Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Daily Schedule again

The bastard.
Let's ask some rhetorical questions about the nature of school ... and jump to an amazingly random solution. Actually, I'll let someone else do it.

Shawn Cornally thinks we should get rid of class schedules and let the kids figure it all out. After achieving some success with SBG and assuming that he's got all the answers, Cornally takes the mental leap: maybe the reason kids are cheating, lying, "clamoring for meaningless grades and inflated As" is because the school day is scheduled. Throw in "herd mentality" and "cryptically planned lesson", ask a bunch of rhetorical questions masquerading as reasonable thoughts, and suddenly you've got a blog post.

I'll start with grades. Read more of Cornally's work (ThinkThankThunk -Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher) and you see that he has a much better argument for SBG as a cure for grade-grubbing and for improving learning. I personally think it's more about how you grade and interact with your students than what form the grades take, but that's not what we're dealing with here.

Here we're discussing whether the daily schedule itself is the cause.

Now, I've been around a long time and I've attended and taught at both public and private, small and large, 8x40minute or 4x90 minute, strict or relaxed (not quite Ode to Billy Jack  but close) and I've dealt with students from all walks of academic life from hippy home-schooled and unschooled to public schools to the private-schooled ultra-rich.

The schedule isn't the problem and it's not what causes angsty students. I've seen too many schools in which this no-schedule proposal has been tried and has badly failed the students in the long run.
"How can we expect them to connect Hemingway, vectors, pottery, cells, and ancient Greece every day? It’s a disjointed nightmare—to which you might say, "deal with it, that’s school." But what I see in my students is that "dealing with it" results in a lot of material crammed for a test and then forgotten."

"They need to see that you can't always get the right answers from the back of a book. How many times were you allowed to mess up a chemistry lab in high school? Most likely you were graded on how well you reproduced a set of instructions the first time you tried it. That’s not how anyone really learns. Students need to know that things go wrong, and they need to be comfortable—dare I say happy—with failing and retrying."
Interesting strawman argument. Fallacious, but interesting. How can he expect me to connect having a schedule with test cramming? What causal link exists here? Further, the balancing of "learning to follow instructions" and "allowing students to mess up" has what possible link other than coincidental with the fact that you have those students for 90 minutes a day?

Cornally then asks a few questions that I'd like to answer:
What if we removed the passive course-to-course drudgery of the school day? What if there was no schedule? What if students were left with a list of coyly worded benchmarks targeted at creating quality humans, and we just waited to see what they could do? What if teachers were seen as mentors for projects designed to help students meet those benchmarks? What if the students initiated these projects and the teachers spent their time recording TED-style talks that would serve as inspiration and help students generate benchmark-related ideas?
What if, indeed. Well, the school would quickly grind to a halt for one thing. What reformers forget is that students, by and large, are not focused on education in the way education "experts" are. What works for a small subset of the population will not work for the greater portion. Additionally, if you let the students choose from too big a list, you'll give them too many choices and they mentally freeze, doing nothing. Students need structure. Not a prison but not a free-for-all either. Where you draw the lines depends on their age/maturity level.

I've made my choice for today.
"Passive course-to-course drudgery" is his interpretation.  As a math teacher, I would love to focus on one thing for an entire day, but few of my students will nor is it optimal as the basis for learning new things.

"A change of work is the best rest."

Students  have other interests, too; math is important and interesting and satisfying (and therefore fun) but not in large doses. If you eliminate the different courses, you and they will quickly run out of energy.

Leaving a list of "coyly worded benchmarks targeted at creating quality humans" would insult any students who thought about it, irritate the hell out of the rest. Students are smart enough to know when they are being patronized. They'll rebel out of irritation.

What if students "initiated these projects and ... teachers were seen as mentors ... serve as inspiration and help students generate ideas"? This pie-in-the-sky mental diarrhea is the worst of the bunch. First, only a few will initiate anything. The rest won't or will tag along hanging to the coat-tails of others at best, or actively sabotage at worst. Students, by definition, are at the stage in their lives where they are making some good choices and many bad ones. It's why they can't drink, smoke, drive without an adult, rent, get married, have sex with a thirty-year-old, join the military.  Some things they can do only with parental permission or supervision. So many forbidden or limited things ... why? Because they are not adults yet, partially because their parents and society doesn't want to let go yet. If a teacher wants to let the students decide everything, then he needs to switch out of public schools and into a private school that specifically allows for it and whose parents specifically asked (and paid) for it .. and even then, there are limits and limitations on what that education really accomplishes.

TED - Inspirational and Truthy
Not Always at the Same Time.
My favorite, though, is "What if the teachers spent their time recording TED-style talks that would serve as inspiration and help students generate benchmark-related ideas?" I love it. First, most teachers are paid to teach. Separating me from the classroom and putting me in a Khan Academy closet to make videos isn't going to make me a TED-quality superstar, isn't going to make the parents, administration or the school board particularly happy, and isn't going to do much for my students. Second, the average teacher is, well, average; hardly inspiring and certainly doesn't have all that much to say beyond the next chapter in the book.  Third, what happens the next year when those videos are already finished? Do I get to sit back and let the previous year's videos do the inspiring while I drink coffee and read

Most important, the whole "online video will solve the educational crisis and restore Peace, Love, Justice, and the American Way by inspiring students to do everything we want them to do instead of by forcing them" ignores the obstinate fact that students only tolerate online education when a real class isn't available ... and making a bunch of videos to replace your lectures isn't really all that interesting to your students. If that were the best way to go, YouTube would have already taught them everything they needed by age 13. There are thousands of better videos than mine out there. Thousands are better than Cornally's, too.
Instead, I will go back to my classroom tomorrow, where my students are slated for yet another period of biology. Once a day for 90 days—evidently that’s the prescription for understanding biology. How can we possibly know that’s enough for them to learn biology or any other subject? I’ll be trying a few experiments aimed at giving my students the curriculum and the freedom to generate projects that are asynchronous but productive.
And that, frankly, is what Cornally should do. He should go back to class and do his best. He should avoid giving meaningless, boring assignments to students, refuse to give credit for "organizing her binder in government class", make it possible for them to get inspired by a TED-style video or participate in a blended classroom. By all means, he should use whatever grading system makes the most sense for him, build his course along "authentic" projects (as opposed to what so many of us apparently do ... "fake" or "imitation" projects) and promote project-based learning if that works for him.

How do we know that's enough for them to learn Biology? I've talked about that. (In response to another Cornally post, no less.) The simple answer is that the course filled the time available rather than the other way around. When the science teachers in a neighboring school found they couldn't teach enough of what they thought Physical Science should be, they simply made two courses out of it. At another friend's school, the math department found that they didn't have time for everything they wanted in Pre-Calculus, they separated trig out to a half-credit course.
But as long as we keep the current way classes are scheduled, we will continue claiming that we just don’t have time for learning.
You can claim that.  I certainly won't.

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