Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Call for Reviewers

In this state there is a bill that has been proposed to require students to attend school till the age of 18. This means that students will not be able to legally drop out at 16 or 17 anymore. I don't know if anyone who reads here will agree with me but I'm pretty opposed to this policy. Anyway, I'm trying to write a letter to the relevant legislators etc. to express the opinion that it shouldn't happen. I'm a little emotional about this issue and I cannot guarantee the quality of my writing. I'm going to have to come back to it but, if anyone is willing to volunteer I would like to e-mail a copy and get some comments before I send it out. Just post here or e-mail me if you are willing or interested. Thanks.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Some recent student artwork

I think this piece conveys the free-thinking and innovation of current high school math students. Notice the artist's use of color in the flames constrasting the black and white in which the math book and teacher are depicted.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

False Curriculum Reform

The time has come for my latest rant on education. It has been observed so many times (I’m thinking primarily since the ‘80s) that there is some kind of need for us to improve something about the way we teach math and science in this country. Professors have been complaining about the skills students come to college with in recent years. A lot of testing has been done comparing our students to those in other countries showing that as a nation we have certain deficiencies. A lot of people in the schooling process (i.e. students, parents, and teachers) observe that low relevance in traditional and mandated curricula contributes to student apathy resulting in poor learning performance.

In order to respond to this lots of little groups have formed to produce curricula intended to be innovative, and reform oriented. These groups tend to be composed of university professors, researchers, educational administrators and others I couldn’t identify who often have three or four motivated charismatic individuals with the “brilliant idea” for making kids in public school learn the things that they want them to know when they get to college. Often they are people who’ve gotten some kind of government grant to do the job and the materials they produce are supposed to be made available to the public in a non-profit sort of way.

In the last few years I’ve looked at a lot of these sorts of materials and programs. I happen to be reviewing one for potential use in my school right now. The lot of them tend to be terribly rife with a certain set of problems that make them pretty much worthless.

The first and most obvious problem for anyone to notice is the production values of the curriculum materials. They tend to be paper backed at best and are often bound in that cheep nasty spiral binding you can get done at the po-dunk copy shop down the street. They are sometimes obviously printed from type-written material or your typical word processing software fonts and formatting. The black and white graphics are always blatantly the cartoons of an untrained artist or cheesy awkward computer clip art thingies. It’s the kind of thing you put in front of a kid and have already lost them because they can’t take this “fake” school work seriously.

Another problem that comes up pretty consistently has to do with the choice of content. For some reason almost all professors in the sciences think that kids in high school need to know about optical illusions. Why? Is it because they think that the illusions are engaging and will get kids interested? One thing it certainly doesn’t do is lead into any relevant topic that kids need to know in order to pass state-wide tests for graduation. It’s also too light-weight and obvious (having already been used several times in the elementary grades) to make it useful information when preparing high school kids for college. Dumb, dumb, dumb. It’s a piece of evidence for my “brilliant idea” theory of educational reform. (Maybe some day I’ll write a book about this theory.) If it isn’t the optical illusions it’s something else of similar caliber and relevance with some silly “high interest” hook: breaking rocks, being blind-folded and smelling grass, "imagine you were an alien from another planet", etc.

The thing that I find bothers me most though is something I think of as entrenchment. A lot of theory in educational reform suggests that students should be engaged in learning activities that are highly authentic. That is to say that students should be learning how to do real things in the real world. Almost all of these innovative curricula projects present themselves as being highly authentic and having a great deal of relevance. It kind of makes me sad to sense that these authors have a correct spirit in trying to produce this sort of learning material. The problem is they do not have the right kinds of heads and what they produce is horridly contrived and anything but authentic. For example one math book I looked at had a lot of great activities that kids could learn from. I thought several of the activities were interesting and engaging and I think they might have been usable. The problem is that all of the materials were put together in a way that stripped them from their authenticity because the authors were so entrenched in thinking about the problems in terms of “school.” For example one of the lessons involved students finding out something about the cost of bread in local supermarkets. But instead of contextualizing the exercise in market research, or humanitarian aid, or making a personal grocery budget the context for the project was: “Imagine your teacher asked you to find out how much bread costs…..” Dumb, dumb, dumb.

A curriculum I’m looking at right now is for teaching philosophy in middle school and high school. The way it is supposed to function is the students read a short novel where the characters are kids that encounter philosophical issues in their real lives. The chapters of the novel are then supposed to be used to engage students in philosophical discussion. The problem is the same. The story in the book is all about kids sitting around in school having philosophical discussions. Almost never do the issues come up in naturalized living contexts. Furthermore the characters are totally unrealistic and talk more like college professors trying to teach little kids about philosophy than like little kids trying to understand life and the world around them. It is yet another example of the “brilliant idea” and a curriculum that has the right spirit but the wrong head.