Tuesday, December 14, 2010

benezet's 1930 math instruction experiment

Inference | In the fall of 1929 I made up my mind to try the experiment of abandoning all formal instruction in arithmetic below the seventh grade and concentrating on teaching the children to read, to reason, and to recite - my new Three R's. And by reciting I did not mean giving back, verbatim, the words of the teacher or of the textbook. I meant speaking the English language. I picked out five rooms - three third grades, one combining the third and fourth grades, and one fifth grade. I asked the teachers if they would be willing to try the experiment. They were young teachers with perhaps an average of four years' experience. I picked them carefully, but more carefully than I picked the teachers, I selected the schools. Three of the four schoolhouses involved [two of the rooms were in the same building] were located in districts where not one parent in ten spoke English as his mother tongue. I sent home a notice to the parents and told them about the experiment that we were going to try, and asked any of them who objected to it to speak to me about it. I had no protests. Of course, I was fairly sure of this when I sent the notice out. Had I gone into other schools in the city where the parents were high school and college graduates, I would have had a storm of protest and the experiment would never have been tried. I had several talks with the teachers and they entered into the new scheme with enthusiasm.

The children in these rooms were encouraged to do a great deal of oral composition. They reported on books that they had read, on incidents which they had seen, on visits that they had made. They told the stories of movies that they had attended and they made up romances on the spur of the moment. It was refreshing to go into one of these rooms. A happy and joyous spirit pervaded them. The children were no longer under the restraint of learning multiplication tables or struggling with long division. They were thoroughly enjoying their hours in school.

At the end of eight months I took a stenographer and went into every fourth-grade room in the city. As we have semi-annual promotions, the children who had been in the advanced third grade at the time of the beginning of the experiment, were now in the first half of the fourth grade. The contrast was remarkable. In the traditional fourth grades when I asked children to tell me what they had been reading, they were hesitant, embarrassed, and diffident. In one fourth grade I could not find a single child who would admit that he had committed the sin of reading. I did not have a single volunteer, and when I tried to draft them, the children stood up, shook their heads, and sat down again. In the four experimental fourth grades the children fairly fought for a chance to tell me what they had been reading. The hour closed, in each case, with a dozen hands waving in the air and little faces crestfallen, because we had not gotten around to hear what they had to tell.

For some years I had noted that the effect of the early introduction of arithmetic had been to dull and almost chloroform the child's reasoning faculties. There was a certain problem which I tried out, not once but a hundred times, in grades six, seven, and eight. Here is the problem: "If I can walk a hundred yards in a minute [and I can], how many miles can I walk in an hour, keeping up the same rate of speed?"

In nineteen cases out of twenty the answer given me would be six thousand, and if I beamed approval and smiled, the class settled back, well satisfied. But if I should happen to say, "I see. That means that I could walk from here to San Francisco and back in an hour" there would invariably be a laugh and the children would look foolish.