Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Could You Find the Periodic Table on a Map of Asia?

Are you tired of reading about how much you don't know, or never learned, or how far behind your child's education is compared to the rest of the world? No? Well you are are luck. According to two new studies, students in the United States are once again lagging behind in both science and geography. How can we fix this?

Here are the links to the articles:

Both of these articles are correct in saying that students will not effectively learn any subject unless they can connect the content to their own experiences and lives. Too often, states and schools write their curricula to include too much factual detail, yet do not allow students enough time to practice and internalize what they've been exposed to. This is a function of a school year that has outgrown its farm society schedule (at least in New Jersey and New York), its Industrial Revolution-era classroom structure, and the systemic belief that students need to know more sophisticated ideas and have greater thinking skills at an earlier age in order to succeed in our hyper-speed world.

What's worse is that this hand-wringing over what students don't know (which predates the Bible) is occurring at exactly the same time that states are cutting education budgets and teachers are being blamed for all manner of problems from pensions and benefits to collective bargaining rights. Teachers are a resilient bunch and the overwhelming majority will do what they can within both budgetary and statutory constraints to educate every child in their classroom.

Greater use of technology will help. Seasoned teachers are being trained in how to use the new resources at their disposal, and newer teachers, who grew up with technology, are infusing their lessons with essential tools such as SMART Boards,Google Maps and online tutorials. It's also time to allow students to use their cell phones and tablets to access websites during class in order to answer questions and make their experiences more interactive. My view is that the more we ban in the classroom the more we will fight students who will use their creative energies (and how creative they can be) to skirt whatever roadblocks we try to put in their way. Rather than wasting time disciplining a students for using a phone, have them pull up a map, or document or a research institute site that will help them better understand the subject. I'm sure that teachers and administrators can create guidelines that will allow for greater use of personal devices in the classroom.

Field trips will also help. It's essential for students to see actual practice in whatever field they're studying, and I can say from experience that students learn more from an effective trip than they can from a teacher trying to explain an idea. Virtual trips are also worthwhile, as are guest speakers, especially at a time when actual trips are being cut from budgets.

What we do need to keep in mind, though, is that students learn at their own speed and in their own way, and effective teachers know this to be true. Large classes where students cannot get the attention they need will naturally lead to less comprehension and interest in a subject and that, of course, will show up on a standardized test as will measures such as poverty, family stress and community support for schools. If all of these were equal then we could make more logical comparisons. Until these are equal, we will have reports about how much ground we need to make up.


  1. Well said, Bob.

    Personally, I think that it's impossible for teachers to close the gap between the US and other countries, no matter what we do in the classroom. Regardless of changes in curriculum or learning standards, or even teaching equipment and budgets, real change in achievement levels will not take place without a cultural shift in our country. As long as it is "geeky" to do well in school and ok to be President without a firm grasp of American history, we will lag behind other countries.

  2. I'm not sure that it's impossible, but it is difficult for a teacher to close the gaps when the problems come into the classroom with the children. An effective teacher with the necessary resources can mitigate some of the issues.