JAY MATHEWS

How to turn textbook errors into a good thing

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 10, 2011

In high school, I was a nerd with political ambitions, desperate for popularity. My U.S. history teacher encouraged criticism, giving me a chance for glory when, during the usual Friday game of 20 questions, he said the thing we were trying to guess occurred in the 19th century.

We failed to get the right answer: the Alien and Sedition Acts. That meant extra weekend homework. But, I thought to myself excitedly, wasn't he wrong?

Weren't the acts in the Adams administration, late 1790s? "Mr. Ladendorff, will you cancel the homework if I can show that happened in the 18th century?" He nodded. I found the citation. Cheers! Pleasant looks from girls! For a few minutes, I was the hero.

The controversy over errors in Virginia history books, well covered by my colleague Kevin Sieff, reminds me of the best day I ever had in high school.

It makes me wonder whether the delights of detecting errors by authoritative educators and their textbooks might turn the scandal into ways to make history classes, at least in high school, more exciting.

Loudoun County officials have embraced this notion. Post reader Jan Z. Olsen made a similar point in the Jan. 4 letters to the editor column with this comment: "A huge problem could be turned into a wonderful learning opportunity."

Exactly. If history textbooks have mistakes, why not unleash students to find them? That age cohort is only too happy to point out flaws in their parents. Exposing misstatements in their textbooks should be just as enjoyable and addictive.

Once they start, they won't stop. They don't have to confine their search to factual errors.

Our textbooks are also loaded with conceptual problems, relatively easy to find once students develop a point of view on what they are learning. Isn't that what critical thinking - one of this era's most fashionable pedagogical phrases - is all about?

Al Ladendorff, my history teacher at Hillsdale High in San Mateo, Calif., was famous for goading students into having opinions.

Under his photo in the school yearbook was a typical Ladendorff exam question: "Fair trade laws are unfair. Disagree."

Encouraging the detection of ill-considered assumptions might work in other classes.


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