Well, I hinted about this in the last post. Education of young people is the key to making the world make sense twenty years from now, and a big part of doing this well is carefully and cleverly selecting that which is taught. But equally important, perhaps, is making sure that the material is taught in a way that allows the young people in question to actually learn it.
Students are often bored. I know this from both experience, and observation. For me, the boredom was often the result of having material being shown to me that I already knew, or that didn’t matter. Sometimes, it was the result of the teacher expecting us to participate in learning activities that focused more on writing, or public speaking, or assembling papers just so. There was a large amount of enforced ‘note-taking’, where we were expected to copy word-for-word whatever the teacher wrote on the board.
I’m sure this exercise, with its combination of reading, writing, and listening of the material being presented, helped the students with memorization. But christ, was it boring. I remember doing these activities frequently, but I can’t remember a single example of the subject matter.
Subject matter that I DO still remember, though, are those which involved real-world experiences of the lesson in question. I’m not just talking about field trips, although those were certainly memorable too, but also games and puzzles that involved the math we were learning, fictional narratives that involved the history we were studying, and our own assembled demonstrations of the scientific principals we were trying to grasp.
This is all just speculation, and people with more knowledge about the subject than me surely have given this some thought, but this is just an explanation of the changes I would propose.
1: Make the material useful. Anything we learn is going to be forgotten unless it has some use. MAYBE it’ll be remembered long enough to get us through the course, but from what I’ve seen, this doesn’t happen as often as one would expect. Our careful note-taking gives us the memory of the words taught to us for a week or so, but without the meaning behind it, without the UNDERSTANDING, it’s just a really boring speech that we had to copy off the board.
If material is presented, and then put into practice, it becomes comprehension, rather than memory. In science, if we were given the challenge of making an experiment work based on our understanding of the principles taught, we would not only have to make that understanding complete, but we’d have a solid memory to reference in the future if we need to figure something out again. In math, ballencing budgets or calculating fuel consumption would give us an association in our minds of the problem we could solve, and the system we could solve it with. In English, one of the most simple grammatical exercises that the students struggled most with, the names of parts of speech, could be mastered by something as simple as a game of mad-libs.
2: Let each learn based on their own style. I don’t learn and think quite the same way as the majority does. I know this from experience. This is probably true of most people, too, giving the term ‘majority’ a bit of a paradoxical flavor. using note taking, presentation reading, and aural instruction on the group can be a good way of covering all bases, but enforcing it is just going to trigger boredom and dissent, and encourage people to spend their time doodling, or smoking in the bathroom, instead of sitting in class. It seems to me that people will find the best ways to learn once a reason to learn has been presented to them. Especially in modern times, when information exchange has revolutionized the world, deciding people’s learning method for them seems ridiculous.
3: Separate the importance of learning the subject from learning general scholastic skills. In most non-hands-on classes, equal importance was given to whatever topic was being taught and to learning skills, such as writing, formatting, spelling, etc. This meant that, in a class teaching history, science, math, or art, I’d lose marks for reasons of spelling, organization, and punctuation, despite thoroughly knowing the material being taught.
A bit of context. I have, or at least had, poor fine motor skills. This means that writing by hand was something that my fingers were generally unable to do well. Something in the translation between communication centers of my brain and the motor functions of my fingers wouldn’t be successful. My writing was slow, and nearly illegible.
On top of this, I had trouble organizing. I don’t pay much attention to my surroundings when involved in routine. (I am possibly ADD, but never diagnosed, and don’t really care at this point) Homework would be assigned, books would be put away, and in the process, I’d accidently stuff important handouts into the bottom of the black hole I used as a backpack, or tell myself that I’d write down the homework ‘in a second’ and then forget to.
In the end, I’d show up at school with either no homework, or messy homework that would get marks off for presentation, spelling (I can’t spell well either, for some reason. Part of my learning style, I think), and for having the date on the left and my name on the right, instead of the other way around! I am not even exaggerating. I got marks off for this on multiple occasions. Or, for using the wrong color of pen when underlining one of these formatting details.
It was my opinion that these items should be taught as their own class. Spelling and writing in English, and punctuation and organization (and note-taking) in life skills.
I do understand that being late all the time is likely to be (mildly) disruptive to a class, and make one miss out on instruction, but if a student is able to catch up and gain knowledge of the material, I can’t see why being unable to get out of bed in the morning should take them down a letter grade in Math. I would propose that punctuation (not attendance, that’s a discipline issue) should be tallied or recognized by teachers, and then reported to the Life Skills or Time Management class, where it would be reflected in the grade there.
4: This is the biggest, and most controversial part of my education redesigning plans. Mark based on knowledge, not effort! It was a great frustration to me in highschool that I would almost fail every class, despite getting top marks on tests. People would come to me for help to understand the material, and I’d help them, but academically, I was seen as worthless, due to my lack of organization, motivation, attention span, and neatness. This frustration is not the source of my objection to effort-based marking, but it did help me realize what was wrong with the system, and why.
As I mentioned before, life skills are life skills, and having good study habits has nothing to do with whether someone knows chemistry. If I have an A in chemistry, that should suggest that I know chemistry well, and not suggest anything at all about how accurately I take notes.
In highschool around here, the top grades are marked 50 percent based on their testing, and 50 percent based on work. That means that you can pass any class despite getting 0 on ALL TESTS. I’m going to assume for the moment that tests accurately reflect knowledge for everyone, and come back to that point later. This also means that I can score 99% on all tests, demonstrating a nearly perfect knowledge of a subject, and still fail and be forced to re-take the class from the beginning. In some instances, knowing the material is necessary for success in future classes. Sitting in Math 12 with a grade 8 understanding of the topic because you were very good at writing down all homework questions and double-checking your answers from the back of the book doesn’t make much sense.
Tests should be the final say in one’s grade. Specifically, the FINAL test should be the final say. It shows how much a student has learned overall, and will be carrying with them. Anything learned earlier, and forgotten, is not going to help them in future grades or in life, so if they forgot it by the time the final test came, they shouldn’t get credit for it. Going through the motions of learning (taking notes, filling out homework questionaires, etc) is also not a good indication of whether they’re prepared to continue on in the world, armed with the knowledge that a class has been designed to distribute.
I’ve told many people about this idea, and a lot of them respond with ‘but I don’t test well! I get nervous and screw up, so the homework is the only thing that keeps my results accurate’. Half the time, this is bullshit. It’s the result of a person having an inaccurate opinion of their own knowledge. But, I admit, the other half of the time the speaker is correct. Their own nervousness during a test results in mistakes that would not be made in a real-world situation.
Because of this, I think the current system of written, or scan-tron style multiple-choice testing should probably be reviewed. Since only some of the people being tested can calmly and accurately answer the questions when their social success or failure is on the line, other assesment methods should be employed. Practical exams would be useful (demonstrating knowledge through concrete actions, rather than on-paper theory), and some people do better with verbal exams. Basically, an array of testing strategies should be available, and the student should be able to chose which one is the most comfortable.
5: Place people in grades based on skill, not age This is probably something that would naturally result from number 3, but I think it’s such a positive side-effect that it should be encouraged by the system. Currently, our grades are chosen, basically, by our ages. Unless we fuck up, or really charm those in charge, our grade is our age minus five. People develop at different speeds, and binding education levels to the number of times a person has orbited the sun results in social pressure, and mismatched classrooms.
Having partly rejected Society by the time I was in jr High, the social pressure was not a big deal to me. But there were many times when the difference between the dumbest student and the smartest student (most accomplished and least accomplished, perhaps I should say) was so noticeable that it was problematic. Reviews of previous years’ material was almost guaranteed in science or math classes, and lessons would often be interrupted with unnecessary repeats or explanations of concepts already covered. For me, this resulted in my attention waning. For others, I’m sure, it resulted in frustration and abandonment as the class moved on and material went over the student’s head. Also, many times, the subscribed curriculum of that year was not actually fully covered. The final chapter or subject had to be left untaught as the year came to a rapid end.
If we, as a society, and as a system, got rid of the stigma of being held back a grade, or the fear of social consequences of being pushed forward a grade, and allowed school to begin based on a child’s development, rather than the fact of a child being 5 before christmas of that school year, we could have balanced classrooms where all students, more or less, are starting from the same knowledge point.
Aside from the fact that the education system (more in the US than in Canada, where Swing lives, but still to a large degree there and to some degree pretty much anywhere in the world) is mostly under the control of people who do not want an educated citizenry, the list of reforms which would produce dramatic positive results is a long one — and this post does cover a lot of the main bases.
1. Teach critical thinking skills — at least to those who have enough cognition to understand them, and don’t penalize anyone who doesn’t “get it”. This is for their benefit, not to help them qualify in an artificially-competitive job market.
2. Teach in terms of life goals and interests: find out what interests a kid, what “lights them up”, and then find a way to turn that into a career… and then guide them to the materials they’ll need in order to pursue that career.
3. (I’m defining “two” in a broad sense, here; don’t nitpick.) Gamify. This means a number of things, but one thing that stuck in my mind was the idea of not grading on some kind of average of various different measures, but rather giving a varying number of points for completing assignments and tests — and have a preset “passing” level (and other preset levels, such as “excellent” and “honors”) measured in points, so the student can see how far along they are. Make the complete list of assignments — or a complete list, anyway, subject to revision as the student’s interests become apparent — available at the beginning, so bright students can work ahead. Give credit for helping other students. Reward the class (pizza day, movie day, LAN party…) when all students pass certain benchmarks.
I’m sure there’s more, but that’s a good start.