The Biggest Misconception in Pedagogy

I’m standing in front of my lab assistant who’s visibly angry with me: „They don’t know the basics of the for loop! If you taught them, they would know!“

Never mind that half of the group truly understands those basics and that the entire last group had no problems with their assignments, but if one student doesn’t understand something, suddenly it is all my fault.

Where did the if-you-taught, they-should-know myth come from and why did it ingrain itself into our society?

Imagine you’re a poor lower-class citizen in the 1800s. You hear the bell and enter the hall. You take your position at one desk among the neatly organized many. There’s a paper with clear, simple instructions of what’s required of you today. An adult man in his forties enters the hall and checks attendance. Slightly frightened, you raise your hand when he calls you out. Later on someone in the group makes a mistake. The adult man scolds her. Finally, after several hours the bell rings again and you leave your job at the factory.

Oh? Did you think I was talking about a classic day at school? Uncanny, isn’t it?

Modern schools were formed at the beginning of the industrial revolution because of the need for educated workers. No longer could you work just by being able to hear and talk; you needed to have more specific knowledge, like learning to operate certain machinery, and mistakes could be not only life threatening, but more importantly, risked breaking the precious machines.

That’s why schools resembled the working place: the bell, neatly organized desks, a supervisor, following instructions to the letter; it was all for a very specific purpose – teaching people how to do simple jobs.

school's model originated from factories
The only thing that’s missing is the blackboard.

And while material in modern schools became infinitely more complex than it was 200 years ago, we still teach it using methods from the industrial era. There’s a teacher who talks for 45 minutes without stop and the children listen. At the end of the lecture, there’s a 5 minute break and then the next teacher comes and starts lecturing the material which is diametrically opposite and absolutely irrelevant to the material you just heard. Is this really the best teaching method?

Sure, this was the best method 200 years ago when the teacher had to explain what’s the best way to put shoes on the assembly line. But is it really the best method for complex topics such as math, philosophy or programming?

Latest research says no, but so does our common sense.

Imagine you’re standing in front of a guy who’s explaining tax deductions, finance etc. Will you immediately know how to apply that knowledge after the lecture or do you need some „alone“ time making mistakes until you figure it out? Then, why would it be any different with children?

I can stand in front of the blackboard and lecture all day long but the duration of the lecture makes no difference if the kid doesn’t want to learn the material.

He or she will sit at their seat, nod their head and fantasize about getting that penta kill with Tryndamere after school. Compare that to boring and pointless programming tasks like: input two numbers and check which one is bigger. Who cares which number is bigger? How will that be useful in their lives? The kids would much rather continue working on that cool biology experiment they left unfinished at home. The one they started working on because it’s interesting, not because they were forced to.

average student in today's schools
“I will forget everything the teacher talked about the second I step out of this class”.

So, if you’re a teenager reading this don’t worry, it doesn’t mean you’re stupid if you don’t understand the material the second after the teacher finishes. It only means he or she didn’t present the material in a way you would understand. Maybe it was too slow and you were bored and dazed off, or maybe it was too fast and you got lost in the explanation. Brush it off and learn on your own if you’re interested in the material. If you aren’t, well who the heck cares? It’s your brain 🙂

If you’re a teacher, try to organize your lectures to have a minimum amount of lecturing, and as much working as possible. I noticed that the optimal amount of lecturing is between 5 and 10 minutes, depending on the material. Anything more than that and the kids start to daze off. It’s much better to let them work and fail. They will learn much faster.

Also, avoid the famous „Does everyone understand?“ after you finish the lecture or a part of the lecture. Not a single child will raise their hand simply because they don’t want to look stupid in front of the entire classroom. Start using sentences that imply a win-win, for example: „Is there a concept I should explain once more? If you didn’t understand something, there’s a good chance other also didn’t so you would do them a favor by asking a question.“ Here, you imply that they will be doing the class a favor by asking a question, rather than asking just for themselves.

If you’re a parent, don’t worry if your kid doesn’t understand something the second you explain it to them. It doesn’t mean they’re stupid, it just means they don’t care about the content you’re sharing with them. Let them do what they want for now, now is not the time.

Also, don’t ask them „How was school?“ the second they’re home but rather ask them how are they. You’ll be surprised how much they will love the question because nowadays, no one’s asking that question anymore.

Scroll Up