3-2-1 For 10-9-16

Three readings worth your time this week.

Following visits to elementary schools in Finland, the 2016 Kentucky teacher of the year wonders “What If High School Were More Like Kindergarten?”. The absolute best idea is the observation of a Finish business owner: “education is important, but learning matters more.” So why can’t we apply the “playful curiosity” approach to learning inherent in most young children to high school? (about 6 minutes)

I’ve playing with and watching the concept of virtual reality over the past few years and see a lot of potential for learning in the technology. However, there is also a lot of hype (some of which is on display in the Google announcements from this week). This article from the BBC offers some good examples of how VR might be used to help people understand places and experiences foreign to them, and maybe tell stories in new ways. (about 16 minutes)

A writer, comedian and “former Googler”1 asks Do You Take Yourself Seriously? Read this piece; then turn it around and apply the concept to your students. How many of them take themselves (and their ideas) seriously? What are you doing to help them change that attitude? Or possibly, maybe unintentionally, to reinforce it? (about 4 minutes)

Two audio tracks for your commute.

One distinctive feature of the societies pictured in Star Trek and other science fiction is the lack of money. But some countries here on Earth in 2016 are moving quickly towards a cashless life. Freakonomics Radio takes an interesting look at some of these efforts and asks Why Are We Still Using Cash? Personally I love Apple Pay and think it would be great if every business would stop taking my money. (45:59)

Much of the political discussion about immigration is framed in very stark black and white. But there are many, many different pieces, including the issue of guest worker programs that shouldn’t be included at all. The DecodeDC podcast offers an interesting look at the problems US farmers are having in finding workers to pick their crops, and how Congress is getting in the way with their simplistic fights. (34:01)

One video to watch when you have a few minutes.

Why are most middle and high school students in US schools sent down a math path that begins with Algebra and aims straight towards Calculus? Especially since “[a]t most, 5 percent of people really use math, advanced math, in their work.”, according to the author of The Math Myth. In this segment from PBS Newshour he discusses why students need mathematical literacy far more than that the formal structure of our current curriculum. As a former math teacher and member of NCTM, I can’t support the president of that organization interviewed in the video. (7:03)

21st Century Kindergarten

I’ve never taught elementary school but this NPR report about changes in the learning expectations for young children is damn depressing.

Researchers analyzed the federal Department of Education’s 2010 Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which surveyed roughly 2500 kindergarten and first grade teachers, and then compared their responses to a similar group from 1998.

Why 1998? “Because the federal No Child Left Behind law hadn’t yet changed the school landscape with its annual tests and emphasis on the achievement gap.”

Some of the changes they found in just twelve years: more standardized tests, less music and art, fewer engaging activities, and don’t bother asking the kids about their interests.

More testing. In 2010, 73 percent of kindergartners took some kind of standardized test. One-third took tests at least once a month. In 1998, they didn’t even ask kindergarten teachers that question. But even the first-grade teachers in 1998 reported giving far fewer tests than the kindergarten teachers did in 2010.

Less music and art. The percentage of teachers who reported offering music every day in kindergarten dropped by half, from 34 percent to 16 percent. Daily art dropped from 27 to 11 percent.

Bye, bye, brontosaurus. “We saw notable drops in teachers saying they covered science topics like dinosaurs and outer space, which kids this age find really engaging,” says Bassok, the study’s lead author.

Less choice. And teachers who offered at least an hour a day of student-driven activities dropped from 54 to 40 percent. At the same time, whole-class, teacher-led instruction rose along with the use of textbooks and worksheets.

As I said, damn depressing.

An Early Start to Automated Teaching

I have never taught elementary-age students. My teaching experience was with kids in grades 7 and above. However, I have worked with teachers in elementary schools and I have tremendous admiration for them, especially those who spend their days with the youngest kids.

My memory of what goes on in those spaces that are the first formal classrooms for most kids is fuzzy and I’m sure very incomplete but I’m pretty sure it didn’t look like this.

Step into an American preschool classroom today and you are likely to be bombarded with what we educators call a print-rich environment, every surface festooned with alphabet charts, bar graphs, word walls, instructional posters, classroom rules, calendars, schedules, and motivational platitudes–few of which a 4-year-old can “decode,” the contemporary word for what used to be known as reading.

Because of the Common Core standards, with the associated over-emphasis on testing (even in schools outside that program like here in Virginia), even Kindergarten students are spending large parts of their day on “seat work” and “tightly scripted teaching known as direct instruction”, instead of the guided exploration of their world I remember seeing just a few years ago. The idea of Kindergarten was as a “welcome mat” and a beginning of the transition to a more formal learning process.

The idea of “tightly scripted” direct instruction is bad enough in middle or high school. It’s downright depressing for four and five year olds. And it seems to be souring kids on school early in their lives.

New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills.

The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning. [emphais mine]

The writer of this article is an experienced early childhood educator and says the focus in those years should be “not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening”.

We forget how vital spontaneous, unstructured conversation is to young children’s understanding. By talking with adults, and one another, they pick up information. They learn how things work. They solve puzzles that trouble them. Sometimes, to be fair, what children take away from a conversation is wrong. They might conclude, as my young son did, that pigs produce ham, just as chickens produce eggs and cows produce milk. But these understandings are worked over, refined, and adapted–as when a brutal older sibling explains a ham sandwich’s grisly origins.

Actually, putting the focus on “talking and listening, and those concepts of spontaneity and unstructured conversation, should be at the core of instruction at all levels. High school students also need to learn how things work (at a slightly higher level) and “solve puzzles that trouble them”. Direct instruction in middle and high school doesn’t work nearly as well as many educators think it does.

Anyway, in the end, this educator says the “academic takeover of American early learning can be understood as a shift from what I would call an ‘ideas-based curriculum’ to a ‘naming-and-labeling-based curriculum’”. A curriculum that can be scripted and “delivered without substantially improving our teaching force”.

A school experience that can be automated, “personalized”, and “individualized”. Words and phrases that fill the sales presentations for any number of ed tech startups.

Think Like a Child

From NPR’s Morning Edition, a new study: “Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have found that 4- and 5-year-olds are smarter than college students when it comes to figuring out how toys and gadgets work.”

Creative cycle

However, “smarter” is probably the wrong term in this case, as the sentence prior to this one explains: “It turns out that young children may be more open-minded than adults when it comes to solving problems” and later in the piece that “children are better at solving problems when the solution is an unexpected one”.

But you really don’t need research to understand that young children are far more willing to experiment and play with new situations, like electronic devices, than older kids and especially adults.

So what could possibly happen in the years between Kindergarten and college to alter that approach to problem solving? I wonder…

Anyway, all of this reminds me of the work of Mitch Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab, who a decade or more ago was writing about how we need to spread the learning process followed naturally by 5 year olds into the rest of K12.

Instead of forcing the artificial processes of “formal” learning from upper grades down into early education.

Setting a Path Early in Life

A recent post by one of our elementary principals has been stuck in my head for a couple of days, and I’m not entirely sure why.  It’s about an activity in her school called “College Begins with Kindergarten” in which the kids learned about various “helper jobs” in the community (examples offered: doctors, nurses, teachers).

Now I certainly believe a basic understanding of those roles should be part of the school experience from the very beginning. But then students were asked to consider what they might study in college and to create their own future diplomas, complete with a statement of the subject in which they would major.

While there are two pieces to this assignment that I find troubling, the first is more of a question than a quibble. I wonder if the kids in this particular class were asked to consider more common but less stereotypical “helper jobs”, ones someone in their family might hold, such as plumber, auto mechanic, or store clerk, or even one unique to the DC area, lobbyist.

However, beyond the potential lack of inclusiveness, what bothers me more is that an activity like this seems to be telling kids at the beginning of their formal schooling that college is the only acceptable path to follow at the end of that path, more than a decade later. Are we starting the traditional college-is-the-only-way indoctrination too early, long before kids have any kind of clear understanding of their own talents and interests?

Having never taught elementary students, I’m sure someone can tell me why I’m wrong about this rant.