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Nov
30

In honour of Mark Twain’s birthday: “I’ve never let school interfere with my education.”

Happy birthday, Mark Twain! Born in Missouri on Nov. 30th, 1835, Twain (real name Samuel Longhorne Clemens,) was an American novelist and humourist.   He is best remembered for his novels “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” I happen to adore Twain’s witticisms, and for a man whose formal schooling never went past grade six, he had a lot to say about education. He famously said, “I’ve never let school interfere with my education.” Twain was a “self-directed learner”, in today’s lingo.  He read and wrote voraciously, and travelled extensively. As a friend to presidents, poets, and writers, he was obviously intelligent company.

Twain's honorary doctorate from Oxford

Twain’s quote got me thinking about the nature of education and the role of schools. Never before has skipping school and learning at home been as easy as in our present day. Our digital age allows the motivated self-learner  access to vast amounts of materials that Twain could scarcely imagine possible. So, this begs the question: Are schools interfering with education?  Will schools become obsolete?

Many schools are wise to these very questions, and are taking action to remain relevant.  Popular programs like Khan Academy (math) and Rosetta Stone (languages) are increasingly incorporated into schools, and are flipping the way classes are structured. A recent article in the Globe and Mail described the phenomenon of  the “Flipped  Classroom: ”

” Instead of listening to a teacher at the chalkboard and doing homework after school, flipped classes watch online lessons at home and work through assignments with teachers during school.The idea is partly to offer the best possible lesson, and partly to tailor learning to students’ individual needs. Online videos can be polished versions of what’s usually presented from the front of a class, or allow teachers to essentially outsource lessons to better educators – those who’ve mastered the ultimate explanation of quadratic equations or photosynthesis. Teachers can then use freed-up school hours to coach students based on their individual strengths and weaknesses.” (Globe and Mail, Kate Hammer and Tamara Baluja, Nov. 28, 2011.)


Although the idea of students teaching themselves material and accessing teachers as coaches seems revolutionary, it is far from new. In fact, I attended such a high school. Believe me, it was a long time ago.  (Bishop Carroll High School in Calgary, Alberta.)  Students picked up packs of lessons for whatever subjects they chose to study that day, and then away they would go and teach themselves the material.  We could study in any room in the school, but there were also large resource rooms designated for each subject.  Teachers were  on hand to answer questions, and to coach us.  Structured class time was reserved for small discussion groups, and labs.  I loved it! Obviously, this predated the digital age.   The  medium may be new, but the message has remained the same.

I wonder what Mark Twain would have to say about the role of schools in education today. Would he be pleased with the emphasis on self-directed learning?  Would he have a biting remark about the interference of technology in education?

Are schools ultimately bound to interfere with an individual’s education?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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