Sunday, March 23, 2008

Front page accolades for right-brained classrooms

Breathless articles on right-brained classrooms are a staple of today's education reporting. Consider a front page article in today's Philadelphia Inquirer about the University Park Campus School in Worcester, Mass. This public high school receives student teachers, mentors, and training for school staff from nearby Clark University, and "international recognition and numerous accolades for its ability to take low-performing students and turn nearly all of them into first-generation college-bound teens."


The Inquirer article opens with three 9th-graders huddling around an algebra problem. Which summer job would be more lucrative for the son of Mr. Knittle, their teacher? The assignment stipulates:

Explain your reasoning.  Show all work that supports your effort.  Write a note to Mr. Knittle, telling him which is the better offer, and convince him to take that job. Make sure you COMPLETELY explain how to change this into a mathematical exercise that everyone can understand.
Tellingly, the article makes no mention of the mathematics in question. Presumably it involves equations for hourly rates, hours per week, and overtime. It's hard to see how it could include much more than simple, two-variable, linear equations--for instance, the factoring of polynomials, solving of quadratic equations, and graphing of conic sections that once defined 9th grade college-track math.  

Instead we have the usual modern trappings: "real life" problems, group work, and an emphasis on non-mathematical communication--persuasive letter writing, language that "everyone can understand"--that bores math buffs and stymies the many on the autistic spectrum who excel in math but struggle to put words together and understand the perspectives of others.

Mr. Knittle's classroom reflects these increasingly fashionable priories. Students sit in clusters "to foster interaction." "Make sure you're an expert, talk to each other," he tells them.

University Park's English classes are similarly right-brained--at least as described by the Inquirer. In one 11th grade English class "students spent the morning looking through a portfolio of work they have written since seventh grade and reflecting on their growth." Self-esteem over self-education.

And personal inspiration over literary analysis. One student's Adrienne Rich presentation seems to center on how the poet learned "how to live" from books, and on how she herself understands Rich's feelings: "I feel like books really do have a life, and they gave me life as well." 

I agree. And I'm all for students appreciating literature. In previous generations, too many high school lit classes turned off too many students with too serious an approach to too many gloomy works. (Death in Venice and Ethan Frome come to mind; yes, I attended such classes.)

But reducing literature to self-help, inspiration, and life lessons, and reducing literary analysis to personal feelings about a text's "messages," raises a generation not of literature readers, but of advice manual consumers. And it shortchanges any budding wordsmiths--and other left-brainers--who might benefit from close attention to alliteration, simile, and other techniques.
 
As it turns out, University Park has had to modify its curriculum somewhat. In 2003, the five graduates who enrolled at Clark University all quit. The school now requires high school students to audit a Clark course and meet with Clark professors, and 12th graders to take high school classes "structured as college courses, with syllabi, lectures, and lots of independent work."

As growing numbers of college courses relinquish such structure for hands-on, group centered activities, such 11th hour adjustments may no longer be necessary. For many professors are as enthusiastic about right-brained teaching methods as journalists are.

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