Today, I read a wonderful article on nytimes.com that quotes E.B. White’s book, The Trumpet of the Swan, to describe real education as opposed to learning to answer test questions: A Lesson in Teaching to the Test from E.B. White. The article’s analysis is good, but I’m so enthralled by the extensive E.B. White quote that I’m repeating it here to share my joy.
The fifth-graders were having a lesson in arithmetic, and their teacher, Miss Annie Snug, greeted Sam with a question.
“Sam, if a man can walk three miles in one hour, how many miles can he walk in four hours?”
“It would depend on how tired he got after the first hour,” replied Sam.
The other pupils roared. Miss Snug rapped for order.
“Sam is quite right,” she said. “I never looked at the problem that way before. I always supposed that man could walk twelve miles in four hours, but Sam may be right: the man may not feel quite so spunky after the first hour. He may drag his feet. He may slow up.”
Albert Bigelow raised his hand. “My father knew a man who tried to walk twelve miles, and he died of heart failure,” said Albert.
“Goodness!” said the teacher. “I suppose that could happen too.”
“Anything can happen in four hours,” said Sam. “A man might develop a blister on his heel. Or he might find some berries growing along the road and stop to pick them. That would slow him up even if he wasn’t tired or didn’t have a blister.”
“It would indeed,” agreed the teacher. “Well, children, I think we have all learned a great deal about arithmetic this morning, thanks to Sam Beaver. And now here’s a problem for one of the girls in the room. If you are feeding a baby from a bottle, and you give the baby eight ounces of milk in one feeding, how many ounces of milk would the baby drink in two feedings?”
Linda Staples raised her hand.
“About fifteen ounces,” she said.
“Why is that?” asked Miss Snug. “Why wouldn’t the baby drink sixteen ounces?”
“Because he spills a little each time,” said Linda. “It runs out of the corners of his mouth and gets on his mother’s apron.”
By this time the class was howling so loudly the arithmetic lesson had to be abandoned. But everyone had learned how careful you have to be when dealing with figures.