Monday, May 2, 2011

Blaming children for their ignorance, III: different sorts of children

In my two previous posts on this topic (see below), I've argued that:

Kids 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.
And that:
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.
I've had some great comments in response, and a few have raised some objections. One is the fact that some children learn things on their own. As HappyElfMom writes:
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 agree: there are kids out there who actively seek out, on their own, "direct, structured instruction in basic skills and fact-rich core knowledge." They are the voracious, independent readers (or viewers, or listeners) of systematically presented material, and/or the systematic observers of the phenomena that surround them. Most kids, however, either aren't as driven, or aren't as able to find opportunities for direct, structured instruction, and/or to create structure entirely on our own. They depend on others providing it to them--through direct instruction and an organized curriculum, including, yes, textbooks, workbooks, and teachers up in front.

As for Franklin, yes, he'd probably freak out that there is a state test to score; but that doesn't mean that he wouldn't also freak out about how poorly students do on it.

Another objection is the significance of the facts I cite as touchstones of children's ignorance. As HappyElfMom writes:
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.
And Deirdre Mundy writes:
Any kid with a calendar and a window can start to learn about moon phases WITHOUT much adult input!
If thinking that Iraq is in Central America is just one misconception, that's one thing. But I intend it to stand for something much larger: a lack of knowledge of basic geopolitical facts, particularly of those that relate to the most pressing of current events. It's the overall inability of so many children to locate much of anything on a world map that is truly alarming.

As for the moon phases, what I have in mind here is not merely what you get from a calendar and a window: this part is easy, yes. It's in understanding "what causes the phases of the Moon", or knowing "the relative positions of the sun, earth, and moon" for a given moon phase, that I'm referring to. I'm guessing most children will not deduce these things without much adult input.

A third objection is that children should play a greater role in choosing the agenda, and shouldn't be forced to learn a particular set of facts. As HappyElfMom writes:
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.
As Anonymous points out, however:
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.
A fourth objection is that direct instruction isn't a sufficient condition, and that other factors get in the way. As Lsquared points out:
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).
And as Deirdre Mundy asks:
How much is that they lack basic reading/writing/math skills and so are unable to demonstrate their knowledge on a test?
And as Obi-Wandreas, The Funky Viking, notes:
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. 
True enough: direct, structured instruction in basic skills and fact-rich core knowledge is a necessary condition, not a sufficient one. That doesn't mean we should stop trying.  As for attention issues in particular, as Anonymous points out, instructing once is not enough; persistent practice is key:
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.
And as Anonymous (the same Anonymous?) points out:
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."
That's it for now; I hope the dialogue continues.


Hainsh said...

Not so; most of the time, children (and adults) need to process the material by practicing with it.

And even more than that: Maybe in the middle school years, when children are encountering foundational concepts in the sciences for the very first time, they need to practice with these concepts year after year.

Atoms, molecules, and chemical reactions, for examples, could be reinforced every year from 5-8: as applied in photosynthesis and respiration, as applied in conservation of matter, as applied in chemical weathering, etc.

I can't say for certain that it would work--but this is the sort of conversation that teachers are NOT EVEN HAVING.

Barry Garelick said...

I can't say for certain that it would work--but this is the sort of conversation that teachers are NOT EVEN HAVING.

Well, they used to be having it, back in the 50's and 60's--the period that the current ed school gurus say was an utter failure.

@educatoral said...

@Hainsh, I totally agree. We need to give students the opportunity and the skills to delve deeply into content and to think critically about problems, and the conepts need to spiral so they get the opportunity to struggle with tough concepts again and again!