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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 03/15/24 Guinea Pigs of the 1970s Educational Experiments



Humans are inquisitive. We are wired for lifelong learning. Learning styles differ from person to person. If one’s learning style does not match how instruction occurs, it can be a disaster. The current experiment is “teaching to the test.” Some wonder if we are losing focus on the key building blocks of problem solving. Kids in my community were also part of a huge experiment of the educational system in the 1970’s. I was a product of that experiment. I started thinking about what and how we learned in that era. I am not an expert on what does work, but I do consider myself as well informed on what does not work based on my lived experience as a guinea pig of our educational system in the age of disco.

 

There are some parallels to this problem in our current educational system and the one I was raised in. This is because back in the 1960s there was a movement to find new ways to instruct kids. Two components of this experiment that I was exposed to in the public schools was the Initial Teaching Alphabet and the New Math that was supposed to teach kids the “whys” of math instead of the mechanics. These concepts were dismal failures. Kids in my area were the unwilling guinea pigs. Almost no one challenged me to learn. Being a test subject of these human experiments as a youngster led me to largely check out of my formal education early on. I came to the conclusion that it was a joke.

 

I encountered few teachers who were enthusiastic about topics of education who challenged me to learn by engaging my curiosity. In reflection this seems to me to relate to their passion for teaching than perhaps any other factor. I think most teachers went with exactly what they were told to teach even if they also felt like it was ineffective. It was all very mechanized and uninspiring. Kids’ brains are wired to learn new things. That is how a young human avoids getting eaten by lions. Learning about the world helps a young person adapt and flourish over the course of their lives. We seem to miss the mark on that facet now as we focus on teaching kids things that they need to memorize to pass a standardized test. In this way, we often stifle their unique sets of interests. 

 

I do not think I learned much at all through our educational system through grade 12. I have written about this from time to time. I was really fortunate that I was a voracious reader and read just about everything I could find on a wide range of topics. So, at the same time as I had no interest in our formal educational system, I was engaged in my own lesson plan. Even if I would have found recovery, had I not been a reader and held the same disinterest in reading as I did the formal learning system, my prospects in life would have been bleak

 

The image above is from a book that is written in ITA. The initial teaching alphabet as described in the hyperlink above was an alphabet that originally had 43 symbols, which was expanded to 44, then 45. Each symbol represented a single sound in the English language. I learned this alphabet in early grade school. We learned to write and read it at the time when neuroscience tells us little brains are most open to learning language. Then, as our brains became less adaptive to new language we transitioned to learning the regular alphabet. Not sure what they were thinking.

 

The second pillar of the grand experiment was the new math. In my grade school we had these carts with lots of different colored wax folders we were supposed to use to teach ourselves math at our own pace. I looked around the internet and could not find any example of the folders. The way it was supposed to work was we would pick a math topic like geometry or algebra and learn from a self-taught lesson complete with a pre and posttest, I used the wax folders to perfect drawings of spaceships and dinosaurs. Teachers sat at the front of the class, and we would roam out to the cart in the hallway and grab folder and look like we were learning. 

 

This was “new math” there was actually book published in 1973 called Why Johnny Can't Add: The Failure of the New Math and even a song. I found this live rendition by Tom Lehrer from 1965, if you click on no other link, this one is worth it. They felt that instilling in students a set of mental habits might better prepare them for modern society. History shows us that this was all a colossal failure. Kids like me in the experimental group learned a version of math that was in retrospect ineffective along with a language that we would never in our lives use again, although I can actually read the page pictured above. You cannot make this stuff up.

 

I suspect that there is no substitute for an education that engages our natural inquisitiveness. This would mean classrooms with educators who interact with students, learn each student’s interests and work to engage these interests in how they individualize lessons. It does not seem like one needs a Ph.D. In Education to figure this out. I honestly think I owe any success in life to my recovery, a natural sense of inquisitiveness and a deep love of reading and learning that overcame some serious deficits in the teaching strategies of the era in which I was a student in our public school system. I suspect we have similar deficits in our current eras teaching strategies. I am grateful for educators who challenge kids to learn despite the challenges that we have created in our educational system.


What are you grateful for today?  

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