starin’ at my sandals – that’s a paddlin’


I read a great quote from journalist Murray Sayle, who said there were only three kinds of pieces:

• “Arrow points to defective part”

• “Herein we name the guilty person”

• “Everything you know about subject X is wrong”

The first two kinds of journalism are as self-evident as farts, but in the last 25 years, we’ve had an onslaught of the third kind. As biological, medical and psychological testing gets more sophisticated, we’re finding out that human beings were incorrect about pretty much every assumption from 1858 to 2009.

People faced with that kind of wrongheadedness do one of two things: they either double-down on idiocy, or else they breathe the fresh clean air of truth. Being wrong would be liberating if it weren’t so humiliating. I confess there’s plenty of things I’d like to go on believing despite scientific consensus to the contrary (like Pluto still being a planet – poor little guy).

I have droned ENDLESSLY on here about how much I loathed school, and how much of it hinged on The Man’s insistence on turning teenagers into sleep-deprived zombies. Still, despite story after story showing how teens’ test scores skyrocket with later school start times, administrations don’t do anything because, well, they’d have to alter the calendar they Xeroxed in 1972.


Then, just last week, the NYTimes published an article actually called Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits. We were all trained the same: in order to learn, you need to have a permanent, quiet study space with no distractions. It should be regularly scheduled, and no dicking around. Apparently, that’s total crap.

Several different studies showed that mixing up subjects during a session, as well as moving your study area around, and taking seemingly-unrelated breaks… gave students huge leaps in cognitive understanding and test scores. When we switch things up, the uniquely different ambient environments and background noise imprints on us while we learn, allowing us to digest information that sticks. Remember this entry from two years ago? It’s how all of us remember what theater we were in when we saw all those movies.

In all, it means shoving another case study into the Shit I Suffered in School For No Apparent Reason file, although that particular dossier is now so fucking full I’m wondering if anything I did in middle and high school made sense. All those study halls, all that sitting in a wooden desk trying to memorize bullshit while wearing a tie, the unending hours of trying to cram trigonometry concepts into my brain, it was like shoving a gallon of Jell-o through a shower head.

How’s about this: if there is something about school that is making kids miserable, why not see if it’s actually working? I know it’s a revolutionary concept, but if you’ve got a room full of 16-year-olds barely able to stay awake, confined to their desks like baby cows in their veal pens, failing their tests and not caring… maybe the system could afford some tweaks?

In some ways, I feel vindicated by this research. I was not such an ADD-addled freak doing poorly in school, I was just being human. If the structure makes you sorrowful and wretched, you’re probably doing the structure no good. There’s only one thing in life that works great when it feels wrong, and it’s called golf.

0 thoughts on “starin’ at my sandals – that’s a paddlin’

  1. FreshPaul

    I agree that the system could afford more than some tweaks, Ian (and maybe they’re different and/or more radical than yours). However, what would your specific tweaks be, and how would you practically go about getting them done?
    I’m curious to know your particular thoughts on this, since the only dossiers seemingly more overstuffed than your “Shit I Suffered…” one are the “Reflexive distaste of all things school-related” and “Retroactively way too damn cool for school” folders.
    Throw some tangible solutions my way, and I’ll work to get them done.
    Maybe bitching about how much one truly hated school really is the sine qua non of getting shit done in school reform.

  2. kent williams

    Then there’s Fox News, that adds a fourth variety of news story:
    “Here’s something that isn’t so that believing will make you feel more American, the better to serve your corporate overlords.”
    The thing about “Everything You Know Is Wrong” stories is that if you live long enough, you’ll see the debunked rebunked. The “Maybe our wrong-headed forbears got this one right after all.”

  3. chm

    I’m all for rethinking school and trying to use different modes of learning. And believe me, educators are forever talking about these kinds of things. For. Ever. The problem occurs when one’s actually faced with an overpacked classroom of 35-40 adolescent sociopaths. I was a serious-minded public middle-school teacher for four years and can tell you that, however good your intentions and however much you loathed the exercise as a teenager, there is a time and place for study hall. I guess what I’m saying is that even the most stultifying school rituals emerged in response to a real need and that, if you’re going to propose a new way of doing things, you also need to speak to that original problem.
    Of course I realize these posts are more miniature think pieces than anything else. I’m just saying.

  4. FreshPaul

    then again, perhaps I should moderate my tone. I just got over my failure to remember that Ian went to repressive private schools up until his move to Chapel Hill. I should be more mindful of that and extend him more grace on that account.

  5. Ian

    No, I only went to private school once I got to 9th grade (which I repeated, but that’s another story). I was in public school the rest of the time and it was just as bad.
    I don’t offer specifics because I’m making a larger point about how we used to (and still do, I imagine) educate kids based on the principle of “if it’s not miserable, it’s not working”… and now research is showing that’s a rotten approach.

  6. FreshPaul

    Ian, you can’t honestly and in good faith believe that schools — writ large or small — work(ed) on the principle of “if it’s not miserable, it’s not working”. Schools may be lots of things and have myriad problems, but self-loathing bastions of sadism and masochism just for the hell of it, they are not. The people who work in schools are generally earnestly there to serve and educate students as best they can, often on contrast to the political and administrative constraints to the contrary. The fundamental problem for what passes for educational “reform” today (and why the Obama administration has royally screwed this up, namely dipshit Arne Duncan) operates on the fundamental assumption that the primary implementers of supposed reforms — teachers and principals — are rarely, if ever, consulted on what does and doesn’t work in schools.
    I’ll offer that as solutions 1 and 1A for attacking the most fundamental problems that you see in schools: giving a real voice to the people who actually interact with students on a daily basis and are often the people most invested (sadly) in their learning and success. Bill Gates knows as much about running a school and teaching students as I know about getting around anti-trust laws.

  7. CM

    Agreed. I also think making teachers more comfortable and dealing with them creatively would go a long way to increasing the enthusiasm in the classroom, and it would trickle to students. In this day and age, teachers still don’t get the respect and work options that people in other jobs do – not even a private, quiet place to go half the time between classes so they can get stuff done.

  8. Tessa

    I am always in favor of evidence based policy – medical, social, societal, or scholastic.
    I think one of the nuances of the TIMES piece has been lost in the subsequent conversations I have had about it – this evidence demonstrates how different methods of study work on ALREADY MOTIVATED STUDENTS.
    The question of how to motivate students is altogether different.
    I was also fascinated to learn that there is NO evidence that supports the “learning styles” theory – visual learner vs. auditory. I have felt completely cowed by the question when it comes to Lucy, like somehow I wasn’t doing the parenting due diligence, but it never made sense to me. Anyway, I am now relieved of the burden to give her unnecessary label.
    I truly know nothing about education and how it should be done. But it does seem to me that we’re moving, imperfectly, toward a better model. You may find Ian’s positions to be extreme or flip but he’s not wrong. The history of education (as well as the history of parenting) has been marked by sadism. For many centuries, corporeal punishment was the norm. As late as 1978 when I went to boarding school in Scotland as a 8 year old, belts and rulers were part of the policy of enforcement.
    Next I was at a much more progressive and modern school in Colorado, and still, teachers were accessories to the pecking order. There was no overt cruelty but they were decades away from “zero tolerance” on bullying.
    I think it was the theologian Martin Buber who said that in the 20th Century, with the advent of child labor laws and prohibitions against overt abuse, we were just now waking up from the nightmare of childhood.
    But it’s going to take a while to stumble into the light.

  9. FreshPaul

    Absolutely right on the “learning styles” ruse, Tessa…I so hope that more and more parents are shown the light on this as you have been. I’ve met lots of young people who use that notion to limit their interests and pursuits, instead of expanding them.
    My beef with Ian’s take on all of this is his license to complain so absolutely and virulently – seemingly above the fray – without offering any actual solutions or specific ideas.
    It may be quite strained, but it’s like listening to Tea Party pinheads whinge on about government while offering no actual program of solutions or constructive critique to solve the problems, real or imaginary. (Ian’s erudition notwithstanding, obviously).
    I’ll think more on this, but I’ve got to get back to work imposing sadism and excruciation on adolescents.

  10. once a heel

    Do schools not start later because admins can’t be bothered to alter the calendar or because kids are increasingly growing up in single parent or 2-working parent households and the parents need to get to work?

  11. Neva

    I for one have been very impressed with my daughter’s school and it’s methods. I just went to open house and was floored by the amount of fun technology that is used to teach. All the classrooms (even my daughter in special ed) have smart boards and the math course is taught with all interactive stuff and games and whatnot. There is a lot of group interaction and a whole method of “positive behavior support” that involves catching kids doing good things, allowing for free time when they have finished their work.
    My kids love school and are thriving. I think it’s a shame that you are using your own personal situation to judge schools in general.
    Also, in Chapel Hill the high schools start late – around 9am which I find late enough for sure. I don’t think we need a bunch of teenagers being unsupervised all morning waiting for school to start and getting themselves into more trouble. The idea that that it is even possible for kids to start later in the morning is laughable for most working families. I personally am really thankful my kids have somewhere to go at 7:30 so I can get to work.
    Each kid has different needs. Our school system has to do the best for the most. The unusual kids who can’t deal with the schedule etc. should have the option to do something different and in good school systems they do – they are identified and given IEPs, etc. that allow for a different techniques/schedules, etc. Perhaps these days Ian you would have been identified earlier as ADHD, offered special options in school (the Hill Center here in Durham is great) and you may have loved school. You never know.

  12. Ian

    When I speak of schools, I mostly mean the ones I went to – combined with the anecdotal evidence of what I see in public school around the country now, and the utter failure of the educational system in general.
    It comes as no surprise to me that Chapel Hill has great public schools; they’re basically private, and well-funded by a good tax base – and the parents take an active role. Not all locations are so lucky.
    And look, I’m sorry if I sound like Whitey McDabblerPants when I wish school started later, but I thought the whole point of this was giving kids a better shot at a meaningful education, not keeping them off the streets.
    And there is something really wrong with this country if we’re shunting all our kids off to school so some parents can get to work that early. Even in my bullshit school in Iowa there was an hour of “early bird” activities for kids who had parents working the morning shifts.
    I know wanting a later start time makes me sound bourgeois, like I don’t understand the plight of the working family, and I’m happy to look foolish. But it’s not doing the kids any favors, and the research proves it.

  13. FreshPaul

    many of us in my district have pushed for later start times for HS students…for some unknown reason, the elementary schools start latest here.
    Anyway, the reasons given by the district office etc for why we can’t start later in HS essentially boils down to “buses” and “after school activities” (read : “football practice/sports travel”). Great sense of priorities evident there, bros.
    Regardless, there are people on the ground trying to make this change happen, despite our failures for the scintillating reasons listed above.

  14. chm

    I find this blog almost unbelievably absorbing. I check it every morning and usually follow the comments. And Ian is unthinkably generous/insane to allow everyone to this glimpse into his really pretty remarkable life…
    But: “… for kids who had parents working the morning shifts”? The “MORNING SHIFTS”??!!
    Dude. That is some serious next-level shit.

  15. Ian

    chm and FreshPaul-
    I’m afraid I’ve let this get contentious and I apologize. Though I don’t know y’all personally (or maybe I do – the anon nature of the blog is weird that way) it’s obvious you guys are in the trenches, and I should have started out with disclaimers. It is true I have reflexive issues with school that have more to do with the social pecking order than the schedule.
    My “morning shift” comment came from my exact grade school experience in eastern Iowa, where many of the parents had the actual morning shift at Quaker Oats. That’s what they called it, and while I’m sure it’s different now (not to mention under water, thanks to the floods) it was a major backdrop to growing up there.

  16. FreshPaul

    I hear you Ian, and at a fundamental level, agree with your calls for reforms that make sense at this most basic level– it seems unconscionable that anyone would oppose (as the examples I mention above) such obvious, basic, and easily implemented changes as a late start time.
    Either way, we agree more than we don’t on the basics and fundamentals, and I can affirm much of what you’re positing from my view in the trenches, even if I’d put a bit of a different sheen on it.


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