Why Obama is wrong about education

The purpose of education is to help students understand the world and themselves: Western Civilization, the ideals of the founding of our country and the American Revolution, some principles of mathematics and science, and communication (literature and language), and art. We all must keep our focus on this goal. Teachers must pay attention to whether students understand or not. Students have the responsibility for understanding during class, and asking questions if not. Understanding and learning includes review. Homework is review, basic to understanding. It is also critical to discuss the material with others, not only to help the understanding and review, but also to create emotions necessary for retention. When people talk and make eye contact, as opposed to communicating via machines, there are always emotions. For this reason, parents need to encourage children to talk about what they learned, for talking and making eye contact is critical to learning.

President Obama espoused a different philosophy of learning, diametrically opposed to the above ideas. Obama said in his speech to students, teachers responsibility for inspiring you, and pushing you to learn. One does not learn by pushing. Some religions teach by mindless rote and review. This is not how we learn today. The teacher must focus on understanding, not inspiring. Teachers must focus on communication, understanding how students think and building from there based upon the principles. I wrote these ideas in a book, “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better”.

Now that the President said these incorrect words, I have to work extra hard as a teacher to help students unlearn the mistaken ideas Obama mentioned.

Parents’ responsibility is not simply to insure students get their homework done, but to communicate to students about their work. If the student knows more that the parent, this is an opportunity for the student to teach the parent, and parents should be eager to learn. The task is to listen, not to push, as Obama said.

I asked a 6th grade student if he likes homework. No, he replied. Why do you do homework? I asked. To get a good grade, he replied. My reply was, You do homework as a review of the material, and review is critical to learning. The entire purpose of school and education is to learn and understand, and homework is part of this. Whatever you do, you must know the goal, the reason. The reason for homework is for the goal of learning.

Obama said, the government’s responsibility for setting high standards. No, it is the parents’ and community’s responsibility. If the parents are not interested in high standards, we need to focus on educating the parents to understanding themselves and their community. If the parents are not interested in high standards, the government cannot force them and create the standards.

Here are some more errors in the speech.

Pay attention to the teachers. Teachers are supposed to pay attention to students, to see if they understand. Students are to try to learn, not try to pay attention. What does attention mean?

Listen to your parents. Again, parents are supposed to listen to their children and guide them, and help them learn.

Put in hard work to succeed. This is a meaningless and useless statement. The correct statement should be, Put in hard work to try to understand what you are learning.

You won’t love every subject you study. If you dislike a subject, is usually means you do not understand it properly. This may be your fault, or the teacher’s fault, but rarely because of the subject.

Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life Homework is not important because of relevance, but as an extension of the class, as a review and as a check of understanding. If a student is concerned about relevance, the time to raise this question is in class, not at homework.

What’s your contribution going to be? Irrelevant question. The correct question is What are your goals? I ask students what is the most important thing about driving, next to safety, which is first. The answer is knowing where you are going. If you know how to steer and use the gas, it does not do you any good if you do not know where you are going. We need to focus on our goals, not on our contributions.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Where did the idea of fear come with questions, unless teachers discourage questions? Instead of telling students not to be afraid, we must tell teachers not to be afraid to encourage students asking questions.

There is another major conceptual error in the President’s speech. One thing critical for learning is understanding one’s body. In particular, sleep is critical. Sleep-deprived students fail in proper learning. During the night, thoughts that happened during the day are solidified in the brain. Without proper sleep, the day’s learning will be disorganized. I tell my students to try to get a good night’s sleep before examinations in order to get better grades. In addition to getting enough hours sleep, it is important to have a regular schedule so that the sleep is better. Parents and teachers must understand this, and convey this message to students.

When Obama proudly says at the beginning of the speech that he got up at 4:30 in the morning, and was very tired, he conveys the precise opposite message, a very destructive message. Many deadly accidents are caused by sleep deprivation. The President should encourage Americans to set proper sleep as a major priority in their lives.

It is scary that the President of the United States could make a speech to our students that contains so very many serious pedagogical errors. One conclusion is that we must close the Department of Education, for we can blame them for preaching bad ideas.

Obama said, Make us all proud. Sadly, I am not proud of President Obama!