Sunday, May 15, 2011

Absurd Contrasts


This morning, as I was reading the New York Times Education Section I came across an article called "Improving the Science of Teaching Science."  The following paragraph jumped out at me:
“As opposed to the traditional lecture, in which students are passive, this class actively engages students and allows them time to synthesize new information and incorporate it into mental model,” said Louis Deslauriers, a postdoctoral researcher who, with Ellen Schelew, a graduate student, taught the experimental classes. “When they can incorporate thing into a mental model, we find much better retention.”
The article went on to explain that when researchers compared classes where traditional lecture was used to classrooms that were collaborative and structured as mentioned above, students in the second group learned twice as much as students in the first.

As I read, I thought in my most sarcastic mental voice, "Really?  Students who collaborate, are actively engaged, and are synthesizing new information learn more than those who get talked at for hours on end?"

Take a second and think about how we teach our subjects and what those subjects look like outside of our classrooms.  There are some huge contrasts.

When scientists work, they are usually working in teams.  They have regular collaborative meetings to discuss how their work is progressing and how to improve their methodology and research.  They read a lot of research.  Most times they try things, they fail.  Those failures are learning experiences which help them guide their work going forward.

Now think of what science looks like in a typical classroom.  There's a textbook.  The teacher talks a lot about stuff in the textbook.  Students aren't allowed to research much.  Everything they need is provided in the textbook.  They may do some experiments, but failure is not an option if they want a good grade.  Most of their studying is done on their own, with the exception of a few very controlled labs where they may have one partner.

The contrast is absurd, and not just in science.

Why do people read outside of schools?  Either they read because they enjoy the content, or they read because they need the information that's in the material they are reading.  When you read to find information you need, how often do you thoroughly read the entire book/article/manuel/etc?  I would think that it happens rarely.  You usually find what you need and get on with whatever you were doing.

How do we teach reading in schools?  We spend weeks at a time forcing students to pick apart informational passages that contain information the student won't ever need and won't ever care about.  We force students to read "classics" that they hate.  Assignments that require research are usually on topics that the student doesn't care about and have been researched thousands of times before.

When we discuss teaching math, often the terms "real-world situations" or "real-life problems" are used. The very fact that we tell students that most of the math they learn is not for "real-life" is a huge problem.  How can we expect them to care or become emotionally invested if we tell them this?  We give them dozens of out-of-context calculations during the week, and then have a "real-world" problem that looks something like this:
Betty and Tracy planned a 5000km trip in an automobile with five tires, of which four are in use at any time. They plan to interchange them so that each tire is used the same number of kilometers. What is the number of kilometers each tire will be used? (Source - Word Problems for Kids)
Every student upon reading that problem is going to think, "This is math I am never going to use.  Why on earth would they need the tires to go the same number of km or spend the time to change them if none go flat?"

Many studies have shown that our students feel that school is not relevant and does not teach them what they will need to know in their lives outside of school.  Unfortunately, they may be more right than we want to admit.  Think about the skills and knowledge you use in your life.  How much of it did you learn in formal classrooms?  We need to spend more time teaching kids to find, analyze, and create knowledge instead of trying to fill their heads with facts.  We need to start teaching students in a way that reflects the world outside our classrooms.

Photo Credit -Thomas Favre-Bulle, Flickr