Thursday, September 29, 2005

I heart knowledge

Today in my educational psychology class we were discussing constructivism versus direct instruction. This one guy in our class had actually gone to a sort of constructivist middle school, and was telling us about this "history" project they had done. In small groups, they created their own civilizations, produced "artifacts" that would have emanated from such a civilization, then BURIED the artifacts in some kind of artificial "archaeological site" in their classroom. I'm thinking sandbox? Then the other groups took turns digging up the artifacts and trying to determine the nature of the civilization.

Now, I don't know about you, but I really don't think I would have cared to learn about some made-up civilization plucked out of the air by the girl across the room who always wore those annoyingly large scrunchies. I think I would rather have liked to learn about civilizations that actually existed, even though, realistically, I could not have gone traipsing into the desert to find the shards of pottery and the discarded waste products of that society. At least we'd be keeping it real, as it were. Also, I'm wondering what skills were derived from this exercise? Digging?

Anyway, this guy was really supportive of his old school, and is now sending his own child to one like it. When others, including me, tried to argue against various aspects of constructivism, he always shot back with the fact that it worked for him. He and this other guy started talking about how we, as graduate students, had been "good at school" so, naturally we would support "traditional schooling." They said that everyone tended to "teach how he/she was taught." I have heard this argument several times before. Each time, the speaker exhorts us to "learn to step out of the mindset of our own experience."

The question I pose to them is this: what the hell are you talking about? I went to a public school. My teachers lectured. We didn't do group projects. We didn't really do any projects, except a big research project in 10th grade. And yes, mine did involve making paleolithic tools out of obsidian volcanic rock. That's hard, by the way. But mostly we listened, and we read, and we wrote. We sometimes talked about these things, but not all the time. We had quizzes on the reading. We had to do endless DBQ's and our history tests left our hands literally aching, if we had done well. We had many tests, and some of those were (oh no, don't say it) scan-tron. School could be boring, and difficult, and long. And what came of all this? Well, let's see. I went to college, I did well, I graduated, I got a job, I did well, I got another job, I did well, I went back to school. In reality I am not an incredible genius, even though I tell people that I am (actually, I might be). The fact is that I am well-educated. And many of my classmates are also well-educated. And I don't see why we have to abandon all those methods of instruction that obviously worked for us just because now we're talking about black and Hispanic kids from the city instead of white kids from the suburbs. Especially since these things are working at schools like MATCH, and KIPP, and North Star. Speaking of MATCH, the MCAS results from last year came back. MATCH ranked 18th in the state in English scores and 4th in the state for math.

Wait, did you just say that MATCH came in fifth in math? Oh, oh wait, I'm sorry, you said fourth. And was that for the city? Oh, really? For the state? I see. Funny it worked out that way, since the kids didn't get to do any projects. I mean, I think they actually learned math instead of building rowboats out of popsicle sticks to illustrate what numbers really are. No one thought they had a chance.

I'm sorry. Sometimes I just can't keep all the sassiness inside. Anyway, I was going to talk about the class that is my savior, the perfect contrast. It's what our department calls a "content course," which is amusing, since it implies that the other courses have no content. It's a world history survey class up to 1500, designed for the New York state mandate for two years of world history education in 9th and 10th grade. Apparently most new social studies teachers get hired for world history teaching posts because the older social studies teachers don't know anything about world history. It's quite a lot of content knowledge, but the idea it all sort of molds is that human societies throughout thousands of years have been so incredibly similar that it's weird. You find all kinds of cool parallels between civilizations and societies that were completely isolated from one another.

My professor is a real history professor from the real university I attend. He specializes in modern Islam and European colonialism in the Middle East. He wears bow-ties, tells us we're wrong, criticizes us when we stay stupid things, and generally emits an air of effortless superiority. It's absolutely awesome. Finally, someone who values knowledge, who doesn't believe it's just a useless jumble of unrelated baubles. He's brilliant, and it's obvious that he's brilliant because he knows so much. It's not that he's used "transfer skills" from critical thinking projects he did as a kid. No. He studied for god knows how long in libraries across America, the Middle East, and Europe. He learned other languages and lived in other cultures, and he just knows his shit. Today he gave a narrative of the last few years in American life that was brief but so incisive I felt I would tear up. I hate that my school doesn't think this type of intellectualism is worth anything. The guy in my class who was so pro-constructivism, he said "our schools produce kids who are good at school." First off, most of them don't. Second, what is wrong with that? This professor could be doing a million billion different things if he weren't teaching. In fact, he consults with law enforcement about the increasingly radicalized cultures of the Islamic diaspora! Contrast the utility of that with whatever it is you learn when you make a model space station out of plastic pipes and rubber tubing and you'll see what I mean.

Well, it's bedtime for me. Last night I dreamt my apartment was filled with pink, newborn mice that looked like maggots. They were everywhere. My roommate and I kept stepping on them. It was all because we left so many dirty dishes in the sink. I think they're still there, unless she washed them.

8 Comments:

At September 29, 2005 11:52 AM, Blogger Noise Reduction Headphones said...

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At September 30, 2005 10:31 PM, Blogger KDeRosa said...

"When others, including me, tried to argue against various aspects of constructivism, he always shot back with the fact that it worked for him."

The plural of anecdote is not data.

 
At October 01, 2005 7:58 AM, Blogger Jorge said...

I actually considered the popsicle stick project but I couldn't eat enough popsicles over the summer so I just resorted to teaching the basics.

Great blog :)

"I mean, I think they actually learned math instead of building rowboats out of popsicle sticks to illustrate what numbers really are. No one thought they had a chance."

 
At October 01, 2005 9:23 AM, Blogger janice said...

Some thoughts that I hope will provoke some reaction and thinking:

1. My husband has a graduate degree from Harvard and is on the faculty at the University of Texas. When we got married I realized that one of the main differences between us was that he thought he could have original ideas! I was pretty sure that everything that needed to be thought about had already been done and all I needed to do was to learn what had already been done. I was very good at school and successful at various jobs because I could follow directions.

2. Now many of our friends are college professors and one thing that is often lamented is the aversion that students have to thinking. They want to parrot back what the prof has said and are convinced that anything they might think does not matter. One writing professor also mentioned the frustration she has with students who come and think that the only way to write is the three paragraph essay.

3. I learned about, and was shocked by constructivism when I went back to school for my Master's Degree. The professor of the course called Foundations of Education gave us a framework of the different educational philosophies (Behaviorism, Constructivism, Information Processing) and then we each did a project about something that we really wanted to learn. I had never had such an engagement with what I was learning before. I could ask questions and research them. What I said mattered. It was amazing.

I do wonder sometimes if that was because I was an older student, but I have met many teachers who are constructivist in approach and say that students are also more empowered and engaged.

The one danger of constructivism, I think, is that it is possible for teachers to be lazy and not design challenging learning environments that enage and motivate students. However, it is also possible to have a teacher in the 'traditional' approach who rely on worksheets that they prepared years ago and just run off at the beginning of every year.

It reminds me of the whole language controversy because it is so important HOW it is applied. The skill of the teacher makes the difference.

 
At October 01, 2005 9:23 AM, Blogger janice said...

Some thoughts that I hope will provoke some reaction and thinking:

1. My husband has a graduate degree from Harvard and is on the faculty at the University of Texas. When we got married I realized that one of the main differences between us was that he thought he could have original ideas! I was pretty sure that everything that needed to be thought about had already been done and all I needed to do was to learn what had already been done. I was very good at school and successful at various jobs because I could follow directions.

2. Now many of our friends are college professors and one thing that is often lamented is the aversion that students have to thinking. They want to parrot back what the prof has said and are convinced that anything they might think does not matter. One writing professor also mentioned the frustration she has with students who come and think that the only way to write is the three paragraph essay.

3. I learned about, and was shocked by constructivism when I went back to school for my Master's Degree. The professor of the course called Foundations of Education gave us a framework of the different educational philosophies (Behaviorism, Constructivism, Information Processing) and then we each did a project about something that we really wanted to learn. I had never had such an engagement with what I was learning before. I could ask questions and research them. What I said mattered. It was amazing.

I do wonder sometimes if that was because I was an older student, but I have met many teachers who are constructivist in approach and say that students are also more empowered and engaged.

The one danger of constructivism, I think, is that it is possible for teachers to be lazy and not design challenging learning environments that enage and motivate students. However, it is also possible to have a teacher in the 'traditional' approach who rely on worksheets that they prepared years ago and just run off at the beginning of every year.

It reminds me of the whole language controversy because it is so important HOW it is applied. The skill of the teacher makes the difference.

 
At October 01, 2005 9:49 AM, Blogger Michael_the_Archangel said...

I came here via Joanne Jacobs blog where she references (and links) to this one. Interesting blog, I found the comments by janice raised a few questions in me.

It's a bit difficult to figure if she agrees with constructivism or not ... at least until I read her final comment. Regarding her final comment, I wholeheartedly disagree with 'whole language' reading, it has produced more illiterate students than all the other idiot 'learning' programs that this nation has ever tried - but I digress, slightly.

As for constructivism, my question would be what are you trying to teach? If you are trying to teach math, the basics of history or english (including grammer and punctuation) then constructivism is worse than useless. You need to have basics, a base from which you build and unless you are TAUGHT (not discover) those basics, you have very little to start with and go from. Using 'constructivism' you can discover that 10 + 10 = 100, but how long will it take you and how much quicker would it have been if it had simply been TAUGHT and you'd learned how to add those numbers. Let alone the question that maybe we should allow constructivism to take over the 'learning' of addition and indeed counting and the naming of numbers.

Yes, you can 'discover' for yourself but why take years to discover that vinegar added to baking soda causes a really neat reaction (if you would ever discover it) rather than have it shown to you and allow you to try it. A child needs basics and THAT should be what school is about through to at least the end of high school.

 
At October 05, 2005 3:19 PM, Blogger spike said...

You wrote: "I don't see why we have to abandon all those methods of instruction that obviously worked for us just because now we're talking about black and Hispanic kids from the city instead of white kids from the suburbs."

Ummm, that'd be because public educators--along with the rest of the "politically correct" crowd"-- now believe in equality of outcomes rather than equality of opportunity. And it's a sad fact that many urban minority students simply don't get adequate pre- and extra-school background and/or present values support from significant adult others to take advantage of demanding academics.

Formal mentoring and informal involvement of caring adults who are themselves educated and value education could go a long way toward breaking this vicious cycle. But this properly takes place outside school walls. Teachers should not have to, much less want to, take on developmental-psychological as well as academic responsibility for their students. When they do, we get exactly what you remarked on: non-rigorous teaching practices at which "every student can succeed."

-- spike
(just like you, I'm back in school in my 40s earning my M.Ed. ;))
orionaut@hotmail.com

 
At October 08, 2005 7:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't be so quick to knock down the constructivist approach, especially as it relates to math. I have taught in one of the best school districts in MA. and the very large majority of the math students could spit out the problems they practised, but very few could answer critical thinking questions that went to the heart of the matter. For these kids and many others, math becomes a large collection of formulas to be memorized but not really understood. So it shouldn't be a surprise that at some point their understanding collapses like a house of cards. Had they constructed some of the math on their own, they would have been much better off.

On the topic of MATCH school in Boston, the kids there sometimes double up on math courses and then get tutoring after school from Boston University students. The cost of all of this (and other things)is a deficit of about $300,000 that MATCH has to fund raise each year. While it is great that their kids placed very high in the MCAS, how would these kids have fared had the school operated only with the money they received from the state? No doubt better than your average Boston public school, but not 4th or 5th place.

 

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