Learning to Conform

I have finally caught up with this fine podcast from the Locus Roundtable in which Theodora Goss, Eileen Gunn, Cecelia Holland, and Paul Park talk to Karen Burnham about teaching writing. As people were noting on Twitter, it is particularly interesting about writing non-fiction. Personally I have always thought what they say to be self-evident, but I can quite see how the ability to write engagingly is drummed out of people in school, and indeed much later in life. When I first started working as a consultant it took me quite a while to get used to the fact that a consultancy report was neither a lab report nor interesting writing.

However, it is not just the ability to write engagingly that Karen’s guests take aim at. They also complain about how school kids are taught to pass exams rather than taught to think. As someone who was thoroughly put off literary criticism in school by the total ban my teachers imposed on actually engaging with the texts, I can emphasize with this.

Again, it is not just writing where this happens. Only yesterday Tim Anderson was complaining about how useless computing qualifications are. They don’t teach you how to program, they teach you how to pass exams that get you computing qualifications.

People get used to this way of thinking, and carry it on into later life. These days I’m self-employed because I’m pretty much unemployable, especially in the UK. However, I have always preferred working in small companies. That’s because in a big company so many of the employees are not at all focused on doing their jobs, they are just focused on what they need to do in order to get on in the company.

You can of course argue that I am being deeply naive here, and that I’m just running away from the way that the world really works. But conforming to expectations — always doing what you think people most want you to do — is no way to be creative, in art or in business.

3 thoughts on “Learning to Conform

  1. I haven’t listened to that podcast. But I get a bit cagey, being a trained English teacher, when people make broad claims about teaching and measurement of student ability. Do you know if any of the panellists were teachers or had experience in teaching school children? Had knowledge of what makes up the English curriculum for their state?

    I guess I should go and listen hey ? πŸ™‚

    Having worked in Workplace training and HR there’s lots of reasons why people settle for a just enough is good enough approach. It can be linked to job satisfaction, even generational attitudes.

  2. Sean-

    Hi! Yes, all the panelists had experience teaching and being taught, although I don’t think any of them taught at the high school level. A lot of their perspectives came from teaching in college, and what students had learned and wanted/needed to unlearn. But there isn’t much teacher bashing in the podcast–they all understand why the system is set up the way it is.

    But I hope you get a chance to listen for yourself–there’s a lot of good stuff there from a number of perspectives!

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