Sunday, February 13, 2011

Improving Education

On PBS Need to Know they are asking for one practical idea that can be implemented in a classroom to help students. Why only one? I've got a million of them but I doubt that they would ever be implemented, unless I implement them myself. Just for full disclosure, I'm working on them already.

Education is so often approached as a commodity that needs to be improved. A new marketing strategy to be implemented. The question that always arises is how can we get kids to learn. If we are really honest however the question would be how do we get kids to learn what we want them to know and how can we gauge that they are learning what we want. You see kids learn all the time. The problem that adults have is that we do not interpret their knowledge and know how in a valuable way.

For instance, not one of my three year old students knows how to add and subtract. If you ask them if they know any math, addition, subtraction, number sentences, what 1+2 equals they'll either say no or look at you with a blank look because you have literally lost them. Their young minds are wandering the time and space continuum and they are not even aware that the sound coming from your mouth is a question. Now take that same child and hand him three rocks. Ask that child how many rocks he has and wait for him to count them. One, two, three. He will proudly proclaim he has three rocks! Give the child one more rock and ask him how many rocks he has now that you gave him one more. The child will count the rocks again beginning with one, ending with four and he will proclaim he has four rocks. This child has just added. Not in a linear 3+1=4, but in his own round about way. More than that the child has begun to grasp a concept. See 3+1 means absolutely nothing to a 3 year old. You might as well introduce E=MC2. You may get the child to repeat 3+1=4, just as he is capable of repeating E=MC2, that does not mean he understands the concept.

In math, schools have introduced Cuisenaire Rods. Everyone is just crazy about them. It teaches kids how to group by tens and do an array of fun math activities. I've never heard such nonsense. What exactly do a group of plastic cubes mean to a child? Why would you want to count them? Why would you group them? How does this fit into their lives? Now give a kid a group of rocks. Tell them the story of Stone Soup. Now tell them that this boy started a business selling stones to villagers to make stone soup. He was so successful he set up a warehouse where he kept the stones. The warehouse needs to be kept neat and he needs to keep track of how many stones he has so he puts ten stones in each bag. Then every ten bags he puts in a crate. Every ten crates he puts in a wagon etc. The child can now relate to counting and sorting to something real.

Education does not need to be improved! What needs to happen is that we need to change our perception of what education is and how it needs to happen. I took a botany class once and there was not one living flower introduced the entire semester. The district has thousands of dollars to spend on textbooks that have drawing and pictures of flowers, but they couldn't spend a couple of hundred dollars at the flower market to buy the actual thing we were studying. How does this makes any sense?

So my one practical idea is to stop elevating education to the point where it becomes inaccessible and let's make education real.