Friday, February 26, 2010

Back to Basics: The Weight of the Matter

A recent column I wrote for the Washington Post received such positive comment that I decided to expand one of the brief anecdotes to give a broader picture of how children learn. Honoring how children learn is a messy endeavor, something no longer allowed in our current atmosphere of schools dominated by a corporate imperative for workers who do more now than they did a generation ago, an imperative that demands schools train kids in a conveyor belt delivery system of skills.

People are attracted to and co-opted by the rhetoric of systemic reform of education because it promises both to level the playing field and to offer a more challenging curriculum. But the promises are empty. For starters, task completers and problem solvers are two different kettle of fish. To complete a task, one needs to rely on habitual activity, rarely needing the kinds of thinking involved in problem solving. Here are the seven components of task completion: 1) begin work immediately, 2) work quietly, 3) remain seated, 4) ask good questions, 5) complete work, 6) work carefully, and 7) follow instructions. Something should be added to that list: Once one completes a task, one moves on to another task. Such strictures may keep a classroom orderly; they do not produce problem solving.

Take Daryll, a boy repeating first grade whose official records label him as have “[a] short attention span, difficulty sticking to a task.” One day Daryll worked for three hours straight on his proof that sixteen bottle caps on side of a balance weighed the same as sixteen bottle caps on the other side. He set up this proof and then tested it and tested it and tested it. Along the way he weighed other things. Lots of other things.

After taking a two-day break from bottle caps, Daryll weighed them again—just to make sure. Then he wondered what would happen with one hundred bottle caps. This is messy stuff, just verifying that one has one hundred of something, and not the sort of thing people who talk of benchmarks, rubrics, and efficiency can tolerate. There’s no room for such problem solving in a schedule filled with state edicts of skill alignment and piles of accompanying worksheets.

Once he’d verified the number of his one hundred bottle caps, Daryll wondered what would equal their weight—a book, his shoe, the teacher’s lunch. The classroom was filled with interesting things to weigh.

Three days later, Daryll got the idea of putting one hundred bottle caps on the other side of the balance. This was a very profound moment. Daryll discovered that, just as 16 bottle caps = 16 bottle caps, 100 bottle caps = 100 bottle caps.

He recounted ever bottle cap to verify this discovery. He stared at the balance. He counted again. He stood contemplating the balance.

We'd had a couple of brief conversations during the three days. There would be more conversation later, after Daryll had time to think about his accomplishment, but this was Daryll's moment. On his own, he had discovered something very profound.

This is what it means to be a teacher—knowing when to move in, when to keep hands off. When to keep your mouth shut.

A decade ago, the Business Roundtable declared, "The only way we can assure that the skills and abilities of our young people will keep pace with the rapidly advancing, technology-based world marketplace is by setting standards for our schools, putting in place the processes to meet those standards and then testing to ensure that those standards are in fact being met." Daryll and his teacher knew differently. For the Business Roundtable and the U. S. Department of Education with its Race to the Top and for the U. S. Congress with its LEARN (sic) Act, the education of young children is an issue of control. For Daryll and his teacher, it is an issue of independence.

Adapted from Why Is Corporate America Bashing Our Public Schools?

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