I’m posting this primarily for the benefit of my fried Ron, who has a wonderful blog of his own over at RWorld.  It seems like the sort of thing he’d be interested in.  He wrote a very entertaining book about economics (really!) a few years back, and you can find out about that project HERE.

The story below was written by James J. O’Donnel, and is excerpted from pages 164 through 166 of his book Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace ©1998.  (I have no idea what “bodily fluids” he is referring to.  Maybe it’s an homage to Dr. Strangelove.)

In grade four, Mrs. Shopparch would give us penmanship exercises.  She would write a poem on the blackboard in her fine Palmer method hand, and we had to copy it, in pencil.  The rule was simple:  NO ERASURES.  If you erased once and handed it in, you got an F.  Very simple.

Now you can see what she was doing with 9-year-olds.  Getting them to slow down, calm down, control their stray bodily fluids, get a little discipline.  Makes sense.

So we’d sit there copying, then after a few minutes, you’d hear “Rats!” and a kid would crumple his paper and start over.  You had to get it 100% erasure-free or you had to come back after school to finish it.

Now this exercise taught us two very useful things:  (1) good penmanship, and (2) truly extraordinary erasership.  Because, face it, you can’t copy “The Village Blacksmith” perfectly every time at that age, and it was a bore.  So you studied the situation, bought good fresh soft rubber erasers, learned to write lightly without  pushing grooves into the paper, learned to erase carefully around the blue lines on the paper without abrading the surface of the paper– she’d hold the paper up to the light and could see where you had abraded it.  So the ideal erasure just lifted the pencil mark off the paper and didn’t touch the paper at all.

Most of us got pretty good at it.  She only caught me once, and gave me the only F of my grade and high school careers.  (Kids crowded around and cheered, but that’s another story.)  I looked at the paper with an F on it and did not say, “Gosh, I have sinned, I must go and mend my ways.”  I looked at it closely and said, “Geez, she’s good!  I gotta get me a better eraser and work on dealing with those crossing strokes right at the blue line.”  And I did, and she never caught me again (although I suspected her then and I suspect her still of sometimes letting really good erasership pass.)

Now on long reflection years after, I realized that the genius of that teaching strategy was that both parts were important and useful.  It’s important to learn how to calm down and write neatly, but it’s also important to learn how to cope pragmatically with unrealistic demands on your time and talents.  How good do you actually have to be?  Which assignments can you shortchange?  How much of the reading do you really need to do?  THOSE are real-life, real-world skills, because you’re going to be juggling multiple demands forever.  And indeed, in that case, the skills of erasership that we learned were exactly congruent with the skills of penmanship– they directly helped us produce written work that was neater, cleaner, more legible, etc.

My point is the one that was making in the MOO tonight.  The content of what we teach is one thing, but the form in which we teach it, the way we manage the classroom and the assignments and the evaluation, all those are equally important parts of education.  A chief piece of what you do in college is learn how to juggle several courses and your life without anybody checking up on you.  Now in the classroom, the traditional lecture format seems to me absolutely dead; the seminar that leads to people going away and writing (for graduate seminars, often writing them weeks or months later) private little obsessive papers proving how smart they are– there’s some use to this, in that you learn things, but the behavior that these practices inculcate is of no use, and in many ways wildly counterproductive, when applied to the real world.  My challenge to Al is to go on thinking and working on how we adjust our practices as well as our content, to optimize results.


1 Comment

  1. markonit

    …this reminds me of the lessons Mr. Miyagi taught Daniel in “the Karate Kid” … “paint the fence” and “wax on, wax off” were more lessons of character than of skill…


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