What Hating Alexis De Tocqueville Taught Me About Learning

I wrote a blog for LKMCo today about the work of ED Hirsch and its current use in the UK debate about National Curriculum.  One of Hirsch’s principles is that there is a ‘correct order’ in which ideas should be taught so that children best understand them.  It’s a noble idea and for the purpose of creating a curriculum I can see why it is rational. Nevertheless, I am minded of something I once heard a US academic say.  His story went as so:

For ten years my university has been trying to get me to use Powerpoint. They sent me on courses, would buy me books, and each time I would pay attention – nod when required – and then would promptly forget everything I knew within a few days.

Last week I had to give a presentation to the US Department for Education. They required Powerpoint; no arguments, get your powerpoint done. Two days before it was due I dragged my 10 year old daughter out of her bedroom and made her show me how it was done. Two hours later I was happily (if still somewhat slowly) using the thing and from then I could use it as and when required.

He told the story to point out that sometimes what is missing in education is not information.  No end of effort was put into pumping Powerpoint instructions into his mind.  What was missing was a reason to understand and remember those instructions.

I empathise because today I am finalising some papers for a US Education History course and I am suddenly moved to read Tocqueville’s work. I hated learning Tocqueville at university. Couldn’t make it head nor tails of it; hated it. But then I didn’t know anything about the creation of America, and I wasn’t particularly interested in the creation of America, and I didn’t appear to have any reason to be interested beyond the fact that someone was telling me I had to be. So, like the story above, I grinned, bore it, read what I read, vaguely made things up in discussions and promptly forgot about it.

Then suddenly – out of nowhere today – he comes up, and I get what they are saying, and I finally think: “Ooh – interesting. I need to read more Tocqueville”. And I open a Wikipedia page. And I checkout the library roll call to see where I can get his book from. And all of a sudden – eleven years after our first introduction – I finally want to learn all about him.

Hirsch can write a big list of what everyone should know and he can dictate when they will be told it but he can’t decide when they’ll be interested and when they’ll actually care enough to learn about it. That’s a different calculation altogether.

4 thoughts on “What Hating Alexis De Tocqueville Taught Me About Learning

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