Education: give me some structure !
By MuMuGB on March 22, 2014
It all started when my 13-year-old daughter was trying to revise chemistry for yet another end-of-year exam. She came to me with a couple of questions on the properties of acids and bases. “Just check your lesson”, came my peremptory reply. Then, I had second thoughts, and asked her to show me her chemistry folder.
‘No wonder she can’t find the responses to her questions: each lesson’s structure is different and there is no theory!”, I told to myself.
Her folder was a complete mess: experiments reports, principles and conclusions were following each other in no particular order. There was no apparent logic to it. One day the lesson could start with a few points, and an experiment would corroborate them; another day they would only do an experiment, and the conclusions might -only might- follow. Or they have to draw them on their own. Sometimes she had a printed paper with a few bullet points of explanation. Sometimes there simply wasn’t anything.
In a panic, I then checked her maths and her physics folder. It was exactly the same. Key principles were taught, but there was no real structure to the lessons. To me, it felt a bit like having all the ingredients to cook something, but no reliable written recipe.
I started to wonder whether the school was at fault, and asked other mums to show me their daughter’s lessons. Their children were at different schools. I soon found out that everywhere, maths, physics and chemistry were taught in an empirical way, rather than in a structured manner. My daughter’s school was no exception. In order for her to be able to revise, we sat down together, and we wrote summaries of all the principles of each lesson, as well as a glossary. In short, I tried to give her the logic and the structure that were missing from her school’s lessons. It wasn’t hard work: it only took two to three hours, but I believe that it was key for her to understand the logic of each lesson, and to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything. I am also convinced that a teenager doesn’t always have the necessary logic and scientific maturity to be able to do this. How can they know what is important in a lesson without the principles being clearly spelt out? How can they be sure they haven’t missed anything if they have to fish for the theory all over the place? In fact, in France, this is something that you start to do at university, rarely before.
I started to wonder how the other teenagers were managing, and eventually found out that some of my daughter’s friends were completely lost in science or maths. No wonder, I thought, they can’t put all the pieces of the jigsaw together!
The teaching in France was very different. Each lesson was structured and would start with principles or theory. In maths for instance, we would list all theorems, demonstrate them, and everything was logical and built progressively. It made sense and you didn’t need to do any research to understand the lesson. Of course it was more boring than having to solve a real problem or doing an experiment, but you could understand how it was all working together –it was the thread of the lesson. It was also making revisions a lot easier, because you could learn directly from your folder, and then practice a bit. Everything was already there. If I were to continue with the cooking metaphor, in France we were taught to write the recipes before starting to cook with real ingredients. I personally think that, in order to cook without a good written recipe, you need either to be a natural, or have a lot of experience. Some of us (like me) are neither one nor the other. I need clear instructions, especially the first time I try something.
I understand that, in order to keep the students’ interest, experimenting and trying out new ways of teaching for each lesson can help. That said, how are children supposed to put everything in the right order by themselves? I don’t get it. Yes, learning is fun, but it also requires effort and logic, right?
Once again, I felt that the French and the British approaches were completely at odds. Why can’t we find something in the middle?
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