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Nation Builders; In Defense of Teachers

March 20, 2011 3 comments

“In South Korea, teachers are known as nation builders. I think it’s time we treated our teachers with the same level of respect right here in the United States of  America”

President Barack Obama

The McGraw-Hill Research Foundation issued a report titled, “What the U.S. Can Learn from the World’s Most Successful Education Reform Efforts.” It compared the U.S. education system to those of the highest performing countries as ranked by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). According to the most recent PISA, the U.S. was ranked on average at 19th among more than 50 countries for science, 15th for reading, and a dismal 27th in math. Chinese, South Korean, Japanese, Canadian and Finnish students left ours in the dust.

The McGraw-Hill report found four key differences between the United States and the most successful countries:

1.    In successful countries, teaching is held in much higher esteem as a profession than in the U.S. Entering the profession is difficult, and candidates are drawn from the top of their university classes. These countries provide more resources for teacher training and professional development, and they give teachers more responsibility for leading reform.
2.    High-performing nations establish rigorous student achievement standards, premised on “the proposition that it is possible for all students to achieve at high levels and necessary that they do so”.
3.    The U.S. spends more money per pupil than almost all countries studied but lavishes resources on the more economically advantaged schools. In high-performing nations, budgets are often much smaller and extra resources go to disadvantaged schools.
4.    The U.S. is no more stratified socio-economically than the average country studied, but class differences have a much more pronounced effect on educational achievement here than in high-performing nations.

How can we change the results we are NOT achieving in our public schools?

First, we can upgrade how we value teachers. As a profession, education is not held in high esteem in the U.S. It is noteworthy that countries that have succeeded in making teaching an attractive profession have often done so not just through pay, but by raising the status of teaching, offering real career prospects, and giving teachers responsibility as professionals and leaders of reform. Perhaps more important than boosting pay, we should create methods which place teachers in charge of policing the standards of their profession. We need to give them resources for professional development. Principals should be chosen from the ranks of the most successful teachers. Testing and assessment should serve not to punish schools, as in the U.S., but to assess which students and classrooms need more attention, as in high-performing countries. When teachers are given both resources and responsibility to help under performing students, even school systems with strong teachers unions, such as Ontario, Canada, perform at a high level.

Most high performing countries have developed world-class academic standards for their students and these standards are responsible for the overall performance of their education systems. The approaches to standard-setting in countries range from defining broad educational goals up to formulating concise performance expectations in well-defined subject areas. Most of these countries have also incorporated their standards into systems of high-quality curricula and external examinations at the secondary school level. For example, our son’s attended school in England where they took their GCSE exams (our high school equivalent) prior to their admittance into their A-Levels. The GCSE exams are used to construct clear gateways for students either into the workforce and good jobs or to the next stage of education, the A-Levels and universities. Children meet your expectations because they don’t know any better. If we think they are stellar they will believe it because we believe it.

PISA results show that the amount of money a nation or state spends on education is not a decisive factor in achieving high scores on student assessments. Despite spending more money per student than other countries, neither Luxembourg nor the U.S. has managed to break into the ranks of top PISA performers. The U.S. hovers in the middle ranks, along with countries such as Estonia and Poland, each of which spend half as much per student as the U.S. New Zealand, one of the highest performing OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries, spends well below the OECD average. The number-one ranking Shanghai, with top scores in every category, illustrates forcefully what can be achieved with moderate economic resources in a diverse social context. In about half of OECD countries, disadvantaged schools tend to have a lower teacher/student ratio, on the assumption that children from less economically advantaged neighborhoods and cultures should have more and better teachers. High-performing Singapore sends its best teachers to work with students who are having the most difficulty. That pattern is reversed in the U.S., Israel, Slovenia and Turkey, the only four OECD countries to favor their economically advantaged schools with more teachers on a statistically significant basis. In the U.S., this is partly due to school systems that are locally financed with tax rates based on the value of local homes and businesses. This allows people who are better off financially to form a school taxing district that can raise more money for hiring the best teachers and providing other desirable resources.

Most importantly, and above all, the top countries in the world value their teachers and the human capital for which they are responsible. Finland regularly tops global comparisons of national performance. In 2010 it was ranked Number One in educational achievement in a Newsweek magazine survey of “The World’s Best Countries”. In Finland, it is a tremendous honor to be a teacher. They are afforded a status comparable to what doctors, lawyers, and other highly regarded professionals enjoy in the U.S. Only one out of every ten applicants makes it into the Finnish training pool for teachers. Despite their high status, teachers in Finland are not paid much more than teachers are in the U.S. on a comparative basis keyed to per capita GDP. However, they do enjoy tremendous respect and regard from both the general public and their nation’s political leaders. One teacher who was asked what made him want to be a teacher, replied that, “It is the most honorable of all professions; it is a patriotic, and a national calling to be a teacher”.

Finnish teachers take great care to protect and maintain the status of their profession. They regularly stay after school, uncompensated, and work together on each others professional development. They set their own performance standards. The Finnish government establishes some achievement guidelines, but as a general rule there are few attempts to enforce performance, and there are not many measures taken to ensure accountability. Government education leaders trust their teachers to do their jobs well. Precisely because Finnish teachers enjoy that level of trust from education officials, they accept the responsibility and reciprocate by excelling in the classroom every day.

The examples set in the best-performing PISA nations show so decisively that the U.S. needs great teachers to once again be a great nation when it comes to educational development and achievement.  We must do our best to both develop exceptional teachers and raise the level of professional regard in which the job of teacher is held by the public and officials.

Last, in countries where teachers are respected and valued we see parents raising their children to have high regard for education and educators. Their incidence of teacher abuse and disrespect is nearly nonexistent. Their classrooms are orderly and serious. When we value teachers as professionals in the U.S. we will find a return of respect, order, and seriousness to our classrooms. Teachers are NOT baby sitters. They do NOT teach Values. They teach our children how to reason and become creative problem solvers. Parents teach values, respect, behavior, and a desire for knowledge. Parents should do what they do best and teachers should be allowed to do what they do best.

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Education; Critical Thinking vs Rote Memory in American Education

January 28, 2011 6 comments

"Imagination is more important than knowledge." Albert Einstein

We have an American educational system that languishes under the premise that if a student repeats something many times he will learn it. He may not understand it, but he will learn how to repeat it so he sounds knowledgeable. Our primary classroom teaching methods use Rote Learning, defined as, “…a learning technique which avoids understanding of a subject and instead focuses on memorization. The major practice involved in rote learning is learning by repetition. The idea is that one will be able to quickly recall the meaning of the material the more one repeats it.” Wikipedia

This is how teachers continue to process your children in grades K–12 and our students in colleges and universities throughout America in the 2011 Global Knowledge Economy, which is driven by information and technology. This is a time and age when students have to be able to deal with changes quickly and effectively. This new economy places increasing demands on flexible intellectual skills, and the ability to analyze information and integrate diverse sources of knowledge in solving problems. NO ONE will advance in this new information age with rote memory skills. Those are the skills of mindless workers who put this gidget with that gadget for eight hours a day, 5 days a week, 50 weeks a year, for 30 years. That age is over in America. It left for China and India more than10 years ago.

Why do our teachers and educators continue to use a mode of education that consigns our children to a life of irrelevancy? Why do they resist change, flexibility, and new thinking techniques?

I believe it is because it threatens their lifelong Rote learning habits. Technology threatens them; teachers are artifacts from a time where they were taught they had to know all the answers. They believe in authoritarianism in an age when large groups are sharing information every day in a world without Ethernet boundaries; this is how teachers were taught to teach. They see technology as a threat rather than a challenge. Their students know more than they do in this Knowledge Economy and so they avoid the embarrassment of having to admit they are fallible by demanding safe Rote answers to safe standardized  test questions.

Educators have forgotten that one of the most exciting teaching moments is when the student teaches the teacher. Information exchange between teachers and students allows everyone to participate in the exciting adventure of Critical and Creative thinking. The teacher becomes the guide who helps channel student energy, creativity, intellect, and critical thinking into new solutions that awaken enormous possibilities for all. Teachers do not have to have all the answers; they need to ask the right questions! Their students will find the answers.

There is a serious relationship between Critical thinking and Creative thinking. They are like a hand in a glove. Creative solutions to problems involve not just having new ideas. New creative ideas must also be useful and relevant to the task at hand. Critical thinking plays a crucial role in evaluating new ideas, selecting the best ones, and modifying them if necessary.

Now what is Critical Thinking? The list of core critical thinking skills includes observation, interpretation, analysis, inference, evaluation, and explanation. There is a reasonable level of consensus among experts that an individual or group engaged in strong critical thinking gives due consideration to:

•    Evidence through observation
•    Context of judgment
•    Relevant criteria for making the judgment well
•    Applicable methods or techniques for forming the judgment
•    Applicable theoretical constructs for understanding the problem and the question at hand

Critical thinking employs not only logic, but also broad intellectual criteria such as clarity, credibility, accuracy, precision, relevance, depth, breadth, significance, and fairness. A teacher or student disposed toward critical thinking includes a courageous desire to follow reason and evidence wherever it may lead. They are open-minded, display attention to the possible consequences of choices, have a systematic approach to problem solving, inquisitiveness, fair-mindedness and maturity of judgment, and a confidence in reasoning.

To be fair, the real question is, do our educators possess this kind of thinking? Are they able to develop critical thinking in their teaching methods so their students have a future in the fast moving, ever changing world of the Global Knowledge Economy? If our educators cannot make this transition between Rote Memory and Critical Thinking then our student population is doomed to languishing in Industrial Age thinking while the rest of the world, i.e., China, India, and others leap forward, above, through, and beyond them.

It is NOT about money. Socrates taught under a tree.

It is about questioning old assumptions, creating group think in classrooms, exciting students and challenging them to question everything they are told, and requiring them to develop their own solutions to problems, which may or may not agree with ours. It is about trust and belief in our ability to learn along with our students as they learn along with us.

Finally, the student must be taught not how to know the answer, but how to ask the question. Teachers and students must first embrace what they do not know and Critical thinking is a primary tool in approaching this. Spend some time with any 3, 4, 5 or 6 year old and count how many times they ask you, “Why?” Watch them play and watch how they solve problems and disputes. They have it! Then we turn them over to government schools that Drill and Kill it out of them.


Education; The Lost Art of Engaging Students in Public Education and Universities

January 26, 2011 1 comment

“No one is thinking if everyone is thinking alike.”
General George S. Patten, Jr.

There is a high school in a poor section of the Bronx called the Theater Arts Production Company School. Report card grades were released in the fall for New York City’s 455 high schools, and the highest grade went to this school. It is a school that believes that no one should fail!

The principal’s instructions as codified in the teacher’s handbook states that all teachers should grade their classes in the same way: 30% of students should earn a grade of A, 40% should earn B’s, 25% should earn C’s, and no more than 5 % should earn D’s. As long as they show up, they should not fail. According to a New York Times article on January 19, 2011, “…even students who missed most of the school days earned credits. They also said students were promoted with over 100 absences a year; the principal, rather than a teacher, granted class credits needed for graduation; and credit was awarded for classes the school does not even offer.”

One teacher discussed a student who was absent 98 days in one year. This student was promoted to the next grade, earning credits for classes including cooking, yoga, and independent study. The school does not offer a cooking class. The principal, Lynn Passarella, created an independent study course called cooking, which was given after school. “I don’t know how they think they are raising these kids to think that they can do what they want with no consequences and still get good grades,” said a teacher who left due to an illness. “It’s just so wrong on so many levels.”

The city is opening an inquiry into the practices of this school.

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni, ACTA, confirms that many students aren’t learning very much in their first two years of college. As troubling as it is, it comes as no surprise to ACTA. Their study of more than 700 top colleges and universities, which enroll more than 6 million students, documents that, “…students can graduate from college without ever having exposure to composition, literature, foreign language, or American history.

“To be specific, our study found that less than five percent of schools require economics and less than a quarter have a solid requirement of literature. Of the more than 700 schools, sixty percent received a “C” or worse for requiring three or fewer subjects.”

Is it any wonder that students learn little and do little, when colleges today expect little of them?

So what is to be done?  The goal is not simply to have more students with diplomas, but rather to graduate students who have a rich and rigorous education that prepares them to think CRITICALLY. The ACTA is reaching out to 10,000 of these colleges and universities to address this national scandal.

Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, asks, “Why is anyone surprised to find that standards and expectations in our colleges are too low? High school graduates, a rapidly dwindling elite, come to college entirely unaccustomed to close reading, habits of disciplined analysis, skills in writing reasoned arguments and a basic grasp of the conduct, methods and purposes of science.”

Can there be any question why America increasingly finds itself at a competitive disadvantage when our K–12 public education and higher educational institutions are failing to do their job? By the way this failure from a post secondary system costs more than twice as much per pupil as the average expenditure in other industrialized nations. We outspend and we underachieve.

President Obama in his State of the Union Address last night wants to “invest” in education. He and the Department of Education can pour billions, even trillions of dollars into the public education system, but nothing will change because MONEY IS NOT THE PROBLEM. We have Industrial Age educational institutions at the K-12 and college levels. We do not have a Technological Age educational system. We continue to educate as if our population will be working in factories, or as bank clerks, or manufacturing zombies.

Our teachers/professors are secure in their chalkboards and books, notes and standardized tests, lectures and authority. As a matter of fact, most of the instructors in the first 2 years of college are NOT PhD professors. They are graduate students, who are making little money teaching while they work on their higher degrees. Research and graduate education dominate American higher education, placing undergraduate education at the margins.

As a result of our perpetuating the past in our teaching methods and material, our students only know rote learning and how to respond to mediocre, standardized tests to receive grades. There is no vital connection made in the classroom between learning and life, much less any affection for voluntarily using one’s mind in the rigorous, sustained, and frequently counter intuitive way that leads to innovation and the advancement of knowledge.

This is the century of innovation! This is the century of technology! Our children have daily access to worldwide communication, to instant knowledge via Twitter, Google, Facebook, iPhones, iPads, etc. They know when someone in the world is assassinated the moment after it happens. They are exposed to worldwide events on a daily basis! This generation is smart, inquisitive, hip, curious, and able. They DO NOT like being bored by someone holding a piece of chalk in their hand.  Most of their learning occurs outside of school. What a comment on Education in this country.

This is the generation who invented a whole new language; Mouse, Apps, Email, Domain, Emoticon, Firewall, Flash Drive, Gigabyte, Hyperlink, Icon, jpg, JavaScript, LOL, Adware, Avatar, Bitmap, Blog, Bluetooth, Malware, Browser, Cache, Megapixel, codec, Cookie, Desktop, Motherboard…You get the picture!

These are not idiots! This is a generation trying to sprint into the New Age while being anchored in the Industrial Age by their Industrial Age teachers, buildings, and thinking. Let’s catch up and then lead them forward into a life of rigorous and sustained Lateral and Critical Thinking.

It’s NOT about money. It’s not about billions and trillions of “invested” dollars!

“I skate where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”
Wayne Gretsky

The Gene Pool of Education

January 12, 2011 Leave a comment

The gene pool for our present “modern” educational system originated in the 18th century with the onset of the industrial revolution. The effort began with the big bosses wanting to have a literate factory worker who could follow directions, do what they were told to do, and manage assembly line components.

The creation of the public education system began with the same idea as assembly line worker skills: group children by age, place them in manageable class sizes, give each student a book of information on the subject they were to study, put the authoritarian, “educator”, in front of the room, provide a chalkboard and eraser, and have each student sit obediently quiet while taking notes and memorizing what they were taught so they could pass a standardized test on the subject.

Today’s (2011) public education system puts children in separate classes for each subject where they cannot see how connections of knowledge happen; it educates them in batches according to their age, like an assembly line, and when they are ready to graduate we date stamp them with their year of completion, “Class of 2011”.

“Real” education does not commence in the production line mentality. It begins with the creativity and innovation our children experience all the moments they are not in our assembly line schools. It seems these days they learn more outside the classroom on their own than they do in class. I am sure you all know a high school student or younger, for that matter, who knows more about how to manipulate the internet and their computer than most educators do!

That was the 18th century. This is 2011 and not much has changed as far as the public education gene pool.

Consider this, in the 18th century we did not have television, internet, desk tops, laptops, iPods, iPhones, gaming, cell phones, Facebook, Twitter, real time knowledge, space travel, and a multitude of other momentous inventions and events. BUT, the public education system, teachers and unions, continue to resist movement that would change this 18th century model that deadens our children with BOREDOM. Go sit in a class your children are attending. See what you think? Are you bored by the presentation? How do these kids stay awake?

This 21st century is about innovation, creativity, strategic intelligence, communication, technology, and personal exploration and group interaction. It is NOT about learning how to put this gidget with that gadget. This is the most exciting and challenging time in our history. It is about collaboration, learning in groups, sharing knowledge, creating many solutions to one problem. It is about engaging and exciting our youth; it is about challenging them to find the best that is within them; it is about setting them on fire with enthusiasm and knowledge that is directly related to their world, which is filled with amazing visual, audio, and informational experiences every minute of every hour!

Children come to school with heightened sensory perceptions. They can’t sit still because the world outside their classroom is technologically bombarded and in constant motion. Yet, the educational gene pool insists they sit quietly, take notes, listen, and pass standardized tests, all of which attempts to homogenize our society. They must all be the same. Have you ever wondered what the explosion in ADHD drugs is all about? Is it about a real phenomenon or is it about misunderstanding a generation of children whose senses, intellect, and behavior are heightened to levels that parents and teachers have never experienced because they come from a generation that listened all in a row, took notes, memorized, and passed standardized tests.

My son, whose early education was in our home school, sent me a video to watch called, Changing Education Paradigms. It was a joy to see Ken Robinson’s thoughts as they positively reaffirmed what I have followed all the years with my own children. It is worth the 10 minutes you will take to see it. It is enlightening and entertaining. Ken talks about divergent thinking. They tested 1500 children when they were in kindergarten by asking how many uses they could find for a paper clip. They then repeated the divergent thinking test when these same children were 8 to 10 and 13 to 15. When they were in kindergarten 98% of them were divergent thinkers. As they were processed through the educational gene pool they drastically lost this ability to a point where the researchers discovered this ability to think divergently in these children mostly deteriorated.

How hilarious is it when we tell our students there is one answer to the question; it is in the back of the book; don’t look, don’t copy because that’s cheating! We should be waking our children up to what is inside themselves, to all the possibilities that exist in their world. They are already exploring all of this outside the classroom; it’s called COLLABORATION!

Anthropologists say it takes millions of years of evolution for stimulus to change or cleanse the gene pool. If parents, teachers, and the gene pool system don’t wake up to the real world of our children, they will have created Zombies. They will be unable to compete in their world, whose technology is doubling at immeasurable rates.

“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act”
George Orwell

Children in Crisis; The Asphalt Flower

August 18, 2010 1 comment

Between the Asphalt and the Paver

I have a very small 4’ x 5’ garden between my front door and my garage. I always plant Impatience there in the spring. They thrive in the shade and don’t need much water. I love their colors and happy faces. This year a seed must have blown over from the garden and landed between the asphalt and garden wall. Moss is growing in this small in between space with very little soil. From my perspective, a desert for flowers as the car is always pulling in and out with its exhaust fumes settling on the hot asphalt and concrete of this space.

A miracle occurred! I looked down today and saw the most wonderful flowers flourishing in this tiny unlikely place. I smiled in wonder. I thought to myself that if a flower could grow here, in this alien place, why couldn’t children flourish anywhere if their teachers and curriculum engaged their real curiosity? It isn’t the place or the amount of money that delivers information and education to the open minds of children; it is the fertile seeds we spread in their imaginations that engage their curiosity and lure them into learning. The human mind is a wondrous thing. Once it connects to an intriguing idea it doesn’t let go. Children are tenacious!

The worst possible disease for a young mind is boredom. Are we boring our children with information that is no longer applicable to their realities? Are our teachers bonded to curriculums that even they find irrelevant in our “Technological-Information Age”? Are we teaching subjects to children that offer no solutions to the problems they face? Let’s look at what we require them to learn in our public educational system and where they usually are mentally at each of these stages:

PRIMARY SCHOOL: Kindergarten age 5, and age 6 to 11 – grades 1 through 6

When children arrive in primary school they usually have a fixed classroom and one teacher for the entire day. The major goals of primary education rest in achieving basic literacy and numeracy for all children. These are important things; we have to read, speak, and calculate. It is also structured to establish a foundation in mathematics, science, geography, and history. As we all know, the priority of various matter and methods used to teach them are of considerable political debate.

This is the time in a child’s life when they are exploring their world. They ask a lot of questions and want to experience everything they imagine. Children love color. We should have them in huge rooms with lots of paint buckets, brushes, and huge pieces of paper, foam core board, or canvas so they can run amuck expressing themselves with vigilant assistance. They love music, but they love better to make music. Anything will do, old wooden sticks banging on pots, spoons banging on glass jars semi filled with water, or combs covered in tissue that make a harmonica. They will invent their own band with their imagination. They love bugs, and frogs, and worms, and bees, and butterflies. They love tinkering and dissecting into things. They love splashing in streams, gathering rocks, running in fields, and climbing trees. They love to build forts and hide out in them. They especially love to plant seeds and impatiently wait for them to grow into beanstalks! How can we fit these wondrous curiosities into their Primary School curriculum?

Brain studies prove these are the best years for a child to learn a foreign language but we don’t introduce this to them until Junior High School. What a waste!

MIDDLE SCHOOL: Generally age 12 through 14 – grades 7, 8 and 9

Upon arrival in Middle and/or Junior High School, students begin to enroll in class schedules where they take different subjects from several teachers in a given day. They move from room to room for instruction. The classes are usually a set of four or five core academic subjects. This core course includes English or “Language Arts”, Science, Mathematics, History or “Social Studies”, and in some schools a Foreign Language. They may also have two to four other classes, either electives or supplementary or remedial academic classes. When they complete Junior High School they will have had 9 years of core subjects in English language, 9 years of Mathematics and 9 years of Science.

This is the time in a child’s life where they are becoming aware of the other gender. Girls are interested in makeup; boys are strutting about like peacocks. They are curious about their bodies, their moods, their social structure within the group, and their appearance. They are experiencing puberty, a complex of emotional chemistry, and some frustrations. They have questions they don’t know how to ask and so they remain silent or talk amongst themselves. They love music, technology, games, and the outdoors if it doesn’t blow their hair in a mess.

I have often wondered why we don’t include courses during these years in Human Anatomy, Personal Hygiene, Social Manners, Communication Skills, Debate, Nutrition and Health, and Personal Grooming to name a few. Wouldn’t this ease their path into young adulthood?

HIGH SCHOOL: Generally age 15 through 17 – grades 10, 11 and 12

Upon arrival in high school a class period is the time allotted for one class session. The courses a student signs up for are arranged in a certain order to fit his or her individual schedule and generally do not change for the remainder of the school year, with the exception of semester courses. A period may vary in time, but it is usually 45 minutes long. There is wide variance in the curriculum required each year but many American high schools require the core courses; English, Science, Social Studies, Mathematics. The majority of high schools require four English credits to graduate. Generally, three science courses are required; Biology, Chemistry and Physics. Usually only three math credits are required for graduation; Geometry, Algebra I, Algebra II, Trigonometry, and Calculus are offered. The Social Studies include; World History, U.S. History, Government and sometimes Economics and Accounting are offered. Two to three years of Physical Education are required. There are also a number of electives allowed depending on where a child attends school.

During this time in a teenager’s life they are interested in and confronted by a host of challenges: Drugs, Alcohol, Tobacco, Sex, Family Upheavals, Peer Pressure, Emotional Stress, Image Building, Ego Wars, Obesity, Money Management, Family Financial Problems, and many other subtle influences. This is the time in their lives when they are searching for knowledge that may help them solve their existing or impending life issues.

The most important personal decision a person will make in their life is who they select to marry, for that is the person with whom they have and raise children. The most important significant financial decision a young person makes is the first house they buy. This commitment creates a lifelong debt.

Shouldn’t we be offering courses of instruction which include dating, courtship, engagement, marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, child rearing, family structure, childhood education, and more? Shouldn’t we be offering instruction in financial matters such as; money handling, personal banking, savings accounts, checking accounts, balancing a check book, personal loans, budgeting? How about offering real estate courses; how to buy a home, financing options, real estate agents and real estate contracts, real estate laws, home inspection, closing costs, taxes, recording documents, home construction, or more?

Do you remember when you were doing these things for the first time? It was a little unnerving!  Some preparation would have helped to make better and more informed decisions.

Above all remember that by the time a student graduates from high school they will have had 12 years of English language, 12 years of Mathematics, and 12 years of Science. Why is it our children are unable to speak the English language articulately, compose a well written paragraph, prepare for a job interview, balance a checkbook, develop and manage a budget, understand the principles of nutrition, health, body balance in chemistry and biology, and other life enhancing, essential behaviors? To prove my point, ask your child to write a story, or tell you about vitamins and minerals that are indispensable for the body and good health, or create a budget and a financial plan for the month. Try it.

These are the things I think about when I look at my impatience growing on the pavement next to my garage.



Children in Crisis; Drill & Kill

July 12, 2010 5 comments

When my children were very young I remember them asking a lot of questions. “Why?” After a while that word nearly drove me mad. Then one day I sat down and thought about “Why”.

Why can't I catch the water?

Guess what? They were curious about the things that surrounded them; the things they could not understand but saw or felt every day. Why does the wind blow? Why is the sky blue? Why don’t the stars fall down? Why do caterpillars become butterflies? Why is the snow white? Why is the rain wet? All children ask “Why”; it’s when they stop asking that they are in trouble. I still ask questions, having been allowed to do this most of my life. My sons still ask questions.

It seemed natural that children would be asking “Why” nearly every waking moment. Research indicates that pre-school children ask as many as 100 questions a day. It asserts that by the time they reach middle school they stop asking questions and this coincides with the time their motivation and interest plummet. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman state in their Newsweek article, The Creativity Crisis, “They didn’t stop asking questions because they lost interest: it’s the other way around. They lost interest because they stopped asking questions.”

We send our children off to school when they are 6 so they can get answers to their questions. Why are they coming back to us with the light of excitement gone from their eyes? I’ll tell you why (no pun intended), it’s called “Drill and Kill”.

What is “Drill and Kill” learning?

The “Drill” is learning designed for rote memorization and National test results based upon answering the multiple choice questions correctly. The Drill part is the insanely boring educational practices we have adopted in our American curriculum. Teachers are required to teach a standard curriculum from a textbook and chalkboard. The students are required to memorize the answers to questions that may be asked on the tests administered by the teachers or National Boards. If they pass the tests they are advanced to the next grade level and the school gets high marks for teaching to the test.

The “Kill” part is insidious. It quietly creeps into the psyche of the children and wraps itself around their boredom and they become disinterested. They quit asking questions because they realize their questions don’t matter; what matters is the right answer to the question on the test. They die inside accepting the process because they don’t know any better and there is no reward in asking questions.

What is Problem-Based learning?

This is a curriculum driven by real world inquiry. It’s about the “Why” they began asking when they were old enough to talk. It is about having children solve problems in their classroom courses that require them to develop solutions to dilemmas they confront in the real world. It is about improving life through creative thinking, not through memorization. For example, when our sons asked why the heart beats they went with our home school teacher to the local slaughter company and asked for a cow’s heart, which they gave them in a neat package. They brought it back and dissected it in order to discover the answers to their questions. This led them to an array of more questions and more discoveries; arteries, veins, pumps, blood, chambers, etc., and pretty soon we had an anatomy class going strong. This then led them into healthy hearts, nutrition, gardening, food preparation, herbs, and then into vitamins and minerals. I discuss this in Peek-A-Boo, I See You!

The problem was how does a heart beat? They solved the question by their investigation and creative thinking process. Creativity does not just exist in an art class. It is rampant throughout the educational process, but rarely used. Fact finding and research are vital stages in the creative process. Think about this. How do creative thinkers solve problems in any skill? They first have to ask the question; then they research what exists; they accumulate the facts; finally, after research and fact-finding, they create alternative solutions to problems they are trying to solve.

There is a public middle school in Akron, Ohio called the National Inventors Hall of Fame School. Like all states, Ohio has curriculum standards. Their fifth grade teachers came up with a project for the class. Read below an excerpt from the Newsweek article:

The key is in how kids work through the vast catalog of information. Consider the National Inventors Hall of Fame School, a new public middle school in Akron, Ohio. Mindful of Ohio’s curriculum requirements, the school’s teachers came up with a project for the fifth graders:

PROBLEM: Figure out how to reduce the noise in the library. Its windows faced a public space and, even when closed, let through too much noise. The students had four weeks to design proposals. (emphasis mine)

Working in small teams, the fifth graders first engaged in what creativity theorist Donald Treffinger describes as fact-finding. How does sound travel through materials? What materials reduce noise the most? Then, problem-finding—anticipating all potential pitfalls so their designs are more likely to work. Next, idea-finding: generate as many ideas as possible. Drapes, plants, or large kites hung from the ceiling would all baffle sound. Or, instead of reducing the sound, maybe mask it by playing the sound of a gentle waterfall? A proposal for double-paned glass evolved into an idea to fill the space between panes with water. Next, solution-finding: which ideas were the most effective, cheapest, and aesthetically pleasing? Fiberglass absorbed sound the best but wouldn’t be safe. Would an aquarium with fish be easier than water-filled panes?

Then teams developed a plan of action. They built scale models and chose fabric samples. They realized they’d need to persuade a janitor to care for the plants and fish during vacation. Teams persuaded others to support them—sometimes so well, teams decided to combine projects. Finally, they presented designs to teachers, parents, and Jim West, inventor of the electric microphone.

Along the way, kids demonstrated the very definition of creativity: alternating between divergent and convergent thinking, they arrived at original and useful ideas. And they’d unwittingly mastered Ohio’s required fifth-grade curriculum—from understanding sound waves to per-unit cost calculations to the art of persuasive writing. “You never see our kids saying, ‘I’ll never use this so I don’t need to learn it,’ ” says school administrator Maryann Wolowiec. “Instead, kids ask, ‘Do we have to leave school now?’ ” Two weeks ago, when the school received its results on the state’s achievement test, Principal Traci Buckner was moved to tears. The raw scores indicate that, in its first year, the school has already become one of the top three schools in Akron, despite having open enrollment by lottery and 42 percent of its students living in poverty.

Creativity in children is about divergent thinking, generating many unique ideas, and convergent thinking, combining those ideas into the best result for the solution to the problem. Creativity is the production of original ideas that are useful. Children have the most amazing ability to craft the most creative ideas to any problem they encounter. They are fresh, innocent, and have no preconceptions. They are naturally enthusiastic and filled with excitement and energy.

Free our teachers from curriculum based standards that offer little room for creativity and turn them loose into standards that allow them to promote creativity in their students. I’ll bet teachers would become more enthusiastic and creative about their courses. Their students would become excited again about learning, working in groups, and competing.

Americans love competition!

Education in Crisis; American Diploma Requirements & Then There’s the British! Part 5

March 17, 2010 Leave a comment

I recently read an interesting article on the real costs of public education in the Unites States. It is called, “They Spend WHAT? The Real Cost of Public Schools”, by Adam Schaeffer. Adam B. Schaeffer is a policy analyst with Cato’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of “The Poverty of Preschool Promises: Saving Children and Money with the Early Education Tax Credit,” Cato Institute Policy, Analysis no. 641, August 3, 2009. http://www.cato.org/pubs/pas/html/pa662/pa662index.html

Mr. Schaeffer makes the case that the real cost to educate our children in an average public school system is equivalent to the cost of a private school education. If  this is true then why are we required to educate our sons and daughters in a public system that is generally mediocre, run by teacher unions for their benefit, that costs as much as private schools, and which doesn’t produce  scholars, problem solvers, innovators, or serious thinkers, and whose dropout rates are staggering? Maybe, if we gave that money back to the taxpayer they could use it to send their children to private schools that are exceptional or above average and their children could receive an education that prepares them to meet or exceed life’s challenges.

Since it is proclaimed that we have worldwide dominance in education, let us compare the U.S. public educational system with that of the United Kingdom. We need to begin with the high school graduation requirements for the United States as calculated by the National Center for Educational Statistics, U.S. Department of Education: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d08/tables/dt08_167.asp

Grades 10 thru 12: The educational system calculates “credits” in the Carnegie unit, which is a standard of measurement that represents one credit for the completion of a 1-year course. (All States differ in their requirements.)

Mathematics; 3 credits – Algebra I, II, and Geometry

English; 3 credits – Grammar, Literature

Science; 3 credits – Biology I, II, and Chemistry (Physics or Astronomy if offered can be selected)

Social Studies; 2 credits – American History, World History (State & Federal Government, Civics or Geography if offered can be selected)

Foreign Language; 2 credits

Electives; 3 credits – Physical Education, Art, Music Appreciation, Theater, Vocation or Technical Classes, if any of these are offered due to budget cuts in high schools across the country

The average American school day usually begins at 8:00 am and ends at 3:00 pm. This is 7 hours of school per day for five days. However, there is one hour for lunch, so that leaves us with 6 hours of teaching. Most high school teachers have to take roll and get class settled. This takes from 5 to 15 minutes, depending on the teacher. Best case scenario of 5 minutes, we now have instead of 6 hours of teaching, 5 ½ hours of instruction, this is 27 ½ hours of classroom instruction per week.

The American concept of a school transcript is unfamiliar in the UK. Schools in the UK do not generally rank pupils within their year; currently, the principal standards are the GCSE (3 years), AS-Levels (2 years) and A-Level examination results at the end of the 2 year AS-Levels.

The UK instead teaches for comprehension. The first level of education is called the General Curriculum for Secondary Education (GCSE) and the exams are taken after 3 years of general education and, if passed, the student proceeds to the next level of education, AS-Levels. All of the knowledge they have acquired in the 10 or more subjects they take for 3 years in the GCSE level is tested on that one important exam for each subject. The GCSE exams are rigorous and require not only questions and answers, but also written essays, which evaluate the level of subject comprehension and integration within the 3 years of instruction. The GCSE is a single-subject examination set and marked by independent examination boards.

There is no official method of equating British and American primary and secondary educational qualifications. The educational systems are entirely different and attempts to compare them must be done on a strictly conditional basis. However, in general 5 GCSE passes are considered to weigh closest to the three-year American high school diploma.

Now let’s take a look at the British system of education. It ranks among the best in the world and is where many foreign heads of state send their children to be educated and to learn English as a second language. The British philosophy of education has a different perspective and produces different results when compared to the American system. Their school week is usually 40 hours of classroom instruction, includes Saturday, and there are required extra curricula activities above this.

National UK Curriculum Core subjects are: English, mathematics, and science; Foundation subjects are design and technology; information and communication technology; history; geography; modern foreign languages; music; art and design; physical education; religious education; and citizenship.

Below is a quote from a UK boarding and day school:

“The pupils here work hard and are worked hard and it is important that they leave us with the best possible examination results. Most do and that is as it should be. None of us though must forget that there are many fundamental qualities which are not examinable: curiosity, shrewdness, initiative, an awareness of beauty, a sense of humour, a sense of responsibility and a gift for friendship. These and other basic qualities need to be developed in an institution which regards itself as educational. The development of many of these qualities requires time and commitment.” http://www.rugbyschool.net/academic/files/lscg09_10.pdf

The first year in the British system, called the “F Block”, somewhat equivalent to our 9th grade in the American high school, includes the following hours per subject per school week:

English, 4 hours

French, 4 hours

Mathematics, 4 hours

Sciences, 9 hours

History, 3 hours

Geography, 3 hours

Creative Arts (a modular course), 4 hours

Divinity (study of all religions), 1 hour

Option A (may select from German, Spanish, Extra English, Extra Mathematics), 4 hours

Option B (may select from Classics, Music, Extra English, Extra Mathematics), 4 hours

All students are expected to participate in Games, physical activity, at least twice a week after school. These games last for several hours and are generally team games. Each week there is a 45 minute meeting in small groups that is led by a staff member and it covers an informal discussion of issues such as smoking, drug abuse, healthy eating, as well as personnel issues such as friendships, home-sickness, relationships, loss and death.

Upon completion of the GCSE exams, students may leave secondary schooling; alternatively, they may choose to continue their education at vocational or technical colleges, or they may take a higher level of secondary school examinations after an additional year of study known as AS-Levels. Following two years of study, students may take A-Level (short for Advanced Level) examinations, which are required for university entrance in the UK. The A-Levels are equivalent to our freshmen year at American universities. Many students take a “Gap Year” (a year off), which includes travel or rest, after completing their A-Level examinations and before entering their chosen university. They need it! My sons attended Rugby School and they needed it after 5 years of hard work. After their Gap Year they went off to MIT in Cambridge, MA.

Do we have the best public educational system in the world, as has been often said by our politicians and many educators? If so, how do we explain dropout rates, graduates who cannot fill out a job application, graduates who cannot calculate the square footage of their house so they can buy carpet, or the graduate who has no employable skills or technical knowledge?

Can we as a nation continue down an educational road that leads to dead ends and flawed results? How do we justify 27 ½ hour weeks of instruction in our dilapidated schools, where teachers generally teach to the test and where children are not required to solve problems, analyze or think?

We MUST do better than this!

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