Monday, May 25, 2009

Parity Between the Classroom and the World Outside

I gave the final Algebra test of the spring semester to my college students last week. As they struggled through simultaneous linear equations, factorization and exponential multiplication and division, I used the time to catch up on my reading. It was a growing-up book by Mark Salzman called Lost In Place. Evocative, humorous, poignant. Just a few paragraphs into chapter 8 and the relevance of its content to my class floored me.

I had written about the major drawback of most educational reforms in America’s K-14 public school system: the absence of student perspective. The weighty papers and manifestos and recommendations, written with seasonal regularity by earnest reformers and retired executives and wealthy philanthropists, list almost everything that is wrong with our education system, except perhaps the most important: What do students think about their curriculum and how does it affect their lives?

But here was Salzman, articulating how he felt about what he was being forced to learn in the ninth grade in a public school in Connecticut: “I disliked the ninth grade nearly as much as I’d disliked the seventh and the eighth grade … Why did the subjects have to be so boring? Did adults do this on purpose? They made the world the way it was, and then made us learn the rules so we would make sure not to change anything! If I’d had to sit through a class five days a week called ‘Plucking All of Your Hairs Out and Arranging Them in Stacks of Prime Numbers,’ it wouldn’t have seemed any better or worse than my actual classes.”

Later in the chapter Salzman gets to the heart of the matter. “Adults tell you that school is not about learning particular facts, but about learning to learn. (I winced. At the beginning of the semester I had said something like this to my class). When the time comes that a subject intrigues you deeply, they insist, you will be grateful for having developed the skills needed to master the subject … And they’re right. The problem for all of us, as teenagers, is that until we find that special subject we have to take their word for it. And that’s a lot to ask when you’re talking about memorizing the Louisiana Purchase, the atomic weight of uranium or the plu-perfect tense conjugation for verbs in other languages. How about the chemistry involved in photosynthesis? Yep - could be useful someday. If a sailboat left San Francisco thirteen hours ago against a 5-knot current and a 4-knot breeze (here my palpitation increased because I had dealt with similar problems using linear equations) and is just now reaching Santa Barbara, 312 miles away, what was its average speed? Hey, couldn’t you just ask the Coast Guard? That’s their job, isn’t it? It’s a miracle any of us make it to the drinking age without having gone insane … We fidget in uncomfortable wooden chairs and learn how to learn. You’re told it will pay off one day, but between the ages of thirteen and eighteen you cannot help wondering, What if it doesn’t pay off? What if our parents (and teachers, I may include) and their parents, were all wrong about what’s really important? How will it ever end if no one questions it? And these years are supposed to be the best years of your life.”

Educators must answer these questions if their recommendations to reform our public schools are to have any chance of success. As it is, their recommendations come and go, a national soul-searching ensues for a day or two and then bloggers and pundits move on to the next crisis of the day.

I find the disconnect between the traditional classroom and the outside world scandalous. Students are stressed out by it. When I asked at the beginning of the semester what professions they were thinking of pursuing, my students listed nursing, interior decoration, sports salesman, professional basketball, psychiatry, psychology and writing. I tried to impress on them the value of logical thinking no matter what profession they decided to pursue but most of them were not buying.

Teachers have to do their job as best as they can but it will help if they can humanize their teaching by knowing where their students stand. If you are teaching algebra, say, at least recognize that some of your students may not be convinced that it will be useful in their lives. If you proceed from that premise, perhaps you will connect with them at some subliminal level that will make the course go down more easily. That’s what I tried to do but I am under no illusion that I succeeded. One thing I did do to reduce the disparity between the classroom and the outside world was that all my tests were open book. After all, at work, any resource is available for you to look up to successfully complete your project. Why not some semblance of it inside the classroom as well?

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