kitchen table math, the sequel: The opposition

Saturday, April 30, 2011

The opposition

The Wall Street Journal has an op ed on Race to Nowhere today:
Directed by parent and first-time filmmaker Vicki Abeles, "Race to Nowhere" is marketed through a kind of partnership with local schools. The film suggests that if there are problems in American education, they are largely due to standardized tests, overambitious parents, insufficient funding, and George W. Bush. It also offers possible solutions, which include abandoning testing and grading and giving teachers more autonomy. 

[snip]

Parents in New Jersey suburbs have received numerous emails about the film and its upcoming show times from parent-teacher associations. Ms. Abeles and the schools split the revenue from ticket sales, but the director told the crowd in Bergen County that she is holding off on a DVD retail release while she explores a possible broadcast on PBS. She also said she is moving full speed ahead to hire companies in Washington to lobby for policy changes suggested in the film.

[snip]

Ms. Abeles argues that U.S. education is focused too much on giving kids "things to memorize and regurgitate," instead of developing the critical thinking skills that will be most useful in solving problems and thriving later in life.

Jeanne Allen, who leads the Center for Education Reform in Washington, reports that her sister back in Bergen County is one of those Jersey parents receiving a blizzard of email pitches to see the movie. Ms. Allen says that if U.S. tests are flawed it is because they demand that kids memorize too few facts, not too many. "You can't teach critical thinking," she says. She argues that kids cannot possibly develop problem-solving skills without a base of knowledge. How can one analyze a piece of literature, she asks, without knowing any vocabulary? Can students solve math problems without being able to multiply and divide?

Whether Ms. Abeles is ultimately advocating necessary reform or simply the latest educational fad, anything that changes the subject from unfunded pension liabilities is probably good news for the New Jersey teachers union. But that doesn't mean all the state's teachers will be thrilled if Ms. Abeles is successful.

Some of the most passionate advocates for rote memorization of critical facts can be found among the faculty in New Jersey public schools, a state that has traditionally scored highly on the standardized tests that may be going out of fashion. To put it another way, New Jersey may have more to lose from another nationwide shift in educational policy than states that are consistently ranked near the bottom.

Do American Students Study Too Hard?
By JAMES FREEMAN
APRIL 30, 2011
...she is moving full speed ahead to hire companies in Washington to lobby for policy changes suggested in the film...

Well, more power to her - but what about parents and teachers who like memorization and standardized tests?

We're out of luck.

For me, this is further evidence that we simply must have choice. Let the teachers and parents who want critical thinking without memorization have critical thinking without memorization.

Let the teachers and parents who want memorization and knowledge have memorization and knowledge.


critical thinking without content

In a recent comments thread, I mentioned visiting a Cambridge Pre-U Global Perspectives class at a local high school. The teacher and principal told us proudly that the class was "not content-rich." That was the selling point. Not content-rich.

All of the other courses the school offered, they said, were content-rich. This was a bad thing. In the content-rich classes, they said, students memorized but did not think. In Global Perspectives, students engaged in "critical thinking" and did not memorize.

So what happens in a class that is content-poor?

Students Google op-eds and feature stories and look for "bias."

For me, the idea of spending a year and a half (the course consumed 3 semesters and replaced English) Googling op-eds and looking for bias is almost unspeakably drear: not enough to keep the mind alive.

But the principal loved it, and the two team teachers loved it, and the other parent in our group loved it.

So let them create and attend the schools they believe in, and let the rest of us create and attend the schools we believe in.

Live and let live.


Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach? (pdf file)
Dan Willingham

29 comments:

Jo in OKC said...

OK. I finally got to read the Global Perspectives syllabus and the syllabus itself isn't bad, but I can see how the class could be taught poorly. It also has the look of something that could result in something great from some students and something dreadfully awful from other students.

The way I read it, you spend two semesters studying subjects in ethics, economics, environment, technology, and politics & culture. (However, each teacher/school really gets free rein to choose what's covered.) Within each topic, they're supposed to analyze a point a view, identify and evaluate evidence for and against, reflect on their own views after the investigation (this seems pretty touchy-feelie to me for a high school class -- what are they going to say? Either this confirmed my views, made me change my mind, or I didn't have an opinion ahead of time.), and do a presentation.

Then, the third semester is independent research where you choose a topic and deep dive to produce an independent research project and report.

If done properly, I would think it would be the opposite of content-poor -- you should be focusing on current events and applying info from history, government, science, and English (rhetorical strategies). An added bonus would be using foreign language skills to get the news in a news feed from a local source (i.e., news in Spanish about South America, etc.).

However, I imagine the bias exercise you saw was someone's idea of a good ethics exercise. Not that identifying bias isn't a good skill, but it's definitely a baby step in what this program is supposed to teach.

LynnG said...

RTN is coming to my town at the end of May. There's a $10 charge for the movie, which seems like a lot for a documentary played in the high school gym that is being paid for by a bunch of not-for-profits.

It smells like a profit opportunity rather than a public service. And now that I know my entrance fee will help fund lobbyists to do things I probably don't want done, I'm not happy about this at all.

Catherine Johnson said...

The way I read it, you spend two semesters studying subjects in ethics, economics, environment, technology, and politics & culture.

This is an example of why interdisciplinary courses are a bad idea: no teacher has the expertise to teach all these subjects, or to lead a class discussion concerning all of these subjects.

Interdisciplinary courses can't help but be shallow compared to disciplinary courses, which are taught by teachers who've majored in the discipline they're teaching & have spent years studying it. (Here in New York, grades 7-12 teachers have to have majored in the subject they teach.)

In the Global Perspectives course I visited, the two topics students were giving presentations on were:

* the rise of China as a world power
* Islamophobia and technology in France (not sure that it **had** to be in France; that was the subject of the presentation I saw)

Neither of the two teachers teaching the class appeared to know much about either China or France (not a criticism; I wouldn't expect them to know a lot about China or France), and Islamophobia is a newly invented concept and word; there's no body of research on "Islamophobia" that a teacher could have mastered in college. All a teacher knows about Islamophobia is what he reads in the newspaper.

Plus - and this is relevant to what we've been talking about with curriculum writing - there are no textbooks on "Global Perspectives," because "Global Perspectives" isn't a discipline. So virtually the only reading students can do in a Global Perspectives class will be journalism, and it won't even be anthologized journalism because, again, this is a newly invented course. No publisher has produced anthologies of 'best writing' on "global perspectives."

So the class readings are all short features and op eds found via Google.

This kind of course strikes me as something that can't be taught effectively until a student is in graduate school in international relations.

Catherine Johnson said...

I've been noticing in college visits that the word "global" seems to have replaced the word "interdisciplinary."

Colleges are also talking about "hands on" learning and projects.

At one college, the admissions person talked about the nursing school, where nursing students get lots of "hands on" experience with patients.

Which I thought was funny----has the word "clinical" been replaced by "hand on"?

Are medical students getting "hands on" experience these days?

Catherine Johnson said...

more: I asked one of the co-teachers whether students in the class read anything other than journalism. (Because think: these kids have jettisoned at least a year of English, a class in which they would presumably read entire books, possibly classics.)

He said that sometimes they read journal articles.

But a high school student has a very limited ability to read a journal article; he hasn't got the background knowledge to do it.

I'm reading a journal articles on dopamine and serotonin tonight, and although I have a fair amount of background knowledge on dopamine & serotonin, I'm having a very tough time of it.

The jargon and acronyms alone are a huge barrier; journal articles are written for specialists, not for general readers.

FedUpMom said...

I've seen the Race to Nowhere, and I mostly agree with it. I think it gives a very clear depiction of what's going wrong in affluent school districts today.

Where I live, parents brag about how their high school students subsist on 4 hours of sleep a night, and spend all their waking hours on school-related activities (homework, sports teams, etc.) The stress inflicted on these kids is unbelievable, resulting in lots of mental health problems.

I support anyone who is trying to reduce the stress overload.

At the same time, I (often) agree with folks on this blog, especially with regards to Singapore Math vs. Constructivist Math.

I'm in favor of stress reduction, and also in favor of kids being taught real content, especially in technical fields like math. I don't see this as a contradiction.

FedUpMom said...

I've blogged a response to this post:

Erasing a Line in the Sand

Catherine Johnson said...

Just read it - great post!

We don't seem to have a 4-hour-of-sleep culture here; at least, I haven't encountered it.

I gather we do have parents who keep libraries of tests their older kids took so the younger siblings can study from them.

For me, though, Ms. Abeles is the opposition: she opposes memorization and standardized tests.

I want public schools that focus on the transmission of knowledge from one generation to the next (at least for my kids), and that means that one way or another knowledge has to enter their long-term memories.

I also wish my school had administered a sound standardized test once a year to ascertain whether my son was actually progressing as quickly as his peers across the country.

Prior to passage of NCLB, my district did administer such a test; they replaced it with invalid and useless state tests after NCLB was passed.

I finally had myself certified to administer the ITBS when C. was in 7th grade.

His scores on that test and its many subscales were very helpful.

Catherine Johnson said...

Also: I agree completely that high-level content can be taught without massive stress to the kids. C's Jesuit high school does exactly that.

I haven't pulled together all of my thoughts about school and stress, but one thing is clear: a fair amount of the stress comes from the culture of the school, not from "memorization and regurgitation."

If you have a competitive school culture and "tough grading" or grading on a curve, kids will have massive stress even if they never learn a thing.

That's another issue: no one in what I'll call the "Race to Nowhere" camp seems to realize how fantastically difficult critical thinking is when you're actually doing critical thinking. It's much harder than "memorizing and regurgitating."

If students had to write real papers exhibiting real critical thinking in every class they had, the pressure would be fantastic.

fyi: I define "mastery" of subject matter informally as remembering and understanding -- along with novice-level ability to apply the knowledge you've acquired.

Following the research in cognitive science, I see problem-solving, critical thinking, and analysis as capacities that develop after you've acquired knowledge.

FedUpMom said...

I think when Ms. Abeles says she's against "memorization and regurgitation", she's thinking of a high-school kid who crams as much as possible right before the exam, spills it out on the test paper, and then forgets everything she crammed by the next week. I'm sure you're not in favor of that either.

As I remember the movie, it wasn't really about curriculum. It was mostly about the issues of stress, overwork, and turning childhood into one long college application process.

Anonymous said...

This movie was shown in our district courtesy of our PTO. The re-cap in the local paper confirmed what a friend told me about the event: the discussion hosted afterward quickly ended up in favor of less AP classes. Parents wanted to ditch AP and Honors class in favor of more vocational and elective type classes. This would be more an annoyance than a serious concern if I didn't live in a district that has already eliminated gifted ed and doesn't support ability grouping until middle school. Eliminating AP classes is just one more way to take away opportunities for the motivated, the gifted, and/or the plain 'ole hard-working kid.

However, I do think the message may be partially right. Our kids are working too hard-- they're spinning their wheels for all the wrong reasons: poor curricula, lack of ability grouping, constructivist classrooms, lack of pedagogical content, and other issues often discussed on this website. It's really hard to waste time of a group project or power point presentation and then wonder why the SAT and ACT questions are so challenging, why you now need to hire a tutor, or why you're going to have to give up that dream of becoming an engineer because you never developed the requisite skills. Not having the proper foundation means you're going to have to work really, really hard to make things happen... and sometimes, it's just so difficult you just give up.

Grace Nunez said...

I define "mastery" of subject matter informally as remembering and understanding -- along with novice-level ability to apply the knowledge you've acquired.

I really like that definition, which is consistent with Susan Wise Bauer's description of a classical education:

"... it follows a specific three-part pattern: the mind must be first supplied with facts and images, then given the logical tools for organization of facts, and finally equipped to express conclusions."

FedUpMom said...

I should add that "Race to Nowhere" discusses the fact that kids who graduated from high school with stellar transcripts are routinely put in remedial classes when they start college. This speaks to the problem of bad curricula.

Bonnie said...

I would argue that facts and logical organization of facts must be learned at the same time, otherwise the facts will end up quickly forgotten. For example, my college bio course was an exercise in massive memorization. I never created an internal organization or model of those facts - i just memorized them, regurgitated them on the exams, and forgot them in a few days. I couldn't even tell you what kinds of facts I learned in that course. On the other hand, I can still remember most details from my wonderful course on Romanesque art history. Why? Because we learned the details as part of an overall model. I was fascinated by the material, and as I read, I incorporated the factual parts into an internal map of medieval history that I already had constructed, and added the model being taught in the course to my internal model. Without that internal process of organizing facts and building a model, the content will quickly be lost

SteveH said...

"If you have a competitive school culture and 'tough grading' or grading on a curve, kids will have massive stress even if they never learn a thing."

I agree, and some of this is driven by supply and demand. College-bound students have to worry about getting the grades and building their resumes to get into their fall-back college choices. Even if schools taught better, there would still be stress caused by limited supply and large demand. What are colleges going to do, ignore the extra curricular activities? Of course they can see past the resume building, but they don't stop you from giving them all of that information. If demand ever drops, will colleges accept fewer students? Colleges want students who will make them look good. They could just look at class grades and SAT scores.

I would rather that my son pursue science and math on his own without the need to tie it to some tangible bullet on his resume. However, we have to look into summer internships (I was just looking at Brown's Pre-College Summer courses. I was not impressed.) rather than just have him do reading on his own. We have to prepare him to do well on the AMC/12 test rather than allow him to move on to other mathematical material. If he continues to go to Interlochen each summer, what will colleges think when he says that he is passionate about physics?

Anonymous said...

Bonnie, your college biology teacher did you a disservice. Memorizing facts is much easier if you have a mental model to fit the facts into, and biology provides several that are highly effective for this task. That was bad teaching.

Catherine Johnson said...

I would argue that facts and logical organization of facts must be learned at the same time, otherwise the facts will end up quickly forgotten.

Yes, I agree completely -- I'm not the one to define knowledge, but informally I define it as facts organized in a 'schema.'

I do know that there's lots of research showing that it's far easier to remember a fact you can fit into a memorized schema.

I think of knowledge 'development' -- the process of moving towards some kind of expertise in a field -- as 'schema development.' You're building the schema as you learn more facts and procedures....

This gets to the issue of interdisciplinary teaching being superficial if you do it before students (or teachers) have complex schema for the disciplines being mooshed together. You need to 'deepen' or 'elaborate' your knowledge of each discipline before connecting them.

Or think about the Global Perspectives course I saw where students were giving Powerpoint presentations on "Islamophobia and technology in France."

When you've got a simple, schematic concept of "France" and a simple, schematic concept of "techonlogy" and a simple, schematic concept of "Islamophobia" (which may or may not even exist) -- what does that add up to?

SteveH said...

I have a running joke(?) with my son about how things don't exist (or are invisible) until you remember them. Over the years, when he learned something new, he noticed that he then saw it all of the time. I specifically remember when he learned the word 'hiatus'. He then saw the word all over the place. This has happened again and again.

When his first grade teacher said that he had a lot of "superficial" knowledge (in geography), I wanted to tell her that it was foundational. When he hears global world news, it's less invisible to him. He can connect the information.

Nobody would claim that remembering things is bad. The question is whether a direct approach or a thematic approach works better. I think both are useful, but what I saw in K-8 for my son was just low expectations for either approach. It wasn't just "drill and kill", but "hard work and kill". Hard work separates kids and they don't want to do that.

lgm said...

>>>I should add that "Race to Nowhere" discusses the fact that kids who graduated from high school with stellar transcripts are routinely put in remedial classes when they start college. This speaks to the problem of bad curricula.

It also speaks to the problem of selecting honors students using overriding criteria such as father's political status, teacher recommendation, and availability of a tutor. What my ds is finding is that honors classes are dumbed down because half the class can't do the work. They do have tutors and memorize extensively, but they are in over their heads in (nonhonors) accelerated math that is taught very well. My ds in nonhonors has had some very good classes as a result of being the only student willing to learn in his section...it's essentially a dialogue, especially in science, geometry, and english. These experiences are beating the 40 person honors sections he is in in terms of learning.

cranberry said...

I think people are different in what works for them. My high schooler is weighing the difference between AP Euro and AP World History. Looking at College Confidential, it seemed that some kids found APEuro easier, because it had more facts to memorize. Some found AP world History easier, because it is organized around themes.

The teacher seemed to make a big difference. Whether one prefers going from details to grand themes, or from grand themes to details, though, seems to depend upon the student. I'm a big picture learner--I find it easier to remember facts in context.

Bonnie said...

I was reacting to this quote "the mind must be first supplied with facts and images, then given the logical tools for organization of facts, and finally equipped to express conclusions.", which makes it sound like facts should first be taught, and only then, the schema. That doesn't work. The schema and the facts go together.

Catherine Johnson said...

I was reacting to this quote "the mind must be first supplied with facts and images, then given the logical tools for organization of facts,

Right - I knew you were.

I'm pretty sure the Trivium doesn't teach disconnected facts (though people should chime in on this).

My sense of the Trivium is that people using this system have kids do lots of memorization when they're little and they (seem to) memorize so easily.

The content kids memorize is organized into 'starter' schema, which the children are **also** memorizing.

What you don't ask little kids to do is analysis or 'critical thinking' etc.

Both the 'bits' of content and the simple' schema' that contains the bits are taught directly and children commit both to memory.

But someone should correct me if I'm wrong.

Catherine Johnson said...

I find it easier to remember facts in context.

I'm pretty sure that's true of everyone (I'm remembering a couple of fascinating studies about very rapid learning --- which depended on the person doing the memorizing already having a committed-to-memory schema in place.)

Lack of a schema has been a big problem for me in trying to teach myself counting.

When you don't have a schema, everything looks alike.

Catherine Johnson said...

I have a running joke(?) with my son about how things don't exist (or are invisible) until you remember them. Over the years, when he learned something new, he noticed that he then saw it all of the time.

Absolutely!

Here's a creepy experience of that: after I had a bad car accident in Los Angeles (accident itself wasn't bad; I had a severe air bag injury) I saw accidents EVERYWHERE --- including bad accidents.

Everywhere!

Constantly!

It was like living in Harry Potter novel for car crashes.

That was **very** creepy.

Were there really that many accidents going on?

Were they invisible before I was in one?

yikes!

Catherine Johnson said...

kids who graduated from high school with stellar transcripts are routinely put in remedial classes when they start college. This speaks to the problem of bad curricula.

right

Probably also speaks to the lack of an effective program of deliberate practice (although obviously these kids are doing hours of homework --- )

Anonymous said...

It may be that these students who are supposedly doing 4-6 hours of homework each night are trying to do it while texting/surfing the internet, talking on the phone, watching TV, etc. Cuts way down on the effectiveness of the studying.

Catherine Johnson said...

Well, yeah! (Surfing while working...)

Catherine Johnson said...

I don't think the problem is the absolute amount of work students have to do (although if parents are talking about their kids getting only 4 hours of sleep a night, that's a problem).

Ed did 4 hours of homework every night when he was in high school.

These kids are young and vital; they have boatloads of energy.

As far as I can tell, the stress is coming from the grades, the competition, and the limited number of selective colleges.

fyi: I'd be happy to see high schools completely revamp their grading systems. I liked the Keller method, where your grade was dependent on how much of the coursework you got through, and the "Knowledge Schools" of Sweden seem to be based on this principle. Let the ranking & grading, etc. be determined by exit exams and/or ACT/AP/SAT Subject tests, etc.

Under such a system, you'd still have plenty of pressure, but I think it would be a bit more muted in the day to day of school life.

A h.s. teacher I know says his favorite reform would be to have just two grades: an A for terrific learning/effort and a B for 'proficient' learning & effort.

Any student who didn't make it to a B would have to be remediated

Of course, the problem with anything like the Keller method is that students can lose motivation because they feel less fear and anxiety, but I think that can be managed via other forms of reinforcement....

Grace Nunez said...

I'm pretty sure the Trivium doesn't teach disconnected facts (though people should chime in on this).

I put the quote up that put the "learning" facts before the "organization" of facts, which does not sound like what I've observed about classical education. For example, in Wise Bauer's books the facts of history are taught in a sequential story-telling fashion.

The original statement can be confusing, no doubt. What I get from it is that facts are not embedded in a lesson for a student to puzzle out in the same way constructivist learning does. Grammar rules are explicitly taught and practiced, for example, not expected to be learned organically (if that's the right word) from reading.