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October 12, 2010

Fads and Meeting Challenges

Nick Diaz

The world is changing at the speed of thought, yet the United States consistently ranks at or near the bottom among developed nations in every quantifiable category that measures achievement and preparedness in school-age students.


In our efforts to improve our schools, educational reform continues to be a major concern with ideas ranging from high stakes testing to merit pay for teachers.


School systems claim they need more money.


Teachers suggest that our problems would disappear if parents were more involved in their kid’s education.


Others claim that teachers’ unions and the concept of tenure are to blame.


Students blame everybody but themselves.


Is it possible that there are other factors involved? What happened to accountability and discipline?


It seems the more pressing issues are student self-esteem and being socially acceptable. In our elementary schools, games like tug-of-war have been replaced by more socially tolerant titles like tug-of-peace. Teachers are encouraged to use kinder, gentler colors when grading papers because they have a more calming influence than the traditional red pen. Is it possible that education has become about coddling our kids, instead of challenging them?


Schools should be about issues and ideas, innovation and independent thinking. They should be about learning to make choices, while understanding that with all choices come consequences. Sometimes, the consequences are negatives.


I really don’t concern myself with the all the educational fads with fancy terms that have come and gone. Unfortunately, a good number have not gone. Just three examples:


“Writing across the curriculum.” It doesn't really work for instructors who aren't trained in writing pedagogy. In a math or science discipline it makes little sense. No one really ever believed that math, art, or music teachers should be spending oodles of time teaching writing.


“Differentiated Instruction.” “The intent of ‘differentiating instruction’ is to maximize each student’s growth and individual success by meeting each student where he or she is, and assisting in the learning process,” writes Dr. Tracey Hall, a proponent of this idea.


Easy for Dr. Hall to say. I would like to see her try to execute this teaching technique with 120 high school composition students each day.


Actually, good teachers have been instinctively differentiating instruction – for decades, even centuries – presenting concepts in a variety of ways that appeal to distinct learners for years, long before it became fashionable. These teachers also implement a number of assessment strategies to allow students to capitalize on their strengths.


Heterogeneous grouping. Homogeneous grouping based on students’ current skills is bad. It lowers self-esteem and creates tracks. It is discrimination. Groups should be heterogeneous.


This proposition states that homogeneous grouping is essentially hierarchical; hierarchy is a perversion of (a mythical state of) natural equality, and therefore bad.


In fact, teachers learn very quickly that children in the same class are not equal – are not identical. Some students need more learning opportunities, assistance, individual attention, and practice than other students. Some students are ready for harder material than other students.


Teaching to a heterogeneous group means that students get the same instruction despite their differences. Therefore, few students receive the kind of instruction from which they would most benefit. Ironically, the call for heterogeneous grouping means that students' initial differences really do become tracks because the neediest students fall even farther behind. I’ve seen this time and again in all my years.


Above are only three of the many fads that educationists have been proposing. In my 40 years in education, I choose to ignore them mostly.


Simply put, I have found that when a student is open to learning, I can teach him. If he is not, then it is my responsibility to find a way to open his mind. He doesn’t really care how much money is being spent, nor does he care if his teacher belongs to the union or has tenure. If the student is even remotely open to learning…he will learn.


Jean Piaget wrote: “The principal goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify – and not accept – everything they are offered.”


Teaching students who want to learn is relatively easy. Teaching a student who doesn’t want to learn is a bit more difficult. Developing a school system that meets the needs of everyone…that’s the challenge!


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