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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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