Dr. Stat

Dr. Stat is a Statistics Professor. This blog is his opportunity to share ideas and opinions about education (especially math education), politics, and whatever else comes up.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Education vs Instant Gratification

I think I have a new take on the "schools were better in the past" or "students were better in the past" argument. It's this: We live in a culture of instant gratification, and education doesn't fit.

Consider being a student a couple of hundred years ago. Suppose you were hungry. What would you do? Well, you would probably have to think of it in advance, and get prepared. Maybe you'd have to butcher a chicken, which you would have had to raise up from a chick. Maybe you'd have to go hunting for something, then butcher it, then cook it, and so, in a couple of hours, you'd have something to eat. If you wanted some vegetables, you'd better have planned ahead months in advance--planted a garden, tended it, put up and preserved the goodies. Then, when you're hungry, you could take it out and prepare it (which might involve building a fire, etc). It would take lots of effort and advance planning. Of course, as a student, you might not have done all that yourself. But, chances are, you'd have been part of the process, helping your parents do exactly those things. So you would get the idea that if you wanted to eat, you'd better be prepared to put some work into it.

Today, you run to McDonalds or throw a frozen dinner in the microwave, and in a few minutes, you can eat. It's pretty easy and doesn't take much planning or work.

Suppose you were a student a couple of hundred years ago, and you were cold. What would you do? Throw another log on the fire--but first, you'd have to chop the wood, stack and dry it. Or maybe you use coal--dig it out of the ground and haul it home. Or maybe you gather buffalo chips in the fall. Or, you'd put on more clothes. But where do you get them? Long ago, you would have gathered straw, spun thread, and wove the cloth, and finally sewed the garment. More recently, you'd still have to buy the cloth and make your clothes. It was a long process that involved planning and work, to make sure you'd have something warm to put on. You probably participated with your parents in all these activities. You'd get the idea that if you wanted to be warm, you'd better be prepared to put some work into it.

Today, you turn up the thermostat or run to Walmart and buy a sweater. In a few minutes, you're warm. It's pretty easy and doesn't take much planning or work.

Suppose you are a student a couple of hundred years ago, and you went to school. You'd know that everything important in life requires hard work and advance preparation. You'd take if for granted that nothing important comes easy. You'd automatically be prepared to work hard at school, just like everything else.

Today, every other experience of your life tells you that the things you want can be quickly and easily obtained. There is practically no chance that you would ever have to worry about not having your basic needs fulfilled, even if you do absolutely nothing. You see advertising that tells you how all the hardest jobs can be done without breaking a sweat, leaving you plenty of time to play and enjoy yourself. Unfortunately, there haven't been any major advances in education in the last 200 years. Learning proceeds pretty much just as it always has, with lots of hard work and advance planning. But you have no analogue for this. Nothing in your life has given you a context for it. So, you scoff at your teacher's admonition that you put hard work and effort into your learning. Life just doesn't work that way, in your experience. Certainly, there must be a way that you can flip a switch, or run to the store, or pop something into an appliance, so that your educational needs are quickly fulfilled, and you can get back to playing and entertaining yourself.

Is there really any possible way that today's students could be as good as yesteryear's?