Saturday, April 28, 2007

Making connections

In IF You Liked Whole-Word Reading, Open Classrooms & Fuzzy Math
You Will Love Inquiry-Based Science
Charles Ormsby makes connections between modern fads dreamed up by ed gurus. What loony idea will come next? Suggestions welcome.

Teaching different achievement levels simultaneously is particularly obnoxious. It violates a basic law of physics that says that a body cannot be in different places at the same time. Consequently, teacher input is fragmented and rendered ineffective. But what are laws of physics to ed gurus who don't believe in a stable body of knowledge and instead conceive of knowledge only as "information" that keeps changing so rapidly that it need not be learned?

Guru advice that there is no need to learn anything because one can always look up the "information" somewhere is also fallacious. A lot of things we might know require extensive struggle to achieve understanding. I teach middle grades math and see daily that achieving an understanding of topics like ratios, proportions, percentages, unit rates, operations with integers, geometry, even ordering fractions, doesn't come easily. It's not a matter of looking it up when needed and grasping it instantly. It requires time and effort. What is true for math is also true for science and other subjects. Imagine trying to "look up" and understand topics in organic chemistry without a laboriously acquired firm grounding in chemistry. Or making sense of all the difficult terms in biology that were never memorized and understood if guru advice is followed.

See this hilarious video and see how handy "looking it up when needed" is.

[Note: There is certainly no dearth of grossly ignorant people. However, this video appears to be rigged by means of selectiveness to promote a biased point of view. The selection of people being interviewed is hardly representative. One could easily do the opposite: Interview a sizable number of people at random and then select only the knowledgeable ones to "prove" that the public is highly sophisticated.]

Here Ormsby:

As if deciding that we shouldn’t teach the magic code was not enough, professional educators decided to re-engineer the learning environment in the classroom. Again, we have thousands of years of experience in the design of learning environments. Past experience underlined the need for mental focus and concentration … a condition that is seriously hampered by distractions. Even parents who are not trained as educators seem to realize that children should turn off the TV and rap music while trying to absorb a history or math lesson.

But our education gurus had a deeper insight than the rest of us mere mortals could possibly appreciate. They figured that if you put classrooms together, without walls between them, the students would benefit from all the noise. It made sense to them, apparently, that understanding algebra or trigonometry would be enhanced by students reciting Shakespeare in the adjacent classroom! What were they thinking?

To make matters worse – is it even possible? – educators decided to give the teachers an extra challenge. Instead of having teachers teach a subject to a set of students who are roughly at the same achievement level in a subject, they decided to force them to teach to multiple levels simultaneously.

In a fourth-grade math class, teachers are required to teach simple addition and multiplication to some students while teaching division to others, and fractions to their most advanced students.

When it comes time for English Language Arts (read’n & write’n), they must simultaneously teach basic reading skills to some while discussing the classics with others.

Of course, they can’t actually do these things simultaneously, so they have to break up the class into more homogeneous groups and then split their time among the groups. Now students who could have had the teacher’s attention for the whole class, can only get it for a portion of the class time.


Since the teacher splits the class up to make the sub-groups more similar in achievement level, one might ask, “WHY DIDN’T THEY DO THIS IN THE FIRST PLACE?” What were they thinking?

Last week I had occasion to witness a classroom in the inner city run by an admittedly incompetent substitute that was completely thrashed by pupils running wild like atoms flying around in a heated substance. It brought to mind the stark contrast between guru preachings about "inquiry," "discovery," "constructing knowledge and meaning," natural curiosity, and the reality of this classroom.

UPDATE: rightwingprof left a comment pointing out that we have a demonstration here of a student-centered classroom. Student centered indeed!


rightwingprof said...

"Last week I had occasion to witness a classroom in the inner city run by an admittedly incompetent substitute that was completely thrashed by pupils running wild like atoms flying around in a heated substance."

Ah, a student-centered classroom!

Exo said...

As a science teacher (7-8) i am supposed to use fuzzy curriculum developed based on standards. But as a person educated abroad and a formar veterinarian with long experience in learning science myself, I tend to ingnore that curriculum map. I sequence and determine the prerequizite for each unit myself.
Again, I can do it because I know that without knowing the elementns, atoms, bonds, molecules one cannot get the difference between glucose and an aminoacid, without understanding of which one cannot get an understanding of proteins etc.
But what do other teachers, whose experience in sciences is limited and who teach middle school science being certified in arts? Oh, here you you go - quality of a teacher issue... A snowball.

Allison said...

Well, how did you expect them to calculate or measure anything in an experiment after they've had TERC for math?

Clearly, you have to have fuzzy science because any more would have to be predicated on real math. This is just the way to use what they "learned" in math appreciation.

rightwingprof said...

It's Truthy Science.