kitchen table math, the sequel: Math and literacy vs. other subjects in elementary school

Monday, March 29, 2010

Math and literacy vs. other subjects in elementary school

I recently gave a talk at the Yale China Association in which I learned some interesting things from a couple of Chinese nationals about elementary ed in China. I write about these in my most recent Out in Left Field post, in which I talk about the stereotype of rote learning in East Asian schools.

However, there was one interesting observation that I wanted to highlight here for people's opinions: apparently, in elementary school, mainland Chinese students only have two subjects: math and Chinese, with three hours of math per day.

This got me wondering about the value of early training in history/social studies and science. Are the Chinese losing anything important by delaying these subjects until later? Or is it perhaps a good thing to wait until students are older for these subjects--as opposed to highly cumulative ones like reading/writing and math?

On the other hand, is it perhaps a good idea to give students some variety of subject matter, and a break from all that math and literacy? But even if this is the case, are science and social studies the best candidates for this, or would it be better to instead have more time for art and music?


Anonymous said...

I agree with ED Hirsch and think it is important to teach *content* to young children. That can take the form of history or science or literature (or social studies, though I find most of the social studies being taught to young children to be of dubious value). But to leave the content out completely makes no sense at all.

Anonymous said...

it would be important to know whether the 3 hours of instruction in Chinese is done in such a way as to incorporate a lot of what we would call subject knowledge. Yet, in the '50's, US children below grade 5 didn't have much science or social studies instruction (and what there was was pretty thin). Our reading materials, on the other hand, had plenty for us to learn on those topics.

momof4 said...

A family member retired about 5 years ago, after four decades of teaching HS history. He has long maintained that the rot goes way back to the days that history and geography were merged into social studies, which was and is often pretty mushy.

I was in ES in the early 50s and actually had a very good start in science in grades 1-4 (was no k). It seemed to have been worked out among the four teachers (no college degrees; 3 normal school and one with 1-2 years college), according to their interest and expertise. First grade was primarily plants and mammals, second grade was fish, reptiles and birds, third was rocks, minerals, earthquakes, volcanos etc. and fourth was the structure and operation of the solar system and the constellations. Of course, none of that was terribly detailed, but something was done right since I can still remember doing it.

We also had the basics of physical and political geography and an overview of government and history. We read non-fiction on a regular basis. I don't remember doing any creative writing (thank heaven), but we did copying, dictation, omposition, grammar and spelling. All papers were corrected for mechanics as well as content.

That was in a small town which rarely sent more than two kids (of about 30) to a 4-year (state) school. It really was more rigorous than my kids experienced at a highly-rated, affluent suburban school.

Allison said...

--Are the Chinese losing anything important by delaying these subjects until later?

You can't ask this question independent of the political world the Chinese live in.

Are they losing anything by not living in a place with free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and freedom to read any content they wish?

Their lives are censored. They are not allowed free access to information about the world. Asking whether the content-free elementary school is legitimate is not isn't really valuable until you can separate that question from whether or not limiting their national subjects' content knowledge is legitimate. (I use subjects because they are not citizens--they have none of the rights of citizens.)

Crimson Wife said...

I'm not surprised that the Chinese spend so much time in the elementary grades teaching kids to read and write. I can't imagine how tricky it would be to learn a language that has something like 5000 characters in general use.

Katharine Beals said...

I'm assuming that both the math and the reading involve content.

Catherine said...

He has long maintained that the rot goes way back to the days that history and geography were merged into social studies,

ditto that

le radical galoisien said...

Science education in the US is kinda bogus.

There's not a lot of facts involved.

A lot of what I learnt in my first semester college chemistry could have easily been squeezed into middle school. Organic chemistry could have easily fitted into a high school subject (well as an AP one).

ChemProf said...

"Science education in the US is kinda bogus. "

I'll beat Allison to it -- it depends on where you go. We like to pretend that General Chemistry is the same everywhere, but it isn't (and at a lot of big state schools, there are several versions, so they don't even pretend). Organic can be an exercise in memorization or can have you develop a good understanding of organic chemistry's logic, depending on what and how the professor teaches. That's part of why med schools don't like community college courses, since they don't trust that the course is really at college level. We always advise pre-meds looking to take summer classes that CC classes are okay, but you'd better have an A.

le radical galoisien said...

Oh definitely orgo was far from an exercise in memorisation.

Which makes it especially good for HS students. Elementary organic chemistry (aldol reactions, etc.) can be taken at the high school level, at the same time AP Bio teachers are making you memorise all the different organic acids and keto/hydroxy-acids in the citric acid cycle.

If orgo was actually taught in HS, then a lot of AP bio would actually make sense, e.g. in glycolysis you phosphorylate this alcohol so you can turn it into a pyrophosphate an activated leaving group and make the attached carbon an electrophile for C-C bond formation. That makes so much sense now!

So much of physics should be taught concurrently with chemistry, and vice versa. (Which is why I hate the block system.) I must say the concept of effective nuclear charge, which is easily relatable to physics, made more sense than the arbitrary octet rule ever did. I remember my HS chemistry treating electron shielding like some sort of advanced, esoteric concept we should avoid, when in fact it explained everything.

I'll go so far as to say that I didn't really learn anything in HS chemistry. No, not even in Singapore (well I left before sec 3, so it was grouped together with 'physical science', separate from 'life science'.)

Why is resonance left to college (or the AP level?) for example? That's where I'm REALLY MAD at my HS chemistry teacher. It's a simple concept that should be taught early on.

ChemProf said...

Well, of the sciences, I'd say high school chemistry is usually the worst taught, which may be what you are noting. I did learn about resonance in high school, but I had one of the last chemists who taught chemistry. I will also admit that my placement test for chem is half chem and half math -- if you have strong math skills, I really don't care if you had high school chem or not.

I'm not sure I'd say that effective nuclear charge (which is a useful concept) is that related to high school physics as usually taught, though, since often that's mostly a course in kinematics. I also think you are running into a common experience of looking back and seeing early concepts as simpler than they are when they are new. For various reasons, I have a student in second semester gen chem who hasn't had first semester. Her friends told her it would be no problem, that they hadn't needed first semester material when they were in second semester. She is finding that they are wrong, and is doing okay but really working hard.

le radical galoisien said...

Well my HS physics class (and later AP had a lot of E&M in it, and things like charge cancellation and dipoles. Then you have things like Gauss' law, that is, if you're outside the enclosed surface (the nucleus + kernel) you will only "see" the total enclosed charge (so sodium only sees +1), but if you're within the "surface" (e.g. the octet) the other charges can't screen you as effectively.

And it extends so well molecularly. You can combine it with an MO perspective.
Carbonyl sigma and pi electrons both see a combination of +4 and +6, but their differing geometries makes for some interesting chemistry and bond strengths.

le radical galoisien said...

I really should say sodium's valence electron sees only +1, but yeah.