Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Longer School Year?

President Obama and others are proposing that the school year in the U.S. be extended. The theory is that more time in the classroom will improve learning. There probably is something to that, but is it really the best way to improve education? I doubt it.

More class time would be more of the same, that is obvious. If teaching or student commitment is inadequate, we would just get more poor teaching and lack of student commitment. If parents regard schools as simply a baby-sitting service they would regard a longer school year as more baby-sitting rather than pushing their children to learn. What we need, before we extend the school year, is to teach more effectively. That is especially true of math, science, logic, and critical thinking.

Look at a typical science project in an elementary school. The child is expected to make a model of island ecology or some other scene. After hours with paper, crayons, and clay, the student proudly delivers the project. The teacher then grades it based on how well the colors match reality and how well shaped the model is. Next open house, that project is likely to be displayed as an example of how well the students are learning. Yes they have learned: they learned something about art, but precious little about science.

Sadly, science is often taught as a collection of bloodless facts which students are expected to memorize and regurgitate. Children who eagerly read mystery stories or watch mystery TV shows are not exposed to the way scientists investigate the mysteries of the universe. Students may follow the clues of the mystery story to the final conclusion of who is guilty. However they are denied a view of the excitement that comes from examining scientific clues and finally reaching a conclusion that reflects the real world.

As an example, we have students being told that nearly all the world's scientists believe in man-made global warming. However that is presented as a simple fact, to be accepted and not disputed. Typically only the shallowest of evidence is presented and no alternative explanations are allowed, much less offered to the students. The teacher is the authority and is not to be questioned.

Contrast this with they type of teaching I read about years ago, in Reader's Digest though if memory serves. The author described how, during the first class of the year, the teacher held up what he described as a model of a skull from a South American animal, now extinct. He said that the animal had vanished, leaving no trace that it had ever existed. He then described the animal, its food, its environment etc. Then he gave a quiz on what he had said. Most students did quite well at regurgitating what their teacher had told them. As a result every student got a zero on the quiz.

Can you see why the students flunked? If not, you may be a victim of the “memorize and regurgitate” system of “education.” Not even one student bothered to ask the critical question, “How do you know all this? Especially if the animal left no trace of having ever existed?”

That teacher was driving home a lesson in critical thinking, something central to science.

We need more of that in education. Students should be encouraged to question, to think critically, to generate their own theories and then to describe how such theories could be tested. Instead, too often the questioning student is regarded as a troublemaker. As in Kipling's story “The Elephant's Child,” curiosity and questions can elicit disapproval.

In other disciplines as well, emphasis should be on learning and thinking. Some memorization is necessary of course. Students need to memorize addition, subtraction and other mathematical facts. However school personnel should always keep in mind that they are to prepare students for a changing world, a world filled with con artists. Some of those con artists are criminals, some are advertisers and sales people, some are politicians. Students should learn to evaluate claims as they would the clues in a murder mystery.

With a commitment to real learning instead of busy-work, we can improve our educational system, and we can do it with students spending the same amount of time in class as they do now.

Only after we establish a solid educational system should we consider extending the school year. Even then there is a way to get more effective learning time without more time in class, or more homework. I plan to discuss that next time.

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