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Hey, Teacher, Leave those Kids Alone!

I sometimes wonder if learning to teach children is like the old Pink Floyd song, the Wall. As I write yet another paper on "let them learn the information on their own" I can't help wonder, "Why?"

According to http://thirteen.org:

Unfortunately, our traditional educational system has worked in a way that discourages the natural process of inquiry. Students become less prone to ask questions as they move through the grade levels. In traditional schools, students learn not to ask too many questions, instead to listen and repeat the expected answers.

Gosh that sounds so good. Who would argue with that? Well, here is where the argument comes from:

Educators must understand that schools need to go beyond data and information accumulation and move toward the generation of useful and applicable knowledge . . . a process supported by inquiry learning. In the past, our country's success depended on our supply of natural resources. Today, it depends upon a workforce that "works smarter."

Sort of hard to ask intelligent questions when you don't even know what century the civil war occurred in. Or that you absolutely must use a calculator to multiply simple digits because the school system didn't think basic math facts needed to be memorized. How about knowing how to apply discounts at a store without a calculator at hand? Even worse, how to critique all those "research indicates" claims without an understanding of the method of scientific inquiry.

Inquiry is not so much seeking the right answer -- because often there is none -- but rather seeking appropriate resolutions to questions and issues.

You see because there are no right answers. And with the internet we can just spend all the time in the world to look up facts and apply them correctly. Makes sense, doesn't it?

No. You need to have a basis of knowledge from which to make a hypothesis and thus draw a conclusion. Otherwise, you're just an ignorant person without all the facts to which you can even begin to research the truth. Why do you think 30% of the population still support Bush? Egads, they're not staunch supporters, they are just plain ignorant of those pesky facts!

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Great site. I gather you want teachers to insure that students know "facts." I agree. Setting your political comment aside, do you think honorable people can disagree in schools about which criteria exist sufficiently to constitute a fact vs. speculation? I do, and wonder if therein resides a basis for some of the fuzzy thinking about what (if?) students should learn and when they should learn it. Bob Heiny

I asked my son's teacher yesterday about the history curriculum she used in class, History Alive! I was thinking of purchasing it from ebay because my son likes history now. After some talk, we both came to the conclusion that a national curriculum would be very useful. She came from New Jersey so I can understand how she might go from one state to another and see differences. Incredibly, she also alluded to a nation-wide system to train teachers. I think she may have wanted teachers from one state to line up to teachers in another state. But really, when I thought about it afterwards, national standards for teachers would probably require a national curriculum.

So yes, I think there is a basis for what students should learn and when they should learn it. People do move from one state to another and it can be jarring for students. A family friend moved from California to Oregon and her daughter was bored for an entire year. Oregon's curriculum was behind.

To design national curriculum would be difficult but not impossible. The problem I see is that national organizations such as National Council for Teachers in Mathematics (NCTM) and National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) are both filled with constructivists. So the standards would be geared toward a constructivist curriculum, constructivist standards, and constructivist tests.

I propose two sets of standards - one constructivist and one traditional/direct/instructivist. Each would have developed curriculum, materials, quizzes AND standardized tests. It would be more expensive but at least we would be able to:

1. Stop fighting
2. Compare schools that use one or the other

Sorry about the political reference. I usually stay away from that stuff but sometimes my frustration gets the best of me.

Your explanation, Kathy, about a national curriculum and two national teacher prep standards make sense. People move from school to school. Teachers use different priorities in classrooms. I wouldn't volunteer my family for a national curriculum imposed by national teacher standards.

I would object to both standards, because they require political decisions removed from learners, not use of empirically based learning principles.

By definition, political decisions are compromises that lead to eclectic, measurably weaker learning patterns. US students are already behind their global competitors.

To your point about variations across classrooms and schools, I see increased uses of mobile PCs (Tablet PCs, Ultra-Mobile PCs, etc.) learning software in schools and homes addressing "holes" or differences in learning rates and content patterns. These market forces already exist. I expect school personnel will likely have to continue addressing them in schools at least by omission. Bob Heiny

So if a national curriculum is not an answer, what is? Is it OK to have such huge variations in curriculum, tests, expectations, even teachers from one state to another?

I like technology as much as many others. You should have seen me with my first Pocket PC. You would have thought I'd died and gone to heaven.

But in working with Direct Instruction teaching and curriculum, I've found that technology can actually hamper, misdirect, and redirect teaching. For instance, I was tempted to use computer based software to teach my son to type. I asked him if he was learning typing in school. Yes. But he had no idea of how to place his fingers on the keyboard! Um, Houston, we have a problem. So I had to start this behemoth:
http://en.wikiversity.org/wiki/Elementary_Typing

When it comes to really early learning, more one-on-one will avert learning things wrongly and having to re-teach. I don't know how many kids are out there like mine but I've found super smart kids that can not read a single word in third grade. A - SINGLE - WORD. When the child is super smart and attends a school that is Title I (with extra funds for things like reading specialists), and the district gives extra funds on top of that, there is no reason for the child to not read. None. It happens that for years the school had absolutely no curriculum whatsoever. Until NCLB, the school had no motivation to chose a curriculum. Now their funding depends on it.

It would have been nice if the school had an effective reading program in place that helped identify struggling readers in first grade (even kindergarten) and give small group instruction for that child. Boy is he smart. But now he is behind because he can't read. Sad really.

No amount of technology would have helped this child, I am convinced. Even the reading program that I know of that is web or computer based (Funnix and Headsprout) would need some human intervention. This is especially true if the child cannot self correct or is going down the wrong path of learning. So although Pocket PCs, Tablet PCs, remote control learning, LCD projectors, and Smart Boards can all assist teaching, that is all they can do. The don't do the actual teaching. And this is where I disagree with B.F. Skinner who thought that at some point there would be no need for teachers. I just don't see that today.

honorable people can disagree in schools about which criteria exist sufficiently to constitute a fact vs. speculation

Yes, this most certainly can happen (in my opinion). Just look at the depiction of Israel in history books. That is something I don't think I would touch with a 50 foot pole. Both sides are rabid (one side is called anti-semitic for calling Israel terrorists and meddling, the other side is called terrorists, folks who pack our political power with folks with a dog in the Israel fight.)