Monday, December 5, 2011

More front-page accolades hands-on classrooms, III

From yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer:

High school feels different in the big white mansion at the edge of the Navy Yard - no desks in rows. No 47-minute class periods. No warnings to remove the hat, put the cellphone away, take the exam seriously.

Instead, small groups of students are designing their own workshop space. They're drawing up more efficient bus routes for the Philadelphia School District. Their teachers act as mentors, sounding boards, not lecturers.

The premise? American high schools are broken.
The curriculum?
...a challenging curriculum built on student interests through hands-on projects. It means fostering strong relationships that form the underpinnings of everything.

There may be no Algebra 2 or English 4 at the workshop, but students learn the essential skills they need from those courses - solving simultaneous equations, interpreting complicated texts.
"No desks in rows"; teachers who are "mentors, not lecturers"; "hands-on projects"--why does "innovative" classroom boilerplate, ubiquitous in our "model" schools, continue to be front page news?
The current school of the week is the Sustainability Workshop, an alternative senior-year program inspired by a West Philadelphia after-school program whose students "have been building hybrid cars and winning important competitions for more than a decade" and whose members "want to turn the workshop into a full-fledged school... by 2013." Currently, 28 students attend, selected based on their attendance and behavior records. Their academic skills, one teacher says, "are all over the map."

Naturally, the school has attracted all sorts of premature attention--well before any efficacy results could possibly surface:
Three months in, the school has garnered national buzz and attracted more than $500,000 in private funding from the Barra Foundation, the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster, and others.

Deep thinkers are already gushing over the workshop.
Says Andrew Zwicker of the Princeton Physics Plasma Laboratory and "associate director of education and workforce development for the innovation cluster": "It is so clearly the future of education. Or at least it should be."

Yikes.

Before jumping to these apparently foregone conclusions, the founders and the funders should first seek out reliable data on whether it's more effective to replace the seqential math pedagogy that is still in use by the many countries whose high schoolers outperform ours with an ad hoc "just in time" approach to advanced topics like simultaneous equations. And by reliable, I mean data that takes into account selection biases--of the sort you might find when 28 self-selected and behaviorally screened applicants opt against their typically terrible local high schools in favor of a brand new, well-funded program with a much higher (and more highly qualified) teacher to student ratio. The persistence of traditional math taught badly, as Barry Garelick has pointed out, doesn't mean we should give up on trying to teach it properly.

5 comments:

Amy P said...

Is there some sort of pre-written template available to the journalists who turn out these pieces? Ugh.

FedUpMom said...

Something tells me that newspapers don't put their ace reporters on the education desk. I think this reporter is lazy more than anything else, and just repeating tired old phrases he's heard somewhere before. "No more desks in rows?" That might have been news in 1960.

Katharine Beals said...

Interestingly, the notion that students still mostly sit in rows is perpetuated by contemporary shows like South Park. Of course, it's easier to film (or depict) a class of kids if they're all sitting forward, but what makes things convenient for cinematographers and animators also contributes to the distorted views of classrooms by people in general and (sloppy) ed journalists in particular.

kcab said...

Just to offer a different view, maybe the tendency for desks to be arranged in rows varies a lot? I can't recall very many of my kids' elementary school classrooms having desks arranged in rows, but middle and high school have tended toward straightforward rows. Some classes never are (science, music) but most seem to be.

Anonymous said...

My sister is a teacher and she is really opposed to kids sitting around tables. Her son has Aspergers and she said it makes focusing even harder for him. She says that kids by nature are easily distracted and that the last thing you want to do is arrange desks in a way that makes it too easy for kids to focus on anything other than the teacher.

From what she has said, desks arranged in rows are pretty rare in the schools she has taught in. Her daughter attends a charter school and they do have rows. Her son attends a public school and they don't use rows.

My daughter takes homeschool classes through a charter school. They have rows in some classes but large tables in others. It would be interesting to see some statistics on rows versus other arrangement.