Saturday, February 11, 2012

Chomsky on Education


Before I start this post, I'd like to encourage everyone to take a look at Dave's comment on my Third Factor post from a couple of days ago. Dave has definitely given a lot of these issues considerable more thought than I have. As I mentioned in my (brief) response, I'm still concerned about a reconciliation between very rich UGs (like strong Cartography) and economy considerations. That said, Cartography seems to get a lot right.... in a lot of ways, that troubles me. :-)

But, on to the main event.

Chomsky's public lecture was a very interesting one. It certainly contained hints of all of the usual politics that one would associate with a lecture by Chomsky of this sort. There's a lot there that I shouldn't comment on in this forum. Obviously, I believe that the issue of state-funding for education (both K-12 and higher ed) is a very important topic and one that frankly too ignored in this country. But, I do not want to turn this into a discussion of political philosophy (though the idea that any political philosophy feels it is appropriate to ignore education... wait, now Jeff, you said you wouldn't do this....)

Instead, I will focus on Chomsky's remarks directly on education. Chomsky's main point was that education which focuses on memorization, predictability and rote tasks is not a real education. Yet, largely, that is what our classrooms focus on. I believe this holds at many levels.

Obviously, there are reasons behind this: At the K-12 level there are exams that students and schools are required to hit certain marks on; average students are trained just to hit those marks. None of those exams have places for creative, free thought. Even in higher education, funding considerations and other constraints have put an undue burden on qualified instructors or put classrooms in the hands of novice instructors early in their training-- in both of these scenarios it is often easier for the instructor(s) to assign work that can be easily assessed. Easily assessed, almost inevitably means predictable. That is the opposite of creative discovery.

Chomsky relayed a story of a colleague of his in physics who said the following at the start of his class whenever he got a question about what was "covered" in the class (paraphrase): "It's not what I cover in this class, it is what you discover." He then would go on to say that if the student could show everything he taught was wrong, he had done his job.

Obviously, this is a very high and hard standard. I'm sure Chomsky's colleague failed to always meet it. I know that I often fall short. But in the end it is not our ability to achieve perfection that our teaching should be judged on, it is our willingness to attempt it.

It is far too easy to fall in the easiness trap, where students are expected to offer rote answers to predetermined problems. It is tempting. Students that challenge our teaching are, well, challenging. But rather than buckling in the face of that challenge, we should rather embrace it. It is in vigorous and lively teaching that research agendas are clarified and that students truly learn.

Rote skills and memorization utterly fail a linguistics undergraduate. Only a select minority will pursue a career in the field. Memorizing the Binding Conditions does most no good as they pursue their true careers. Learning how to analyze the data and develop Binding Theory serves them better. And there are even deeper ways to develop that desire and ability of creative discovery.

In my own teaching, I do attempt to follow the spirit of Chomsky's message her. I consider it a failing if I ever stand before my class while explaining an assignment and not say "I accepted multiple answers here-- let's discuss why each one works and try to see if we prefer one over the other." I come up short. That's okay. The best part about this climb is that there isn't even a summit.


  1. For what it is worth, I think this problem is only going to get worse due to the NCLB teach to the test mentality. One of the primary reasons we've been leery of the public school system here is because teacher's are horribly constrained by mandates to get X percentage of their students to X score on standardized tests. As someone who teaches standardized tests for a living, I don't really see much value in this type of learning, especially in childhood. Very few topics make for good multiple choice questions, yet we want to cram everything into a multiple choice format because it makes mass assessment easier. But what are we really assessing? In what career is answering multiple choice questions a great skill to possess? We're not teaching kids to think, we're teaching them to regurgitate. Obviously some things need to be memorized, but memorization without understanding of the content being memorized is pretty worthless.

    1. Chomsky directly discussed NCLB and said much the same. And I agree with both your and his assessment. Perhaps there is some hope now that NCLB is showing itself to be a failed program. But a lot of this predates NCLB, many states were starting programs like this before NCLB. In my senior year of high school I was part of a pilot study for a standardized test required for graduation. The pilot was deemed too difficult, but I believe the program was eventually used.

      There are some legitimate uses for multiple choice in the classroom. But it has taken over education like a cancer. Where term papers once existed, multiple choice exists indeed. It is no good....

    2. I think you might really enjoy this talk, Heather. I will let you know when the video is posted. I can tell you when Chomsky uttered the words "No Child Left Behind", the room(s) erupted in laughter.

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