image of my fourth- and sixth-grade teacher is exactly that — a blonde and erect middle-aged woman, shoulders back with chin raised, horn-rimmed reading glasses secured with a chain around her neck, holding the teachers’ edition of a language arts or science book, barking out questions I pray I can answer.
It was the mid-1960s, and Mrs. Crane would give Don Draper, and the rest of the “Mad Men,” all they could handle. My mother loved her because she was a no-nonsense lady who kept her not-so-studious son in line, the kind of teacher who conjured up memories of her own education in rural Georgia.
I thought of Mrs. Crane last week as I listened to Rick Wormeli, a nationally known educator who talks a lot about what was not so good about education in the “good old days,” and how those practices can still be found in schools today.
Mrs. Crane fed me a steady diet of worksheets, true-or-false, and multiple-guess tests. And writing? Sure — lots of practice with cursive letters and the occasional social studies “report,” copied almost word for word from an encyclopedia. In a pinch, I could always count on my mother’s fertile imagination to ace any generic “theme.”
There were no re-dos. Forgot to do your homework? Tough luck, buddy — zero in the grade book. Mrs. Crane told me what to learn. It was my responsibility to memorize the facts and regurgitate them later. If I failed, I deserved the shame that coursed through my veins.
Rick Wormeli reminds us that in reality, failure is life’s best teacher. My favorite example comes from Ernest Hemingway, who wrote 38 different conclusions to “A Farewell to Arms,” until number 39 finally worked. When asked what the problem was, Hemingway answered, “getting the words right.”
Think about it. Driving tests, state bar exams, and the SATs, among other examinations, can be taken as many times as the test-taker wants, and all for full credit. The same should apply in school, where we supposedly prepare children for life outside the classroom.
Higher education is starting to get it. According to Time magazine, Sebastian Thrun, a former Stanford professor and now CEO and co-founder of Udacity, an on-line university, admits that in the past, he “did not teach according to how the brain learns.” He eventually realized that to truly captivate students, he needed to “create a series of problems to solve so that students had to learn by doing, not by listening.”
When a student complained “the software allowed students to try each problem only once,” Thrun “changed the software to let students try and try until they get it right.”
Mrs. Crane was an old-fashioned taskmaster, I imagine, because that’s the way she was taught. And research shows that most of today’s teachers continue to teach the way they were taught.
For the sake of our kids and the complex problems they’ll need to solve in the future, it’s time for teachers to do the opposite.
John Edmondson is a teacher in Hampstead.