Opinion
Standards Opinion

Rhyme or Reason

By Thomas J. Hanson — May 01, 2004 3 min read
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Now, more than ever, relevance trumps rote memorization.
—Illustration by John Macdonald

A great deal of time today is spent on the issue of standards in education. The key point of debate in the discussion of standards, under way in virtually every state, centers upon identifying the skills and the body of knowledge our students must learn to become successful citizens.

When this issue, and specifically the identification of the knowledge and skills fundamental to educating students today, comes up, I always think back to one of my earliest teaching experiences: The class is high school applied mathematics, and the students range from 9th to 12th graders. It is exceptionally difficult to get the attention of 25 students at the same time. They all seem to hate math or school—or both. I am trying my very best to interest them in the class by making the subject relevant to them.

The lesson today is on payment schedules. The first question is as basic as payment schedules get: If you purchase a kitchen stove on March 15 and no payments are due for 90 days, when is the first payment due? That prompts this response from a young lady in the back row: “How many days are there in March?”

I try to hide my surprise, first because of her lack of knowledge and then my own for not realizing these students might not know how many days there are in each month. I soon decide that this is not a real problem—I will be a good teacher.

“There’s a nursery rhyme you can learn,” I start. “Thirty days hath September, April, June, and...”

I stop. The student is no longer looking at me. Twisting around, craning her neck, she is scanning the walls, muttering, “There’s gotta be a calendar in here somewhere.”

Trying not to get angry, I call out her name and tell her that I had been trying to explain to her how she could figure out the problem. “I can teach you how to remember,” I say.

She gives me a pained look. “I don’t want to learn no stupid nursery rhyme!” she growls. “Geez.”

I try again as she crosses her arms and leans back in her chair. “Well, if you don’t learn the rhyme, how will you ever know how many days there are in each month?” She rolls her eyes as she glances at the other students. Their nods confirm that they are with her and not with me. Reassured, she emphatically makes her final point.

“You can either look at a calendar,” she says, “or you can just ask someone who knows.”

A month or two later, shortly after Easter had come and gone, I related this story to a good friend of mine. As an engineer at the local shipyard, he was intellectually my superior as well as a trusted confidante for sharing some of my educational frustrations. He simply smiled as I told him what had happened. He did not seem surprised by the student’s attitude at all. In fact, he almost seemed sympathetic.

“Let me ask you a question,” he said. “What day and month will Easter fall on next year?”

I shrugged, initially puzzled by his query. “I don’t know,” I responded.

He immediately recited the month and the date, then added, “I can teach you how to figure it out if you’d like.”

I smiled, now following his line of thought. My friend was on a roll, however, and didn’t hesitate to add the clincher.

"’Course, you can always look at a calendar,” he said.

“Or ask someone who knows?” I added.

It was his turn to smile.

I have never forgotten our discussion that day or the powerful effect his example had on me. Those of us in education have a positive attitude toward learning new things, especially if we find them useful to our everyday lives. That, of course, is the very reason we are in the field. But when honestly considering what material and knowledge should be required to become an educated person, the answers are not quite as clear as we might think initially. Though I could never imagine not knowing how many days there are in any given month, I can’t see myself learning how to predict a calendar date a year in advance for a holiday that varies annually. It doesn’t seem like practical or useful knowledge. Of course, that was the exact point the young lady was making that day. In her eyes, the specific bit of knowledge I thought critical was not something she saw as useful.

Simply stated, we pay attention to and learn to remember what is important to us; what is not so important, we ignore or learn to discard. As teachers, we need to realize that this fundamental of education is as true for our students as it is for adults. In the era of the standards movement, we must realize that reaching high expectations is possible only when students believe the material is worth learning. Through a disenchanted student and the wisdom of a close friend, I learned that the greatest challenge lies in making the material relevant for my students.

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