Winning The Race

During my travels around our overly-large school district, I came across a large banner hanging in the front hall of an elementary school declaring “The Race for Excellence Has No Finish Line”.

That sign has stuck with – and bothered – me for several reasons, but mostly because of the suggestion that excellence is a race. And in our competative culture, that implies a contest with someone (or something), resulting in one winner, and probably multiple losers.

Ok, I’m pretty sure that was not the intention of whoever created the message. They wanted a short, understandable concept to inspire the kids. The interpretation above could only be the product of my warped little head.

Certainly no 10-year-old would read it the same way, right?

Gotta Fill Up Those Young Brains

Jay Mathews believes we are not teaching young children enough facts.

Before continuing I should note that I’ve spent most of my instructional time working with middle and high school students and adults, which means I have very few qualifications to pontificate on elementary education. However, there are a couple of thoughts in Mathews piece that need to be challenged.

First, he quotes the parent of a first grader and president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative educational think tank.1

“Notice what’s missing,” Petrilli said. “Proper nouns. Which historical figures will he study? Time periods? Which countries or continents? People who study education for a living understand what’s going on – this is straight out of the standards promulgated by the National Council for the Social Studies, a professional organization that has long prized such ‘conceptual understanding’ over ‘rote facts and figures.’ ” He had found the kindergarten fare similarly mushy.

I can’t help thinking that if elementary teachers were able to do more with that “conceptual understanding” early, instead of all the drilling on “rote facts and figures”, kids might be better prepared for advanced study later in their educational lives. Not to mention less inclined to dislike school by the time they reach the middle years.

Of course, since the standardized tests that Mathews and the Fordham people adore so much depend heavily on kids being able to spit back the facts and figures, I understand the longing for stuffing the curriculum with more of them as early as possible.

Then there is this statement from Mathews himself: “But filling young brains with useful facts has to start early if they are to read.”

Again, I can’t speak to the process of how young children learn to read, but the concept of “filling young brains with useful facts” is straight out of the classic, simplistic concept of education as a transfer of knowledge from teacher to student.

It’s an incredibly clueless idea, one still widely embraced by “reformers”. And one of the major impediments to ever bringing true reform to American schools.

That Makes Too Much Sense

From Daniel Willingham, more examples of why NCLB’s simplistic, test-driven narrowing of elementary education to basic reading and math skills hurts students in the long run.

In the early grades we emphasize the skills that are tested at the early grades, but we fail to build knowledge that—although it’s not measured early on—will be important later.

In reading, the emphasis is on decoding, and our kids are pretty good decoders.

But by 10th grade, being a good reader no longer means being a good decoder. Most kids are good decoders by this time. Instead, reading tests emphasize comprehension, and comprehension is mostly driven by prior knowledge–knowing a little bit about the subject matter at hand. (I’ve emphasized the importance of prior knowledge in reading here and here.)

All that time spent on decoding in the early grades, (and time not spent on history, geography, science, music, art, etc.) comes back to haunt kids in 10th grade and beyond. (my emphasis)

According to Willingham, “a parallel phenomenon is happening in math” where we push drilling rudimentary algorithms at the expense of understanding mathematical concepts.

In the end, he comes to the very logical conclusion that, if we expect high school students to do well in those international comparisons, “the work must begin in early elementary school”.

Or is that too logical for those reformers who want even more basic skills testing in the early grades?

 

Teach Them to Respect the Power

An elementary school principal relates a sad, and unfortunately all too common, story of students harrassing a girl on the bus.

Camera-equipped cell phones were among the tools of choice.

The pre-adolescent teasing took a turn for the worse when the boys yanked out their cell phones and started taking pictures of the “couple.”

The boys were adding graphics such as hearts to the pictures on their phones, and they were threatening to send the pictures to other fifth graders’ cell phones. The girl was covering her face and telling the boys to stop. They continued with their taunting, taking pictures and teasing the two kids, even as she pleaded for them to stop. It ended when the bus arrived at school a few minutes later.

Too many administrators would blame the cell phones and be further encouraged to ban students from carrying them in school (or on the bus).

This one, however, understood that the technology was not the cause of the problem.

Instead, use these examples of poor behavior to teach children to use their phones (and other technologies) responsibly and appropriately. Teach children the positive uses of technology so that they respect the power they hold in their hands. Instead of eliminating cell phone use in school, use cell phones more in school.

He also realizes that changing the behavior of the boys involved requires an educational approach that has nothing to do with technology.

We need more principals who think like this.

21st Century Keyboarding Skills

This past week was a busy one as we met with all of our elementary school-based trainers and, since we have an overly-large number of elementary schools, that meant four full days.

Interacting with all these talented people is the best part and the liveliest discussions this time around centered on the topic of teaching keyboarding.

Specifically, at what grade level should we start teaching kids formal typing skills? Or should we be teaching formal skills at all? Is there another technique that would be more appropriate?

I added my opinions to the mix, of course, but I’m pretty sure I was in the minority. Which is why I’m throwing out my thoughts here where everyone else can ignore them. :-)

Many of our elementary schools teach classic typing skills to 3rd graders, often by taking them to a computer lab on a regular schedule and having them work with an interactive program.

That software uses techniques that are really not much different from those used in the formal keyboarding classes many of us took in high school (and which have disappeared from that level around here).

However, that curriculum came from a time when typing was an analog process on mechanical devices.

Developing speed and accuracy was important because everything you did was largely permanent. Fixing typos was messy and it was very time consuming to revise documents.

Digital devices, which come in many forms (including those that look nothing like a typewriter), make text manipulation a much more flexible process.

Accuracy becomes less important since students can easily make corrections (most text editors will even mark the errors) and revise their work. Not to mention that writing should be more collaborative and less an isolated activity.

And what about speed? Well, I’m not worried about that. Look at how fast our kids can work the clunky input device for texting on most cell phones.

I know, I know… they use a lot of short cuts in communicating with text messaging. And an IM is much shorter than a research paper.

However, it does show that students will learn to operate a keyboard faster all by themselves IF we give them a good reason to do that.

All of this doesn’t mean we don’t need to help very young children learn the basic of using this convoluted entry device known as the QWERTY keyboard.

But there must be better ways to do it than using a curriculum from early in the past century designed for single-purpose hardware.