Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Surprises and Confirmations

Yesterday, I was working on a post, composing it in the new Blogger editor. I got distracted as I'm prone to do and clicked away from the post to do a search, without thinking what I as doing. A few moments later, it occurred to me what I had done and I went to look for it. Alas, it was not to be found. Just now I did a few tests on the auto-save function. It looks like you aren't supposed to lose posts like that if you use their editor. The post should be retained as a draft and appear in your list of posts. The one I made yesterday, however, did not. Surprise! Scientist that I am, I took it as an omen so I'm changing my topic somewhat from what I had planned to write yesterday, a critique of an E.D. Hirsch Op-Ed piece. I'll get to that here, but my sweep will be broader.

Before I do however, and in case anyone at Google reads my stuff, I want to note that apart from pressing the Save button every so often, lest lightning strike twice in the same place, I'm writing in the HTML pane rather than in the Compose pane. This is not because of the more Spartan editing functions, but rather because the font is sans serif, which I prefer on screen. I don't understand the relationship between changing the font in the editor away from the default, and which font will appear in the blog. I am using Arial font to display the blog. A thought occurred to me that if I use Arial in the Compose pane, then it will display as Arial.  So I try this and then go back to the HTML pane.  It puts div tags around each paragraph and selects Helvetica, which I take it to be the default sans-serif font.  (My version of Word doesn't even have Helvetica.  They are cousins but they are not identical.)  When I revert back to the default font, the div tags remain, though they no longer specify which font it is to use.  And now there are some span tags as well.  Anyway, I wonder if it would be possible to be able to choose, a font for the editor without that impacting the font for display.  I often write long posts and sometimes stare at the screen for quite a while.  It would be nice to have a look that pleases me while composing the posts.

* * * * *

Last night was Open House at the High School.  Parents get to attend their child's classes for about 10 minutes and in that time the teacher gives an overview of what they are doing and answers any questions the parents might have.  This is our fifth year doing this, as our older son also went through the process.  Last night I was more mouthy than I usually am, I suppose because my son is taking 4 AP classes and I felt I could ask some questions from a knowing perspective (not about AP classes, abut about college classes and what those should be accomplishing).  And over the weekend, I had read this piece featured in the NY Times Magazine, What if the Secret to Success is Failure?  The piece is about developing character, force of will, or sitzfleisch, the term I used in my essay on The Purpose of General Education, though the term is not used in the NY Times piece.  And the thesis, one I largely concur with, is that this is not a lesson one can learn by thinking it through.  One has to have the requisite experience.  One must struggle.  In the NY Times Magazine piece there is discussion of an elite high school in Riverdale, in the Bronx, where they have abandoned AP courses because they seemingly taught the opposite lesson.  So I was mindful of of that during the Open House.  I also recalled a discussion I had many years ago with one of the math teachers at Uni High who had been using some educational technology my shop supported.   In that conversation he asserted that bright kids benefit more from enrichment of the curriculum than from speeding it up.  AP courses are mainly not enrichment.  They are mostly acceleration.  So I had that thought in my head too.  

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the evening and it left me with a good feeling afterward.  Some of the teachers seemed very young to me.  My wife commented on it too, so it's not entirely my imagination getting the better of me.  They were very energetic and full of enthusiasm.  This has to be a benefit for the students; the instructor temperament sets the tone for the entire class.  A couple of them gave a little self-confession that they weren't very good students when in college.  Were I not a Professor myself, I'd have found those remarks daunting.   But given my own history, as a student and as a teacher, in the main I viewed it as a good thing.  There's more empathy for the students that way.  These teachers have an implicit understanding of motivation, where it comes from and what works. 

On the substance of what I heard, I liked what the AP English teacher had to say the most.  In her course students were to read many prescribed readings for the entire class, but the students also were asked to read books of their own choosing.  In discussing the AP exam (all of the AP classes are focused on the exams that will be administered next May) at my prompt she described the test as requiring students to apply the methodology they've learned during the school year..  The test requires them to do analysis of the reading (in my The Purpose of General Education piece I call it Reading Comprehension).  None of the other teachers specifically talked about teaching methodology.  And in the one non-AP class we went to, the instructor gave us (the parents) a quiz which after a couple of minutes we went through aloud.  This quick introduction to the course clearly supported the idea that learning at this level is about mastering facts, rather than developing appreciation for a methodology.  I'm guessing that most students have bought into the mastering facts view, perhaps the only troubling thing that came across during the evening, though we should all remember, myself included, that these are not yet college students. 

And now let me segue to Hirsch, though in his piece he is mainly focused on primary school and here we're talking about the senior year in high school.  Hirsch argues that early on instructors must ensure that students get the gist of whatever is being taught, which requires lingering on the subject until each student obtains it.  Hirsch claims that if students have the gist, they can then learn new words as they are used in context.  This is how they will read better.  Since I had seen Salman Khan on Charlie Rose not that long ago and one of the interesting points I recall him making is that in typical education students may not get "it" and that might very well be foundational material, but the course proceeds as if they have.  For the students who didn't get it, the next stuff is built on a very shaky foundation, if there is any foundation at all.  So on this I found Hirsch interesting and believable. 

But Hirsch didn't write at all about individual approaches and letting each student proceed according to their own current capacities and inclinations.  So after reading his piece I did a search on Individualized Reading and read a few pieces (a how to, it's effectiveness, and something of a hybrid, for which you need access to JSTOR to read the full piece).  The conclusion I draw from these pieces is that "part" of what a student learn has to come from the student inserting himself into the activity, individualized reading being such a form of insertion.  This was my conclusion, as well, from reading On Not Being Able to Paint, by Marion Milner, and thus the insertion of self into the subject a way becomes a way to bring in art to what otherwise might seem an arms length discipline.  

This seems to me possible in social science classes, where a student's point of view can clearly matter, both on what and on how the student learns.  My son is taking AP Econ, and the instructor is going pretty much by the textbook, in doing that the student's job is to master what is presented.  There is no room for the student to insert himself.  But they do have class discussion on the issues and there it is possible.  My son seems to do this almost instinctively.  That seems a good balance. 

I'm less sure about the student inserting himself into math or physics at this level, especially if the student is taking those for "rounding" their education.  When I was in high school, doing the odd math problem was a form of self-expression, but doing the ordinary homework was not, but I was a Math Team guy an so atypical in that respect.  What does seem possible more broadly, though I don't know if it is happening here, is to tie what is being taught to student prior experiences.  Emphasizing the textbook may block bringing in the student's own experience.  Certainly that prior experience is not relevant for the AP tests themselves.  But for the back and forth that happens in the classroom and elsewhere at school, it probably does.  

We also attended the Physical Education (PE) class and there I was pleasantly surprised by the greeting we got when we walked into the auditorium.  (There was some competition going on in the Gym so PE was done in the auditorium.)  My son came along for the evening.  He's much more into school now than he was a couple of years ago and expressed an interest in coming.  He seemed very keyed up during much of the evening, which was also rewarding to see.  One of the PE teachers, who turned out to be the Head Football Coach, said my son was his hero and when he grew up he wanted to become my son.  I replied, I do too. I learned that this sort of banter is a regular occurrence and that once in a while my son leads the PE class in their warm up exercises.  I never would have guessed that. 

The final period of the day was for ECP, which I think stands for Employment Coordination Program.  Each student must declare a preferred field of work and the program aims to both provide general job seeking skills and to give the student a bit of mentoring from a professional in the field, so the student can get a better sense of what the profession is like. This class was smaller than the rest - only 10 students - and because it was the last period or for some other reason, we were the only family in attendance, so we had a private and very good conversation with the teacher.  Though it's obviously broader in scope since the kids can choose any profession, this ECP class seemed similar in spirit to Business 101, an introduction to professional responsibility.  I hadn't realized that this sort of thing had now reached down into the high schools.

The overall impression is that while school makes strong demands on the kids and does provide a fair amount of stress with the emphasis on grades and the fairly frequent testing,  it also provides a welcoming environment, one where a bright kid can thrive.  The balance seemed good to me.

* * * * *

I'm guessing that most kids do struggle quite a bit in their teen years, if not in school then with other aspects of their lives.  I know I did.  One of the big deal issues for a teen is whether to respect adult authority, especially when there doesn't seem to be wisdom in what the adult is saying.  It's all the more difficult when it's a parent, but it could still be a challenge with a teacher or a boss at work who seems arbitrary, uncaring, on lacking perception.  I don't know if this sort of struggle builds character or if it simply represents a phase in life that most kids transit through.

There is perhaps also a struggle with the meaning of life questions.  Envision school as one big game.   The kid asks himself, "Why should I play?"  I'd guess that the trigger for asking the question is that the ego is taking a beating because the kid is under performing relative to his own expectations determined by past performance or by comparison with other kids he considers as peers.  This may be the first time the kid seriously looks at his own motivation.  If all his behavior seems a reaction to extrinsic motivation qua grades, the house of cards may crumble. Perhaps this is a necessary intermediate step before discovering some intrinsic motivation.  I do think there is character building in that, but perhaps not enough. 

Some good students nonetheless find high school hard.  They learn coping mechanisms to deal with the difficulty.  Those coping mechanisms, if they are allowed to mature as the student matures, may be precisely the character building that is needed.  Diligence is clearly requisite for the student who finds school hard but who wants to do well.  Learning to be diligent at an early age converts a minus into a plus.  This is where slow and steady wins the race.  Students who find high school easy may hit a wall in college without adequate coping skills to get them through.  Many of them don't learn diligence, if the all nighters and cramming sessions are any indication. 

I maintain that much of this is "habit formation" rather than "choice."  Much of character development is the forming of good habits.  On this score one might look at AP courses in two different ways.  They are acceleration, sure, and perhaps that precluded a stop to smell the roses view of learning.  But they are harder too, and may encourage the kids to embrace more mature habits about their studies. 

Understanding that duality, I came out of last night with a better appreciation of that second prong.  I hope what my son is getting out of  the experience will stay with him later, quite apart from the subject matter he is learning. 

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