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Well when was the fifteenth century?

The following posting was written with my education blog in mind. However, although in general this enterprise is rattling along fine, it is for the time being ungettatable. I’m hoping that this is (a) because this is now Sunday afternoon and every internetter in the world is internetting and my blog empire’s hardware can’t cope, or even better (b) because Atlas (he knows who he is) has unshrugged and is finally getting Brian’s Culture Blog going, but in a way that has interrupted normal service. Alternatively, (c) one of Richard Branson’s slaves read what I put about his Lord and Master on Transport Blog the other day and has turned the Virgin army of hackers loose on my life, in which case it was nice knowing you all.

Anyway, I read what follows through again and found that it will do okay also for samizdata.net so here it is:

Joanne Jacobs links to the following piece of dialogue, originally posted on Notes From The Ghetto Teacher on October 29th.

Today, we were discussing 15th century literature and the invention of the Gutenburg Press. I asked them to write a short essay on what they’d learned from the chapter and lecture. One of my students tentatively raised his hand:

Student: Miss?

Me: Yeah, baby?

Student: When was the 15th century?

Me: Between the 14th and 16th, baby. Do you mean what years are in the 15th century?

Student: Aww … dawg … naw … I’m sayin’ … what century was the 15th century in?

Me: [pause] Write it down a piece of paper then read it back out loud.

Student: [writes it down slowly] Fif-teenth century.

Me: Right. So, what century is that?

Student: That’s what I be aksin’ you.

Some days, I just want to throw my chalk.

Now I have far less experience of teaching in a ghetto than does the Ghetto Teacher (she presumably has quite a lot and I have none), but what I want to know is: what would have been the problem with just giving the answer, along the lines of: “The fifteenth century means the one hundred years between the year 1400 and the year 1500”?
Okay, maybe confusion would still have reigned in the mind of the student, in which case the teacher might have had to try something else, and maybe that would have been difficult if two dozen or more other students were also demanding the teacher’s attention.

A reasonable answer in the circumstances might also have been: “This is an exercise to find out what you already know, so for now I won’t answer. Later, I’ll tell you. Please ask me again afterwards.”

But to give the answer “between the 14th and the 16th century” borders on the facetious.

Here is one of those wonderful students that teachers all say they love, a student who wants to learn. In this case, he wanted to learn when the fifteenth century was. And it’s not a stupid question. I’m not a moron, but I had to pause to make sure I got the answer right? How many of us have not assumed, at some point in our lives, that the fifteenth century must be the century from 1500 onwards? No wonder the boy was asking. Sensible fellow. If the teacher has the knowledge, and the student wants it and is ready to receive it, then hand it over. What is the problem about that?

If we were being told about this conversation as an illustration of how frazzled and snitty teachers can sometimes get down there in the school trenches, fair enough, we could all sympathise. But this woman seems to think, on mature reflection, that she was being entirely reasonable, and that the bizarre behaviour was entirely on the student’s side. And Joanne Jacobs, to whom thanks for the link despite everything, agrees. I guess that’s teachers for you. They all stick together no matter how annoying one of them is being.

But I mean, if you were working in a shop, would you talk to a customer like this? Would you turn a simple question into a Kafkaesque guessing game? Would you expect him to write his question down on a bit of paper? And if all that didn’t work, would you then be tempted to throw things at him? And would you then write the whole thing up that evening on ihatemystupidcustomers.blogspot.com? This is Basil Fawlty territory.

Maybe it’s an exam thing. Teachers spend so much of their time coaching their students to pass exams that they forget about simply imparting information. Instead they focus obsessively on dinning into their pupils the habit of deducing what they want to know only from what they already know, because that’s what they’ll have to be able to do in the exam room. As a result, one of the basic techniques of good teaching – simply answering the questions of one’s pupils, as patiently and as accurately as one can manage (and as often as necessary to get the information truly received and understood) – gets forgotten.

19 comments to Well when was the fifteenth century?

  • Kevin Connors

    At the risk of being a smart-arse, Brian, your answer: “The fifteenth century means the one hundred years between the year 1400 and the year 1500” is incorrect. It should be phrased “The fifteenth century means the one hundred years between the year 1400 and the year 1501.” Or, to eliminate confusion: “The fifteenth century means the one hundred years from the year 1401 to the year 1500.” 🙂

  • That really has to be nonsense but given the reactions I would receive when I was a university lecturer, I am not at all surprised… Magicks!!!

  • erp

    After reading this post, I may change my position on teaching in “ghetto” schools. I previously held the position that teachers don’t necessarily need to be of the same ethnic, cultural, etc. persuasion as their students in order to be effective teachers.

    The superior attitute of the true liberal know-nothing comes through in this dialogue between this teacher and student.

    Gee teach! — We all know you are a lot smarter, more sophisticated, better read, etc. than the ignorant pieces of clay in your class. Do you really have to display your superiority by ridiculing a student (I’d love to know — is it high school or college?) especially in front of the others.

    Do you think other students will take a chance on asking you another question?

    I once took a computer science course from an arrogant prof who started each semester with the statement that he only answers questions he hasn’t heard before. That was okay for that class because most of the students were arrogant techies and they needed to be taken down a couple of pegs. These students need encouragement not sarcasm.

    What this “teacher” did was unforgiveable. I hope he/she doesn’t have kids because those are the kind of questions that bright children ask when they don’t have the historical perspective or life experiences to understand what’s going on.

    Answering questions in a way that doesn’t make the questioner sound stupid should be the first lesson in Teacher Ed classes. Obviously this teacher missed that class or had such an overwhelming need to sneer that the outburst was unavoidable.

    In either case, he/she should be removed from the classroom. This teacher said some days she really needs to throw the chalk, well this post made me really want to throw up.

  • Larry

    1401 THROUGH 1500, Kevin. I know….picky picky

  • With a union behind him or her, just how is one to get rid of said teacher? This would not be limited just to the UK, either !!

  • ellie

    OK – as a former teacher, I’ll bite. First of all, middle class kids, hell, college students, are confused by this century business, so it’s not some ‘ghetto’ problem. (Where did we get that particular counting convention from, anyway?) The teacher’s response in this case was inappropriate because it served no useful purpose and indeed was cruel. It certainly wasn’t informative, nor was it humorous (yes, humor is a useful teaching tool.) To the contrary, it was dismissive, and therefore harmful. I don’t think, however, that the problem has anything to do with the race of teacher or student. Nor is this problem the private domain of ‘liberal know-nothings.’ Teaching can be frustrating, and personality plays a large part in one’s ability to interact effectively with children. There isn’t a teacher alive who hasn’t, at one time or another, said something he/she regretted. It’s unrealistic to expect teachers to be 100% ‘on’ all the time. One of the reasons why the US has such a problem retaining teachers is the lack of mutual respect and consideration that is the norm in some (not all) American classrooms. Spending a few weeks in front of a class would be a real eye-opener for many who lay responsibility for all the woes of education on the shoulders of teachers. Regarding this particular incident, who knows? If this is standard operating procedure for this teacher, the woman shouldn’t be teaching. And, getting rid of an incompetent teacher, well, that’s a huge issue in itself.

    Brian: I would NOT simply ‘give’ the answer. I would (& as a history teacher, have) provide the basis for a little ‘deductive’ reasoning. I’m also not a big fan of indiscriminate ‘deducing’, but students will better remember what they’ve learned when they UNDERSTAND it. In this case, I’d start with a year in the 1rst century, thus allowing the student to understand the logic of the convention.

  • If the teacher habitually treats all her pupils as she did then, then she’s mean. However we are not told what type of person the pupil is. To reply thus to an earnest (even if dim)student is clearly wrong; to reply thus to a habitual show-off who loves nothing better than to slow up the lesson is merely human.

  • I agree with Natalie. And even if what this lady did was definitely wrong, I don’t think it makes any sense to talk of her being fired. She’s human too, just as her pupils are. Even if she is habitually mean, I’m sure they’re learning something. I mean, at least she was telling them what sounded like some interesting things about Gutenberg.

    My education blog is back in business now (follow the url below) and I’m in the middle of doing a posting there now to this effect.

    My central point here is not the imperfection of this one teacher. That was merely my spark. My point is that I believe that many teachers, in all kinds of settings, not just regular school classrooms, underestimate the value of simply answering questions, with answers.

    Ellie: sort of agreed again. In a way, what you say is not just: answer the question, but explain the answer by starting in at the first century and then making the fifteenth century definitely deduceable. If my answer had got the response: why isn’t 1500 onwards the fifteenth century?, I’d have gone back to the first century myself, if I’d had my wits about me.

    BUT I believe that simply giving the answer to questions without fuss, and above all without the implication that it is foolish not to know things (as opposed to smart to learn things by asking people who do know things that you want to know) is somewhere near the heart of successful teaching.

    That’s what Perry does with me whenever I have a question about the technicalities of blogging, and I greatly appreciate it. Plus, he never complains if I ask the same question several times. An example to teachers everywhere. Grovel grovel. Teacher’s pet, etc. etc.

  • erp

    Of course a teacher like every other human being can become exasperated at times, but the teacher in the this post wasn’t the one being exasperated. The student was the exasperated one in this case. He or she apparently had no idea what the 15th century meant, and may not have even known what the word century meant, and he or she couldn’t get the questions answered.

    Perhaps a short explanation that we are now in the 21st century, a century mean 100 years, etc. would have made the whole thing a non-problem.

    Nit-picking about the actual moment one century turns into the next really wouldn’t have been appropriate at this level of instruction, and may have been more information than the student would have been able to absorb.

    I can’t comment on the UK, but in the US, it’s not teachers per se who are to blame, it’s the teachers’ unions who have turned the schools into social engineering factories with little or no emphasis on subject matter and there’s little learning of history, or any other subject other than the politically correct lesson of the day.

    Students in the US (and many teachers) can’t read, can’t reason, can’t write a coherent sentence, know little or nothing about mathematics, history or geography, but know a lot of feel-good nonsense about saving the whales, using condoms, and being against evil corporations.

    They’re taught that their feelings are equal to or even superior to facts and figures. Amazing, but true. Are they ever surprised when they leave school knowing nothing and barely equipped to work at MacDonalds.

    Diversity is double-speak for single-minded political correctness. Teachers who disagree keep their mouths shut for fear of retribution.

    It’s a terrible situation and one that doesn’t look like it will be solved anytime soon.

    PS: Don’t tell me that this isn’t true of all students. Of course, it isn’t. But the exceptional students are those who have parents or other mentors who guide their studies, take them to museums, limit their TV, have books available, talk about current events at dinner, etc. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer of these lucky kids.

    Sorry to be so long-winded, but this is a really hot button for me. It’s such a waste of potential!

  • Dale Amon

    It is a confusing issue, but it is also a Socratic jumping off point for history and mathematics. Zero had not been invented at the start of the Christian era, so the Christ was born in Year 1. There was no year 0, which is mathematicall confusing because you go from directly from 1BC to 1AD. It is concievable we might have had a Zeroeth Century had zero been invented, but more likely we would still have used First Century to indicate the first 100 years of the Christian era, although we’d have run it from Year 0-99 instead of the confusing 1-100.

    This is an ideal place to introduce the mathematical concepts of ordinal (positional) numbers and cardinal (counting) numbers.

    It’s also an entry into history because zero was invented by the Arabs and was mightily resisted as demonic when first introduced into the Christian world.

    This can lead you also into much interesting information about the Julian calendar; the reform into the Gregorian calendar that some nations resisted for centuries (and their calendars got further and further out of sync with the seasons); the changeover year in which the date skipped two weeks at midnight (in a September I believe, but don’t quote me).

    From ordinal and cardinal you can go to Set theory (assuming you do a little quck research: I’d certainly have to!)

    There are no Problems, only Opportunities.

  • The teacher asked: “Do you mean what years are in the 15th century?”

    The student said: “Naw … I’m sayin’ … what century was the 15th century in?”

    So she told him to write it down in hopes he could see the absurdity.

    I do wonder that she calls her 12th graders “baby.” That strikes me as excessive familiarity.

  • ellie

    ERP: The influence of teachers’ unions varies by state, though I believe that they are fairly powerful in parts of the American northeast and west coast. I taught in a private school – no union at all. Look to colleges of education too; they’re the source of many less than successful educational theories and practices.

    Dale: You sure didn’t go to an American college of education! In a lesson concerning the Gutenburg Press, a discussion of ordinal numbers, calendars and set theory would be ‘off-task’ big time!

  • ellie

    Oh, and Dale: Christ, ‘Christian era’ and ‘AD’ are all no-nos in the PC world of many American schools, public & private. It’s a BCE-CE world over here.

  • Anarchus

    It is confusing, and I don’t think the teacher really understood the issue, though she thought she did (where is Socrates when you need him?).

    Don’t know if it’s a good thing, or a bad thing, that the Thermodynamics weenies aren’t in charge. When THEY discovered they’d miscounted THEIR first principles, they just went back and created a Zero-eth Law to jump in front of the First Law. Would it be better or worse if we went back and created a Zero-eth Century? IT sure would make counting centuries easier going forward, once everybody adjusted . . . . . . . .

  • Actually, I’m not sure what the student really was asking. The teacher asked him if he meant what years were in the fifteenth century, and he said that he wanted to know what century it was, not what years. The correct answer to “what century was the fifteenth century?” is “the fifteenth.”

  • This is why I could never become a teacher. To my mind, she showed heroic levels of patience towards a child who was clearly one step up from shower curtain mould in cognitive faculties. I have been genuinely non-plussed when asked questions by students at University level (I’m talking about second year undergraduates in Electronic Engineering with a less than firm grasp of Ohm’s Law). It can be really hard to slow your thought processes down to the level where the question even makes sense. How this woman doesn’t go stark staring bonkers is a mystery. What exactly is wrong with asking the pupil to write down what he said? ‘What century was the fifteenth century in?’ That’s like asking what colour blue is. I mean, these aren’t kids with Down’s Syndrome. erp is right – their unwarranted self esteem is a dangerous thing.

  • Kevin Connors

    I was under the impression that Dale went to Carniege-Mellon. I went to UC Irvine and got the same stuff. But, it computer science, it’s kind of important. I doubt your typical liberal arts major (most teachers) would know what he’s talking about. 🙂

  • Anarchus

    May be antics with semantics, but this is imprecise: “Zero had not been invented at the start of the Christian era, so the Christ was born in Year 1. There was no year 0, which is mathematicall confusing because you go from directly from 1BC to 1AD.

    No one today knows precisely when Christ was born, but conventional experts tend to guess the date was earlier than what is now called 1 AD. The date of Christ’s birth that today’s calendars are based on was established by Dionysius Exiguus in the sixth-century, but he just made an informed guess . . . . . .

  • Far be it from me to argue against the joys of tangential wandering, but … but … but … the teacher asked outright at the beginning of the exchange if the student wanted to know what years were in the 15th century, and he said “no”.

    Given that this was already introduced in the comment stream and nobody responded, does that mean the commentariat believes that Brian wrote the wrong article, and he should have been writing about year numbering schemes?