On School Books

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With this post, the trilogy about teachers’ frustration, or at least my frustration, for what concerns parents’ expectation from the school system comes to an end. Hence, having analyzed old and new attitudes towards the “pointless” habit of assigning homework, I would like to add few words on school books and how they have changed in time according to the new methodological requests.

As soon as you open a school book of your children, I guess you may promptly spot what’s new: pictures. Nowadays school books are mostly made of pictures rather than words. Even books of subjects which are less likely to require pictures, as for example, philosophy, are assembled with colorful paintings, drawings, fun activities and such. Books must be engaging and attractive, and to be attractive pictures work better than words, of course. I do understand this, because in my school days books were dull. When my philosophy teacher, for example, assigned us 12/15 pages to study, my first thought was: are there any pictures? We were really lucky if there was at least one, as once, books were made of words. If I had to study the Socratic method, for instance, I would have read pages and pages about the way Socrates succeeded in eliciting knowledge in the mind of a person by interrogation and insistence on close logical reasoning, plus extra essays on his famous disciples like Plato, plus notes at the bottom of every page without a trace of a picture. All grey.

Nowadays, it would impossible to propose such a book and I would not do it myself either. All these words would cause a shock to the Instagram , Facebook, “Why bothering about writing, there are emoticons” generation. The same topic, very likely , would be better and easily explained on modern books just using three drawings, yes, three would be enough. The first one would show Socrates while speaking to his disciples who look at him in silence😕, then in the second one he starts to asks questions and questions thus catching his disciples’ attention 😮and the final one the enlightened devotees eventually start to speak while Socrates displays his satisfaction 😄. His method had worked 👍.

Teaching has become mostly visual nowadays, which is fun for us teachers too. However, I have noticed that too often when our students are asked to read, because it happens sometimes, and analyze a text, they don’t understand the meaning of many words. For example, one day in a class with students of about 19 years old, we were talking about the “welfare state”. I gave for granted that they knew the meaning of the word, as even if we have borrowed it from the English language, it is commonly used on newspapers and political debates every day. However; nobody, and I say nobody, knew exactly the meaning of the word “welfare”and things did not improve significantly, when I translated it into the correspondent Italian “stato sociale”. A thick fog surrounded them. They were 19 and potential voters.We are so focused in transmitting knowledge with the help of images that we do not realize that words are starting to become meaningless for many of them and us too .

Hence, I cannot help but wonder, when every now and then we are asked to give our opinion on such “irrelevant” matters like Brexit in the U.K. or to vote the reform of the Italian Constitution, as it will happen here in Italy on the 4th of December, we should assume that all these people are informed as they can read and fully understand what they read, otherwise, upon what ground will they choose? I guess that the 40 something millions of citizens who are demanded to decide to vote YES or NO for the reform of the constitution, should, as prerequisite, at least be acquainted with the 139 articles which form the constitution plus the various sub-paragraphs and then analyze carefully the amendments to form an opinion. All this without the help of explanatory pictures? I have my doubts.

On the Necessity of Parents’ Doing their Children’s Homework.

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As I said in the previous post, rebellion is in the air. A rebellion against the oppression of homework and the tyrannous teachers who spoil the quality of students’ life assigning it. However, while analyzing these vigorous movements, I have realized that here in Italy, as usual, there is an anomaly. In fact, they do not seem to be grown out of the necessity of those “ill-treated” students, as it would be normal to assume, but rather, their parents’. It seems a kind of weird, I know, but it actually explains the nature of the phenomenon and why this generation of parents feels haunted and frustrated about homework habit: THEY do their children’s homework, that is all .

pin3Of course, I cannot but unconditionally sympathize with them, as that was the “duty comes before pleasure and leisure” generation, my generation. Our parents would  have never dreamed of questioning the necessity of homework or openly criticizing teachers and I would have never dreamed of complaining with them about the loads of work to do. Had I tried, their only solution would have taken the form of the reduction of my extra activities, which I didn’t want, of course, therefore ; I tried to organize myself the best I could and in a way or another, I managed to survive. Hence; not only these parents were regularly and unquestionably in the habit of doing their own homework, but  somehow, they feel compelled to do their children’s as well, sparing them the trouble of doing it, but why?

Of course, it cannot be pure masochism, as it would seem at first glance. Therefore; I can only guess that if, after a long, tiring day, those parents are still willing to take books, pens and paper to live their old homework doing nightmare again, their drives must be powerful indeed and from my experience I can single out two of them in particular: fear of failure and lack of time, better known as “let’s find a shortcut”.

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This happens, because  homework is generally considered only as the boring acquisition of notions, but it is not or at least it shouldn’t. Homework, actually, concerns the consolidation of what has been done in class and above all, work organization. Hence; those parents who constantly help their children do/organize their homework, actually, don’t trust them. They don’t let them grow and test their own learning method and besides they might undermine their self-esteem, as the subliminal message given is that without their help they would not be able to reach the goal otherwise. Believe me, this is how it works.

I have witnessed my sister-in-law for years, undergoing all this since first grade. Her constant presence had made the time dedicated to homework odious for my nephew and disappointing for her (and the entire family as well). Year after year, he had learnt to accomplish his duty only to avoid his mother’s pressures and shouts or to please her. Therefore;  homework was something pointless with a lot of drama added every day, which he did only for her mother and not for him. When she could not help him any longer, guess what? He failed, because in all those years he had not learnt how to manage his time, as her mother did it for him and worst af all, he had not developed any effective learning method. He had only learnt notions which were soon forgotten once the minimum goal was achieved.

For what concerns parents’ habit of doing homework as a sort shortcut to finish sooner, this point cannot be understood if we don’t comprehend how  adolescents have changed in time. The life of an average student nowadays is, let me say: busy. Teenagers practice at least one sport three or four times a week plus other extra activities of any kind, spend a lot of time facebooking, whatsapping, playing with video games, hanging out etc., hence; it seems difficult to find any extra, quality time for any additional effort. The point is that their parents are just fine about it, they are happy to see their children “have a life” (I’m employing the words they used in the many letters of complaint) and don’t want this routine to be spoilt,  that’s why they often replace their children in doing their homework.

My dear parents, you’ll be surprised, but I also think that your children need to have a life, all teachers work in order that they might have the best life possible, but we can’t do this without parents’ support. Let’s try to co-operate for once so that WE might have a life, as well. Therefore; stop doing their homework, and help them only if they ask you. Let them  “err“, “fall” and learn from their mistakes so that one day they might “find open before” them” the gates of all the ways of error and glory. On and on and on and on!” (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man)

The Sentimental Education

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in 1Simplicity is very often the best way to express the complexity of a state of the soul and William Blake, somehow, was a master of simplicity. Innocence and Experience are the two simple, effective words, that better portrayed for him the two opposite states of human soul. The age of Innocence is that phase when you are a child and you see the world that surrounds you with the curious eyes of wonder and imagination. In that stage the soul is highly receptive and absorbs every external input, hence life seems a joyous, frantic carousel of emotions. Unfortunately “Innocence” is a transient state and as time goes by, we drift towards Experience, that is, the age when our eyes, now opened wide, are no longer dimmed by the enchanting powers of Imagination. The more we become aware and overwhelmed by loads of responsibilities, the more we grow pessimistic and distrustful towards our future. We should try not to lose sight of that little child , that “fanciullino” , as the Italian poet Giovanni Pascoli called him, we used to be and retain a little room for him in our soul, but how? How can we fight the deteriorating effects of time over him?

ed 4Education was a possible answer or better a sentimental education. Many philosophers of the eighteenth century started to focus their attention on childhood, being that period of life when are we so responsive. John Locke warned that “the little and almost insensible impressions on our tender infancies have very important and lasting consequences “, therefore education should work on those impressions to “open and dispose their (children) minds as may best make them capable of any, when they shall apply themselves to it.”  Furthermore, he maintained that the “associations of ideas” that one makes when young are more important than those made later, because they are the very foundation of the self.

in3Jean Jacque Rousseau wrote in his book Emile that all children are perfectly designed organisms, ready to learn from their surroundings so as to grow into virtuous adults. The instinctive goodness of a child is spoiled by society that for the French philosopher was malign and corrupted.That’s why he also advocated an educational method which consisted in removing the child from society, for example, to a country home, thus enabling him to live more in close contact with nature, which he regarded the only source of pure, uncontaminated values and emotions. He also maintained that child should grow up without any adult interference and that the child should be guided to suffer from the experience of the natural consequences of his own acts or behaviour. When he experiences the consequences of his own acts, he advises himself. A teacher, therefore, shouldn’t but encourage the natural curiosity of a child and guide him to experience the sensorial world, only once this world has been molded  – at about the age of 12 – the tutor is allowed to work to develop his mind.The associationist philosopher David Hartley focused his attention on childhood as well and  he assumed that also  “our moral character develops in that phase as a result of the pleasure and pains caused by physical experiences“. Therefore if a child is well guided to experience the world and learn from the emotions he receives, he will be able to grow a more rounded mad with firmer ethics and more inclined to find joy and positivity in life.

That was almost three centuries ago and I have to say, all this interest in childhood was just philosophy, as the majority of children left school at six and were regularly exploited at work. Nowadays children live a more pampered life, at least in the western world, therefore there should be a more fertile ground to impart the lesson of those philosophers, but how do we educate our children? Are we really paying the due attention to make them develop their sensorial, emotional world, considering that all this should frame their moral character once they become adults?