Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Brief history of math teaching

The world is changing rapidly and the curriculum and instruction must constantly adapt to changing conditions. What is relevant today is hopelessly obsolete tomorrow. Forget about what was relevant yesterday. We cannot yet even imagine the challenges posed by the 21th century. Fortunately, educationists are always on the cutting edge and can safely guide us through any upheaval and vicissitudes.

This brief history of math teaching can only serve to reinforce our confidence in educationist wisdom:

Teaching Math In 1950 - A logger sells a truckload of lumber for
$100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price. What is his profit?

Teaching Math In 1960 - A logger sells a truckload of lumber for
$100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price, or $80. What is his

Teaching Math In 1970 - A logger sells a truckload of lumber for
$100. His cost of production is $80. Did he make a profit?

Teaching Math In 1980 - A logger sells a truckload of lumber for
$100. His cost of production is $80 and his profit is $20. Your
assignment: Underline the number 20.

Teaching Math In 1990 - By cutting down beautiful forest trees, the
logger makes $20. What do you think of this way of making a living?

Topic for class participation after answering the question: How did
the forest birds and squirrels feel as the logger cut down the trees.
(There are no wrong answers.)

Teaching Math In 2005 – Un leñador vende una carga de madera por $100. El costo de producción es.........

UPDATE: For a real history of math instruction see
David Klein's superb article linked here.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Carnival time

This week The Carnival of Education returns to its home base after a brief excursion to the farther shores. Make sure to send in your submission to make the Carnival even richer.

Submissions for The Carnival of Education: Week 17, should be sent to owlshome [at] earthlink [dot] net no later then 10:00 PM (Pacific) Tuesday, May 31st, 2005. The Carnival should open at The Wonks Wednesday morning.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Crayola curriculum

There is a terrific site that offers a fabulously rich environment for the exploration of educational lunacy. The linked part looks at the pervasive mania for time-consuming hands-on activities and projects.

Activities and projects have their place when used to enhance understanding of academic subject matter. In other words, they should be a means to an end, not an end in themselves. More often than not, they have become an end in themselves.

Here are some of the reasons for this mania (from Illinoisloop.org):

WHY So Many Projects?
Why is this happening? Why have schools been turned from places of learning into places of low-challenge activities? The blame can be fixed with several converging theories that together have overwhelmed schools and teachers:

Constructivism: The pervasive education religion of "constructivism" holds that a child learns best through active "doing". To some extent, this is of course true. However, the Achilles heel of constructivism is that this is a painfully plodding and tedious way of learning, while forcing a drastic reduction (dumbing down) of the content of a course. While an active project may often be a good technique for making a difficult concept clear, it is often used when a simple direct method would be just as effective and far more efficient.

Groups: The pressure for "collaborative learning" or "cooperative learning" is usually implemented as nothing other than projects and activities.

Interdisciplinary curriculum: Teachers are under pressure to find "thematic" or "interdisciplinary" links between subjects. There is nothing inherently wrong with that -- the Core Knowledge Sequence used in the Core Knowledge schools is carefully constructed to encourage learning in this way. But without a rigorous, well-reasoned curriculum like the CK Sequence, the result too often is time-wasting art or writing projects linking vague language arts goals with minimal content points.

Multiple Intelligences: The fevered success of another fad, Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences (click for much more info on that), pressures teachers into coming up with separate projects for each of this theory's supposed categories. So, we have one project to appeal to "kinesthetic" children, another project for the "intrapersonal" learners, we sing a song for the "musical" learners, and so on. Of course, since the MI mindset offers no method to identify or quantify these supposed differences, the bottom line is lots and lots of projects for all the children in the class.

Anti-Fact Mentality: Starting in ed school and throughout their careers in most schools, teachers are subjected to a barrage of rhetoric about the dangers of teaching facts. They are told not to teach "mere facts" to be "regurgitated." Learning of specific content knowledge is called "low level" and nothing more than "memorization." What used to be called "learning" is now disparaged as "brain-stuffing". A teacher is to be "a guide on the side" rather than "a sage on the stage." This drumbeat from the ed schools and education orthodoxy is pervasive and relentless, and teachers are drilled incessantly (ironic, isn't it?) that direct teaching is to be avoided. So, if the teacher isn't teaching, what are the kids likely to be doing? Yup, more projects.

Anti-Fact Assessments: If facts are bad, then testing whether children know facts is even worse -- or so teachers are told. Thus, chapter tests and other quantitative measures of learning are deemphasized in favor of so-called "authentic" assessment, in which we look at a whole "portfolio" of a child's "work" which largely consists of (ta da!) projects.

"Authentic" Skills: If the purpose of a school is not to build knowledge, then what is a school for? The progressivists have a ready answer for that: to learn supposed "skills." They argue that since knowledge is always increasing, it is hopeless to try to teach very much at all (using a twisted logic that defies comprehension). What kids need, they say, is to learn how to look things up. Well, guess what? Projects give them an "opportunity" to look things up instead of being taught.

Innovation: School administrators suppose themselves to be seen as "creative" or "innovative." We often read of a school calling itself "innovative" or a teacher said to be "creative" ort "imaginative." Those are fine attributes, but not when they take the place of words like "effective" or "knowledgeable." One teacher might be extraordinarily effective and captivating in teaching children a rich, detailed and memorable introduction to American history, while another teacher gains more recognition from parents and maybe the local newspaper not by teaching much of anything but by staging a marathon dress-up pageant, puppet show or enormous craft project.

Finding a Use for Computers: Projects provide a convenient raison d'etre for the expensive computers that schools have been buying in bulk.

"Teaching to the test"

One of the phrases recited by rote by educationists is the moronic phrase "teaching to the test," proving again that educationists preach "criticial thinking" but either refuse or are unable to practice it.

Try as I might, I can't follow the logic of this typical educationist pronouncement cited in this NYT piece.

"If the fourth graders are scoring well on these tests, what does that actually tell us?" asked Bree Picower, a former sixth grade teacher at Public School 19 in Manhattan who now trains teachers as an adjunct professor at New York University. "It tells us they are spending more time in after-school programs in test prep and it tell us that teachers are being pressured to teach to the test. But it doesn't tell us much about what students are capable of, what they know and what they are able to do."

Ms. Picower is a member of a group called the New York Collective of Radical Educators, which plans to stage a protest against testing this afternoon outside the headquarters of the city Education Department.
Of all things, this Ms. Picower now trains teachers but seems unaware that tests can indeed demonstrate what students know and are capable of doing and perhaps test what they should know. What does she think should be the purpose of education?

A reader at joannejacobs put it succinctly:

It's teaching to the test, but since the test should be based upon what they should be learning, the teachers are just being forced to teach the kids what they should be learning. Not that radical of a concept...

From beads to algebra

NCLB pressure to bring everybody up to speed has had at least some effect as this NYT article shows.

And in Minnesota, where American Indian students, on average, score lower than whites on standardized tests, educators rearranged schedules so that Chippewa teenagers who once sewed beads onto native costumes during school now work on grammar and algebra.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Institutrice clandestine

France and England are not immune to the progressive/constructivist education plague. Also see Sauver les lettres for books by teachers in France being reviewed.

Child-centred education is based on the constructivist theory of learning, according to which learners construct their own knowledge by analysing experience. For Marc Le Bris, this is a false theory, because the whole of humanity, not the individual child, constructs knowledge. The dominance of constructivism means that pupils will be, at best, autodidacts lacking the solidity of systematic learning.

In Britain there is also a strong aversion to the transmission of knowledge. The idea that pupils must be 'active' and become 'independent learners', rather than depend on the teacher, is seldom questioned. An independent school head teacher recently asked me: 'We are often accused of spoon-feeding our pupils. How can we help them become independent learners?'
Educationists wrap their creed in positive adjectives. One of those adjectives is "active" and alternatives to their prescriptions must therefore be "passive" and bad. But they overlook that listening attentively and trying to understand is being active.

Rachel Boutonnet could have answered that question. A French primary school teacher with a master in philosophy, she kept a diary throughout her teacher training and her first year as a teacher, which she published in 2003. She rejects the idea that traditional teaching methods make pupils passive: 'I think it is impossible to learn in a passive way. If you have learnt something, you must have been active;...in order to listen, you must concentrate. What the speaker is saying, you must make your own. This often requires effort and will power.'

She also questions the belief that so-called active methods lead to pupils' autonomy: 'the fact that pupils are "in research mode" doesn't mean that they are active. Often...they just ape an activity. They go through the motions that the teacher has scripted for them. Intellectually speaking, they are passive.'

The constructivist method is not so much an alternative to previous teaching methods as an anti-method. Boutonnet captures well the destructive impulse behind it: 'by refusing to transmit knowledge, the teacher trainers nevertheless transmitted something. They could not avoid this, since they were in the position of teachers.... This something was the rejection of knowledge. In this, they were the experts.'

Thursday, May 19, 2005

A terminological clarification

I gather from comments here and there that there is some confusion about the term "progressive" as in progressive education.

The “progressive” in progressive education derives its name from the Progressive movement (ca. 1890-1920 or thereabouts). It fought social ills and did much good (child labor laws, anti-trust laws, food and drug laws, muckraking...). The term should not be confused with “progressive” as it is used now in the political sense (a euphemism for the far left).

Progressive education was propelled by a laudable desire to humanize the often harsh and unimaginative educational practices of yore but was marred by a profound anti-intellectualism. See, for example, the influential Cardinal Principles.

Ironically, a fellow despised by the left, the social darwinist Herbert Spencer, practically wrote the blueprint for progressive education. Of course, progressive education has many fathers (Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel, etc.) Dewey picked up Spencer’s blueprint without ackowledging his debt to Spencer. Since Dewey is largely incomprehensible, a fellow called William Heard Kilpatrick took it upon himself to become his chief disciple, the only one who was capable of understanding Dewey, and presented his thoughts (or an interpretation and largely distortion thereof) to edland. Although virtually unknown outside ed circles, Kilpatrick was the single most damaging influence on education in this country. His prescriptions live on in recycled form.

See Cults of Ignorance. - "Getting It Wrong from the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget"

What follows is a brief excerpt from a review of a book by Kieran Egan, an ed professor who seems to be working in splendid isolation. It's worthwhile to read the entire review:

This book is a historical study, analysis, and critique of the educational "Progressivism" and naturalism that Spencer took over from Rousseau and his German-speaking disciples. Spencer developed it into a glamorous "science," which was then further developed by John Dewey and William Heard Kilpatrick in the U.S., and Jean Piaget in Rousseau's hometown of Geneva. This line of descent, affiliation, and influence now forms the fundamental thought-world of American teachers' colleges and schools of education, perhaps most prominently Teachers College, Columbia University, whose initial patron was the conservative humanist Nicholas Murray Butler but whose guiding spirit soon became -- and has remained -- John Dewey.

Himself a professor of education and author of several books in the field, Kieran Egan contends that the Spencer-Dewey-Piaget legacy is fundamentally flawed intellectually, and that it has been a "catastrophe" for our teachers, their students, and the culture at large. He quotes what is perhaps Spencer's most notoriously fatuous assertion about human nature and history: He flattered and seduced his mid-19th-century audience by assuring it that "progress is not an accident, not a thing within human control, but a beneficent necessity." Two world wars, global Depression, Russian Bolshevism, Fascism, Nazism, the other instantiations of Communism, megadeath weaponry, a sexual plague, and the various other problems we now confront, including an increasingly toxic pop culture, have proved the falsehood of this antireligious ideology. Yet one of its effects -- the replacement, in the 20th century, of history teaching with courses in simplistic and soft-utopian "social studies" -- has, ironically, succeeded in preventing the widespread realization of just how wrong the "Progressives" were.
Inexplicably, Kieran Egan ignores well-known critics of Progressive education.

The effects of the breakdown in the teaching and knowledge of history may be inadvertently evident even in Egan's otherwise fine book. Himself an (Irish-born) Canadian, Egan seems unaware of the long and dogged line of American critics of Dewey and the Progressives, including Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, William C. Bagley and Isaac Kandel (colleagues of Dewey and Kilpatrick), Reinhold Niebuhr, Hofstadter, Russell Kirk, and the conservative Protestant R. J. Rushdoony, whose The Messianic Character of American Education (1963) is a neglected classic with a useful title. More regrettably and culpably, Egan makes no mention of three recent, widely read books that document much of his argument in greater detail and with even greater force than he himself does: E. D. Hirsch Jr.'s The Schools We Need: And Why We Don't Have Them, the late Jeanne Chall's The Academic Achievement Challenge, and Diane Ravitch's superbly illuminating if depressing survey Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms. Ravitch's book gives valuable portraits of noble dissenters from Progressivism -- such as Bagley, Kandel, and Hirsch -- whose specific objections and alternatives need to be known and carefully weighed.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Trivial hands-on activities

Educationists waste endless time on trivial hands-on activities and projects and then whine that requiring basic skills in reading and math is an onerous requirement that takes too much of their time. Endless, trivial, often pointless and time-wasting hands-on activities and projects are an integral part of the anti-knowledge progressive/constructivist ed ideology. It has its roots in the progressive belief that learning must be "experiential" and that one only learns by doing. That creates a bias against book learning and explicit instruction.

Here is a terrific article from American Educator that might explain why schools have such dismal results.

Lost In Action
Are time-consuming, trivializing activities displacing the cultivation of active minds ?

By Gilbert T. Sewall

A third-grade social studies student in California builds an Endangered Species "portfolio." For the entire year. This portfolio is given over to the demise of the toucan and the Galapagos tortoise. The portfolio is brightly colored, laminated and spiral bound, containing lots of glossy photographs clipped from magazines. Each page is thick with adhesive stick-ons and glitter. The portfolio contains many, many misspelled words and exhibits almost no understanding of the South American continent's natural history.

As traditional learning gives way in a growing number of classrooms, students encounter more and more projects and activities like the one above:

A seventh-grade suburban Maryland student builds a shoebox-sized replica of the items in his school locker for Spanish class. The academic content: He then labels the items in Spanish. Total time for the project: approximately 20 hours. Ninth-grade French class students in New York City scout cookbooks for crepe suzette and omelet recipes. They create photo montages of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, making posters for display on classroom walls.
Selected members of a 10th-grade world history class receive cookies. The rest of the class goes empty-handed. This creates a room of haves and have nots. Students discuss how it feels to be left out, and how it feels to be the privileged few given the cookies to eat. The purpose: to prepare for the study of the French Revolution.
Leading textbooks, new tests, and academic journals reinforce these practices:

A third-grade math program devotes a week to the concept of 1,000. One lesson centers on "Thousand skits," in which students figure out things the class can do cooperatively to accomplish 1,000 repetitions and then try to act them out. "Work in groups of four to make up your skit. Decide what you will do, how many people you will need, and how many repetitions each person will do. Write down the directions for your skit." This lesson is taken from a textbook series the U.S. Department of Education recommended last year to school districts across the country.
A sixth-grade social studies textbook suggests: "Imagine you are a television reporter covering the Roman assault on Masada. Prepare a news report on this event."
An "authentic assessment" in "integrated science" designed to replace ordinary tests asks students to write a poem about mitosis. A journal of chemical education encourages high school science students to construct a new periodic table of the elements as it might appear on some unspecified alien planet.
No one contests some legitimate place for projects and activities in classrooms. But lost in the whirlwind, this doing and doing, is a sense of where the real action should be--in the minds of students. Activities enthusiasts are right not to want passive students. But they have made a dangerous error. They have substituted ersatz activity and shallow content for the hard and serious work of the mind.

Whether projects and activities are good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, they are without question popular. They elicit warm and positive feelings that are lodged in persuasive learning theories and sentiments held almost universally: that a variety of tasks, assignments, and methods makes education more pleasurable and memorable.

Activity-based learning is not confined to early childhood education or the lower grades, to a handful of "innovative" classrooms, to public education, or to mediocre schools. In elementary and high schools alike, public and private, it is taking the place of traditional lessons, essays, tests, and research papers. The trend is not a matter of a pendulum swinging a little too far in one direction. In many schools, activities more than supplement the text and lesson. Activities are the lesson.

Such teaching strategies have a long pedigree. Some call them the project method, a term often used interchangeably with "activities-based learning" and "hands-on learning." Content is tied to prior experiences or known student interests. In a 1996 report on how teachers try to stimulate interest in learning, John A. Zahorik at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee defined these hands-on activities very broadly, including lessons in which the "student is an active participant rather than a passive listener. The term includes the use of manipulatives such as pattern blocks in mathematics; playing games of all kinds; participating in simulations, role playing and drama; engaging in projects. "

Education publishers, eager to keep up with pedagogical trends, have responded. Flip to any lesson in any up-to-date textbook. You'll find projects and activities at the core of the editorial apparatus. The most ambitious of the nation's new secondary-level history textbooks, McGraw-Hill/Glencoe's American journey --whose authors include a former president of the American Historical Association and a Pulitzer Prize winner--features a Taffy Pull, complete with a recipe and an invitation for students to relive the social event of the 1800s and early 1900s.

Hands-on enthusiasts claim that traditional pedagogy and content are at the center of the "interest" problem. They assume project- and activity-based learning to be superior forms of instruction, kinder and more humane than the opposite, which is often lumped under the term "verbal learning. " Language and letters, the many-splendored world of mathematics, the vast terrain of history and science, at least in pure form, according to this outlook, are limiting, boring, and possibly emotionally harmful to children.

Traditional classroom activities and content lose out--crowded and trimmed in order to accommodate projects. There's only so much school day, and projects and activities consume time greedily. To make room, time allotted to reading, writing, listening, critical dialogue, and directed inquiry inevitably shrinks. Serious learning takes a back seat.

Activities expand exponentially because teachers think that's what they are supposed to be doing. Administrators, curriculum specialists, education gurus, workshop presenters, psychologists, academic journals, and textbook publishers have told teachers that activities are the only way to engage students. "Chalk and talk" and "drill and kill" are the derisive names given to traditional approaches. Teachers, understandably, shudder at the thought of being associated with such dreary pedagogy. Should they resist the traditional wisdom, they may face scorn and intimidation for being instructionally out of date or even insensitive to student needs.

Lack of variety and imagination in assignments does lead to dull classrooms. Whole-class, teacher-led instruction is not always of high quality. But it certainly can be, frequently is, and would be much more often if it weren't caricatured as inevitably boring and ineffective, thus discouraging teachers from perfecting the art, as Japanese and Chinese teachers work so hard and successfully to do.* (* See below).

Activities-based learning often suspends valid educational premises: that the ability to communicate derives from verbal training; that the ability to absorb, filter and process information requires facility with words and numbers; that general knowledge leads to project mastery; that getting there requires hard work and even then is not universally conferred.

The fear of passive learning may be spectacularly misdirected, but the chalk-and-talk caricature has done its work. Pressed to be events coordinators and social directors, teachers have been robbed of traditional pedagogy's vision of quality: the carefully prepared lesson, rich with analogy, illustration and anecdote; focused and guided; demanding and lively; peppered with good humor; with frequent interchange between student and teacher, student and student; interspersed with small-group work when appropriate; and with a clear sense of direction at the beginning and summary at the end, leaving all participants with a feeling of completion and satisfaction.

Sometimes teachers must inform directly; at other times they guide students to figure things out for themselves. Active, attentive listening--on the part of both teacher and students--is an imperative. Repetition, practice, and memorization have their part, as does learning to take organized notes. At the core, always, is serious content approached seriously. Knowledge builds on knowledge. Thirteen years of carefully sequenced content and jealously guarded classroom time allow students to build an enormous storehouse of knowledge and skills and the ability to use them. And since knowledge and success are the best breeding ground for interest to take root and expand, the more students know, the more they will want to know.

Under the leadership of their teacher, students work to unearth meaning; to evaluate, interpret, compare, extend, and apply; to analyze their errors, present their findings, defend their solutions; to attend carefully to what others say; to get their thoughts down clearly on paper; to understand. This is not boring and it is not passive. This is real action learning. This is the mind at work. Those who would banish such teaching by dismissing it as dull and ineffective are better advised to put their efforts into helping teachers sharpen these familiar and research-validated approaches.

There is much more of this important article.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Intractable racial achievement gap

The racial academic achievement gap in Chicago (and presumably elsewhere) remains intractable. According to figures from the Consortium on Chicago School Research published in the Chicago Sun-Times the gulf is now over 40 percentage points in reading and math. How Hispanics fit in is not clear from the data.

The achievement gap between blacks and whites has stayed the same since 1990, and absent significant changes, the gulf could persist for much of the 21st century, according to new research by a University of Chicago economist.
Clearly, there is a crisis here that cries out for a solution.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Expanding horizons

Recent reports on the dismal state of knowledge of history and geography among pupils again calls attention to so-called "social studies" education.

The Fordham Foundation released a collection of essays on the subject called Where Did Social Studies Go Wrong? that examines the different aspects of the malaise. It would make superb reading in ed schools.

This brief excerpt discusses an entrenched dogma that goes by such names as "expanding environments," "expanding horizons," "expanding communities," "widening horizons," "expanding interests," "widening interests" that invariably leaves pupils ignorant of history and geography.

The same is true in education, and specifically in the social studies: you have to possess some basic skills and knowledge before you can begin to tackle the higher tasks of analysis and critical thinking. Content knowledge is also the backbone of good teaching. To be effective, pedagogy must begin by identifying the specific knowledge a teacher expects students to learn and establishing clear assessment procedures. Only then can teachers begin to determine how to teach content to their students.

Unfortunately, the delivery of content in elementary social studies is frequently hampered by two popular but misguided theories— "expanding environments" and "constructivism." Both are ineffective because they focus on how social studies should be taught in elementary classrooms rather than on the content knowledge that should be the centerpiece for teaching and learning.

Expanding environments is the basic curriculum that most states, textbook companies, and curriculum leaders use to organize elementary (K-6) social studies, and it has dominated elementary school social studies for nearly 75 years. The basic premise is that at each grade level, each year, students are exposed to a slowly widening social environment that takes up, in turn, self/home (kindergarten), families (1st grade), neighborhoods (2nd), communities (3rd), state (4th), country (5th), and world (6th). While this approach appears to provide an organized curricular sequence, it lacks substantial content, especially in the early elementary grades, and children tend to find its narrow focus deeply boring. In fact, expanding environments actually impedes content knowledge because of its trivial and repetitious sequence. For example, students in grades K-3 are taught about "community helpers" like mail carriers, milkmen, and fire fighters. Such lessons are superfluous (what kindergartener does not know about firefighters?) but more damagingly do not even begin to lay the groundwork for later study of history, heroes, struggles, victories, and defeats. Instead, they limit children's instruction to persons and institutions with which children are already familiar.

Constructivism is a theory that holds that humans learn when they analyze, interpret, create, and construct meaning from experience and knowledge. At its root is a belief that only self-discovered knowledge is understood and remembered. Constructivists believe that students must be self-directed while learning in order to create their own meaningful experiences that will be retained when moving forward in life. While there is no doubt that some worthwhile learning may occur this way, it is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve self-created meaning unless specific content knowledge is a prerequisite.

Proponents of both approaches—expanding environments and constructivism—stress the importance of active learning over content knowledge as a necessary component of historical or geographical understanding. Yet just as the chess player needs to know how to move the pieces before he or she can begin the process of mastering chess, the elementary student needs content knowledge as the basis of thinking critically about history, civics, geography, economics, and all the other disciplines that make up the social studies. Content knowledge, we argue, must come first when making teaching and learning decisions.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Stalin who?

Ron Isaac writing in EducationNews on the shocking lack of history knowledge among pupils despite being asked to "demonstrate their understanding" of major themes. Perhaps they should also be asked to know subject matter first. In any event, the discrepancy between the grandiose schemes and the paltry results is striking.

The “Learning Standards for Social Studies”, applicable to middle schools, seems a comprehensive, even awesome syllabus, covering state, national and global history, geography, economics, civics, and government. Unfortunately the DOE’s syllabus is only hot air reduced to cold print.

It states, in part, that “students will use a variety of intellectual skills to demonstrate their understanding of…major ideas, eras, themes, developments, and turning points in the history of the United States and New York…examine the broad sweep of world history from a variety of perspectives…the geography of the interdependent world…including the distribution of environments…economic systems and associated institutions…an understanding of the necessity of establishing governments…the governmental systems of the U.S. and other nations…”

Does the practice measure up to the theory and if not, why not?

A survey of one hundred students at a Region 5 middle school who were exposed live to this imaginary curriculum, showed that less than 5% of them possessed a basic fund of facts about any branches of the subject. They did not know the capital of their own state, the name of its governor, the structure of its legislature. Neither could they identify when the Renaissance flowered or the Civil War and World War 2 were fought. None had heard of Winston Churchill or Josef Stalin, and nobody could provide a shred of information about the legacy of communism or the foundation of capitalism.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Vapid state curricula

While reading the New York Review of Books, I came across an article called The Shame of the Schools by Roger Shattuck. (Regrettably, the article is only available to subscribers or for purchase).

The article starts out with an unattributed aphorism: The great truths in education turn out to be half-truths in search of their other half.

There is something to ponder.

Prof. Shattuck had the luck of being elected to a local and district school board in Vermont. For some inexplicable reason he wanted to know what kind of curriculum the state required and after reading a 600-page document put out by the state board called Curriculum Guidelines plus something called Vermont's Framework of Standards and Learning Opportunities he found that it had no content.

[There seems to be an inverse relationship between volume and vacuousness in edland. The NCTM "Standards" come to mind.]

Instead of content, the good professor found that "...entry after entry stipulates that students shall examine, investigate, analyze, understand, and interpret immense intellectual topics such as 'fiction' and 'nature and nurture.' The verbs teach, learn, and study do not appear."

Prof. Shattuck writes:

The nearly impenetrable pages of the state of Vermont's Framework of Standards plus the Addison Northeast Curriculum Guidelines add up to an elaborate professional camouflage of the fact that at no level—state, district, or school—is there a coherent, sequenced, and specific curriculum. The teachers on the curriculum committee for accreditation had good reason to ignore the district Curriculum Guidelines. They propose no course of study, no coordinated sequence of subjects within the core fields. I'm not saying that our district curriculum is watered down or lopsided or old-fashioned or newfangled. I'm saying that those six hundred pages contain no useful curriculum at all.

What then fills these pages in multiple copies which no one reads or consults? In large part they contain bland hortatory statements about what students "should know and be able to do." It's almost a mantra. Yet the two major curriculum documents refer to no specific content, to no simple lists of items such as osmosis and Martin Luther King Jr. and, one hopes, Martin Luther.
Progressive/constructivist ed hostility to knowledge induces educationists to commit semantic fraud. Two extemely nettlesome terms that fill educationists with horror are "standards" and "curriculum." Educationist have appropriated these terms, drained them of meaning and redefined them. "Standards" now stands for vague visions and "curriculum" is misused to stand for a particular pedagogical doctrine:

And what also fills these pages, in the place of what to teach, is lengthy instructions about how to teach these unspecified materials. Our district Curricululm Guidelines of recent years devote increasing space to "Best Practice in Teaching," identified as "an inquiry approach, which is based on constructivist principles." The documents to which one looks for the articulation of curriculum turn out to be presentations of a pedagogical doctrine, constructivism, much in dispute and which has appropriated to itself the dubious slogan and sales pitch "Best Practice." Most board members don't know what "constructivist" means and, if they read that far in the Curriculum Guidelines, they don't ask. Constructivism refers to the half-truth that full understanding occurs only when students learn for themselves from hands-on experience without direct instruction or teacher intervention.
Prof. Shattuck limits his exploration of state "curricula" to one state. A review of other state "curricula" shows the same vacuousness. State "curricula" are one form educationist hostility to knowledge is institutionalized.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Getting the monkey off one's back

Joanne Jacobs points me to an absolutely hilarious piece of satire inspired by hearings held by the Kansas State BoE on teaching evolution.

(As an incidental benefit, both the AP article and the satire illustrate the complete uselessness of the all-purpose label "conservative" for any meaningful discussion.)

The state board of education in Kansas plans to hold hearings in May on the "intelligent design" theory of the origin of English, which claims that the language was constructed in the early 16th century by a committee of unknown experts guided by a Supreme Grammarian. But professional linguists are mostly boycotting the hearings.

Six years ago, when conservatives previously held a majority of seats on the Kansas board of education, they established guidelines encouraging schools to give equal time to the theory of linguistic creationism, which claims that English was created directly by God five hundred years ago at the start of the Great Vowel Shift so that the King James Bible could be translated into it. But this triggered a backlash, and they lost control of the board, which repealed the guidelines. Now that conservatives are back in a majority position, they are instead promoting the teaching of the intelligent design theory. But linguists are not willing to appear at their scheduled hearings on the subject.

Friday, May 06, 2005

A brighter and warmer future

This must be an environmentalist nightmare.

It seems that the push for clean air is contributing to global warming. At least so reports Nature.com. Maybe GW is anthropogenic after all.

Our planet's air has cleared up in the past decade or two, allowing more sunshine to reach the ground, say two studies in Science this week.

Reductions in industrial emissions in many countries, along with the use of particulate filters for car exhausts and smoke stacks, seem to have reduced the amount of dirt in the atmosphere and made the sky more transparent.

That sounds like very good news. But the researchers say that more solar energy arriving on the ground will also make the surface warmer, and this may add to the problems of global warming. More sunlight will also have knock-on effects on cloud cover, winds, rainfall and air temperature that are difficult to predict.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Testing is a diagnostic tool

I came across an anti-testing site and found this stunning revelation:

1. There is no convincing evidence that annual testing actually improves learning.
The logic seems odd. It's like proclaiming that taking the temperature of a patient does not cure his fever. And yet, a whole anti-testing cottage industry is built on this transparent fallacy.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

"Handout Hysteria"

There is a debate raging at Inside Higher Ed (‘Handout Hysteria’ or Insensitivity?) over the academic witch hunt involving a professor who included an (optional) article on the Zebra Killings in his reading list.

Apparently, his dean also instructed the TAs that they need not complete the semester with the professor under attack. All because of an article:

Jonathan Bean is a popular professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale — even though his libertarian politics don’t always coincide with his students’ views. A historian, he was just named Teacher of the Year in the College of Liberal Arts.

But in the last two weeks, he has found himself under attack in his department — with many of his history colleagues questioning his judgment for distributing an optional handout about the “Zebra Killings,” a series of murders of white people in San Francisco in the 1970s. His dean also told his teaching assistants that they didn’t need to finish up the semester working with him, and she called off discussion sections of his course for a week so TA’s would not have to work while considering their options.
The comments are particularly interesting since they give insight into the cravenness of some of the professors.

I also like the new (or perhaps not so new) definition of "racism" given by one poster:

One of the things that must be understood is that old-fashioned racism no longer exists in the USA. Instead, you have attacks on affirmative action, street crime, illegitimate children, etc. If one cannot grasp this dimension, then one will not understand the nature of racism in this country today.
This is fascinating. Opposing so-called "affirmative action" (a code word for racial discrimination) and being against street crime of all things is "racism" in the mind of these leftist hallucinating ideologues. In other words, deviating from leftist dogma is "racism".

What's next?

Perhaps voicing concern over the yawning racial academic achievement gap is also "racist".

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Collectivism and individualism

More hard-hitting commentary from the plume of Prof. Plum. (The professor's name must be pronounced with a slight French accent.)

Prof. Plum writes:

Education is driven by two obsessions: individualism and social progress.

At first, it seems contradictory that collectivists and radical egalitarians would promote unbridled individualism. This contradiction is resolved when one considers that the two impulses operate in different realms that must be kept strictly separate. As Robert Bork pointed out in Slouching Toward Gomorrah, radical egalitarianism "reigns in areas of life and society where superior achievement is possible and would be rewarded but for coercion toward a state of equality." In contrast, radical individualism "is demanded when there is no danger that achievement will produce inequality..." Thus, freak shows with nose rings, tongue and lip rings and other multiple piercings as well as exotic aberrations are permissible and even encouraged; the postmodern elevation of ignorance and nonsense to the status of just another "perspective" becomes de rigueur.

Prof. Plum describes how these tendencies operate in edland:

In education, the obsession with the individual is manifest

In the call for authentic activities –which generally means, hands on–also known as play.

In constructivism: which asserts that teachers cannot transmit knowledge, because knowledge does not exist outside the individual. Therefore, teachers merely facilitate students’ constructions of knowledge–which means almost anything goes.

In whole language, fuzzier than fuzzy math, and a superficial study of history and classical texts–because learning the letter-sound system in reading, mastering math algorithms, and reading texts line by line is…HARD.

In class groupings that are so heterogeneous that teachers cannot possibly serve the highest and lowest performers–because homogeneous groupings might hurt self-esteem. [As though remaining ignorant is good for self-esteem.]

In rejection of “drill” and practice and memorization (demonized with the moronic phrases “drill and kill” and “it’s all rote learning”)–because these require more effort than the individual wants to give.

In rejection of achievement standards that are precise, objective, and measurable (e.g., percentage of problems solved correctly)–because that means that the individual could be held to the standards, and that of course would be oppressive.

At the same time, education is driven by an obsession with social progress. This obsession–which finds political expression in so-called left-wing or liberal politics–is often called progressivism. In both the larger society and in education, the obsession with social progress is manifest in

The continual call for more social justice and equality –which too often means wanting more–income, respect, benefits–but producing no more (doing no more for anyone else or for society at large) to get it.

The expansion of the category of “those who deserve,” or “those who are owed”–again, so that some people will get more without doing or giving more.

The demand for politically correct speech and thinking–so that no social group will feel devalued regardless of what it does.

Multiculturalism, which means that members of the predominant–common–culture must devalue their own language, history, core values, moral principles, and social institutions by regarding these as all relative; and at the same time not judging the history, core values, moral principles, and social institutions of other cultures.

The question is, Can an obsession with the individual–and all of the activities associated with that obsession–ever produce the social progress envisioned or demanded by progressives?