The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Science is facts; just as houses are made of stones, so is science made of facts; but a pile of stones is not a house and a collection of facts is not necessarily science"...  ....Henri Poincare.

Commentary of the Day - March 11, 2004:  What Sends Us Back to the Basics?  Guest commentary by Poor Elijah (Peter Berger).

Whole language disciples are still in denial, but most schools and policy makers have at least temporarily stumbled onto the realization that you can generally teach reading more successfully if you teach kids the sounds that letters make first.  Even avant garde California has opted for phonics-based instruction after someone noticed that skipping that step had coincided with over a decade's worth of "plummeting" reading scores.  Naturally, this doesn't mean that you don't let kids read good books, too.  It just means that first you should show them how the alphabet works.

The lull in scholastic hostilities over elementary reading instruction leaves experts free to devote their energies to the battle over math instruction.  Like their reading comrades in arms, math warriors also sort themselves into two camps.  On one side are proponents of "critical thinking" and "problem solving."  They condemn their adversaries' emphasis on the "basics."  Across the line the other team doesn't object to "higher order" math.  They just think kids should learn to add and subtract before they tackle algebra.

In Illinois, for example, a new statewide test is "drawing the ire" of higher math partisans.  Even though three fourths of the test addresses algebra, geometry, and analytical skills, critics are "horrified" because twenty percent of the questions involve "naked math."  Naked math is what people used to call learning to work with numbers.

Higher math folks maintain that math has to be taught "in the context of real world situations."  They condemn teaching students "to compute 7 percent of $350."  Instead, you need to teach them "how much sales tax John paid on his new $350 DVD player."  Of course, that's tough to figure out unless you first learn how to compute 7 percent of $350.

Vermont math progressives stand in solidarity with their Illinois colleagues.  Instead of obsolete, irrelevant, "two trains leave Chicago" problems, they've provided their dose of "real world context" in a math portfolio exercise that begins, "A community of gnomes in a magic forest is upset because their forest is being bulldozed for a shopping mall."

One higher math booster warns that a focus on "lower level math" will return us to the dire days when some students "could add and subtract, but they couldn't make change."  Presumably, that would be worse than the present day where many students now also can't add and subtract.

Trains, gnomes, and DVDs aside, word problems and analysis aren't new.  There's also nothing new or wrong about expecting students to show their work and apply their "number sense" to problem solving.  What is wrong is expecting kids to handle algebra and geometry without first mastering the fundamentals.

There's similar news at science desk, where educators in California, "the vanguard of educational trends," are battling over "the best way to teach science."  In one corner are the champions of "discovery" science, which features "hands-on" activities.  "Direct instruction" advocates counter that "hands-on dominated curriculum doesn't offer enough content."

The current dispute involves a curriculum commission's recommendation that science texts should consist of roughly "twenty-five percent hands-on activities" with the balance devoted to providing information and explaining scientific principles.  In case you're thinking that proportion doesn't sound unreasonable, a spokesperson for the discovery team blasted the proposal as "beyond idiotic."  She claims, "there isn't a scientist who thinks you can do science without hands-on."

Someone needs to explain to her the basic math that twenty-five percent hands-on isn't the same as "without hands-on."  Someone likewise needs to point out that there probably also isn't a scientist who thinks kids can do science without knowing anything about it.

Proponents of direct instruction don't favor eliminating experiments.  They just think that hands-on activities have been increasingly over-emphasized and that "without the basics, students can't learn more complex scientific theories."

They're also understandably alarmed by discovery devotees who do go beyond including laboratory activities in science courses and actually eliminate a "fixed curriculum" and books altogether.  In this cutting-edge scheme, "science texts are gone."  Instead teams of kids follow their investigative noses and "learn for themselves" while their teachers, as well as all the scientists of the past and their research apparently, "get out of the way."

It can make an impression when students discover all the microscopic, scurrying creatures in a drop of water.  Telescopes can give them a glimpse of the stars.  But that's not going to teach kids all they need to know about cell life or the heavens.  It makes no sense to base a curriculum or a text on the expectation that students will rediscover by themselves everything that scientists have learned over the past few thousand years.

One discovery promoter accuses the "direct instruction crowd" of obsessing on "what students know, not what they are able to do or understand."  He charges that direct instruction produces students unable "to solve problems using logic and evidence."

I've never heard an advocate of fundamentals argue that kids need to know things without understanding them.  I've never heard a defender of direct instruction condemn the ability to employ logic and evidence.  I have heard discovery zealots justify proudly why they've eliminated textbooks, and why all schools should do the same.

We've all had teachers whose classes have been little more than undigested facts and unapplied skills.  But the more troubling trend over the past generation up to the present day has been instruction that neglects the fundamentals.

No matter what the school subject, or job, before you advance to "higher order skills," it only makes sense that you need to first master the lower order skills on which they're based.  That's why they're called "basic skills."  The more extremists insist on skipping and slighting those skills, the more reality will compel us and our students back to the basics.

How many committees, reports, and years of expert combat will it take before we learn this lesson?

©2004 Peter Berger
Peter Berger is a regular contributor to The Irascible Professor.  He teaches English in Weathersfield, VT.  Comments addressed to the editor will be forwarded to Peter.

The IP comments: Much of what Poor Elijah says makes sense; however, the IP would place even more emphasis on the need to avoid the extremes of both the "traditionalists" and the "progressives" in these debates over curriculum.  Unfortunately, the "true believers" on both sides of these arguments tend to be the folks who drive both the discussion and the outcomes.  Clearly, elementary school student need to develop some practical numeracy skills before they can begin to appreciate the more subtle properties of mathematics.  At the same time learning the multiplication tables and similar rote skills is an exercise in futility if the students never learn to apply these skills to practical, everyday problems like being able to figure out which size box of tissues is the best value (for months my local supermarket was selling the smaller box at a lower price per tissue than the larger box, yet the larger boxes seemed to be moving faster than the smaller ones.)  The biggest problem in elementary school math is not the curriculum.  Rather, it is the teachers, who by and large tend to be uncomfortable with mathematics.  The situation is much better at the high school level where most math teachers have had real training in the discipline.

Likewise, a science curriculum based totally on "direct instruction" is likely to bore most K-12 students beyond belief.  On the other hand, a curriculum based entirely on hands-on "discovery" exercises will likely generate a plethora of misconceptions in the minds of students.  (At the university level we spend a substantial amount of time trying to correct these misconceptions.)  Many scientific concepts are counter-intuitive, and unless "discovery" exercises are carefully designed to guide the student towards a correct understanding of the principles involved they will do more harm than good.  A combination of engaged, direct instruction with hands-on work is a better choice by far.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the science curriculum, there is a third force out there that is even more dangerous than true-believing "traditionalists" or progressives.  These are the parents whose primary interest is to ensure that their kids don't learn any science that might challenge their religious beliefs.

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