Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Don't Much Like Windows, Either

There was a little blip in Parade Magazine last September that's still annoying me. Essentially, it says Bill Gates is concerned about the bottom 80% of students in American schools who are not well served by the current system. Like many from the business world who dabble in education reform, he laments the lack of rigorous national standards testing and advocates phonics for reading instruction.

(I'll give him credit for encouraging small high schools, though. If you're going to have high schools at all, smaller may well be better than big.)

But sheesh! You'd think by now No Child Left Behind would have made it obvious that standards tests do not cause learning to happen. The idea, I suppose, is that because of the tests, educators will revolutionize their methods and curricula, causing Real Learning to suddenly occur. In reality, standards tests mostly seem to cause educators (or their more politically oriented supervisors) to focus specifically on the tests and let real learning shift for itself.

What we end up with is a narrowed curriculum which concentrates on skills and factoids amenable to multiple-choice evaluation and students who are legitimately more and more bored and disengaged as they drudge their way through what we call their education.

Critics of progressive education reform often sneer about the futility of "throwing money at the schools." But throwing money at testing companies doesn't seem to be any more effective, and at least when we threw what little money we tried throwing at schools, kids and teachers ended up with a few materials actually in the classroom.

As for phonics, don't even get me started!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Speaking of Duh Studies . . .

Dave Munger over at Cognitive Daily posted a nice little description last week about how damaging generic praise can be. The effective difference betweeen "You are a good drawer" and "You did a good job drawing" is astonishing. Well worth a look for anyone working with kids. (And I suspect the concept may apply to us older types, too.)

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Simplicity of Complexity

There's a theme uniting recent bits of "Duh" research that have caught my attention over the past few weekes.

Last month, of course, a study that said educational videos for infants have detrimental effects on vocabulary development was all over the news.

Earlier this month, a pair of researchers wrote an article in the Boston Globe ("Art for Our Sake") about their work looking at the effects of arts instruction in schools. They contend that such programs are more important for the general thinking skills (observation, reflection, critical thinking, etc.) they encourage than for the specffic arts content.

Just this week, my local paper ran an article about the "Calfornia Children's Outdoor Bills of Rights":
Every child should have the opportunity to:

1. Discover California's Past
2. Splash in the water
3. Play in a safe place
4. Camp under the stars
5. Explore nature
6. Learn to swim
7. Play on a team
8. Follow a trail
9. Catch a fish
10. Celebrate their heritage

And the reasoning behind this celebration and promotion of the great outdoors for kids?
Numerous studies document that children who do these things are healthier, do better in school, have better social skills and self-image, and lead more fulfilled lives.

There's certainly a solid argument to be made that arts and outdoors experiences ought to be valued simply for what they are. That they have positive cognitive effects shouldn't be a necessary prerequisite for their inclusion in our everyday lives, but that's a discussion for another day.

What the vocabulary study, the arts study, and the outdoors bill of rights all have in common is their recommendation of complex, stimulating, interactive settings as more conducive to learning and cognitive development. Essentially, they're saying that conventional educational methods, where instruction is presented to students in a top-down fashion, just isn't as effective at teaching the skills we want our kids to have as letting them learn from hands-on, open-ended experiences.

Sounds suspiciously like unschooling to me.