In the comments of this post, my friend Bogan says:
Let’s be clear right now: Unless you are teaching something inherently dangerous, like scuba diving or dynamite juggling, you should never, ever discourage a student from moving ahead. If the student is getting bored, this is a cue that you, the teacher, need to get the hell out of their way – right now or sooner. Anything else is sabotage.
When I was in junior high our math teachers vanished for two weeks. Suddenly, it was substitutes for math class all over the school. This was obviously unexpected, since the subs were not left with clear instructions of how to fill that two-week space of time. When the teachers came back, we discovered that they had all been given some sort of crash course in computers, and we were now going to have computer lab on day X, where X is the day of the week when nobody else was using the computer lab.
My math teacher was an immense woman named Mrs. Grossman. Yes, I’m serious, and yes, she really was gigantic. I’m not trying to liven up the story by going all Wonder Years on you. She was spherical, with thick glasses, a short butch perm, and a mean streak wider than her own shadow. It was clear she did not care for this new turn in her mandated curriculum, and she taught us to use computers the same way you might teach someone to slap-fight a cobra. This computer was a dangerous creature to be approached with the utmost caution, and only by doing (sigh) exactly as we were told could we hope to learn anything about these capricious magic boxes.
The computer room was nothing more than a regular classroom with tables lining the outer walls, which were stacked with Apple computers facing inward so that everyone was elbow-to-elbow. It was two students per computer, although a few lucky and / or unpopular kids (like me) got a computer all to themselves.
She spoke at length to us about computers before we were allowed to turn them on. Sitting in front of a computer that is switched off is never very exciting, and to do so while the instructor drones on about pushing a button is enough to bore the dead. Once we got around to powering the things on, she instructed us to not touch anything. Because, you know, those early Apple II’s were notorious for deploying whirling discs of razor-sharp metal on users who pressed the errant button at the wrong moment.
Nevertheless, I pressed a button. I forget what the machine was doing. Booting up, probably, since that process would have taken up the bulk of the class time anyway. I hit the spacebar, which I often did to other computers to skip the POST rigamarole and make with the computing, already. It wasn’t really applicable here, but it also was not dangerous. At least, it wasn’t dangerous to the computer. It was quite dangerous to me, since the instant I touched the button Mrs. Grossman smacked me in the back of the head. This was not a polite tap to get my attention and bring me into line. This was a full-on open-handed blow to the back of my skull, which nearly bounced my face off the monitor. Once I had returned to my senses, Mrs. Grossman said coldly, “Didn’t I tell you not to touch anything?”
A dumb nod was the only response I could muster. Sure, I broke a (pointless) ad-hoc rule borne of fear and ignorance, but I’m pretty sure there were other rules out there, more substantial in nature and most likely written down, about not striking students in the head. But I gave no argument. My main concern at this point was not crying in front of the other students. Being fourteen years old was such a pain.
She then laboriously fed us a program in BASIC, one line at a time. She was not teaching us, since there was little in the way of explanation about that all of this was for. For people like me, it was so simple that the lesson was insulting. For people who were new to it, we were just typing in random symbols. After a good fifteen minutes (there were very long pauses while she waited for everyone to finish typing, and some of these kids had never had their hands on a keyboard before) we managed to get a six-line program into the thing.
This was maddening. It was like being made to recite my ABCs, only at the rate of a letter every ten seconds. Most kids were bored because the task was meaningless to them. I was bored because I had my hands on a whole new computer and I couldn’t experiment with the thing. More to the point, nobody was learning anything.
She went on some tangent about how important it was to type things exactly as she had written them, and the importance of not confusing the letter “O” and zero when I finally diverged from the lesson and added a rogue FOR loop to my program. She spotted my mischief, and sent me away. I spent the rest of the class at one of the empty tables with no computer. I was actually relieved. I wasn’t going to suffer through this mind-numbing spoon-fed lesson. I’m sure she was relieved as well: She had managed to get rid of the only person in the room keen on learning to use the computer, and now she could go back to wasting everyone’s time without interruption.
This day had a large impact on how I perceived my education. The illusion that teachers were vessels of knowledge was broken, and I could suddenly see teachers for what they were: People who had a job, who sometimes hated that job, and were sometimes manifestly unqualified for that job. The fact that someone like Mrs. Grossman was able to land a teaching job, hold onto that job, and eventually cultivate the roots of tenure suggested that weeding out people who were useless at teaching was not near the top of anyone’s list of priorities.
I had already resolved that I was going to Learn About Computers, and now I realized that this learning was not going to come from adults. This was a very liberating moment in some ways. I could stop waiting for adults to get their act together and teach me what I wanted to know. I was going to learn what I wanted without their help – and perhaps even in spite of it. To this day I have little patience for teachers who act like Bogan describes. Any instructor who wants to move at the speed of the slowest person in the room, and who then chides the others for moving ahead is an imbecile who should be sent packing. Their mentality shows them to be people who are not cut out for their job, like an accountant who is bad at numbers and bored by paperwork. A teacher who wants her students to slow down and stop learning so fast is a good bit worse than no teacher at all.
Bogan: Stop by sometime – we can talk about bubble sort and linked lists.
Mrs. Grossman: Stay the hell away from my kids.
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