Saturday, April 30, 2011

Blaming children for their ignorance, II: who's responsible?

"Children should be responsible for their own learning." Familiar as I am with this education world truism, it was only after I saw it echoed in educatoral's comment to my recent post that I made the connection to our tendency to blame children for their ignorance.

Here's what educatoral writes:

I'm not sure I understand what you mean by saying that no one has ever even attempted to teach kids those things. I agree that we are in need of reform to help our students learn how to take charge of their own learning, but I don't think there is a lack of teaching. At least not a widespread lack of teaching. Maybe teaching is the problem because there is, IMO, lots of teaching going on yet very little learning by the students. And also 59% of students not achieving a basic level on a standardized test isn't proof that they don't understand the phases of the moon.
The problem is that the more responsibility we pass on to kids, the less responsibility we take; and the more time we spend trying to help our kids become responsible for their own learning, the less time we spend actually teaching them anything.

Furthermore, kids aren't little adults; they are novices who depend on direct, structured instruction in basic skills and fact-rich core knowledge before they're ready to start taking charge. Absent such direct instruction, there will, indeed, be "very little learning by the students." 59% of students not achieving a basic level on a standardized science test isn't proof that they don't understand the phases of the moon; it does, however, suggest that, on average, students are receiving a very low level of direct instruction of basic scientific knowledge.


Jen said...

Children aren't little adults.

The adults making curriculum seem to forget that a lot. They create things that would keep *their* attention about a subject they already understand.

I think this is why we get so much group thinking and "exploration" and the like before the students have just been taught. Directly. But direct teaching and practice seems boring for an adult who already understands it.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Katherine-- I'm curious-- how much is that they haven't been taught/don't understand basic elementary school science (Seriously, any kid with a calendar and a windo can start to learn about moon phases WITHOUT much adult input!)

And how much is that they lack basic reading/writing/math skills and so are unable to demonstrate their knowledge on a test?

I wonder if there's a way to peg precisely WHERE we're actually failing these kids. Especially since, in the early grades, science is laughably easy to teach--kids DO want to know how and why the world works... (Of course, maybe we're NOT teaching science? Maybe it's all phonics and no actual reading the science book? But how can we tell, when ALL tests essentially measure reading/writing ability? )

Obi-Wandreas, The Funky Viking said...

Trying to get kids to self-motivate is a response to a far greater problem. The people who are ultimately responsible for the upbringing of a child are the parents. In far too many cases, they are failing to do so.

I have many kids who don't know where they're going to be sleeping from one night to the next. For many others, if they have a parent, that person is often more concerned with themselves. There are many who do in front of their children what a real parent would never let a child see on tv. The idea of making sure that your child comes to school with their homework, a pencil, and a full stomach is, for many, 3 steps more effort than they are willing to put forth.

In other cases, excuses are made for misbehavior (if parents are reachable at all), and students come back from suspensions with $200 worth of hair styling and $300 worth of new clothes.

Parents who actually parent produce children who will succeed regardless. There are too many happy hippie retreads who think that if children "take ownership", that everything will be rainbows and unicorns. The result is a curriculum which bores the bejeezus out of the kids who are motivated to learn, and is completely insufficient to deal with the issues of the others.

Lsquared said...

It's hard to separate out causes a lot of times. There are times when children don't know it because they were never taught it (did you know that in a lot (most?) of middle school math series, we don't teach children how to convert square feet to square inches? It's just not in there at all). On the other hand I've personally given direct instruction, together with guided practice (I show, you watch, you do I watch), and yet, the next semester, you'd never be able to tell that they'd ever seen it before at all. I also know that it's quite possible to explain something quite clearly to the whole class while my daughter is there, and she won't remember any of it (the ADHD meds help). So. What is the cause of the problem in any given situation? Hard to tell if you weren't there watching it happen. Sometimes it's hard to tell even if you were there.

Anonymous said...

Also: children vary in the degree to which their minds are "sticky." For some kids, for some topics, they retain a lot just by being exposed to a glancing explanation, whether oral, visual, or electronic (by this comment, I'm agreeing both with Katherine and with Lsquared). The same kid, on a different day, or the kid next to the first kid, will need a much more extended engagement with the material in order for it to "stick." A big fault with today's curriculum designers/teachers, in my opinion, is that they seem to assume that merely exposing children to a topic through access to written or digital materials will make them retain the material. Not so; most of the time, children (and adults) need to process the material by practicing with it. That is, in essence, what note-taking is; it's what problem sets are; it's what writing book reports is; it's what writing up a lab is.

@educatoral said...

Well, I'm still not sure I buy it. So before I said that I'm not convinced that teachers aren't teaching and that even with all that teaching there isn't much learning going on. I'm not saying no direct instruction. I think a balance is what we need. Kids do need structure and they need practice. If I let my 8th graders take full control of a topic and they get lost and can't get started or get stuck I will rally them back and offer direct instruction in what they need to move forward. If different teams need different instruction, I will provide each team what they need to move on. If I can, I will also provide individual students what they need. I've been teaching for 20 years and I haven't seen one thing that works for all kids. Sometimes I teach and they don't seem to learn, other times I teach little and they learn lots.

Barry Garelick said...

If I let my 8th graders take full control of a topic and they get lost and can't get started or get stuck I will rally them back and offer direct instruction in what they need to move forward.

Yes, that's usually what people call "balance". It's what Carol Ann Tomlinson and others advocate. It's a "just in time" approach to learning. Why not do things sequentially, and bring them to mastery on the procedures and concepts they will need to solve the bigger problems that use the tools so developed? I wrote about this in a review of a book by Tomlinson and McTigh