SAT and the New Ideology


FACT or GUESSWORK


At last the American educational world seems to have got through the maze of educational double-talk far enough to realize that we have succumbed during the last fifty years to a dangerous set of propositions:

I:      FACTS are not important in themselves and it is no longer smart to have students learn detailed information, like Names, Dates and the data of the various mathematical tables. These things are stated to be boring, students dislike and resent learning them, and most of these things are not needed for life-skills anyway.

With the ubiquitous presence of calculators, we have no need to know much about arithmetic, since it is all there in the chip of an inexpensive calculator which works faster and more reliably than we can possibly do. For Names and Dates, if anyone is really interested, the computer with google.com or an online encyclopedia will find all that stuff adroitly. So why waste time learning, why stuff your head with unneeded information?

II:      What is now stated to be important is the ability to "Figure Things Out", to do intelligent guesswork and make probable statements on the basis of comparison of alternatives. The Multiple Choice question offers a small number of choices to set the stage for Guesswork, it is then the student's responsibility to isolate for rejections the impossible items, then choose (intelligently?) among the possible ones, and come up with the "right" answer.

Of course the setting of the stage with only four possibilities, one of which will often be glaring impossible, is a situation rarely seen in science, business, scholarship or even life. Random guessing can produce a passing grade in such tests, while time spent in thoughtful consideration of the possibilities, can drag the grade of an intelligent student down to failure. The original reason for this testing was clearly an economic factor, since it can be machine checked without wasting the teacher's time with the now obsolete red pencil.

III:      There are some things which are essential for living and getting around in our world. The old saw about "Thirty days hath..." is something everybody used to know, and without it problems about dates are sure to arise. If you don't know the alphabet you can't look anything up, even use the telephone book. Watching a checkout clerk at a supermarket wrestle vainly with pencil and paper trying to figure out something which the register didn't mention, is simply pathetic. And customers are so used to trusting the automatic addition at the counter, that they walk out of the store with little awareness of the possibility of being cheated. Store managers know this and can rig the calculations against the customer in minor ways and nobody knows the difference, because mental counting is long since gone from our training.

Many country raised people now over sixty-five, who learned their addition in primitive old-fashioned schools before the Union High School Craze, can still add up a list of twenty items by eye using the pencil just to note the column result. And they do it fast, very fast indeed, as I recently saw when a grandmother took the store slip out of her daughter's hand and added it up in a flash...quibkly finding the error. In the 1960's before computers were available, science teams often hired a pair of Indians who had learned fast calculations in India from childhood. If two calculations matched, the result was trustworthy, and far better than the engineer's slide rule which being logarithmic in display, ensured incremental inaccuracy at the upper end. Both slide rules and Indians are things of the past, but the general loss of numerical awareness is lamentable.


When you think of it, it seems impossible that professional educators, the people in charge of the developing mentality of a whole generation of Americans, actually said that it was not only OK to guess answers out of a small pail of possibilities, but the "right way" to process information. In the trail of fifty years of such tomfoolery, we have produced an un-thinking, un-suspicious, unaware population of people who don't seems to know how to figure out whether a politician is telling the truth or lying to us,. They don't know if products are good or bad, priced right (.....there is a TV daily show for this !) or overpriced. Investing in the stock market is now anybody's guess, since people are not prepared to check the figures, read the indexes (indices) or deduce information from the graphed market displays. These take work and time, so why bother? Weren't we doing pretty well all through school and college with Multiple Choice Guesswork? But it is the people who write advertising are the ones who benefit most from our mental unawareness. They can distribute any statements they want, even include the truth in TV swatches too short to be seen, or hide it in small print down under the pictures. And we swallow it whole, because we have not been used to digesting Hard Facts.

When you take a new medicine, or buy a few share of a stock, or send you kids to a college, have you taken the trouble to lay out ALL the factual material available at the time? And after mature consideration and ruling out the least likely choices, can you somehow arrive at the decision-making moment and make a careful and guarded choice based on Fact and Judgment ?

Or would you rather check with a few basics, get a general feel of the situation, and play intellectual Russian Roulette with your life?



OK, this is old hat by now, the word about the SAT Mentality is out, and the main block against change is the Educational Industry with its bag of obsolete notions, and a million teachers who have been doing Plan B for years when they should have been doing Plan A. We are up against a mountain of pure Inertia and things are not going to get better in a hurry in an overburdened educational sector. But in the personal private world, the world of your mind and my mind and our children's minds, change can be initiated the moment you decide what you want to do. We don't have to wait for the System to shift gears, we can get into motion individually and influence teachers, principals, commissioners, and above all the kids we are in contact with. That is always the right way to do things, slow it may be, but very sure in the outcome. This has been a heavy topic to weigh in on, I must apologize for my tirade, which is in the right direction I am sure, but not a pleasant thing to hear. So I am going to close with a little fun which tucked away at the end of a Serious Educational Paper will be seen and enjoyed only by those serious enough to have waded through the above paragraphs. We may have to roar like a lion to make the point but we have to end with a wry smile......


History Class

It was the first day of school and a new student named Suzuki, the son of a Japanese businessman, entered the fourth grade.

The teacher said, "Let's begin by reviewing some American history. Who said: "Give me Liberty, or give me Death ?" She saw a sea of blank faces, except for Suzuki, who said "Patrick Henry, 1775."

The teacher said, "Very good! Who said "Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth'?" Again, no response except from Suzuki: "Abraham Lincoln, 1863."

The teacher snapped at the class, "Class, you should be ashamed. Suzuki, who is new to our country, knows more about its history than you do." She heard a loud whisper: - "Screw the Japs."

"Who said that?" she demanded. Suzuki put his hand up. "Lee Iacocca, 1982."

At that point, a student in the back said, - "I'm gonna puke." The teacher glares and asks angrily "All right! Now, who said that?" Again, Suzuki says, "George Bush to the Japanese Prime Minister, 1991."

Now furious, another student yells, "Oh yeah? Suck this!". Suzuki jumps out of his chair waving his hand and shouts to the teacher, "Bill Clinton, to Monica Lewinsky, 1997!"

Now with almost a mob hysteria someone said, "You little shit. If you say anything else, I'll kill you." Suzuki frantically yells at the top of his voice, "Gary Condit to Chandra Levy, 2001."

The teacher fainted and as the class gathered around the teacher on the floor, someone said, "Oh shit, we're in BIG trouble!". And Suzuki again, "Arthur Andersen, 2001"



The Math Lesson

Teaching Math in 1950: A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price.
     What is his profit?

Teaching Math in 1960: A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price, or $80.
     What is his profit?

Teaching Math in 1970: A logger exchanges a set "L" of lumber for a set "M" of money. The cardinality of set "M" is 100. Each element is worth one dollar. Make 100 dots representing the elements of the set "M." The set "C", the cost of production contains 20 fewer points than set "M." Represent the set "C" as a subset of set "M" and answer the following question:
     What is the cardinality of the set "P" of profits?

Teaching Math in 1980: A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is $80 and his profit is $20. Your assignment:
     Underline the number 20.

Teaching Math in 1990: By cutting down beautiful forest trees, the logger makes $20. What do you think of this way of making a living? Topic for class participation after answering the question: How did the forest birds and squirrels feel as the logger cut down the trees?
     There are no wrong answers.

Teaching Math in 2000: A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is $120.
     How does Arthur Andersen determine that his profit margin is $60?

Teaching Math in 2010: El hachero vende un camion carga por $100.
     La cuesta de production es.............



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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris