Saturday, April 4, 2009

Magical thinking

Here's a problem I gave my students on a test last year:
Dr. Doyle walks to school every morning--is he contributing carbon dioxide to the air?
How is his carbon dioxide "different" from a car's carbon dioxide?
Why does this difference matter as far as global warming is concerned.

(If I could have the last question back, I would ask "Why does this difference matter as far as CO2 levels are concerned?" I want my lambs to draw their own conclusions.)

We had tossed this question around in class in various forms, so I thought I was throwing the kids a softball.

Apparently I breathe out "good" CO2, the kind that plants use for photosynthesis, and cars belch out "bad" CO2, the kind that cooks the planet.

I have a long way to go before I can call myself a good teacher....


The New York Times reported old news yesterday--traces of perchlorate, a rocket fuel ingredient, is in baby formula. I suppose it's news because you get to say "rocket fuel" and "baby formula" in the same sentence.

The effects? Not known.

We'll talk about it over dinner, at least until tomorrow, when someone kills 13 hostages, or Monday, when the NCAA March madness ends.


I do not expect that my students will know much content when they leave my class. Oh, they'll know enough content to pass a state test, and they might even retain a Newtonian law or two, but that's not why I teach.

A student frustrated by a physics problem asked me Wednesday "Why do we have to learn any of this anyway?"

I stopped the lesson.
How much water are you supposed to drink in a day?
"8 glasses."
Not true!

"No? But that's what everybody says..."
People are making stuff up, some might even be lying.
Which w
ater has higher standards for purity, the tap water or the bottled water?

"Um, the bottled water?"
Try again. And which costs more, much more.
Ah, she knew this one--"The bottled water!"

I then discussed ranted for a couple of minutes about how children will be told a lot of things to buy and vote and live in ways not necessarily in their best interests and, after catching my breath, told them:
I don't give a rat's butt [yes, I say "rat's butt" in class] if you remember any of these equations in July. You take science class to learn how to examine evidence, to learn how to think. It's not the only way to think, but it's a very effective one.
My first miracle: no one rolled their eyes.


Here's another question I asked last year, and again this week. It's a multiple choice question, one easily tested while taking a test.

If you blow between two sheets of paper, what is most likely to happen?

a. The sheets move apart.
b. The sheets move together.
c. It cannot be predicted.

If you do not know the answer, try it. Last year I had a student try it 7 or 8 times during the test. I finally made him stop because it was starting to distract the others.

He got the answer wrong despite seeing with his own eyes that when you blow between two sheets of paper, they come together.

How did you get it wrong?
"Well, I saw that they went together, but that didn't make sense, so I put down the answer I thought you would say was right."

This is what we train our children to do.


Has anyone who supports the No Child Left Behind Act actually read it?

All students will reach high standards,
at a minimum attaining proficiency or better
in reading and mathematics by 2013-2014.

Now in our magical thinking world, all does not mean 100%--I think it's about 97%. Up to 3% of the disabled children will be allowed to "pass" through some modified version.

This would be comical if kids were not hurt. Kids are being hurt.

Jackson, a student in the Seattle school district, has hydrocephalus. He is markedly disabled. He cannot pass the state mandated test.

Everybody in education needs to be aware of Jackson's story, reported here on KUOW.

His mother asked Jackson's teachers not to give him the test, a test his mother, his teachers, and his teachers' administrators all know he will fail.

His mother explains her reasoning--that she even has to explain it shows how twisted we have become.

I mean, it's not like a one–day test. I mean, it's basically from December to March, they have to constantly do stuff for this test that my son's gonna get a zero on. He's not learning anything. And I know for a fact if my teacher thought for one second that he would get anything out of this experience, she would do it.
Rachel McKean

The teachers were suspended. They acted in the child's best interests. The administrators have not (yet) blinked. They are acting in the school district's best interests, which no longer align with the students' best interests because of NCLB.

Rachel McKean is a brave woman. Jackson's teachers acted professionally--given our timidity as a profession, acting professionally requires courage, more than many of us have.

I have several hypotheses about how our fabled democratic body could enact a law that expects 100% proficiency by 2013. Perhaps it was a political ploy hatched by some clever bogeymen designed to dismantle public schools. Maybe "our" representatives had a collective transient psychotic break and did not know what they were voting for. Maybe few of them actually read the bill.

My best guess? Our Congress fell to the allure of magical thinking, and put on their ruby slippers, clicked them three times, and truly believed that if proficiency was legislatively mandated, Jackson could learn to read before he gets to fifth grade.

We all need to put away our ruby slippers and put on our hip boots--the excrement is starting to reek.


John Spencer said...

I see NCLB hurting kids at all levels:

1. I teach one honor's rotation. They get suckered into the test-taking crap. Amazing writers have learned to be less creative, to follow a formula, so that it looks better on the six traits rubric. Kids who are already passing the test can't go on enrichment field trips to visit college campuses. it's depressing.

2. I teach one class with twenty special ed students and thirteen "low level" students. They face a barrage of test prep and I am told that my lessons are "too high" cognitively. People think that these students are stupid because they take longer to process information or they don't read or write well. Yet, many of them are great artists and deep thinkers - just piss poor scholars.

3. The kids in the middle, the "bubble kids" go to mandatory Saturday tutoring so that they can experience more drill-and-kill instead of playing games or going to quinceneras or joining other students in community service.

Jeremy said...

Well, they made the law and we're supposed to follow laws, right? So we have to get everyone at proficiency by the deadline or we're all breaking the law. The politicians who cooked up NCLB have no concept of what goes on in and out of the classroom. Do they realize that the meals some of these kids at school are the only ones they get all day? Maybe. Do they realize how many kids have no parental support and are roaming about the neighborhood until who knows when? Probably not. NCLB is another "dream" that only an ideal society could pull off.

As you said, science should be about making kids think and analyze their surroundings. That's what the scientific method is all about. Facts and equations, especially in today's technological society, are only a mouse click away. If a student doesn't know how to apply those facts and equations to a problem, then what's the point of even knowing them?

doyle said...

Dear John,

I may form an informal group, the Piss Poor Scholars.

The winner of my first annual rocket project two years ago cheerfully failed my class. He would show what he could do, then refuse to do anything more.

Another student, one of the brightest I ever taught, did not believe me when I told him he was brilliant.He could solve problems on the fly, with complex and effective solutions. He was not so good, however, with a pencil. He was in a low level science class (likely because of behavior issues). I saw his confusion, so I confirmed that he sucked as a student, but not to confuse intelligence with education. He broke out in a huge grin. I doubt he'll graduate.

I often teach high level concepts, and you're right, with time many of them get it.

If I ever end up ship-wrecked on a desert island and had to work with a class, I'd take my low level class. They're survivors, and more than a few of them bust their asses just to barely pass.

Dear Jeremy,

It's a funny type of law--not following it results in loss of some money, but only federal dollars, and in our state the town pays most of the bill. I wonder if we are spending more money trying to comply with an impossible law than we are gaining by compliance.

At the risk of sounding like a heretic, the scientific method as taught in the States' public schools is not nearly as useful as we think, and I think we turn off a lot of thinking by forcing kids in a scientific method box. I may have to blog on that some day.

Charlie Roy said...

The question of who wins when all our schools fail to meet 100% proficiency is worth asking. The race to deregulate and privatize our world is certainly on. I work in a private not for profit school. We don't have shareholders and any surplus is saved to benefit the quality of education at a later date. Could the conspiracy be there? Are the private charters circling their pray waiting for the great turnover to take place?

Wayne Stratz said...

two thumbs up for the "piss poor scholars" of the world.

Barry Bachenheimer said...

The "Why do We Need to Know This" question is as old as time. You effectively gave them a very real reason for it.

As you and I have conversed about before, in high school, students are told "it" is important because they will need to know it when they get to college.

We are asking them to delay gratification and trust their teachers.

Teachers in turn trust(?) the curriculum.

You can only trust the curriculum if it asks the right essential questions.

You sir, are teaching what is called "The Hidden Curriculum"!

Jules said...

"You take science class to learn how to examine evidence, to learn how to think. It's not the only way to think, but it's a very effective one."

Bravo! We need to teach students thinking skills! Hopefully, the age of content tyranny and NCLB is coming to a close...