Thursday, November 4, 2010

Academic Formalities: Just Making Teacher Clones?

A pedant is someone – often a teacher – who insists on form, whether it helps or not. I had an elementary teacher who insisted that we pronounce the word, piano, as pee-ah-no. She gave up on that one once a couple of boys started pronouncing it as a question and answer: “Pee?” “Ah, no.” Or as a command and refusal: “Pee!” “Ah, no!”

But it is not unusual to judge a performance in different ways depending on the situation. That is why people who are generally competent outside of the classroom can appear so inept inside it. "Can you read this text?" is not merely a demand to make some sense of it, but often, in school, to identify plot, and character, author intent, etc. in the manner of a “schooled” that is to say, academic, person.

Another example of academic formalism doing dubious work is this: kids who can solve math problems in their heads are told they are wrong unless they can “show the work,” that is, pretend that their brain works the same way as their math teacher’s. That is probably why the majority of American adults suffer from mathematical phobias.

Any individual competence can be recast as a display of weakness if we restrict the manner in which it is performed. Formalisms are the “manners” we display when we present our individual achievements. Some formalisms may be necessary. Many are controversial. Others are pernicious.

To continue this discussion see Evaluating Learner Strengths and Weaknesses: 
the Impediments of Formalism

-- EGR