Saturday, February 6, 2010

Please visit an actual classroom before you make recommendations, V

In her New York Times Op-Ed piece this past week, Susan Engel, a senior lecturer in psychology and the director of the teaching program at Williams college, notes that:

"Our current educational approach, and the testing that is driving it, is completely at odds with what scientists understand about how children develop during the elementary school years and has led to a curriculum that is strangling children and teachers alike."

So far I'm with her.

"In order to design a curriculum that teaches what truly matters, educators should remember a basic precept of modern developmental science: developmental precursors don’t always resemble the skill to which they are leading."

Agreed. As Dan Willingham notes, novices and experts learn in different ways. Children grow into good scientists not by acting like little scientists, but by learning scientific knowledge. But Engel's example is different:

"For example, saying the alphabet does not particularly help children learn to read."

Perhaps. It's probably far more productive to learn the sounds that the different letters stand for than to simply "say the alphabet."

But here's where I started to wonder about Engel's familiarity with actual classrooms. Are there many teachers out there who teach according to the premise that simply saying the alphabet helps children learn to read?

As I continued to read, my doubts about this education expert's classroom experiences continued to grow:

"Simply put, what children need to do in elementary school is not to cram for high school or college."

"What they shouldn’t do is spend tedious hours learning isolated mathematical formulas or memorizing sheets of science facts that are unlikely to matter much in the long run."

If Engel were to look around at what is actually happening in today's classrooms, she would find very little cramming for high school, and very few hours--tedious or not--spent on formulas and fact sheets.

In the more affluent, model schools, what she would find instead is everything she--and by extension the New York Times--is promoting as bold new "research-based" proposals:

Classrooms in which students write "stories, newspaper articles, captions for cartoons, letters to one another."

Classrooms that have students "building contraptions," "enacting stories," and "inventing games."

Classrooms that devote "lots of time for children to learn to collaborate with one another"

"A curriculum focused on... pattern detection, conversation and collaboration."

It is because so many "model" classrooms devote so much time to such activities, and because so few classrooms in general devote much time to to phonics, penmanship, and the fundamentals of arithmetic, science, and prose writing, that American education is in such trouble.

Then we have the plight of children on the autistic spectrum and other left-brainers, who flounder in "collaborative learning" environments, are especially ill-suited to learning how to read by "having conversations," and who especially crave conceptually challenging math and science--tedious formulas and all.

1 comment:

Niels Henrik Abel said...

Every time I hear about "bold new 'research-based' proposals," I can't help but think of some kind of "Auntie Mame" scenario. If there is any learning that actually gets done in that type of environment, it's probably despite "bold new 'research-based' proposals," and not because of them.