Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Blaming children for their ignorance

Every so often a front page article exclaims how ignorant today's children are about history, geography, and science. An astounding number think that Iraq is in Central America, for example, or have never heard of the Iron Curtain or what causes the phases of the Moon.

Implicit in the subsequent handwringing is the assumptiom that something is wrong with today's children. They're too obsessed with pop culture or digital media; they're incapable of paying attention in class; they lack intellectual curiosity. Whatever can we as a society do about this? The answer, these days, almost always goes something like this: we should try even harder to spur curiosity by trying even harder to make academics exciting in the same way that pop culture and digital media are.

Consider, for eample, an opinion piece in last week's Philadelphia Inquirer by Dennis Wint, president and CEO of the Franklin Institute Science Museum. In Wint's words:

[Benjamin] Franklin would no doubt be dismayed at how perversely ill-prepared our population is for an economy increasingly driven by science and technology... Only 40 percent of Pennsylvania's 11th-grade students scored as proficient in science on the most recent state tests. In Philadelphia, that number drops to 16 percent, meaning fewer than one in six students has the skills needed to compete in much of the modern economy.
But help is on the way:
My organization, the Franklin Institute, is striving to confront this problem. The challenge is to build excitement about science, improve science understanding in the city, and resolve the contradiction between our industries and our populace.
To these ends, the Franklin Institute, along with:
105 partners - including nearly all the city's colleges and universities, all its library branches, and many of its nonprofit science organizations - [are] banding together for the Philadelphia Science Festival, a two-week tribute to science starting today. Through April 28, there will be hundreds of events in the city aimed at connecting everyone, from preschoolers to professional scientists, with the science, technology, and engineering that make Philadelphia what it is.
Ah, science festivals.

And ah, making science relevant to daily life:
We're trying to overcome barriers by weaving festival activities into the fabric of city life. We're exploring the science behind some of the city's favorite things, such as Phillies games and our favorite foods. And most of the events will be free, selling very little besides an enthusiasm for the science that underpins our lives - and the region's future success.
Why doesn't it occur to anyone that the ignorance of today's students might be a result, not of unprecendented deficiencies in curiosity (and in exposure to the marvels of technology), but of unprecedented deficiencies in K12 instruction?

If only Mr. Wint would take a closer look at another parnership that his institution has engaged in: its parnership with the Philadelphia School District, the result of which is a high school known as the Science and Leadership academy. Here, for all the public accolades, for all the parents clamoring to get their kids in, and for all the emphasis on the thrills of hands-on science, 59% last year's 11th graders performed "below basic" on the very same state science exam whose atrocious city-wide results Wint cites in motivating the upcoming science festival.

Perhaps it's simply too difficult for people to believe that the reason why kids today can't locate Iraq or the former Iron Curtain or the relative positions of the sun, earth, and moon when the latter is full is that no one has ever even attempted to teach them these things.


RMD said...

Spot on!

I find it amazing that mankind has spent thousands of years trying to make sense of the world in a systematic way that helps us do really cool things, and modern pedagogy is willing to just let our kids experiment with the world assuming we don't have a 6000 year head start on our ancestors, rather than catching them up on the last 6000 years and then letting them experiment.

(How's that for a run on sentence?).

@educatoral said...

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.

Happy Elf Mom said...

*shrug* Franklin was a school dropout, so I can't see him freaking out about some state test scores. He might, however, freak out that there is a state test to score.

I'm not sure that it really matters if a child thinks that Iraq is in Central America. I guess having a severely disabled child changes it for me, but I read that and thought it was nice that the children understand the concept of country and continent. If that's a given, one can simply point to the map and say, "It's not over here; it's HERE" and maybe show a few pictures of the Babylonians, ancient civilizations, early writing, etc.

Do you know what I think is a travesty? Kids being required to just attend school and SIT rather than construct their own education plans within certain parameters. A little five-year-old knows practically nothing! WHY can't he pick whether to learn about birds or frogs, or why the sun sets? Does it all have to be in a certain order? Does the state have to say what a child ought know and what constitutes "ignorance?"

As you know, my children are slowly migrating back to public school for various reasons, but it doesn't lessen my concern that the drive for learning is positively squelched in public schools generally.

Anonymous said...

@educatoral and Happy Elf Mom's comments highlight a pervasive misunerstanding about what schools can and can't do. On their own time, with parents or friends, children can choose what to learn and in what order. But in a classroom setting, learning is done as a group (with choices about what to research for special projects as the final part of a unit). This is unavoidable, because young children need instruction and guidance as they learn, even in the most creative classroom. And some types of knowledge build on other types; the order does matter.