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Posted at 8:00 PM ET, 01/ 9/2011

Learning inspired by teacher and textbook errors

By Jay Mathews

In high school, I was a nerd with political ambitions, desperate for popularity. My U.S. history teacher encouraged criticism, giving me a chance for glory when, during the usual Friday game of 20 questions, he said the thing we were trying to guess occurred in the 19th century.

We failed to get the right answer: the Alien and Sedition Acts. That meant extra weekend homework. But, I thought to myself excitedly, wasn't he wrong? Weren't the acts in the Adams administration, late 1790s? "Mr. Ladendorff, will you cancel the homework if I can show that happened in the 18th century?"

He nodded. I found the citation. Cheers! Pleasant looks from girls! For a few minutes, I was the hero.

The controversy over errors in Virginia history books, well covered by my colleague Kevin Sieff, reminds me of the best day I ever had in high school. It makes me wonder whether the delights of detecting errors by authoritative educators and their textbooks might turn the scandal into ways to make history classes, at least in high school, more exciting than they are now.

Loudoun County officials have embraced this notion. Post reader Jan Z. Olsen made a similar point in the Jan. 4 letters to the editor column with this comment: "A huge problem could be turned into a wonderful learning opportunity."

Exactly. If history textbooks have mistakes, why not unleash students to find them? That age cohort is only too happy to point out flaws in their parents. Exposing misstatements in their textbooks should be just as enjoyable and addictive.

Once they start, they won't stop. They don't have to confine their search to factual errors. Our textbooks are also loaded with conceptual problems, relatively easy to find once students develop a point of view on what they are learning. Isn't that what critical thinking - one of this era's most fashionable pedagogical phrases - is all about?

Al Ladendorff, my history teacher at Hillsdale High in San Mateo, Calif., was famous for goading students into having opinions. Under his photo in the school yearbook was a typical Ladendorff exam question: "Fair trade laws are unfair. Disagree."

Encouraging the detection of ill-considered assumptions might work in other classes. I once suggested in a column that the dubious theory of intelligent design be discussed in biology classes to spark debate and help students understand how the scientific method distinguishes research from ideology. I was buried in e-mails calling me an idiot, but that is an acceptable byproduct of the learning process.

Ladendorff loved when we criticized our textbook. I wrote a paper noting the book's lengthy discussions of modern farm bills and their political consequences. Why were we bothering with that stuff when only 5 percent of the population lived on farms? The real America, I said, was suburbs like San Mateo. He suggested that the publisher might have been concerned about Midwestern sales. That made me realize that the style of learning I had encountered all my life was itself a reflection of the American economic system, a useful lesson for a future education columnist.

We ought to stop worrying so much about textbook errors. We might even encourage publishers to salt their volumes intentionally with a few mistakes. (Don't be horrified. Each could be identified in the teacher's guide.) It would motivate careful student reading and lively discussion.

I wonder whether Ladendorff intentionally put the Alien and Sedition Acts in the wrong century to see if anyone would catch it. It was an extra-credit assignment of unusual power, since the reward was a brief moment of celebrity for socially backward
kids like me.

It worked, Mr. Ladendorff. Thank you. If we can persuade more teachers to take similar risks in their classes and open our perpetually flawed textbooks to student criticism, we might make all history classes as unforgettable as that one was for me.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | January 9, 2011; 8:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Al Ladendorff, Hillsdale High School, Kevin Sieff, Virginia textbook errors, conceptual errors also a source for learning, let students identify errors  
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I'm not sure I would endorse injecting false information in what students use as reference. Just something seems more like a game then than a challenge.

I do agree there are external learning events that create a memory for students and they should not only be endorsed, but embraced.

Debates are one item I would encourage. Debates if nothing else, create the ability to argue without becoming argumentative. Solving math problems using contruction prints or blueprints would be more memorable than just adding fractions.

I think (IMO) one reason for a lack of outreach learning is a lack of teacher understanding about the workplace. Probably my most memorable was an assignment to write a story about a known character, but with my own twist.

It was fun and I still remember most of the story.

Posted by: jbeeler | January 10, 2011 8:11 AM | Report abuse

I think, if I dare speak for other regulars, no one is commenting because we are rolling our eyes going "how completely absurd."

I'm also thinking that if all Jay's teachers were so relatively ignorant of the basics, it might explain his odd view of education.

In general, though, Jay does this time and again: mixes and matches issues well-suited for high-cognitive ability students (the ones he ignores by shoving everyone into classes tht should be limited to them) with low ability students (who don't ever touch the textbooks, much less look for errors.)

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | January 10, 2011 9:21 AM | Report abuse

To Cal---thanks for a comment from a regular. I suspect you have encountered some labeled low ability students who surprised you. So have a lot of teachers I know.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 10, 2011 12:22 PM | Report abuse

Of course, for your concept to work you need teachers who (a) will recognize errors when they see them and (b) be secure enough to respect students who challenge them rather than being frightened by them. I attended some fine schools in my day, but at least twenty percent of my teachers wouldn't have qualified on either count.--Karl Weber

Posted by: KWeberLit | January 10, 2011 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Our elementary school math textbook had an exercise on using a table to determine things. It used Presidents' ages at death, and the questions were things like which was the oldest, what was the average age at death, etc. I pointed out that the age for one of the Presidents was wrong. I could have accepted it if the teacher had either had us use the correct age or said for the purpose of the exercise we should all pretend it was correct and I should write to the publisher about the error. But instead she told me, "That's history and this is math, so the correct age doesn't matter."

Posted by: sideswiththekids | January 10, 2011 3:31 PM | Report abuse

Karl suggests, "you need teachers who (a) will recognize errors when they see them and (b) be secure enough to respect students who challenge them rather than being frightened by them."

Not necessarily, Karl. Children have learned (one way or the other) from frightened and insecure teachers as well as from strong ones, and from error-ridden and dishonest books as well as great and insightful ones. Children wonder about things. They construct meaning in their own minds as they work to reduce their uncertainty. That has to be its own reward, because rarely do they get a gold star from their teachers when it really matters, when they do speak truth to power.

This story is related to Jay's anecdote, but is much more complicated. I cherish the memory of a sixth grade teacher, a Dominican priest whose name I remember as "Father Rusnock". He would be in his nineties now, at least. I was in a Catholic school in Tennessee, for complicated reasons.

We had been shown a film strip of great paintings of Mary, for some feast day, and I was struck by El Greco's painting of the Assumption.

I went to the library to see more of El Greco's stuff. The landscape, "Toledo in a Storm" has the same powerful, disturbing vocabulary of distorted space and perspective that gives the Assumption such majesty, but without any sense of grace. The caption said the darkness gathered over the church building at the center might have been El Greco's protest against the Inquisition, because this was the seat of the Holy Office. And there was a portrait of Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor, with no distortion at all, but intensely twisted in some other way. I took all that vocabulary to the card catalog at the Carnegie Library. The resulting stack of books didn't paint a pretty picture, and some were quite graphic. The librarian wouldn't let me check them out on my child's card, so I could only take one.

When Father Rusnock came on Thursday for our religion lesson, I put it on the desk in front of him and asked, "Father, is this true?"

He struggled to explain that there are many confusing and misleading things written in books, and that's why we should look for the stamp in the front that says they are sound for us to read. He showed me the purple "nihil obstat" stamp in his own book.

"But Father, no, look. The 'Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith' IS the Holy Office! YOU have to tell me; is this true?" The poor man. He hemmed and hawed and circumlocuted until my heart was pounding like a hammer, and I choked out, "Are you still doing it?!"

He answered at last, "No. It's been over for centuries."

A couple of years ago, I stood in front of the actual painting, at the MFA in Boston. The tour was sponsored by a Spanish princess, so the commentary card suggested the central placement of the building emphasized the centrality of the Church in the life of the city.

Posted by: mport84 | January 10, 2011 9:01 PM | Report abuse

" I suspect you have encountered some labeled low ability students who surprised you. So have a lot of teachers I know. "

What on earth does that have to do with my post.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | January 11, 2011 12:08 AM | Report abuse

Jay's thought seem very good. Intelligent, non-emotional, discussion is useful if it is a matter of opinion. However, I would put the library research ahead of the discussion for history and for most secondary education.

In fact, there is an excellent "national" program for history. It is called National History Day. It requires dedicated teachers and a State sponsor. The students pick a topic and one of several types of presentation. Then they go to libraries and research the topic in depth. The reason I put "national" in quotes is that not all States participate. The topic may be done by an individual or by a group of students. The most common presentations are posters and little plays.

I have judged at the Minnesota History day and I was amazed by the depth of their knowledge. One group of middle schoolers knew the name of Sister Kenny's first U.S. patient. I knew they were correct, because I knew him, but they had to dig out the information and they made it clear that they enjoyed the work and learning.

In short, if you want better education, support activities that are interesting to the students. I teach adults in developing countries for USAID contractors. It is thrilling for me because I draw crowds who come for nothing, but my knowledge.


Posted by: kurtzmanr | January 11, 2011 6:52 PM | Report abuse

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