The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"When Alexander the Great visited Diogenes and asked whether he could do anything for the famed teacher, Diogenes replied: 'Only stand out of my light.'  Perhaps some day we shall know how to heighten creativity.  Until then, one of the best things we can do for creative men and women is to stand out of their light."....  ...John W. Gardner.

Commentary of the Day - December 16, 2002:  Don't Ask Marilyn!

Marilyn Vos Savant publishes the popular "Ask Marilyn" column in Parade Magazine, which is distributed with the Sunday morning editions of many major newspapers.  Marilyn's claims to fame are her high score on IQ tests that she took as a child (she claims to have the highest IQ on record), and her knowledge of probability theory.  She frequently provides answers to counter intuitive probability questions posed by her readers, and her answers are almost always right.  But like a lot of very intelligent people she sometimes overreaches when providing answers to questions where a correct response requires a knowledge of the facts as well as a keen intellect.  In fact, software engineer Herb Weiner has made a specialty of catching errors in the columns that Marilyn has published.  Here is recent  pedagogical gaff by Marilyn.

In Marilyn's December 15, 2002 Parade Magazine column, reader Zina Yost Ingle of Vineland, N.J. asks the following:

On a geometry test, Mary devises a set of steps to solve a problem.  Her solution is shorter and more elegant than the method taught in class.  If you were her teacher, how would you score her answer?
Marilyn responds:
I'd ask her to solve the problem by the method that was taught.  If she could, I would give her full credit plus extra credit for the extra solution.  If she could not, I would give her no credit at all: She doesn't understand what was taught in class.  Methods of teaching are not necessarily the shortest and most elegant.  Instead, they may simply be a good way for students to learn the principles of the subject.
Marilyn's knowledge of probability theory may be vast, but her understanding of teaching and learning is only half-vast.  Mary clearly deserves full credit for her answer to the problem that the teacher posed; and, she should be praised for coming up with a shorter, more elegant solution.  The reason is that the teacher did not ask that the problem be solved by any particular method, at least as far as the reader's question indicates.

To be sure, a teacher may want to see if his or her students understand how a particular method works.  In that case the question should be posed appropriately: "Using Gauss's Law show that ........".  And, sometimes the teacher does want to check that the student is learning material covered in the course.  In that case, the question can be posed as follows: "Using one of the methods that we have discussed in class, show that .......".

However, in absence of such caveats, it seems to the IP that we advance Mary's education far more by praising her correct (and creative) answer than by punishing her because she dared to walk outside the lines of a rigid pedagogy.

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