Should knowledge be a commodity or a rarity?


I was recently browsing a school curriculum publisher’s e-commerce web site and noticed that their shopping cart had some restrictions. For example, to be able to purchase any teacher materials (such as the teacher’s edition), you can’t use a personal credit card. If you’re a home school parent (we are), that’s a problem. There is an alternate route for home schoolers, which involves submitting a home school affidavit proving that you really are a home school teacher (we have one, but what a pain to have to fax it).  The explanation given is that it is “to prevent teaching materials from falling into the hands of [public school] students”.

Ok, I get that the prevailing wisdom is that we don’t want public school students copying answers right out of the teacher edition of their Math book without learning how to get the answer. On the surface that makes a great deal of sense.

But, as a big proponent of autodidactic learning, something about that rubbed me the wrong way.

For instance, when I was in high school, I struggled mightily with math.  One reason was that I had an awful math teacher who focused just on “the smart kids” and “dumb kids” like me were ostracized and treated with contempt.  It was not a good situation to be in.  Consequently, my mom, who was the public library director, simply ordered a copy of the teacher edition of my math book (Saxon) and we used it as a way for me to check my answers, which was a the difference between me getting good enough grades to pass the class or utterly failing.  My parents didn’t hide the teacher edition from me, either.  They knew, and I knew, that I had to learn the concept behind how to get the answer so that I could pass the test at the end of the unit.

Since then, I’ve become a big proponent of “look it up learning”. In the public school system of yesteryear (rather, yester-century), we put a huge emphasis on knowledge being a scarce resource. You would go into a class, utterly helpless and ignorant, to gain knowledge from two sources of information: your instructor and your text book.

Yet, today, with all the technology we now have at our disposal, gone are the days when a person can only gain an education by sitting at the feet of a guru.  With the ability to have any fact or resource at our fingertips at any instant, and even online tutors and instructors to help make sense of difficult concepts, it seems almost self-defeating to go to a classroom and wait for that knowledge to eventually trickle out of the mouth of an instructor or off the carcasses of dead trees.

Which brings me back to my point. Why do we bar students from owning teacher editions when all they have to do is pull themselves up to a computer and use a site like wolframalpha.com to look up the answer (and even learn some useful applications of the fact they’re looking up)?  Unscrupulous students simply won’t be bothered with the morality issues with ignorantly jotting down the answer without making an effort to learn why it is correct. And they’ll only be hurting themselves when the time comes to perform well on the exam, for obvious reasons.

It’s time to stop, or fundamentally change, this nonsense that is “school” in an era when we are no longer training youth to regurgitate “the correct answer”. We should teach them how to get to the right answer…even if the answer is known in advance.  For many learners, particularly people struggling with math, like I did and still do, knowing the answer before knowing how to calculate it is often the key to learning how to calculate the answer without knowing it first in real world situations.

What are your thoughts?  Drop a line in the comments.

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2 thoughts on “Should knowledge be a commodity or a rarity?

  1. I taught using John Saxon’s math books for more than a dozen years in a rural public high school in Oklahoma.

    I purchased all teacher’s textbooks (cost was the same as student books) so that every student had the answers to every problem they were working on.

    Why? Because their homework grades were only worth 10 percent of their total grade. Even if they copied the homework and received daily grades of 100, their weekly test grades were 90% of their overall grade.

    It is the weekly tests that determine their mastery level and not their daily homework grades.

    This system works from Math 54 through calculus.

    If you have any further questions, I recommend you take a look at the website at http://www.usingsaxon.com.

    Hope this helps explain John’s unique system of concentrating on mastery versus memory.

    Art Reed

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