Xylophones and zebras

Here is a quote that was on my cup of coffee this morning.

When I was young I was mislead by flash cards into believing that xylophones and zebras were much more common.

(Amy-Elyse Neer, Starbucks “The Way I See It” #297)

Xylophones and zebras are harmless when teaching children the alphabet, but there’s a tendency for teachers to keep throwing in xylophones and zebras — rare examples included for the sake of completeness — from preschool through graduate school. I was preparing for a class I’m teaching tomorrow when I read the quote, and so I had to ask myself whether I am giving xylophones and zebras more attention than they deserve.

One problem with xylophones and zebras is that a student’s difficulty may be the opposite of what the teacher imagines. The preschool teacher who thinks she’s teaching children about the letter “X” may be teaching them about xylophones instead. That’s not necessarily bad; children need to learn about xylophones sometime. But sometimes when we think someone doesn’t understand the idea we’re trying to convey, they get the big idea but don’t get our illustration.

5 thoughts on “Xylophones and zebras

  1. Thinking of a stat class, it depends on what the goal is. Zebras are useful when used to point out the limitations of some formulation regardless of how common they really are. So including them may not be primarily about completeness, but as a way of helping students learn about non-zebras. Of course as you point out they may or may not actually help, but that can be said of any pedagogoical technique.

    If a person structures a syllabus based primarily on what is common, that would have to be based on some problem domain. Also, one would run the risk of teaching only what is utilitarian. If one’s students are merely meeting some formal requirement by taking one’s class, and intend never to use statistics, then from their point of view everything beyond some vocabulary is likely to be a zebra.

    On a related note, I personally see a trend in education of focussing only on job-relevant skills, or skills required to pass an arbitrary test. Why learn history? Will that make you a better programmer / engineer / technician? What about music, art, or even foreign languages other than Spanish (for us in Houston)? Virtually no job listings require any other languages. How are you going to realistically get a job based on learning anthropology? Or topology?

    I think we are doing our students and by extension our future a disservice by focussing excessively on the “practical”. Even recess in elementary school is disappearing since it is not directly related to testing skills or job training.

    I think the observant can already see the consequences of these priorities.

    Then again, I am a zebra junkie.

    A good friend of my family growing up was a chemistry professor at TCU. We knew his family well and his daughters used to babysit for us. I can still recall when his oldest child went off to college. Being a professor, he told her that college was a time to explore interests, learn the diversity of human knowledge, etc. She called him and told him she had signed up for billiards, and I believe anthropology, philosopy, medieval history, and ceramics. His immediate response was, “How the **** do you expect to get a job?” Of course he told the story gleefully.

  2. I agree that you have to be careful about having too narrow a view of what’s “practical.” I took some pure math classes that have been very “useful” because of how they changed my thinking, not because of the content per se. And I agree that it’s valuable to explore the boundaries. But there’s a danger of becoming obsessed with the arcane, or not even realizing that the arcane is arcane. I remember a quote from Sir Michael Atiyah to the effect that someone using your pottery doesn’t care that you were able to make it using only one hand.

  3. I think we should have used XBox instead of Xylophones to teach the letter X. The word Xylophones is just too long and doesn’t emphasize the “X” sound. In 30 years when the XBox machine is no longer used, we can call this a history lesson also. Or maybe we should re-do the alphabet monikers every 20 years or so .

  4. The person using your pottery may not care, but the collector probably will :-)

    Seriously, you bring up another point that keeps occuring to me — two of the most valuable things I got out of my education were how to think and how to solve problems. Related to this I recently purchased Polya’s classic , but haven’t read it yet.

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