Monday, August 22, 2016

Might sitting in rows and spitting out facts also be a prerequisite for learning?

In an earlier post, I talked about how certain "education reformists" malign traditional education as being

based on a 19th century Prussian model, or an early 20th century factory model, designed to foster obedience to political, military, or capitalist authority. 
These people, I  noted, are conflating political, military, and workplace authorities with educational authorities, and obedience to political, military, and workplace authorities with obedience to educational authorities.

There are some things, I noted, that contribute to this conflation:
all that lining up, all that waiting in silence, all that being yelled at for fidgeting during class or losing track of your belongings or daring to play tag or climb trees during recess. 
But other requirements--requirements like not disrupting the class, and attending to the educational authorities (competent teachers, decent textbooks)--I argue, are essential to learning.

Now a recent NPR segment on new book, "Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children," has reminded me of two things I left out--things that authors Roberta Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek join other would-be reformers in disparaging:

--sitting in rows

--spitting out facts

Here's Hirsh-Pasek:
If Rip Van Winkle came back, there's only one institution he would recognize: "Oh! That's a school. Kids are still sitting in rows, still listening to the font of wisdom at the front of the classroom."
We're training kids to do what computers do, which is spit back facts.  
How quickly people forget the virtues of row seating--even as they sit in rows in movie theaters or, say, during TED talks in which education gurus disparage row seating. Desks in rows is the only way to arrange a classroom so that a dozen plus kids can easily attend to the teacher, see what's being written on the blackboard, and take notes while using a hard surface (the surface of their desks) rather than their laps.

And how quickly people forget what it takes to learn things. "Spitting out" facts, while it should never be the be-all and end-all of education, is a key component of learning bodies of knowledge. The task of retrieving and articulating facts, when implemented well by competent teachers, is not a meaningless, rote repetition of disembodies chunks of information, but a way to strengthen long term memory of meaningful systems of integrated knowledge--knowledge that is crucial to personal success and societal progress.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek compares the challenge of raising children to climate change.
What we do with little kids today will matter in 20 years. If you don't get it right, you will have an unlivable environment. That's the crisis I see.
I agree.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Math problems of the week: more Common Core-inspired explained answers

From the 5th grade Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) Grade 5 Scoring Guidelines:


Monday, August 15, 2016

Might obedience to authority be a prerequisite for learning?

When people carry on about how traditional education is based on a 19th century Prussian model, or an early 20th century factory model, designed to foster obedience to political, military, or capitalist authority, and then promote child-centered Constructivism as the alternative, might they be conflating a couple of concepts?

Besides political, military, and workplace authorities, there are also educational authorities: people (teachers, textbook authors) who are authorities because they know a lot--perhaps more than you do--on certain topics.

And besides obedience to political, military, and workplace commands, there's obedience in educational settings. Yes, a lot of the obedience solicited in schools (including in our most self-styled Constructivist schools) reeks of military-style obedience--all that lining up, all that waiting in silence, all that being yelled at for fidgeting during class or losing track of your belongings or daring to play tag or climb trees during recess.

But a certain type of obedience is crucial for learning. Classroom learning requires attending to the educational authorities (listening, reading) and not disrupting the class in ways that impair this.

It might be pretty to think otherwise, but in the absence of certain forms of (self-)discipline, and certain types of deference to certain types of authorities, it's pretty darn hard to learn much of anything, let alone develop one's own, personally-empowering educational, professional, and political authority.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The stereotype of rote learning in East-Asian classrooms, III

My most recent class contained a record number of non-native English speakers, most of them from mainland China. Initially, I had worried. Might these students flounder with the more technical, densely written articles? Or with the linguistic mechanics of writing clear responses to these articles in their weekly papers? But the Chinese nationals, in particular, soon proved to be producing the best papers in the class. Their English skills were excellent, and, invariably, they not only captured the key points in the readings, complete with specific examples, but also shared interesting, original reflections on these key points and details.

Papers by other students also contained reflections, but, particularly among the younger of the American-born, the thoughts were often free-floating; detached from the specific content of the articles; sometimes fatally skewed by imperfect understandings of what they had (or perhaps hadn't) read.

This weekly contrast--between papers that carefully digested the readings and grounded new ideas in specific details, and papers that contained fewer details and more free-floating ideas--made me think about something else I've often blogged about. That would be (starting here) the popular American stereotype of East Asian students: great at rote learning but deficient in open-ended thinking and creativity. And, as I read through these papers, I'd find myself picturing a proponent of this stereotype--quite popular among American educators--looking over my shoulder and seeing exactly what s/he wants to see. S/he would see the papers written by students with Chinese names that appeared to be mostly regurgitating the articles, in contrast to other papers that abstracted away from the details ("higher-level thinking") and reflected at length ("critically") on the bigger picture.

But what I saw was the difference between students who had really engaged with the reading and absorbed it well enough to really get the main points and carefully take them one or two steps further vs. students who hadn't processed the readings enough for their reflections to go much beyond what they could have come up with before they even did (or didn't do) the reading.

True higher-level thinking, after all, requires a strong foundation in the material you thinking about.

I thought most recently of my Chinese students when reading an article in last week's Times:

Chinese primary and secondary schools are often derided as grueling, test-driven institutions that churn out students who can recite basic facts but have little capacity for deep reasoning. 
A new study, though, suggests that China is producing students with some of the strongest critical thinking skills in the world. 
The unexpected finding could recast the debate over whether Chinese schools are doing a better job than American ones, complementing previous studies showing Chinese students outperforming their global peers in reading, math and science.
… 
The study, to be published next year, found that Chinese freshmen in computer science and engineering programs began college with critical thinking skills about two to three years ahead of their peers in the United States and Russia. Those skills included the ability to identify assumptions, test hypotheses and draw relationships between variables.
The article goes on to discuss a leveling off of these skills once Chinese students attend Chinese colleges and universities. Possible culprits are the miring bureaucracy and lax academic standards at universities, the less energetic and demanding teaching, and/ or the decline in student motivation once the tremendous pressure of the university test, the gaokao, is over.

Unfortunately it is probably this leveling off of critical thinking skills that the proponents of East Asian stereotypes will remember, rather than the 2-3 year boost provided by those supposedly grueling, test-driven elementary and secondary schools.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Rigor versus Creativity: Are they mutually exclusive?

OILF is proud to publish this guest post by Maya Thiagarajan, a teacher at an international school in Singapore and the author of Beyond the Tiger Mom.

The Singapore local system prides itself for its "rigorous" program. And if you've ever looked at the exam papers for primary school kids on this island, you'll be amazed at the level of rigor. The word problems involve a tremendous amount of conceptual complexity, multiple steps, and hard calculations. The exams that these kids take are really hard.

Firstly, let's clarify what we mean by rigor. It's all the rage in education circles around the world, and the East certainly prides itself in the rigor that it offers kids. Rigor, I think, refers to three things:
• The level of challenge of the problems/tasks/assessments that kids are expected to do.
• The level of precision and quality expected of kids, especially when it comes to basic skills like mathematical problem solving, critical reading, and analytical writing.
• In order to ensure that kids can meet academic challenges and display strong academic skills, a rigorous education often requires teachers to explicitly teach concepts, assign homework, and provide detailed feedback. Rigor involves lots of practice with the goal of mastery. Rigorous education is often associated more with traditional exam-focused instruction than with constructivist project-based progressive education.
One look at Singapore's exam system for sixth graders is proof of its rigor.

But what about creativity? The major criticism leveled at the Singaporean exam system -- and perhaps any exam system -- is its lack of creativity. Exams are the antithesis of creativity because they require students to provide the answers that the examiner is looking for. There's no room for questioning or original thought or experimenting on an exam, not even on a well-designed exam.

What does a creative system look like: it's open-ended and exploratory. Kids ask questions of their own, they design and create, they work on collaborative group projects and presentations that involve multiple disciplines and a range of skills. In an English class, kids might write poems and act out a range of interpretations of a dramatic scene; in a Science class, they ask questions and design their own experiments; in a math class, they discuss various strategies with group members to solve a math problem. The US, known for constructivism and progressive education, embraces these kinds of creative projects.

And these projects are great -- they inspire kids, they get kids excited, they teach kids to work together and ask questions, they give kids the freedom to innovate or experiment...so what's the problem? The problem is that without a rigorous skill based education, these constructivist projects might end up being superficial and shallow. They focus more on giving a kid broad exposure and less on ensuring mastery.

If kids don't have strong skills and lots of rich content knowledge, they might end up just skimming the surface and not really learning anything deep. Without a rigorous skill-focused education, kids' reports and projects might involve sloppy writing and bad grammar; when they read, they might focus more on their feelings and less on actual literary analysis. Additionally, they will almost certainly have weak math foundations full of gaps; it's really hard to gain a strong math foundation without a systematic, sequential, and rigorous program. And as any student can tell you, group projects often mean that a few kids do all the work and learn a lot, while the other kids do very little and learn nothing. So yes, they offer creativity and inspiration, and kids certainly learn a lot from well-designed projects and explorations, but constructivism is not perfect either.

So, here's my question: why can't an education provide kids with both academic rigor and creative freedom? Why can't we teach basic skills and core content-- critical reading, analytical writing, mathematical problem solving, core science content -- in a rigorous, more traditional way, but ALSO give kids sufficient time and space to pursue projects, engage in open-ended discussions of literature, write their own poetry, and design their own experiments? Why can't we do both? Why do educators and education systems pit rigor and creativity against each other, instead of agreeing that both have value, and that in fact, they can complement each other?

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Math problems of the week: Common Core-inspired explained answers

From the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) Mathematics Item and Scoring Sampler for Grade 5: