Archive for July, 2010

Primer for ed reformers

July 23, 2010

I’m very grateful to Steve Miranda for bringing this brilliant Washington Post article to my attention. Guest blogger, Marion Brady, is described as a ‘veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author’. Here he really gets back to basics, applying some common sense in the face of bureaucratic expert-speak. Several of the points remind me of John Taylor Gatto. It’s well worth reading the article in its entirety, but here are the core points:

* Learning, real learning – trying to make more sense of what’s happening – is as natural and satisfying as breathing. If your big reform idea requires laws, mandates, penalties, bribes, or other kinds of external pressure to make it work, it won’t work. You can lead the horse to water, and you can force it to look like it’s drinking, but you can’t make it drink.

* The ability to think – to infer, hypothesize, generalize, relate, make sound value judgments, generate brand new knowledge, and so on – is the main thing humankind has going for it. If thought isn’t tested, it won’t get taught, so if your reform effort depends on standardized tests, you’re in big trouble. That’s because nobody knows how to write standardized, machine-scoreable test questions that say how well a kid can think. Nobody.

* Saying to kids, “You’ll need to know this next year,” is a waste of words. If they can’t see the usefulness, right now, in their own lives, of whatever you’re trying to teach, they won’t learn it. Information may go into short-term memory long enough to pass a test, but that’s it.

They won’t allow what they think is useless information to permanently clutter up their minds. Think I’m wrong? What percentage of the American history you studied in elementary school, middle school, high school, and college, do you still remember well enough to, say, cite precedent when you argue the case for or against a particular Wall Street reform?

* If the success of your reform effort depends on really smart, knowledgeable teachers or administrators, go back to the drawing board. The percentage of those in the schools is about the same as in other professions, which means there will always be a major shortage. Respecting educators enough to get out of their way and let them do their work without being micromanaged by amateurs would increase the percentage of good ones, but not enough to assure the success of your reform proposal.

* Are you convinced national standards for school subjects is a good reform idea? Forget it. First, they lock in our 19th Century curriculum. Second, the human brain doesn’t make sense of experience by clicking between school subjects. Third, in the real world, everything connects to everything, and the connections are at least as important as the facts being connected. Fourth, standards should say what kinds of kids we want, not which facts we think they should have in their heads. Fifth, trying to standardize the young (especially now that the Chinese are determined to de-standardize them to encourage creativity) is a recipe for disaster. Kid creativity has declined steadily since No Child Left Behind was put in place.

* If concern for the achievement gap drives your enthusiasm for reform, know that differences in scores on standardized tests aren’t going to go away as long as the test items are written by adults who’ve grown up in the dominant culture. Too many of the items will be stacked against minorities, a fact that will remain hidden because of test secrecy and dominant-culture hubris. Complicating the problem is the fact that the gap triggers self-fulfilling prophecies which perpetuate it.

Those six insights are a start on a primer.

Here are eight more that experienced teachers think you need to know:

* Kids are a lot smarter than today’s education makes them seem.

* They learn more in small groups working together on a challenge than they do competing one-on-one.

* Without emotional involvement there’s no learning (and boredom doesn’t qualify as an emotion).

* Humans really do learn more from firsthand experience than from books and teacher talk.

* The brain uses a “master” information organizing system, and understanding it is important.

* For kids, passivity is unnatural, so sitting still hour after hour is anti-educational.

* The revolutionary implications of the new accessibility of information aren’t being taken into adequate account.

* Both teachers and learners are more powerfully motivated by the satisfactions of doing useful, high-quality work than by winning competitions.

Grouping students by skill, not grade level

July 22, 2010

This article from USA Today (5 July 2010) describes an approach to schooling that is not new, but it represents a positive development when applied systematically in state schools across whole districts (in the American system). Here are some extracts:

‘The current system of public education in this country is not working’ said Superintendent John Covington. ‘It’s an outdated, industrial, agrarian kind of model that lends itself to still allowing students to progress through school based on the amount of time they sit in a chair rather than whether or not they have truly mastered the competencies and skills.’

Here’s how the reform works:

Students — often of varying ages — work at their own pace, meeting with teachers to decide what part of the curriculum to tackle. Teachers still instruct students as a group if it’s needed, but often students are working individually or in small groups on projects that are tailored to their skill level.

For instance, in a classroom learning about currency, one group could draw pictures of pennies and nickels. A student who has mastered that skill might use pretend money to practice making change.

Students who progress quickly can finish high school material early and move forward with college coursework. Alternatively, in some districts, high-schoolers who need extra time can stick around for another year.

Advocates say the approach cuts down on discipline problems because advanced students aren’t bored and struggling students aren’t frustrated.

Count 11-year-old Alex Rodriguez as a convert to the new approach. He used to get bored after plowing through his assignments. He had to bring books from home or the library if he wanted a challenge because the ones at his old school were one or two grade levels too easy.

‘I liked school,’ he said. ‘But it was hard sitting there and doing nothing.’

His parents transferred the high achiever and his three younger siblings to the Denver area district after learning it was trying something new. His father, Richard Rodriguez, has been thrilled with the turnaround.

‘I wish school was like this when I was growing up,’ he said.

‘The most die-hard advocates for our system are our teachers because, especially the ones who were back with us before the change, they saw where things were then,’ he said. ‘They see where things are now and they don’t want to go back.’

We need to rescue the bright kids in schools

July 21, 2010

This was the title of an article by Steven Martin, published on 1 July in The West Australian. Here is the full text:

While some excel in class, others languish and become invisible in the culture of schools, writes Steven Martin

Chances are they were difficult babies, fidgety toddlers and now they are strange teenagers. You, as their parent, know they are bright, but trying to convince others is like trying to get them to see the silk in the sow’s ear; they need to get past the porcine problems first. Really bright kids often disguise themselves as sow’s ears.

Anyway the argument goes, like ducks, bright kids walk the walk and talk the talk … don’t they? Usually this means they perform well at school and are compliant. Well, research shows that many don’t perform well and are not compliant. That is unless they’re encouraged in the right way. Would you encourage a child who doesn’t seem to have what it takes? The problem is not hard to see.

Our Education Department, like similar departments around Australia, seeks the brightest teenagers through testing. Then, when they’ve found them, they put them into special programs. Everyone feels good about this: the minister, the department, the schools with the special programs, the parents and, of course, the successful test takers.

Oddly, hardly anyone stops to question whether the tests really find people who are bright or just people who are good at taking tests. Governments commit millions of dollars on the strength of the tests so you’d think someone would ask, after all, it’s our taxes and our bright kids. And what happens to the teenagers who are not selected for special help — does this mean they’re not intelligent?

Some vocal parents kick and scream against the test results since gaining admission to a special program is prestigious and they know their children are bright. Bureaucracy soon wears them out because it can’t cater for all.

Most just accept their children’s fate, now believing that the brightness they thought they saw was just a trick of the light. What would parents know in the face of statistics? Those who know anything about finding bright kids agree that parents know a lot.

Often their children, being great learners, learnt the nature of their relationship with education before they got to Year 4 and haven’t been interested since. They look for light outside the classroom window and sometimes mitigate their boredom by amusing themselves at the teacher’s expense, often developing poor reputations along the way. Why would they try to do well on tests or anything else the school asks of them? Why would the school go to any great lengths to cater for troublemakers?

The truth is, really bright kids become great at hiding, often under a shell of strangeness for fear the others might get to know and tease them. They understand all about tall poppies and, in the uniform world of school, they would rather be considered bizarre than brainy; goofy than gifted.

While some excel in classrooms, others languish and become invisible in the culture of schools, contenting themselves to hang out on the fringes with their weird mates. Unfortunately, their rich potential goes undiscovered when the whole community could benefit from it.

No less a body than a select committee of the Australian Senate has said for years that little is being done in schools to mine the potential of our bright children. Alarmingly the committee has also said that many of these young people are ‘at risk’ as a result.

As a long-serving teacher, for me it’s not hard to see the reasons. Teachers are often tirelessly seeking to get the best for their students in the face of ever growing demands from the community.

How often have you heard the phrase, ‘they should teach them in school…’ relating to topics as varying as manners, driving, money management and so on? Most busy teachers, however dedicated, simply do not have the time to read theory and policy documents, particularly in relation to a group that mythology tells us is advantaged anyway. Research is full of good ideas which never reach the chalkface where they could be applied effectively.

A belief that is not uncommon is that bright kids will ‘rise to the top’ like cream, but the truth is that many teenagers are not even aware of their own brightness. Instead of rising, they’re more likely to sink under the weight of sameness and the boredom that ensues.

Instead of being taught pre-existing solutions to new problems, our bright kids need to be taught how to find new and better solutions for themselves since it’s the case that, those who have a solution are unlikely to look for others. Most teaching in schools across the curriculum requires students to remember information rather than critically evaluate it, however, if bright young people are to emerge from the classroom gloom, they need to be challenged by being given the skills to do this.

Experts in education writing for the United Nations have been arguing for years that teaching children to think and reason is as important in our modern age as teaching them to write was in the past. Those who have learnt to do this successfully are equipped for creating new ideas. There is no educationally sound reason these skills could not be taught to all in a way that would ‘value add’ to the curriculum. This may be the only way of rescuing all our bright kids from the problems that could trouble them at school and in their lives beyond. Think what we would gain as a community.

Steven Martin has been a teacher for more than 30 years, specialising in gifted children

Ken Robinson – Education Innovation

July 20, 2010