Changing our approach in our classrooms

| February 3, 2010 | 5 Replies

In her NYT Op-Ed, Pychologist Susan Engel advises what we are doing wrong in the classroom. She argues that we need to do more than change the way we measure progress–we need to overhaul the entire way we teach:

In order to design a curriculum that teaches what truly matters, educators should remember a basic precept of modern developmental science: developmental precursors don’t always resemble the skill to which they are leading. For example, saying the alphabet does not particularly help children learn to read. But having extended and complex conversations during toddlerhood does. Simply put, what children need to do in elementary school is not to cram for high school or college, but to develop ways of thinking and behaving that will lead to valuable knowledge and skills later on. . . .

What they shouldn’t do is spend tedious hours learning isolated mathematical formulas or memorizing sheets of science facts that are unlikely to matter much in the long run. Scientists know that children learn best by putting experiences together in new ways. They construct knowledge; they don’t swallow it.

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Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Education in this country suffers from the mil-spec problem. Everything in the military is designed so that the least common denominator uniform filler can handle it. One set of rules that works for everyone. The challenge is for the majority to learn how to survive the tedium. Boot camp is largely about cutting the men to fit the uniforms.

    I spent half of 6th grade in the German school system. In Germany they split kids into two separate school systems based on aptitude tests. This split takes place after 4th grade. One system aims for literacy comparable to what we settle for in the U.S. The other (called Gymnasium) is a public prep school system. German kids learn Shakespeare in English, handle Euclidean geometry before learning Cartesian, and graduate ready to attend ivy league colleges in their choice of country.

    The German system doesn't teach chunks of factoids for weekly quizzes, but tests general understanding at the end of a year. Kids have to learn, not regurgitate.

  2. Oh dear.

    This idea was introduced some decades ago in The Netherlands, and became "The New Learning" or TNL.

    They (expensive quango's ordained by the government to guide the introduction of TNL in education) made some crucial assumptions, and as we all know: "Assumption is the mother of all fuck-ups".

    One of the most crucial assumptions was that kids would learn better when all challenges in for instance calculus would be presented in "contexts", stories if you will. This had practical consequences. As stories take time to tell, a lot less time was available for actual calculus, with staggering results. Even the brightest kids now need years of reparation courses in calculus in middle school and even university. The less bright kids will never recover in their lifetimes and the kids with whatever language disabilities are totally screwed because even if they have a natural talent for mathematics, they are kept from achieving because of the context/language barrier. We now have several generations of people here that simply cannot count and never will be able to.

    I mentioned calculus first because the counter movement against TNL, BON (Beter Onderwijs Nederland, Dutch) (Better Education Netherlands, a relatively small society run by volunteers and with a few thousand members) scored its first big success in this particular field last year with the presentation of a new calculus method (basically the old one, conceptualized by Master Bartjens in the seventeenth century and honed to perfection over the next few hundred years) and its adaptation by several publishers and schools. The schools that have switched back report great results and guess what? Kids love calculus again.

    The government had acknowledged the calculus problem and all this has led to the sudden introduction of special (admission) exams for calculus in teacher training institutes for primary schools. The result was a big wave of rejections and expulsions of aspiring primary teachers because, being victims of TNL themselves, they simply couldn't pass the exams. A terrible tragedy for the individuals involved.

    Basic reading and writing is still way out in the boondoggles though. Instead of going straight to the core and learn kids in primary school the alphabet and to read and write ASAP, the "contexts" ideology stifles kids' progress here too. Grammar for instance has been completely eliminated from all education except university level. Can you imagine how to learn kids foreign languages without in-depth knowledge of the grammar of one's own mother language? A dedicated counter movement is forming here too, but hasn't been successful yet.

    On a side note: The so called "leesplankje" or reading board, a wooden slab with pictures and words on it and two cans of carton letters of the alphabet which went out with the introduction of TNL is in full production again. It's not used officially by primary schools, but people who try to assist kids who have trouble in school learning to read and write put them to good use.

    TNL evangelists are also on record stating that knowledge is no longer relevant because it changes too fast. It is best looked up on the internet. Kids should focus on learning to work together in groups and learn social skills, they will determine by themselves what they should learn and call in assistance of teachers when they feel the need for it. Bean counters pounced immediately on this and have mounted a succeeding effort to replace the expensive, highly trained, mouthy, knowledgeable, academic educators from all education but university levels. Virtually no academics are considering a career in education nowadays and in the next few years the bulk of the remaining academics will retire. They are being replaced with cheap "coaches" who get their marching orders from school management. Anybody can be a coach for any subject, because management will provide all required documentation for them. The saved money is redirected from the school work floor to the exploding management.

    As the Dutch government has relinquished control over the running of schools to the schools themselves and funds schools simply on the basis of the number of students they have enlisted, schools have embarked on a huge merger spree, resulting in several dozen huge state funded edu corporations (quango's again) with big fat education-estranged management umbrella's where politicians and businessmen can land easy premium jobs.

    Several independent classical schools are trying to hold out against this but their numbers are now few. They are almost overrun by students trying to get in each year though.

    I can go on and on, but the gist of it all is that Dutch education is in the shitter. The quango's, seeing the BON writing on the wall though, are all scrambling to claim for themselves the invention of the new (reparation) roads education will have to move into in order to save their cash cows.

    Returning to the quoted text:

    > "having extended and complex conversations during toddlerhood"

    Sure is great. It serves to accelerate the development the toddler's brain is capable of at that moment.

    > "what children need to do in elementary school is not to cram for high school or college"

    They sure as hell will have to learn to read and write and do calculus big time, so they don't have to start doing that in high school or college when the window on easier acquisition of those skills has al but closed.

    > "to develop ways of thinking and behaving that will lead to valuable knowledge and skills later on"

    Sure, I guess….

    > "What they shouldn’t do is spend tedious hours learning isolated mathematical formulas or memorizing sheets of science facts that are unlikely to matter much in the long run."

    I call BS on several levels here!

    When I started in primary school (1960) kids were fed on a meticulously balanced diet of courses, so we never spent "tedious hours" learning "isolated" whatever. We did however learn by heart, forward, backward, up, down and sideways the letters of the alphabet and the tables of multiplication at least until 13 and preferably until 15 (20 for the talented kids) plus how to handle fractures. There was lots more like stories, basic geography and biology, grammar etc. The works.

    In middle school we started building on that foundation right away, learning lots of stuff that maybe would not hold much literal importance later on but built a framework for viewing and handling what the world would throw at us during our lives. Absolutely crucial stuff. And we all can still count.

    > "Scientists know that children learn best by putting experiences together in new ways."

    Can anybody explain to me what that even means?

    > "They construct knowledge;"

    Really? The Dutch kids were told to do that, come over here and see where it got them.

    > "they don’t swallow it."

    I know I did in school. And a boatload of other kids too. Like hungry sharks we swallowed knowledge. And nothing has changed, kids still do, at *all* ages. That's my experience when I give lectures on basic astronomy, physics or biology. And all the time you help them build that framework, their window on life. Which will fail when you don't give them the basic building blocks. Deconstructing the building blocks to see what's in there is for later when they are ready for it and take an interest.

    We have recently had several strikes by entire school populations. Kids who walked out and plainly demanded order, regularity and above all, well-trained teachers in front of their classes transferring knowledge to them, period. School management CEO's appeared red-faced on TV assuring everybody they were working hard on the problem, but that it would take a lot of time and effort (read: money, give it to us politicians) to fix the situation.

    There is a funny movie clip out there that tells it like it is in The Netherlands.

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  3. Dan Klarmann says:

    Paultje's video (below) is just farfetched enough to be scary. Our U.S. educational context is not quite this screwed.

    <object width="425" height="344"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/8NvNYuVx0j8&hl=en_US&fs=1&"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/8NvNYuVx0j8&hl=en_US&fs=1&&quot; type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true" width="425" height="344"></embed></object>

  4. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    I have recently learned that each of my sons' schools are to become charter schools.

    In this case, while the schools will be publicly funded, they will be operated by a private contractor.

    It seems that a large part of the problem is the interference of politicians who seek to impose one social experiment after another, but all fail to acknowledge that the students and families are just as important as the teacher.

    When I started into school in the mid 60s, The schools were laboring under the "learning factory" model, where schools were viewed as factories that processed the raw material of uneducated children and after 12 years produced uniformly educated graduates as an output.

    The problem with this approach is that it fails to address the needs of the learning impaired as well as the needs of the exceptionally bright.

    Then around the fourth grade, Tennessee experimented with it's own version of the new learning. The basic premise of this educational experiment was thus:

    If you can truly understand how something works, you will be naturally able to apply it.

    So instead of memorizing addition and multiplication tables, and moving on to long division. and learning how to apply the rote knowledge by working the "word

    problems" (If you have 5 apples and Sally takes 1, how many apples do you have?), We were tasked with showing that we understood that you can always add 1 to a number to make it bigger, that it did not matter which way you added numbers or multiplied numbers, Stuff like that.

    Instead of writing, it became more important to identify the roles of words in a sentence than to be able to effectively communicate with writing. (Which is the noun, which is the subject, what is a gerund?)

    Likewise, in reading, comprehension became less important than being able to analyze the structure of a sentence, the paragraph, an the entire story.

    In high school, my chemistry teach gave us a simple arithmetic quiz, and almost half of the class failed. The surprise was that the poorer kids were the ones that did better on the test. The reason was that pocket calculators had become available but were still expensive items, with the standard 4-function calculator costing $80 – $120. The wealthier kids decided they didn't need to learn arithmetic. The poorer students did not have the option to own a calculator.

    For chemistry class, many of the poorer students learned to use slide rules. A $5 slide rule was actually faster for multiplication than the $100 calculator, because multiplying 2 3-digit numbers on a slide rule takes 3 motions, while multiplying them on a calculator takes 8 or 10 depending no the presence of a decimal point.

    When I took physics in my senior year, I had a 5 function calculator ( add, subtract, multiply, divide, and square-root) that was a Christmas gift from a relative. I had learned to use some simple numerical methods to work the trigonometry calculation needed for for vector analysis with that calculator.

    The current BS is called "No Child Left Behind" which simply blames the teacher and the school if the child is too busied by TV, video games, the internet or a myriad of other distraction to take any interest in learning.

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