Saturday, January 8, 2011

Defanging the evil machine

Following on the heels of the New York Times article on math instruction in Shanghai classrooms is this one from NPR on stress reduction in American classrooms. Entitled "What's New In High School? Stress Reduction 101," it is as enthusiastic as the Times piece was skeptical:
There's enormous pressure on kids these days. But it turns out that getting schools, parents — and even kids — to ratchet it down is easier said than done.
Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, Mass., outside Boston, is one of a small but growing number of prep schools determined to buck the trend for kids on the college track.

One of the biggest changes the school has made is on display in its calculus class, which used to be an Advanced Placement course.

Senior Sophie Deitz is dancing in front of a dry-erase board, improving math-themed lyrics to Christmas carols. Instead of poring over those fat old textbooks, and working on piles of AP practice tests, she and her classmates are learning complicated concepts like integration by parts by making videos about them.

"I want the calculus to be like a scary monster and then, we being like superheroes!" she exclaims.

It's exactly the kind of high-energy, low-stress kind of learning that Beaver administrators were hoping for when they decided a few years ago to eliminate their AP classes.

"I think that pressure to make sure that you had that trophy on your transcript was something that we felt wasn't necessarily that healthy for kids," says Peter Gow, director of college counseling and special programs at Beaver. "It didn't seem appropriate to be playing into that."
One might wonder whether replacing AP calculus with math-themed Christmas carols and super hero videos might make the college application process, ultimately, more stressful, but:
Gow insists the bold move has not hurt Beaver's students' chances of getting into the most competitive colleges.
To its credit, NPR acknowledges that there might be other ways to ameliorate high school stress:
Instead of trying to eliminate stress, many schools have put their focus on teaching kids to better handle it. Schools are experimenting with everything from yoga classes and breathing exercises to therapy dogs. They are also giving students more time to vent.
If Beaver students are still gaining admission to the "most competitive" colleges, one wonders how their stress levels are affected by competition from classmates who learned integration by parts from fat old textbooks. On the other hand, one might also wonder about the stress levels experienced by those whose high schools took time out of academics for yoga and breathing exercises.

With this in mind, here's my modest proposal for stress reduction. Instead of reducing the time spent preparing students academically for college, why not use tried and true teaching methods that neither hold them back nor expect too much of them, but meet them exactly where they are and push them gently ahead. Along the way, eliminate all homework before 4th grade, eliminate all busy work, increase unstructured recess, eliminate all developmentally inappropriate, organizationally demanding projects, and stop requiring students share their personal feelings and work in groups instead of independently, at their own rates.

As far as NPR is concerned, however, the final word goes to Peter Gow at Beaver Day:
"The whole system is like an evil machine that's consuming kids," he says. "Our school has defanged it, but only as much as any one school can."
In some sense I agree with Gow. But I see a different, much more encompassing system at work than he does. With the many credulous, enthusiastic pieces like this one on "cooperative," "creative," "discovery-based" classrooms (read: watered down academics), along with the many others that criticize traditional classrooms and East Asian "rote learning," the all-powerful media appears to be in cahoots with the all-powerful education establishment (which, in turn, spans everything from teaching certification programs to boards of education to curriculum developers and their funders at the National Science Foundation). 

Meanwhile, dissenting teachers, who, for example, try to sneak some traditional teaching into their classrooms, risk retaliation by administrators; and principals, Home and School Associations and PTAs have grown quite effective at squelching protests by parents. Who's left? One might hope for some help from mathematicians and scientists, but, as I've discussed earlier (e.g., here) and will revisit in another post, even some of these people are toeing the party line--and all it takes is a few. After all, who does the media pay more attention to: a mathematician who thinks that students learn integration by parts more effectively by making super hero videos, or one who thinks that a better option is "those fat old textbooks"?


FedUpMom said...

eliminate all homework before 4th grade, eliminate all busy work, increase unstructured recess, eliminate all developmentally inappropriate, organizationally demanding projects, and stop requiring students share their personal feelings

Katharine, from your lips to God's ear.

Hainish said...

Oh, this is just sad.

It's true, though, that it probably won't hurt their chances of getting into a good school. Students taking math-and-crafts calculus will still be taking the highest-level math course offered by the school, and that is what really counts on a transcript.

Where in all this, though, is the notion that courses be chosen based on their ability to provide intellectual rigor? Instead of simply an edge in college admissions?

Hainish said...

Of course, the AP exams are getting revamped to include less rote memorization, which i blog about here:

Barry Garelick said...

I suppose the author of this Wall St. Journal article
would fall all over himself when reading about the calculus is fun movement.

His argument, by the way, falls into my version 1 argumentin my op-ed here., thought he adds a twist by claiming that the Chinese system produces robots. As if the entrepreneurial aspect of the US is a result of our sterling education system. Something wrong with his argument but I'm too tired to do anything but gag.

Veronica Johnessee said...

Couple thoughts here. I came to a new school district in my freshman year that had intensive scheduling. Due to the differences in curriculum between the two areas I lived in I was very far ahead of my peers in math and science. In order for me to complete the number of math and science credits I needed to graduate I had to take the AP courses. Of course I could have taken an easier math or science course, i.e. earth science, or how to do your taxes math. But that probably would not have shown well on my college applications. So if my school had eliminated the AP courses I would not have had a higher math/science to take and would have been forced to take the easier course.

My second thought is this. Not everyone is meant to go to an elite college. I'm sorry but if you as a student are working harder than your father who is a trial attorney (bad example as he could just be a bad trial attorney with little work but we'll go with it)then maybe you are not ready for the courses you are taking. Maybe it's time for you to take a step back and reevaluate what you would like to do with your life. We're not all able to be rocket scientists, or doctors, or chemists. This does not mean that these people are less of a person, we're all just meant for something different in life. Maybe as parents we should realize the limitations of our children. I often see that parents feel their child can do no wrong and is wonderful at everything they touch. This is not always true.

Deirdre Mundy said...

But if you eliminated all the busy work, the school day would only be about an hour and a half long! And then people would have to PAY for babysitters!

Seriously -- My daughter's homeschooled day is about 1.5 hours long. But I don't count the time she spends coloring, drawing, making up stories, learning myths, doing wordfinds or watching documentaries as "school." School is the part of the day where she is doing the work that I've determined is necessary for her academic growth. (At this point, mostly reading and math). The other stuff is what she chooses to do for fun. I'm not going to give her 'credit' for drawing a diorama of African animals. BUT if she was in school, it would be a 'project.' And, honestly, it would probably have had all the joy sucked out of it.

Schools need busy work, because there is no way that a 6 year old can do PRODUCTIVE work for nearly 7 hours a day. And babysitting 25 kids at once means trying to keep them as quiet and sedentary as possible.

In my ideal world, the school day would stay under 3 hours long until 4th or 5th grade. But it would never fly. Somehow, we've grown to equate "time in a classroom" with "instruction time" and believe that "more" is the same as "More efficient."

Hainish said...

So, I guess you haven't seen this article?