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"?