Terri Libenson certainly isn't the first cartoonist to riff on how much school curriculum has changed since she was a kid, but today's Pajama Diaries is different than ninety percent of the "new math" gags of old in that it isn't just "they always have to change everything" but, rather, "wow, kids are learning some complex stuff these days."
Whether "iteration diagrams" themselves are the best example is open for debate. The emphasis in education on graphic representation is, to some extent, a denial of the idea that each of us has a different learning style and that effective education strategy must be accordingly flexible.
Which is to say, when I write the teaching guide for one of my stories, I simply plunk in the "graphic organizers" from the previous stories, which were drawn up by a very intelligent assistant with a teaching degree who understands such things.
I can read topographical maps, I was able to diagram sentences back when we did that, and I understand symbolic logic. But putting words in circles and squares remains a total mystery to me.
Not just what to put in what little box, but the entire "so whatness?" of the exercise. I can tent my fingers and say, "Ah, yes" with the best of them, but, honestly, all I see is that you've put some key words in boxes.
I had a reporter once who thought quoting a person precisely would compensate for not knowing what the hell she was talking about, chiefly when covering meetings where a lot of technical concepts were flying around. I was only marginally successful in persuading her that, if she didn't get it, our readers probably wouldn't, either.
Similarly, learning to put words in the correct box could become a form of parroting rather than of understanding.
And, boy oh boy, test scores derived from bubble sheets won't reveal that.
A teaching style that leaves people feeling that they are, in Terri's words, "dumb" because they can't figure it out needs to be buttressed with alternative approaches that don't. I look at Bloom's Taxonomy and wonder why it's put in boxes instead of just presented as text, but it is Holy Writ and the liturgy of the boxes is proper and necessary for salvation.
Having said that, it is certainly not true that all education has been forced into little boxes.
And parts of it truly are excellent.
I too was unable to help my kids with their homework because, in both science and math, the approach was much more based on complete systems than on rote memorization.
When I took geometry, we were required to do proofs, which task required memorizing the steps to prove that such-and-such angles were complementary or that such-and-such figures were congruent, and I knew what "complementary" and "congruent" meant.
But the task of proving it was a single-lane, one-way street, and very binary: You got it right, or you were wrong. And "right" meant "as shown in the book."
In other words, if you can repeat the quote, it's as good as understanding it.
By contrast, when my sons were learning geometry, you could submit your own proof that such-and-such was whatever, and, if the proof worked, you were correct. Sort of.
You were correct, that is, but the teacher might sit down with you and point out that you could have cut about four steps out of it thusly, or, perhaps, that, while correct at this stage, there would come a time later in the course when this approach was going to make your life extremely difficult and you would do better to approach it thusly.
In other words, "Good, you get it. Now, here's how to work it into the system."
Ditto with biology. I had a brilliant, gifted biology teacher, but the curriculum in 1964 was geared to "learning" in the sense of "regurgitation of terminology."
Because he was such a great teacher, I understood much more for having been in his class, but it in no way prepared me to help my boys when they were taking it, because biology was by then being taught as a system, not as a collection of facts.
Fortunately, they didn't need much help, and that's important, because, while we can discuss the various math teachers we each had, I can confidently say my biology teacher was better than their biology teachers.
And yet they were learning more, because a workman is only as good as his tools. They understood biology and geometry better than I did because their teachers were provided with much better tool kits.
And now, for our auditory learners:
The new educational tool is the "Common Core Standards."
This may bring a sigh, because about every three years they roll out another cure-all for education, but this one is not only catching on across the nation but seems to be more than the latest product of a random phrase generator. In fact, what I've seen of it so far is quite free of babble, though I'm prepared to hear about that from those who have gone deeper into it.
One area of controversy is an emphasis on "informational text," which is to say, "non-fiction."
This addresses a serious problem in that a lot of elementary textbooks have framed subjects in storytelling terms: My fourth grade social studies book was a collection of stories about fictional kids my age in the various countries we studied.
And, let's remember, I write historical fiction for kids. I love the stuff.
But too much of that leaves them unprepared for high school, where textbooks simply present information without creating charming characters to personalize it.
It is a style of writing that too many kids coming out of elementary school simply cannot process, and the result is a cascade of falling reading scores at about middle school.
It's an excellent reason why we should test cohorts rather than grade levels: We don't need to know how this year's seventh grade compares with last year's seventh grade nearly as much as we need to know why a bunch of kids who scored 70s and 80s in the sixth grade are scoring 40s and 50s now that they are in the seventh grade.
And it isn't the difference in teachers, if it is consistently occurring across the board. Which it is.
So the Common Core Standards call for more non-fiction in schools generally (not just elementary grades), and that was the topic of an excellent discussion on Saturday's All Things Considered.
Go ahead and click on it: I promise it won't make you feel "dumb."
But I do insist that turning good prose into graphics can make anybody look dumb. My evidence is this classic.