Wednesday, September 23, 2015


I haven't paid much attention to the Common Core debates. The idea of having some minimum standards has its appeal, but the devil is in the details, and if we get more teaching to the test we're going to get less education.

BBC has a story about misfeatures in Indian textbooks, some of which are simple misspellings and some are--well, did you know Japan launched a nuclear strike against the USA during WW-II? I know they wanted to, and didn't know how to make a bomb yet, but ...

OK, the USA has a more consistent market for textbooks, they'll be better, right? Feynman found otherwise:

Finally I come to a book that says, "Mathematics is used in science in many ways. We will give you an example from astronomy, which is the science of stars." I turn the page, and it says, "Red stars have a temperature of four thousand degrees, yellow stars have a temperature of five thousand degrees . . ." -- so far, so good. It continues: "Green stars have a temperature of seven thousand degrees, blue stars have a temperature of ten thousand degrees, and violet stars have a temperature of . . . (some big number)." There are no green or violet stars, but the figures for the others are roughly correct. It's vaguely right -- but already, trouble! That's the way everything was: Everything was written by somebody who didn't know what the hell he was talking about, so it was a little bit wrong, always! And how we are going to teach well by using books written by people who don't quite understand what they're talking about, I cannot understand. I don't know why, but the books are lousy; UNIVERSALLY LOUSY!

Anyway, I'm happy with this book, because it's the first example of applying arithmetic to science. I'm a bit unhappy when I read about the stars' temperatures, but I'm not very unhappy because it's more or less right -- it's just an example of error. Then comes the list of problems. It says, "John and his father go out to look at the stars. John sees two blue stars and a red star. His father sees a green star, a violet star, and two yellow stars. What is the total temperature of the stars seen by John and his father?" -- and I would explode in horror.

My wife would talk about the volcano downstairs. That's only an example: it was perpetually like that. Perpetual absurdity!

(The essay goes on to explain how a blank book got a positive review.)

The math books I dissected for the local middle school (without any response to my evaluation, I might add) weren't quite that bad, but there were quite a few misfeatures. Probably some errors, too, but I didn't work all the exercises. I noticed that the "author list" included a lot of names, but very few of them had any background in anything but education. No "domain knowledge"

The kids' high school books were by and large somewhat better, though I hear some schools teach history out of Zinn. (I get it that this was supposed to be a corrective book to the old 50's-60's baseline histories, but if that's to be the new baseline you desperately need a corrective to it.)

I am perfectly willing to believe that the Common Core textbooks will be crud. It is a tradition.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

I remember that essay. Loved it.

Common Core will do neither half the good its proponents claim, nor half the damage its critics claim. It's an educational fashion, and that's all it can be.

As for history, the idea of counter-narrative is only for show. That argument is true, but irrelevant to the people who put it forward. It is true that they want to counter the old narrative, but they don't want to balance it, they want to replace it. And then pull the ladder up after them. It is not about truth, but about who will prevail. Not for every teacher or professor, of course. People are not infinitely malleable. But it is the dominant view.

The Mad Soprano said...

My U.S. and World History textbooks were woefully incomplete, and my Freshman and Sophomore Algebra textbooks were sound but had too many distracting pictures. My Health textbook was riddled with inaccuracies ("bones are harden cartilage", give me a break!), and my College Sociology textbook may as well have been written by a hippie! The only textbooks that I have used that I believe were actually useful were the books we used for the various foreign language classes (in my case French and Spanish), Drama class, and my various Culinary textbooks.