What is wrong with how public education is structured for kids?
I don’t know where to start with this question. The original structure of the school day was devised to prepare people for factory work–hence the length of the subject periods, regular breaks, that sort of thing. Accordingly, as a teacher I had to schedule a certain number of MINUTES PER DAY for Language Arts, Mathematics, Science, et cetera. Nevermind that good investigations, projects, and discussions do NOT conform to those sorts of timeframes, and that it is much more engaging and meaningful to learn to read through the arts or social studies…or learn to write and do math in order to complete scientific explorations. The results of segregated subjects and truncated work times are often superficial and interfere with real learning. How can we ever go deep in any particular direction?
About a decade ago, a study (the TIMMS report) revealed that in Japanese schools, 9 and 10-year-olds were exposed to an average of four topics in mathematics over the course of an entire YEAR of instruction. That means that children might spend months exploring fractions in a meaningful and comprehensive way. Furthermore, teachers had release time on a daily basis to plan together and discuss how to reach children who might be struggling, as well as those who needed more of a challenge. What a concept–teachers could work together to hone their skills. In contrast, a fourth grader in U.S. schools was expected to cover 35 or 40 topics in the same amount of time, and there was NO paid time to collaborate with colleagues. Here’s your teaching guide, buddy. Sink or swim. Oof. There is nothing lonelier than the first year of teaching.
To top it off, No Child Left Behind forced us to focus an egregious amount of our time and energy on TEST TAKING, particularly in “at-risk” schools. I was told to throw out most subjects and focus on the very basics of language arts and math. Seriously. Oh well. Funding had already been cut for all of the “extras” anyway: art, music, physical education went by the wayside. What is the goal here? Test-taking drones? To be clear, visual, performing arts, P.E. are all still included in the state standards, they just are not supported by funding, resources, teacher training programs and personnel. And no one is thinking about your school’s play or integrated visual arts projects when they peruse the standardized test scores in the paper.
To make matters worse, every few years the textbook industry fuels an overhaul and we have to introduce a new math or language arts curriculum: buy all new texts and supporting materials, get new training, and then, just as we start to reach proficiency with any particular set of materials, we start over with new ones. Furthermore, the pendulum swings wildly between the pedagogy du jour, when the most obvious truth is that not all children learn by the same mechanism, and we need an approach which addresses many different learning styles.
A friend of mine–a teacher and a scientist–mentioned to me that the way we teach science is all backwards. “To prepare students to be scientists,” he mused, “we need to set out questions without knowing the answers. THAT’S what science in the world is all about. Pose the questions–better yet, solicit the questions–and investigate together.” Nevermind, if we set aside time for science, we won’t meet the API goals for this year anyway.