Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Why Can't Kids Learn?

The NYTimes editorial section had an interesting post and view point shared about the trouble with high schools. The tendency to want to shift blame away from the learner is endemic to the whole of our troubles. That is, college and university faculty members tend to blame the high schools. This person wants to blame the junior high schools. No doubt, the junior high school faculty members will want to blame the middle and elementary school systems.

In the end, the parents are responsible for instilling a strong desire to learn and a learning ethic in their children. And, fundamentally, it is the individual that is responsible for their own learning. With all the support you can give kids, the best school systems in the world will have some students fail.

What we need is a shift from rote memorization of "facts" & test preparation toward a curriculum that centers on expeditianary exploration of topics until the students tire of the subject matter or move on to another more powerfully interesting topic. Having taught math to ninth graders before, I know how boring fractions can be if the relavence is not transparent. It is very challenging to teach fractions to anyone, let alone those who have failed mathematics courses in the past. Another shift that might present a fix is twisting the promotion and tenure process to shuffle new teachers away from the difficult courses to teach and put them into honors or high level classrooms. This would leave the general or remedial courses to the most experienced and skilled teachers and disciplinarians. The reason why I don't teach at the High School level any more is because I was given five courses (four preparations) in my first year of teaching. These four preps were all but one general or remedial courses. So, I spent the better part of my day disciplining some one else's children rather than teaching. Students were so disruptive and disrespectful that it was very difficult to maintain a line of thinking on the subject at hand without getting side tracked. Secondly, I know for a fact, that instead of doing the homework, these students were out on weekends, doing drugs, or simply watching television all evening. Parents were completely disengaged from the child's educational process, and in more than one case, I caught parents out right lying to make excuses for their children's poor performance.

I can go on, but will save more on this for either comments or another post should folks be interested.

Here's the slice from the article mentioned above:

To understand why, you have to consider what the high schools are dealing with. When American students arrive as freshmen, nearly 70 percent are reading below grade level. Equally large numbers are ill prepared in mathematics, science and history.

It is hardly fair to blame high schools for the poor skills of their entering students. If students start high school without the basic skills needed to read, write and solve mathematics problems, then the governors should focus on strengthening the standards of their states' junior high schools.

And that first year of high school is often the most important one - many students who eventually drop out do so after becoming discouraged when they can't earn the credits to advance beyond ninth grade. Ninth grade is often referred to by educators as a "parking lot." This is because social promotion - the endemic practice of moving students up to the next grade whether they have earned it or not - comes to a crashing halt in high school.

It makes no sense to blame the high schools for their ill-prepared incoming students. To really get at the problem, we have to make changes across our educational system. The most important is to stress the importance of academic achievement. Sorry to say, we have a long history of reforms by pedagogues to de-emphasize academic achievement and to make school more "relevant," "fun" and like "real life." These efforts have produced whole-language instruction, where phonics, grammar and spelling are abandoned in favor of "creativity," and fuzzy math, where students are supposed to "construct" their own solutions to math problems instead of finding the right answers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Louder, and funnier

When was the last time you multiplied or divided two fractions. Or solved simultaneous equations: two trains, one leaving CA for NY at 80mph, and another NY for CA at 60mph meet when? where? What's a train?

Calculations once done by hand are now done in MathCad or a spreadsheet. Write the formula and plug in the values. The hard part is as it ever was, judging whether on not the answer is correct.

Rather than teach fractions, teach kids how to use a spreadsheet. Then teach them how to plug fractions into a spreadsheet. Once matches were readily available, how to make fire with flint and steel was something only the truly curious found interesting.

Boredom is feedback. Blaming your audience doesn't serve them, or you. Try something different.