Thursday, September 17, 2009

On Education

The Economist has an amusing (or perhaps not so amusing) story about the education system in Britain:

TRADITIONALLY, Britain has been an educational skinflint. For years its
spending lagged behind the rich-world average. Under Labour all that changed.
Teachers were awarded big pay rises, lots of money was spent renovating
dilapidated schools—and an army of teaching assistants were hired to help keep
order in the classroom and relieve teachers of routine paperwork. The number of
these classroom helpers, who often have few or no educational qualifications,
has exploded, from 60,600 in 1997 to 176,000 today. Proud government ministers
frequently refer to the increase.
But that pride has been tarnished by the results of a study commissioned by
the Department for Children, Schools and Families, which suggests that support
staff may be holding children back. The researchers collected data on children
between the ages of five and 16. At every age and in most subjects, children who
got help from teaching assistants or support staff did worse than those left to
their own devices. Damningly, in many combinations of age and subject, the more
help children got, the less well they did. Pupils in the final year of primary
school who received the most support in science, for instance, were roughly
eight months behind their unsupported peers.

Astonishing, huh? Not really. Education is more complicated than how much money you throw at it, or how many people make a living from it.

It just so happens that the Daf Yomi series recently passed a long discussion in the Talmud about education (Bava Batra 21a-22a). Here are some of the highlights, severely edited for brevity's sake.

The discussion starts with the story of Rav Yehoshua ben Gamla, who saved the Jews from forgetting their heritage (nishtakcha Torah MeYisrael):
Originally, fathers taught their sons. Yet many fathers were not able to teach, so the rabbis set up schools in Jerusalem. Yet Jerusalem proved too far for many children, so the rabbis decreed that schools be set up in each regional town. Students were usually about 16 years old, because by that age they could reach the town on their own. Finally, Yehoshua ben Gamla decreed that there should be schools in every town and village, and children should go to them from the age of six.

Not before six, however - that was a decree by Rav Shmuel ben Sheilat; he also decreed that if a child refuses to study, the teacher should hit him only lightly, and be sure not to harm him; if he continues not to study he should be left alone and he'll absorb something merely from being there, among other children who are learning.

It is permitted to send children to a school in a different neighborhood if there's no school nearby, but not if the children will need to cross a large river on an unsafe bridge - in that case a local school must be set up.

A class should have no more than 25 children. If there's no alternative it can reach 40, but then the community must hire an assistant for the teacher (Ha! That's where the Brits took the idea from!).

There are differing opinions about firing poor teachers. One opinion says poor teachers shouldn't be fired, as the remaining ones will then become complacent, knowing they're the best; others say the remaining teacher will try even harder, so as to justify the decision (this is called Kin'at sofrim tarbe chochma: the envy of scribes increases wisdom).

There is a long discussion about which sort of teacher to prefer: he who teaches a lot but with inaccuracies, or he who teaches slowly, but with no mistakes. Some say the quantity is important and the quality will repair itself over time; others think false eaching is irreparable. Eventually the discussion moves in the direction that some things can be re-learned or corrected; but some things once learned wrong cannot be repaired.

From here the discussion veers into protection of businesses versus competition: what are the conditions in which it is permissible to open a store that will compete with an existing store, and when is such behavior not permissible; who can be fired for what, and who can't; and all sorts of matters which are yet unresolved, 2,000 years later, but that's a post for another day.

Need I remind that this thread began, and is explained, here?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

there was a German psychologist in the 80s who had quite a success with a book stipulating how needy helpers are (very Freudian stuff) i.e. they become "addicted" to those they help being in need of help - after all they are their raison d'ĂȘtre.

sorry if it sounds mind-boggling but I found in my daily office life enough evidence that helpers most notably from the IT-field like that are not rare - their most common tactic is teaching you inadvertant little mistakes which keep you from becoming truly self-reliant. As you as a student trust them it takes you a long time before you go back to your own trial and error ways of figuring things out.
If you then show them in all naivety something tricky you have found out their reaction helps you sorting the real helpers from the needy ones. The real ones will enthusiastically integrate your little find in their repertoire, the needy ones will belittle you and claim to have it known all along.