Saturday, February 18, 2006

A different take on "constructivism"

A reader of this site called Allison left a comment on my piece on arrested development that I found fascinaning. She describes how Husserl of phenomenology fame views constructivism and authentic learning. I have to admit, though, that I had hitherto been unaware that educationists have ever heard of Husserl, let alone have sufficient knowledge of phenomenology to distort it to absurd lengths:

How sad that the constructivists in education misused the ideas from such wonderful philosophers as Husserl and Wittgenstein.

Husserl, in particular, was terrified that within a generation, all modern knowledge could be lost. From his perspective, we were standing on such a tower of shoulders of giants that we could fall due to some calamity (war, plague, etc.) and we couldn't even reconstruct the society we'd had before. So he set out to find the "Authentic description" for things--for concepts, ideas, words, traits, algorithms, experiences. He was trying to write down a body of knowledge as best as possible so that we wouldn't have to start over with a blank slate.

This idea of his led him to be one of the founders of phenomenology, a philosophy much maligned for many unfair reasons. Between Husserl and Heidegger, phenomenology came up with any explanation for learning called the Hermeneutic circle, which explains that constructivism is a necessary component for authentic learning.

But in the circle, all of the rote learning is a REQUIREMENT before the constructivist reaching BECOMES authentic.

Here's an example: At first, you don't know things like your times tables. You don't know 6 times 7 off the top of your head. You must inauthentically calculate it, say by adding 6 7s. You are unsure of your answer, maybe. (And you have yet to REALLY be convinced that adding 7 6s produces the same answer.) You have doubt still. Over time, though, you learn your times tables by rote (still inauthentically at first) because you are forced to. So now when asked, 6 times 7 is 42 AND 7 time s 6 is 42. You don't think about why; it's just the rule.

Eventually, you learn the tables so well that they become known to you, and you have no doubt that 6 times 7 is 42.

Now, you start working on another problem: 2 times 21. Now, this isn't in your times table. You have doubt; you are forced to try and discover something you DO know that helps you solve the problem. In doing so, you may learn something fascinating: that 2 times 21 is 2 times 3 times 7. This may be one of the first times that you've even NOTICED factors before. You finally, unsurely at first, guess that maybe 21 times 2 is 6 times 7, because 2 times 3 is 6.

But now, you're beginning to guess something FASCINATING: that factors are associative! This is still unsteady to you, so you fall back on the KNOWN, the rote: and you start examining other multiples: 3 times 14, for example. lo and behold, this is 3 times 2 times 7!

This is an example of the hermeneutic circle at work: every time you learn something inauthentically, it becomes the basis for a future authentic learning. All learning is predicated on prior learning--and ironically, predicated on "learning" in such a way that you even FORGOT that it was strange that you knew that fact, and yet, this time around, that fact you were convince of, leads you to an A-Ha! you never saw before.

And over time, you know these truths so deeply that you KNOW all numbers have prime factorizations; then at some later layer, you understand the beauty of diophantine equations because of what you've "always known" about prime factorizations, etc.

So the original constructivists, who were trying to get at authentic learning, which always involves moving into the unknown, understood that you must ALWAYS predicate that unknown on the known. (In fact, ask a phenomenologist what the bottom layer of that predication is, and he'll probably tell you something fascinating: the top!)

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Misguided pretentiousness and false rigor

The Chicago Public Schools are pushing something called the Chicago Math & Science Initiative

I checked out what is supposed to be taught in sixth grade and found that one quarter is devoted to this:

In Investigating Climate and Weather students begin by conducting a series of inquiries to connect their own experience of climate and weather to the planetary systems that govern weather events and climate change. Next, they investigate the evidence and associated scientific debate surrounding climate change. From their evaluations of this evidence, students predict climate and weather changes for the area in which they live.
I can't help it but somehow I find the idea that sixth grade pupils in Chicago schools will conduct a "series of inquiries to connect their own experience of climate and weather to the planetary systems that govern weather events and climate change" utterly laughable. Most of these kids can't even spell atmosphere and wouldn't know troposphere from ionosphere. Try throwing "adiabatic" at them (a reversible thermodynamic process executed at constant entropy and occurring without gain or loss of heat). Next they will "investigate the evidence and associated scientific debate surrounding climate change." For sure!

Weather systems and factors contributing to climate are some of the most complex things imaginable requiring an advanced and sophisticated store of knowledge. The top brains in science can't even come up with computer models that can fully account for this complexity. But Chicago pupils who lack even the rudiments of science will somehow pore over scientific papers and make predictions. This is delusional to the point of being comical!

What these students need is a systematic, coherent and age-appropriate grounding in major topics of science (physics, chemistry, earth science, biology, etc.) with increasing sophistication as they advance through the grades.

Instead of realistic, specific content goals for each grade, the Illinois state board presents vague and highly pretentious "descriptors" focused entirely on process and "inquiry". These "descriptors" are essentially the same for babes and high-school seniors and everything in between. What "content" knowledge requirements exist are rather vague, skimpy and applied to broad grade ranges.

The following is an excerpt from the Illinois Learning Standards: Classroom Assessments and Performance Descriptors:

Here is a portion of the "descriptors" for FIRST AND SECOND GRADE!!!

11A - Students who meet the standard know and apply the concepts, principles, and processes of scientific inquiry.
1. Describe an observed science concept using appropriate senses, making applicable estimations and measurements, predicting steps or sequences, describing changes in terms of starting and ending conditions using words, diagrams or graphs.
2. Begin guided inquiry asking questions using prior knowledge and observations, inferring from observations to generate new questions, or developing strategies to investigate questions.
3. Conduct guided inquiry following appropriate procedural steps and safety precautions as directed by teacher.
4. Collect data for guided inquiry identifying and using instruments for gathering data, making estimates and measurements, recording observations, or reading data from data-collection instruments.
5. Record and store data assembling pictures to illustrate data, or organizing data on charts and pictographs, tables, journals or computers.
6. Analyze and display results recognizing and describing patterns, noting similarities and differences in patterns, or predicting trends.
7. Communicate individual and group results identifying similar data from others, generalizing data, drawing simple conclusions, or suggesting more questions to consider.
11B - Students who meet the standard know and apply the concepts, principles, and processes of technological design.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Revised whole language golf instruction

The creators of a golf instruction program that applies modern educational theories have been forced to update their program, reports Kerry Hempenstall in Balanced golf instruction.

Here are some elements of the revised program:

We are also conscious of the developing golfer's learning style. We advise the visual learners to focus their learning transactions on watching the golf on TV (with the sound off) at every opportunity. The auditory learners actually go to golf courses, but wear blindfolds - better to focus attention on the sound of the ball being struck. They also make use of brain-based golf education employing a looped audiotape of a ball being struck. When played during sleep, this procedure repatterns the golfing region of the brain for these fortunate students. The kinaesthetic learners must actually swing the club regularly, but their oneness with the game is dramatically enhanced when they cannot see the ball. The feel is the thing. Because our teachers are so skilled they are also able to use multiple methods, tailor-made to parallel each of the multiple golf intelligences our students may display.
You can read about the original WL golf instruction program here.