Getting from A to B

Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints' Episcopal School, Morristown, TN

Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints’ Episcopal School, Morristown, TN

What is the shortest distance between two points?  Yes!  You answered correctly!  Did we learn this in geometry class or is it simply painfully obvious to anyone with one brain cell to rub against another?  (Did any of you actually use “distance = SQRT [(x2 - x1)^2 + (y2 - y1)^2] ?  OK, to be fair, that formula actually calculates the precise distance.  But perhaps you see my point.)

Accomplishing something simple through complex means is remarkably common in our world.  It is so common that a man’s name has been memorialized in the dictionary as an adjective to define this ridiculous process.  That man was Rube Goldberg.  He died 43 years ago, but his legacy of cartoons depicting zany ideas (Professor Butts’ Self-Operating Napkin”) motivate science fair participants even to this day.  I defy anyone not to smile, or even laugh outright, when following his directions for the “Simplified Pencil Sharpener” or the machine that makes eating asparagus “a real pleasure.”

Students who build complex projects involving gravity, force, levers, pulleys, inclined planes, and so forth, learn an amazing amount of real-world science.  It’s not only valuable, it’s fun!  Educators who organize their lesson plans (or grade books!) in a similar fashion, however,  should find a new job.

Teachers (and coaches) are role models in many ways.  The manner in which they communicate, in addition to the content of their subject, is being learned by their students. A teacher who makes a simple concept unnecessarily complex is passing this style along to future generations.   Unhappily, with all of the advantages that modern technology affords us, simple lessons are becoming Rube Goldberg inventions for unfortunate hostages in many classrooms.  A Smart Board being used merely as a digital chalkboard is perhaps my favorite example of this foolishness.

Some years ago I was told that we (the people of East Tennessee) didn’t care much for the intellect, but that we worshiped cleverness.  Perhaps, according to my informant, this was our inheritance: generations of folk who had to “make-do” in the wilderness of southern Appalachia.  As offensive as this concept is, it has an irritating kernel of truth in it.  It returns to my conscious mind when I witness inefficiency in the classroom or at a store or during a repair of a highway or machine.

A grading system that involves too many calculations would be one of many classroom sins against which I inveigh.  You know:  33% of quizzes equal one major test divided by the class participation grades that start with 100 points but lose a point each day that the student forgets his book, added to extra-credit which can replace lost points provided that the work is turned in within 2 days of the excused absence.  Expensive educational “clocks” to teach second graders how to tell time would be another.

Ultimately, of course, there is much to be said for cleverness. There is also much to be said for taking the shortest route between two points.

Source: Dr. Henry Selby, Headmaster All Saints' Episcopal School, Morristown, TN

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