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March 04, 2003
There's more to training than training

In a comment on this posting here last month, a distinction was made between "education" and "training", by Kamen Rider. But I wonder how genuine this distinction is. How much do these two words describe truly different activities, and how much do they merely describe different aspects of the same process? For even as one is being "trained" to do something or other, one also has a mind that is working away, learning more elusive and subtle lessons than the mere behavioural patterns one is also acquiring.

At the end of last week I was preoccupied with DIY. More CD shelves to be exact. And this reminded me of an educational- stroke-training episode deep in my past.

I went to one of those posh preparatory schools in the home counties of southern England, and one term, for some reason, a bus load of us were sent off to have weekly woodwork classes, under the supervision of a type of person we seldom encountered in the normal course of our lives. He was an aristocrat of labour, a classic NCO type. Under his watchful eye we learned sawing, and dovetailing, and glueing, and we all ended up with small wooden pencil boxes. I think I still have mine somewhere.

The same experience affects different pupils in very different ways, so I can't speak for the others. But I learned a lot from this man, who I thought then and still think was most impressive. I learned some carpentry techniques of the sort I still use, when erecting CD shelves for example. I got some training, in other words. But I also learned an attitude towards doing work which I had never come across before.

This man was obsessed with getting things right and doing things right. For him, technical correctness was a moral issue. People who put saw cuts through the middle of the line, instead of next to a line and on the correct side of the line in the way one should, were not just incompetent. They were wicked.

So, I was learning both some good carpentry habits, and I was imbibing something more like a whole attitude to life, and learning about a sort of person whom I had until then imagined not to exist, or to be motivated only by the most shallow and small-minded of motives. That a man could combine proletarian speaking habits and technical rather than "educated" interests with the moral passion of an Old Testament prophet was all new stuff to me, and it might still startle me a little if I came across it now. Training and education.

And what about those Kumon kids, who's mere "training" Kamen Rider was commenting on? Well, for some of the children I watched doing Kumon maths, there was a great deal more involved than merely picking up a few maths skills.

I recall a rather quiet, rather arkward boy, tending towards plumpness, by the name of Graham. Graham showed up at our Kumon classes, and did the sums as requested. He had very little to say for himself, but that didn't bother us. Talking is not part of the Kumon deal.

Only later did we discover that Graham's whole life had apparently been transformed for the better. His parents were much more stylish and articulate people than their son, quicker of mind and tongue than him, and, frankly, they were rather embarrassed by very ordinary-seeming child. What was wrong with him? How had they, such sparkling persons, had such uninspiring offspring? And of course this only made Graham all the more depressed and arkward. That seemed to be the picture.

And then Graham started doing Kumon, and turning in those near perfect scores that all Kumon kids get because if they don't get near perfect scores they are doing the wrong sums. Finally, Graham realised that he was not this incompetent waste of space that his parents were so carefully not saying that they thought he was. His whole attitude towards life was transformed. He became more confident, more outgoing. He stopped apologising for being alive, and started to really live.

Graham's story is not at all an uncommon in Kumon. The way that children are "trained" to do maths (and a great many other things) in regular schools can do awful things to their confidence, in ways that affect a great deal more than their mere exam results. And correspondingly, good maths training of the sort that Kumon supplies can do a lot more than get a kid through some exams.

I wonder if "training" is ever only training.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:08 PM
Category: Brian's education

Many years ago, some colleagues had a debate about the difference between education and training (I work for an Anglo-Dutch company, and the Dutch colleagues weren't sure). One lady put it very succinctly: "I'm very happy for my children to receive sex education at school, but if they start sex training, I'm taking them out".

Comment by: Robert Dammers on March 5, 2003 12:18 PM
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