A dangerous method of educating children

A dangerous method of educating children

By now, the annual parent-teacher day routine is familiar to most parents of primary-school-going children: One is shepherded from the principal's briefing in the hall to your child's classroom, where teachers give presentations about what to expect.

On a recent Saturday, hours into these presentations, I was trying not to doze off at the back of the class, when my son's science teacher showed us something that jolted me awake.

Flashing a PowerPoint slide of a test paper, she pointed to an illustration of a zebra, an elephant and a rabbit.

The question required pupils to state two things that the three animals had in common that could be observed from the illustration.

Someone had written in pencil in the blank: "They are mammals. They give birth to live young." A cross, two red ink slashes, next to it. Wrong.

Those statements, the teacher explained, arose from general knowledge, not from looking at the illustration.

As such, they were marked incorrect. No marks awarded. ("They have four legs," for example, would have been marked right.)


Far away, like tinnitus, my alarm bells pealed. Yes, I understood: what was being taught here was empiricism, in which one relied on solid evidence from one's senses to form a conclusion.

Yet, to mark the kid's answer wrong seemed to me a tad churlish, as well as slightly disturbing.

If one were to stick strictly to the principle of the question, one would answer, for instance, that "they are all line illustrations of animals executed on paper" or "they all appear to be simplified forms denoting mammalian life". But I digress, facetiously.

The teacher went on to add that pupils should not paraphrase the information found in their test questions or illustrations when filling up science assessments.

Substituting "have wings" with "can fly" would cause you to run into problems with facts: Penguins, for example, have wings but cannot fly.

This was sound exam-technique advice. But, again, I was puzzled: why discourage pupils from putting things into their own words, so long as they do so accurately?

Don't get me wrong: I have nothing but respect for my son's teacher and his school. They do a wonderful job imparting knowledge. His teachers are fun and passionate, and employ an arsenal of interesting techniques to engage young minds.

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