Wednesday, January 12, 2011

More media attention for "innovative" constructivist classrooms

Even when the results are unequivocally negative, the press finds reasons for enthusiasm--assuming all the fashionable ingredients are there. Consider the following excerpts from an article in yesterday's Times about a classroom in the New American Academy in Crown Heights, which consists of "four teachers in large, open classrooms of 60 students":

Sixty children in a first-grade class can get loud — sometimes too loud for a teacher to explain a lesson.
So, while waiting for her teacher to come by, one little girl arranged the pennies she had been given to practice subtraction into a smiley face. Another shook her pennies in a plastic bag. A high-pitched argument broke out over someone’s missing quarter.
“We don’t know what we are supposed to be doing, but we are learning about math,” Thea Burnett, 6, said.
When [teacher Jennifer McSorley] leaned forward out of her chair to write a word on an easel, a 6-year-old boy moved it, and she fell when she tried to sit back down.
...Then another boy ran off to hide under an easel. Someone grabbed someone else’s pennies. The noise snowballed.
In the front of the room, Kathleen Kearns, a first-year teacher, strained to get her 20 students to understand how to use a chart to classify similarities and differences between two characters in a book. About half a dozen students refused to sit in their places.

“I need you here; your job is here,” she said to one, trying to be heard. After class, she said, “I am exhausted at the end of the day.”
In the first two months of school, a student pulled a chunk of an adult’s hair out, and an ambulance crew was called twice to calm a child. Eight weeks into the year, the only student work visible on the blue-painted walls was a poster with finger-painted hand prints and the words “Hands Are Not for Hitting.”
By January, three children who were violent had been moved to more-structured environments; seven other first graders moved away or withdrew, reducing the class size to 50.
Interspersed with all this, however, are the following gushes of enthusiasm:
All this was the early stages of an audacious public education experiment taking place in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, one that its founder hopes will revolutionize both how students learn and how teachers are trained... The founder, Shimon Waronker, developed the idea with several other graduate students at Harvard. It draws its inspiration, he said, from Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite boarding high school in New Hampshire where students in small classes work collaboratively and hold discussions around tables.
But Mr. Waronker decided to try out the model in one of the nation’s toughest learning environments, a high poverty elementary school in which 20 percent of the children have been found to have emotional, physical or learning disabilities. The idea, he said, was to prove that his method could help any child, and should be widely used elsewhere. “I didn’t want to create an environment that wasn’t real for everyone else and then say, look at my success,” he said.


“This is messy work — this is the front lines.”


At its heart is the idea that the teachers, not to mention the students, will collaborate and learn from one another, rather than being isolated in separate classrooms.


The intensive collaboration, [Waronker] believes, is what will cause his model, while admittedly still in a “trial-and-error” phase, to ultimately surpass others.


Indeed, by this month, there were significant improvements. Children appeared more focused during lessons. Jahmeer decided to play with pencils rather than do his counting work sheet, but he stayed in his seat, and another child asked if he needed help. One boy started crying, but not because someone pushed him; he wanted to have a turn writing his answer on the board.
Indeed, given that the audacious, Harvard-educated Mr Waronker has set out "to prove that his method could help any child," and that this school "stresses student independence over teacher-led lessons, scientific inquiry over rote memorization and freedom and self-expression over strict structure and discipline," how could it possibly not succeed--at least in its portrayal by the media. 


Anonymous said...

This seems to follow a larger pattern of teachers ignoring all the signs that these kinds of "reforms" don't work.

I've been following a discussion of the inverted classroom on the casting out nines blog. The inverted classroom has students teaching themselves before class then doing discussion or group projects during class. His blogging on this mentions lots of students saying this isn't working for them, saying they want more teaching.

I hear the same kind of complaints from students at our school, which uses CPM in the high school with students working in teams teaching themselves. At least in their words.

But it's always the student's fault. It's always that students want to be spoon-fed or they don't want to take responsibility for their own learning. The idea that it may be a problem with the approach never seems to occur to these teachers.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the inmates are running the asylum. How can anyone expect learning to take place amidst bedlam? Why don't the adults act like adults, instead of letting kids have the rule of the roost?

If the students are supposed to be teaching themselves (or "taking charge of their own learning," as it's euphemistically phrased), doesn't that render teachers and/or teacher certification superfluous? Seems to me that's the implicit message.

And the powers that be want to extort more and more money to throw at this pathetic excuse for "education," all the while they lie and say "it's for the kids."

God spare our kids from this so-called "education."

Deirdre Mundy said...

Also, is it any wonder these kids are cranky and disruptive if their math curriculum is (as it seems from the article) just sitting around waiting for a teacher to come watch them count pennies?

The whole classroom arrangement sounds too big and chaotic, but it might be a bit calmer if the kids were working on things that required attention and focus.

I think the sort of people attracted to these 'open classrooms' are the ones who want to replicate montessorri (which has had great success with underprivaledged kids from hectic backgrounds) in the public schools, without realizing that the magic of montessorri isn't the big, uncluttered, room, but the highly trained instructors and carefully designed activities.

The REASON big open spaces work with montessorri is because the instructors and activities are so carefully chosen. It's the instructors and curriculum that matter, not the room itself!

FedUpMom said...

Katharine, I'm a lot more sympathetic to progressive ed than you are, but I thought this was outrageous too. I discussed it on my blog:

Of Course It Won't Work

Anonymous said...


I could be mistaken but I think in Montessori, children often work alone in a very quite environment. It avoids distraction and disruption. I think this is another reason why it works so well.

Putting a bunch of kids around a table together without supervision is asking for chaos. Children are going to be children.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Yes-- Montessori is very calm and quiet-- and it can affird to be 'child centered' because the activities and environment are so meticulously organized.

But I can see how someone who only had a passing acquaintance with Montessori might think the keys were "poor children", "child directed" and "Big open spaces"

They're focusing on the accidentals, not the essence, and then they come up with something bizarre like the NYC 60 kids in one room.....

Anonymous said...

All four of my kids attended Montessori schools from ages 2 1/2 to first grade (two longer) and all three of the schools were very quiet, very disciplined and very structured in that each individual activity was taught one-on-one/two by the teacher. Doing that activity independently was permitted only after the teacher had ensured that the child knew how to do it. These were also advantaged kids with college+ parents who had instilled significant knowledge and skills and appropriate socialization prior to the kids arrival at preschool.