Sunday, January 29, 2012

What we're missing at school

Every once in a while I have doubts about homeschooling my daughter. Am I a good enough teacher? Is it wrong to keep her out of her neighborhood school (a school so coveted relative to its alternatives that parents line up outside all night to secure a spots)? Especially given that there are, theoretically, so many more opportunities for social interaction? No sooner do these doubts start emerging, however, than they are nipped in the bud by a casual conversation with a neighborhood parent.

One parent recently told me that her 5th grade daughter is so overwhelmed with homework that she's only able to do (non-academic) after-school activities on Fridays.

Another parent reminded me of how frustrated everyone is with the Investigations math curriculum, and of how intransigent the school leadership continues to be.

But most validating of homeschooling was what I've been hearing about the just-completed 5th grade Native American history unit. Students had no textbooks; the material was instead dispersed across various photocopied handouts. Some of the content, apparently, was only delivered orally in class, such that students were able to study it only if they'd taken decent notes.

Dominating the unit was the big project. The teachers assigned each student a tribe. The students then had to track down "5 different types of sources" on that tribe--i.e., they couldn't rely only on articles and books. Browsing the Internet, and somehow finding age-appropriate material there, was part of the task. From these 5 different types of sources they had to take notes and, ultimately, create a power point presentation that they presented to the rest of the class. The project was particularly daunting for a couple of students from broken homes, who had to transport materials between two separate homes, and whose parents had to keep track of what was happening at their ex-partners' houses.

The unit grade was based not just on the project, but on a test of the general material (those handouts and notes, which perhaps also amounted to "5 different types of sources"). Test questions ranged from factual ones about trade, to ones like "Discuss the different theories about how Native Americans got established in North America."

It stikes me that, for all the content in this unit--and there was quite a bit--the ultimate goal couldn't have been to teach content. Content, after all, is no longer fashionable in an age where you can look everything up on the Internet (except, say, when Wikipedia is protesting SOPA). If your ultimate goal was 5th graders learning content, why on earth would you not provide them with a good souce for it: a single source that organizes and integrates all the material they're supposed to learn and report on... at a 5th grade reading level?

The ultimate goal, I'm guessing, was instead to teach "higher-level" research skills.

How did students do without textbooks? One teacher announced to her class that the grades on the test ranged from 100 down to 20 (out of 100). One parent, whose bright, history-buff of a son got a B, suspects that those who got As were intensively grilled by their parents, and that the grades were generally quite low. Given the lack of a textbook and the teacher's reliance on the ability of 10 and 11-year-olds to take notes and keep track of multiple handouts, one can certainly see why.

In my world of graduate school teaching, if faced with such poor student test performance, we instructors would not be able to stop ourselves from worrying that we're doing something wrong. This, despite the fact that our students are much older and presumably more capable of taking responsibility for their own learning than 10 year olds are. What can I do differently next time, I would ask myself, either in terms of how I present the material, or in terms of what incentives I give students to keep on top of it, so that they learn it more thoroughly?

Perhaps I'm wrong, but it seems to me that not enough K12 teachers, at least at our local public school, engage in this sort of reflection. Admittedly, it may be only because they are never evaluated, as I am, by the students (or by the relevant adults: the students' parents)--in which case perhaps they should be.

What's much more likely to happen at our local public school is one of two things. If most of the class fails a test, the teacher sends an angry note home to parents. If only a few students perform poorly, the underperforming students, whose Executive Functioning, attention skills, and handwriting skills weren't up to the task, are red flagged as kids who may have learning disabilies and need Individualized Education Plans. Little changes in the regular classroom, but the Learning Support teacher (after the year-and-a-half-long wait list and evaluation process finally reach their conclusion) adds a few more students to his case load.


Ricochet said...

I teach a subject that most people do not do well in or enjoy. A subject reliant on everything you have ever been taught. Math. We haven't had textbooks for 5 years and there are no expectations that we will have them anytime soon. So we photocopy material, because high school students will write down answers not problems.

They cannot keep up with photocopied sheets.

They do not put things in notebooks.

I am being told that I am not with it, that we are moving to electronic methods of teaching and the kids do not need books.

Lord help us.

Anonymous said...

"The different theories about how Native Americans got to North America?" As far as I know, there is only one -- that they crossed the Bering Strait from Northeast Asia. Plenty of smaller theories about what then happened.

5th graders don't need to do projects like the one described in order to learn a topic. The organizational demands actually get in the way of learning, especially for boys.

FedUpMom said...

The truth is that all of us middle-class parents are homeschoolers, whether our kids attend school or not. Both my kids currently attend school, and it's unbelievable how much time and energy I have to put into teaching them, whether it's to get them through homework or make up for the schools' teaching failures.

Early Knowledge for Kids said...

I had the exact same thought as anonymous when I read "The different theories about how Native Americans got to North America." Plus, it probably leads to some confusion among students about the meaning of theory in the sciences. They'll assume that any idea that anyone comes up with is considered a theory, which isn't the case in science.

KimS said...

I've served on every committee possible at my children's school and I've realized that what you describe here is EXACTLY what happens in public school - or - more importantly, what does not happen. Our schools get legions of data from state tests, but they never look at the data with a critical eye to determine if there are any areas where they might need to adapt instruction. Worse, when faced with analysis that indicates exactly where problems might reside, they ignore the information or castigate the researcher. I'm the daughter of public school teachers and was a huge advocate of public education until my kids entered public school. Now all I want it the right to choose for my children what's best for them.

Oh - and on the topic of different theories about how the Native American's arrived here, I've heard two different theories. The first is that they all came across the Bering Straight. The second is that there were two waves - one from across the Bering Straight and another from Europe in boats that traveled along the ice pack hunting food and eventually landed on the east coast (search for the Clovis Indians and Chesapeake Bay to read about it).

Anonymous said...

Clovis is considered to be a hypothesis, not a theory. There is no real evidence to support it. The Bering Strait is the only accepted theory. The teacher should have said different ideas rather than different theories to avoid confusion.

FedUpMom said...

I'm the daughter of public school teachers and was a huge advocate of public education until my kids entered public school. Now all I want it the right to choose for my children what's best for them.

OMG -- me too! Well said.