kitchen table math, the sequel: against strategies

Thursday, January 7, 2010

against strategies

A few years and -- oh -- maybe 3 or 4 Directors of Pupil Personnel ago,* I noticed, while sitting in on another parent's CSE meeting, a liberal use of the word "strategies." As in: "We'll teach him some strategies for self-monitoring." Or: "We'll give him some strategies for managing his learning." It was strategies-this and strategies-that, all strategies all the time. Apparently our higher-functioning special needs students were being given strategies they could use to overcome their learning problems and work around their developmental disabilities. Check.

At the time, I took this as just another moderately annoying instance of edu-inanity.

But it's always worse than you think.

Reading Miss Brave, and I plan to read every last word Miss Brave has written and posted to her blog, I realize that "strategies" are yet another means of transferring responsibility from the school to the student, while also working your teachers into an early grave and providing employment for a cadre of Lucy-Calkins and/or Fountas-and-Pinnell-trained literacy specialists. Win-win.

Here is Miss Brave:
I've mentioned before that we're expected to make sure each of our students has three goals for each unit in reading, writing and math. While students are working independently after the mini lesson, we're supposed to meet with two small groups for strategy lessons to help them meet these goals.
And here she is again:
Each student is supposed to have three goals in every subject and be able to articulate those goals. That's five major subjects (reading, writing, math, science and social studies), which is fifteen goals for each student. To me, that sounds like a lot of goals. I mean, hello, I have students who don't even know their own last name, let alone the goal they're working towards in reading. I don't understand why we have to start with three goals. Can't we pilot it with one and see how it goes?
And again:
My reading goal is to read my books over to make sure I understand the story.
My reading goal is to stop and make a prediction about what will happen next and then read on to find out if I am right.
My reading goal is to listen to myself read the story to make sure all the words sound right.

My tentative plan is to print all these goals out on big labels that I can stick right on their book baggies. Of course, all the kids break their book baggies by swinging them around, so I was considering getting them all new, durable book baggies (and by "book baggie" I mean they cram all their books into a flimsy Ziploc bag, so I was going to buy durable Ziploc bags, and between those and the labels I am looking at spending a fortune of my own money, since the copier at school is still broken and I have been using my own paper and ink to print and make copies at home on my own time, thank you very much Department of Education).
Question: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

Answer: The answer is not 'strategies.'

Students need distributed practice in order to learn and progress, and it is the school's job to give them that practice, not tell them to remember 15 goals and 30 strategies when they are age seven.

Even if a child does manage to hold 3 reading goals in working memory, he's not going to have room for anything else.

* Recently I figured out that my district has had 5 assistant superintendents for curriculum, instruction, and technology in 6 years. That's a lot.


Beth said...

Sadly, teacher and students have entered the same purgatory. They are all stressed out and spending too much time and energy on school, while teaching/learning essentially nothing.

Niels Henrik Abel said...

Apparently our higher-functioning special needs students were being given strategies they could use to overcome their learning problems and work around their developmental disabilities. Check.

There you go again, assuming that the (primary) goal of public education is to - well, educate.

Sheesh, where'd you ever get such an outlandish notion ;) ?

Barry Garelick said...

NCTM's PSSM and Focal Points contain the word "strategies" as in students shall learn strategies for addition and subtraction. God forbid they should learn how to add and subtract by memorizing the basic math facts.

farmwifetwo said...

My eldest son came home with one of those sheets after an english presentation. I remember the one answer he gave was "I'll be a better listener" and another "I'll entertain the audience better"... WT???

My problem last night was a teacher that decided the class couldn't have phys ed b/c of the behaviour of 2 of the children... I disliked that when I was in school, I abhore it as a parent... and I wrote it just like that to the VP... It's not the children's problem, these are flagged children, it's the VP and the Teacher's.

Katharine Beals said...

"strategies" (and "meta-cognitive strategies"), "higher-level thinking," "inquiry," "argumentation"...

Two other buzzwords I've encountered recently are "engagement" and "disposition." I've heard it said that these are the only measures on which Investigations students are assessed, but I haven't been able to find a reference for this. Does anyone here know of one?

Catherine Johnson said...

"Miss Brave" is fantastically overworked, with zero evidence (as far as I can see) that teacher overwork in her school is....working.

I found the Elaine McEwan passage - will post it to the blog.

It's a line from Chuck Wooden about not mistaking activity for achievement.

Catherine Johnson said...

farm wife - I think there are probably a bunch of "group punishment" and "collective punishment" posts in the ktm archives; the search engine ought to find them.

We had that problem here, and it came to an end after I sent a few emails containing the law on group punishment.

in a nutshell: Group punishment violates a student's right to due process.

I've got to get things done around here, but if you don't find anything useful on group punishment in the archives, post another comment and I'll run it down.

Catherine Johnson said...

"I'll be a better listener."

Good idea!

OK, here's my stategy for tennis: "I'll be a better tennis player."

That ought to do it.

Catherine Johnson said...

NCTM's PSSM and Focal Points contain the word "strategies" as in students shall learn strategies for addition and subtraction.

The whole STRATEGIES basically boils down to 13 years of test prep.

C. took a practice PSAT this year and bombed the math section (more pain...), so now we're heavy into STRATEGIES.

We're not learning math, particularly.

We're learning STRATEGIES for getting a decent score on PSAT, SAT, ACT.

Whole lotta guess-and-check, that's for sure.

Also: always start with answer 'C.'

Strategies are the opposite of KNOWING and BEING ABLE TO DO.

Catherine Johnson said...

The "strategies" focus clears up a problem I've always had with Hirsch's analysis of public schools.

He's right that public schools don't value knowledge.

But, speaking as a parent with long experience of public schools, I don't see a lot of skills being taught, either.

The opposition I've been dealing with for lo these many years is between knowledge and strategies, not knowledge and skills.

Or, alternatively, it's knowledge versus understanding.

CassyT said...

OK, here's my stategy for tennis: "I'll be a better tennis player."

That ought to do it.

I don't text much, but this requires some text-ese:

Ben Calvin said...

OK, here's my stategy for tennis: "I'll be a better tennis player."

I'll be younger and better looking. There, that should do it.

ChemProf said...

This all reminds me of a huge argument I've had with our assessment team. We have to list the goals for our courses on the syllabus, as somehow it is supposed to improve student achievement. Of course, General Chemistry has goals in five different programs plus college mission goals, so I have this massive list of 20 goals for my course. I finally gave up the argument and just have a page of goals in tiny type that I know no one will read. Of course, I don't have an administrator breathing down my neck!

Catherine Johnson said...

I'll be younger and better-looking, too!

Catherine Johnson said...

Allison - if you're around - here's Tony's account of his memory improving because he can't take notes.

Catherine Johnson said...

chemprof - interesting

why goals & not results?

All of this reminds me of Temple Grandin. I'll have to post the passage from Animals in Translation on "paper audits." (Or is it Animals Make Us Human?)

I'm always horrified when I don't remember material from my own books...

Temple created the brilliantly simple 10-point audit that McDonald's used to improve animal welfare. She said that although it's been shown over and over again that her audit works, she has to fight to keep it in place. Her audit looks **only** at the animals: how many animals fall down? How many animals are mooing? etc.

Everyone else wants to do "paper audtis," where the auditor looks at the paperwork, which means looking at inputs, not outputs. Does the plant have the right kind of flooring? Do they have the proper amount of training for staff?


Plants with paper audits, or with 100-point lists, have much worse animal welfare.

Catherine Johnson said...

Temple says, "I don't want to look at paper work. I want to look at the animals."

ChemProf said...

"why goals & not results"

The theory is students will do better if they understand what the course is supposed to do for them (and "teach General Chemistry" is not an acceptable answer). Then we are supposed to assess the goals at the end of each semester, but that is an impossible amount of work, so now each program is supposed to assess one goal through several courses each year. It is exactly like Temple's "paper audits", where our goal as faculty is to generate the paperwork.

One of my colleagues runs a postbac pre-med program, where students who already have bachelor's degrees come to complete their pre-med coursework. 85-90% of these students go on to med school, but that isn't enough for the assessment folks. Instead, they are told they have to assess individual courses and figure out how they will improve. The assessment folks are in love with rubrics and other "assessment tools", and tend to assume we don't know what we are doing.

Anonymous said...

Wow... I am stunned to hear from Chem Prof that the insane standards/accountability make-work crap is encroaching on higher ed! What a damn shame. It's a complete drag down here in K-12 land, that's for sure. I do believe what's going on in Miss Brave's New York school is essentially reform fads run amok. There are so many of these consultants, coaches and curriculum sponges feeding at the trough and sucking the life and autonomy out of teaching.

My own school implements readers' workshop/writers' workshop (and now Everyday Math). What a nightmare! But I've been teaching such a long time. I KNOW how to teach little ones how to read and how to learn their beginning math skills. And I know how to select the good bits out of an entire program or approach. (I just subvert the dominant paradigm and supplement with Singapore, or some such when no one is looking.)

Reading Miss Brave makes me feel so sad for new teachers and for the future of public education.
I am longing for the days when I taught the skills embedded in the content, and we always had a knowledge focus. Now it feels like a lot of navel-gazing, at least when the lit coach and the moron principal are watching!! Both of whom know far less than I about teaching young children.

I also think we are asked to focus so heavily on bringing up the low-achieving students, that we are applying remediation to everyone. Kind of like throwing the net over the whole flock to catch one or two birds.
I do enjoy reading this blog site though!
Cheers Everyone!

NYC mom said...

I question the value of making 2nd graders use strategies as the main goal and their standard for achievement when doing their Math, reading and Writing. That's not teaching the content for domain knowledge, especially for Math, but it is meta-teaching. No wonder I do a lot of afterschooling for my 2nd grader. The way it's been working out, I do a lot of teaching at home, and my child gets tested a lot at school. It's a good thing I am a stay-at-home mom.