Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Modern Pedagogy, CSCOPE, Common Core, Our Future

I'm not going to list out my bona fides concerning education and child development again. I'm not going to list my wife's either. All that should matter is that we are educated, informed, and active parents.

In a few short weeks, Texas students third grade and up will take the STARS test. STARS testing is a state-wide cookie-cutter standardized test based upon the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) set up by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) and State Board of Education (SBoE).

Common Core is a bad idea on the national level. The studies have proven it harmful and disastrous. Given a state as large as Texas, similar concepts should apply.

CSCOPE was an attempt to sneak Common Core assessments, curricula, and material into the Texas education system. CSCOPE was not completely outlawed. It is still in use. However, it is more open to public access than it was last year.

Also, we have some writers of the TEKS come forward and proudly state they incorporated what they felt to be important aspects of Common Core into the TEKS. They did this behind parents' backs and without our approval. There is nothing worse than a politician telling an educated individual to "shut up" because "I know what is best for you better than you do".

Well, today I had a rather enlightening parent-teacher conference. The reasons for it and the name of the teacher are not important. I will say that it was refreshing to have an educator who is about as pleased with current curricula, the current TEKS, and the infiltration of Common Core as parents should be. He or she left me with that impression. However, it may not be his or her true beliefs. Teaching is a very political job, like being in the military, and teachers have to walk a thin line of not ticking off either parents or the administration. So, nodding and agreeing without commenting or confirming is normally the best way to leave your audience believing you are of similar beliefs. I am not saying he or she did or did not do this. I am stating that it would be understandable if he or she did.

Hopefully that was just confusing enough to obfuscate the point.

In any case, the TEKS expect third graders to think critically.

Let that soak in for a few moments.

They don't teach times tables anymore.

They don't teach cursive writing anymore.

Writing must first be a flow of ideas before they start looking at grammar, paragraph structure, organization, or even spelling.

History isn't important.

But they want kids to be able to articulate their thoughts and feelings based upon implications, symbolism, and inferences coupled with their own life experiences.

Look at that last bit again. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Now answer me this:  What "life experiences" does a 9 year old have? Most people cannot remember much of anything prior to their third birthday. So, six years of "life experience"? I have more time in combat.

It isn't an insult to 9 year olds. They're 9. They are supposed to be experiencing childhood, not comparing and contrasting abstract ideas to their bank of experiences.

Now is when they need to build that foundation of facts and experience. Without it, they won't be able to think critically when they reach the appropriate age for abstract meta-cognitive activities. In simple terms, the kid won't be able to build a bird house. He'll be able to critique the color scheme and shape. But he won't know the difference between a screw and a nail, a hammer and a screwdriver, or a dowel. Heck, the poor kid will cut his fingers off with a saw while trying to use it to nail in a screw.

It comes down to foundations.

Teachers are told to develop lesson plans around "the concepts". The problem is that "the concepts" have no storage boxes. They float in, hit short-term memory, and are data-dumped after the test. There is no foundation onto which they can anchor. This causes anxiety in kids who are now pushed to perform at levels they are not ready to perform. They are told to do a triple somersault off a high dive before they even know how to tread water. They're drowning.

People look at certain other countries that appear so much more advanced than ours, academically. For example, the Japanese appear to be better at math. It isn't an ethnic thing. It is a culture issue. We had the premise in our culture at one time. Sadly, it's gone the way of the dodo in the name of "progress".

The Japanese teach math the way martial arts instructors teach martial arts. They learn the basics, the fundamentals. When they have learned those well enough, they learn their first more advanced move. When tested on that more advanced move, they are tested, again, on those fundamentals. Each lesson warms up by returning to those fundamentals. Repetition. Back to basics. When they stumble and have difficulty on the more advanced moves, they go back to practicing the fundamental that predicated it. Then they rebuild the more advanced by reviewing each intermediary step the student should have learned. Then they practice, practice, practice until they "get it". Once they "get it", they practice it more until it anchors to all else they learned.

The same goes with math. Kids need to know how to add in order to multiply. They need to know the foundation of times tables (0 through 12) in order to do more advanced multi-digit multiplication problems, including the concept of carrying. They need to understand all of that plus subtraction in order to do simple division. Then they need to learn borrowing to do long division. These are all necessary to learn those lovely and enjoyable subjects we all loved such as algebra and trigonometry. A student won't be able to figure out the sine or cosine of an angle if they cannot first learn long division. They will never get those concepts without those basic arithmetic foundations and laws. 2 + 2 = 4. 2 x 4 = 8. 8 x 8 = 64. 64 / 4 = 16.

We also have these generational divides caused by changes in educational pedagogy.

Gen-Xers, like me, ask "Why" and mean "Why me?".

Millennials ask "why?" and mean "I know it works, but why does it work? Is there something else that works that way, too? Why do we have to do it that way if another way might work?"

The current generation doesn't bother to even ask "why"? "Why?" doesn't matter. Everything is relative. Correct answers don't matter as much as understanding the abstract concepts. That is, they don't matter until a standardized test is coming up and school funding (including bonuses and administrative salaries) is partially determined by student performance.

But this current generation asks "So, this is what you are saying? ...". Usually it is something far from your point. But they don't care about your point. They care about their interpretation of the message. The real meaning doesn't matter. All that matters is their existential and relative understanding as they see fit. My 9 year old tells me this every day.

See, a 9 year old is attempting to debate like a 16 year old. That may seem precocious. However, most 16 year olds don't have the facts or experience to debate a 45 year old. 9 year olds have even less. Yet, this is what they are taught. They are taught to justify their answer (not to have the correct answer) and explain the concept they used to arrive at that conclusion. It doesn't matter if they employed the wrong formula, wrong definition, wrong spelling, wrong dictionary in the wrong language. See, they thought critically.

But they are failing. Why? Again, it's the basics.

It's also the culture of the community.

I did a few group projects in grade school. I hated group projects.

Thankfully, I attended a private high school that didn't believe in community grading.

My wife did a lot more group projects to include several in her masters program. She is not the greatest fan of them. Her generation did a lot more of them, though.

The current generation faces a curricula built on many or them. This includes "citizenship" grades.

To understand why these are bad ideas, let me explain why I hated them as a kid. This is best done with one example. This was actually one of the better group projects I was forced to do.

We were studying basic human anatomy in 6th grade. I do mean "basic". Not as basic as "eyes, nose, ears" like you teach a preschooler. But we covered the main elements of each major system. For example, the main parts of the nervous system are the brain, brain stem, and nerves. You know, sixth grade level stuff. We were given a system and a team of 4-5. The teacher was smart enough to match better students with those not as advanced. Part of the idea was for those more advanced to rub off on those less advanced and increase their understanding. It didn't happen.

Here is what happened. Two of us did all of the research. We divided up tasks. I was the overall organizer and quality control. I worked on parts of the paper. I proofread it. I wrote the bibliography and notes pages. Then one of the girls, who was not as advanced, wrote out the whole thing for us. She had the best handwriting. I also helped with the physical display. So did the girl who helped with the research and wrote the majority of the paper. The two other boys were supposed to write portions of the paper.Two days before it was due, they still hadn't started. We gave them the books with the pages marked! And they still hadn't done any of it. They were also tasked with parts of the physical display, a labeled molding clay model of the brain and brain stem. So, the girl with the pretty handwriting and I did most of the sculpture and labeling. The other girl wrote the other boys' portions of the paper. The boys did make little red "snakes" to put on the brain and stem to represent how they integrated into the cardiovascular system. Wasn't that nice of them?

Lesson learned, three of us did 99% of the work. Two of us did 95% of the academic portion. The other girl did 88% of the artistic. The two other boys did maybe a combined 3% of  the work. We all got the "A" that three of us actually worked for.

I wish the grades were weighted by contribution. They would have been "A", "A", "B+", "F", "F". Communism at work in the classroom. Well, the current generation gets a lot more of those group projects than I suffered.

The "concepts" rubbed onto those boys though. The concepts they learned were "don't do anything and somebody who cares about their own skin will take care of yours to save it". What that becomes in adulthood is "Why work when I can vote for people who will just take what another has earned and give me part of it?"

That, folks, is common core in a nutshell. But it is more than just common core. It is the sandy sinkhole of progressive pedagogy leaving our kids without a foundation.

Luckily, agree with me or not, my daughter's teacher acknowledges my viewpoint. She offered help in tutoring my daughter in the fundamentals, the basics, those key elements the schools skip. Those skipped key elements that leave those same schools wondering why the kids aren't learning.