Thursday, September 29, 2005

Back to the issues at hand

Something interesting happened the other day in my Educational Psychology class. This guy asked, "do they study schools in China, since they do so well?" Our instructor thought he meant, 'do American researchers study schools in China?' She responded, "of course. But it's a totally different situation, because the kids there just spend way more time in school." There was an awkward pause, in which some people thought, "huh. Perhaps that has something to do with their complete mathematical and scientific dominance in test scores?"

The funny part is that the guy was actually asking, "Do Chinese psychologists study Chinese schools?" His point was that they probably don't, because they don't need to. Their schools work. We talked about that for a bit. You know what young kids in China do to learn numbers and counting? The abacus. If anything in this world is old school, it is the abacus. Of course, they also just practice and practice basic math until it becomes automatic, or as we here in the always-clear education world say, until it "reaches automaticity."

I realized after class the irony of the whole situation. Usually, the instructor lectures for about 10 mintues, and then for the rest of the hour we just talk back and forth about the articles we read. The thing is, none of us really know what we're talking about. We read the articles, but that doesn't mean we really understand them. That's why we're in school for this crap. The lecturer, on the other hand, is familiar with many of the major studies on the issues we're studying and could actually set us straight about some stuff. So we end up arguing but not learning anything. And so, I am actually in a constructivist learning environment in which I am arguing about how ineffective constructivism is, and it actually is quite ineffective for me. Weird, huh?

Today I had a seminar in which we discuss our student teaching experience. It was interesting--a LOT of the people in my seminar have the same kind of complaints about their schools that I do: lack of discipline, lack of consequences, not enough attention to basic skills and knowledge, etc. Somehow the entire seminar agreed that these schools were examples of "liberalism run amok." So that was amusing.

That whole seminar is hilarious. The guy who runs it is probably the most intense person ever. He has wild black hair and I could tell from the first time I saw him that he holds views that are "radical." He's a great guy, and definitely has sound educational views--a result of teaching for three years in the worst high schools in Philadelphia. But somehow he always steers the seminar away from discussing teaching and schools and toward other social ills that we are really not going to be able to deal with. For example, today somehow we got to the prison-industrial complex.

I found myself discussing my visit to the Cook County Jail in Chicago. It's the largest jail (as opposed to prison) in the country, except for LA County. There's supposed to be like 9,000 inmates in there, but there's actually 11,000. Some of the inmates are there for short-term sentences. Others are still awaiting trial. Some wait for a trial for years, often imprisoned on bonds of $100 or less that no one will pay for them. Some just choose to plead out right away, so they can get sent downstate to a real prison, a significantly more humane place. The County Jail was built in 1929, and you can tell. Everything is metal and incredibly mechanistic, with levers and bolts. The cell blocks are shaped in a square, with 10 or so closet-sized two-person cells surrounding a center room. The inmates in Cook County usually spend 23 out of 24 hours in their cells or this center room, which is bare except for metal benches and a tv. The warden who was showing us around told us about how the inmates would throw feces at the guards as they walked by, and then showed us a rack of confiscated shanks. I think it was the most horrible place I've ever been. I felt sick and trapped, like an animal. If you weren't a criminal or an addict when you went in, I can see why you would be when you got out.

See how easy it is to get side-tracked? These issues are all so pressing and so depressing and dire, but really you can only concentrate on one thing. And you have to put all your energy toward it. That's my theory, anyway.

Anyway, I'm so exhausted and haven't eaten very much today, so this didn't turn out very funny. Sorry about that. Really, I'm here to entertain.

Just one last thing before I go: I have this feeling that when the United States empire is drowning in its own cesspool of overextension and debt, the very last thing it will see is an abacus.


At September 29, 2005 6:58 PM, Blogger Gizmo said...

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At September 30, 2005 10:11 AM, Blogger Ms. Smith said...


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At September 30, 2005 1:35 PM, Blogger Suzi said...

I enjoyed this post. I am glad I'm out of grad school, though I wasn't in education then. But I think that your post points to several reasons why they aren't as helpful as they should be.

I'm now going to read old posts.

At September 30, 2005 4:22 PM, Blogger Norma said...

Very interesting blog--hope you can hang in there. My kids graduated 20 years ago, and I think I was complaining about the same things. Especially projects instead of content. And I'd delete Gizmo--that's a form of spam.

At September 30, 2005 8:14 PM, Blogger Luke said...

Just a point. Chinese students do awfully well in math and science, but not on the verbal side. Have you noticed how few Asian there are in journalism, law, belle letters, etc in comparison to their fraction of the class at elite colleges like Harvard and Berkeley. Also, keep in mind that Asians (we are talking East Asians I assume, not South Asians for the Indian sub-content)score signficantly higher on just about every intelligence test in comparison to caucasions: half a dozen i.q. points on average, or one half of a standard deviation. This explains a lot, as does the difference in performance between schools in inner city areas vs. upper middle income suburban areas. Good students make good schools. Realism is the first requirement for responsible moral analysis. On an unrelated note, I would favor live webcams in every class room in America, to monitor not only student behavior, but also teacher competency. The public good should take precedence over the rights of privacy in these public places.

At October 01, 2005 6:57 AM, Blogger 30 year teacher said...

I have been teaching (Social Studies, History and Math. Junior High, Middle School and High school) a long time and worked with high achieving students and at risk students. I have always had high expectations and have had many successful students and some not so successful. I never worried too much about educational theory, just what worked. Now that I am back in graduate classes I find that many of the strategies I used fall into the category of constructivism or brain based learning. Using these strategies does not mean you abandon lecture or modeling!! It is sometimes the best technique. You need a balance because students learn differently. What works for one, does not work for another. Lecturing and memorizing facts is not the goal of education. Understanding and thinking are much more important. However, sometimes there are facts they need to know so they can apply them to a situation.

Some things are a requirement for learning. You MUST have control of your classroom!!!!! I am now a mentor teacher and the major problem of new teachers is lack of classroom management. And although they have been told what to do, they don't do it. Obviously lecture is not effective here! One of my new teachers was convinced it was the students. They hadn't been raised right, etc. Hopefully, now that she watched another teacher in control of her class and real learning taking place, she will realize she needs to put rules and procedures in place and develop some inner authority. Hopefuly we will make progress as the year progresses.

I just encourage you to be open minded and try whatever will help your students learn. They are the reason I am still in education after 30 years. Good luck to you!

At October 01, 2005 10:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Based on your last paragraph I'd guess that you're liberal in your leanings and that you don't like the way this country is headed. I'm not really here to debate it one way or the other but I can say this (and it will reveal my age a little bit).

When Ronald Reagan was president, my views (heck, me as a person) were quite different than they are now. I was taking a college economics class. It was a very interesting time to be taking that class due to the way that President Reagan was taking the country and handling the economy. We were trying to pull out of an economic disaster that President Carter had put us in where loan rates for homes were 12% to 16%; it was an ugly time. President Reagan started using defit spending which to me, was akin to using a credit card to get yourself out of debt. The amazing thing is, it worked. It worked for one simple reason, the more people who work, the more taxes that are brought in (even with the 'lower' tax rates), the more investment and improvements that are made in big business, means more money, more taxes, more jobs, more taxes. It can and it did get this country out of the mess it was in when Carter was in office. Will it work this time? One thing that is already apparent is that in this time of 'lower' tax rates, we collected MORE money in income taxes than we did in any of the years that Clinton was in office (and he raised taxes every year he was there).

Something to think about.

At October 01, 2005 6:31 PM, Blogger GrumpyGringo said...

I wonder about comment praising your last paragraph. I haven't seen a lib against the deficit since Tsongas.
Amazing how people change their tune to suit the times.

Anyhow, just wanted to say great blog. I wonder when more people will realize that the scandal in American education began when the radicals moved into the ed. depts.

At October 05, 2005 5:39 AM, Blogger Ms. Smith said...

Just to "push back" on a certain comment made here. Good students do not make good schools. Good SCHOOLS make good STUDENTS. Don't believe me? Do the research.


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