What changes really need to happen in the way US primary & secondary students are taught?

I learned how to use Powerpoint in elementary school. . . shrug We also did a history day type project in the 6th grade almost exactly like the one your kid did. For me, that project was a defining moment for me: that was the moment I started love history. I realized that history was more than just dates and stories from times and places I can’t relate to, but something a little more real than that. Now, there’s a big difference between 6th grade and 2nd grade, but still-- I think that’s a great assignment for kids. I also grew up to be the only kid at my high school to pass the AP History and Government tests, so it worked out well enough for me.

Everybody learns differently. This is no all or nothing proposition. You can memorize the basics while still doing different exercises.

You know, the damn thing is that I have actual quantifiable evidence that njtt’s approach doesn’t work that well.

In the first grade, Sophie went to a parochial school in Knoxville, TN. Her teacher focused a lot on having the kids learn basic facts, many times dressed up in first-grader fun and gloss, but Sophie learned such things as the divisions in the animal kingom, historical epochs, etc. She was a B to A student. During the year, she took the Iowa basic skills test, scoring in the high-80s, mid-90s percentiles on damn near everything.

We then moved to San Antonio where the parochial schools here gave her the sort of holistic approach that njtt thinks is wonderful - have your kid spend a month focusing on one historical figure, put together a project about one country (Wales) that takes two weeks, stuff like that. Does great as far as her scores are concerned - her lowest grade this year is 94. Straight-A student.

However… because of the way the two schools arranged their schedules, she takes the Iowa test again. The same test, the same kid (but a year older), and this time her scores dropped horribly. Areas that she scored in the 80s were now coming in the 30s-50s. She improved in only two categories (reading related), but the other skills dropped at least by 10%, in some areas almost by half.

And this while making straight A’s doing the sort of assignments that njtt defended to the point of insulting me and my relationship with Sophie.

Sorry, I just don’t buy it. The holistic, project-oriented approach that Sophie was taught with this year has, for this child at least, been tested and found to be substandard in comparison to the previous school, where memorization was more of a factor in her education.

But I think that’s the problem with education- there will never be a one size fits all system. What works for Sophie wont work for Jacob. And what works for Jacob might not work for another kid.

I’m not a teacher (though I have taught), but again, I think the answer is a happy mix of the two. My most memorable (and, in their own way, valuable) school projects were the ones like your daughter did with the historical figure. But I recognize the importance of the basics-- while it may not be apparent from my quick and crappy message board posts :), I generally always got better grades on writing assignments than my classmates, even well into college. Some friends and I discussed this at length and it seems the major difference is that my 7th grade teacher was oooooold school- we spent the ENTIRE year diagramming sentences. At the time, I fucking hated it with the passion of 1000 undying, firy suns. Now, I realize that having spent so much time doing that really drilled it into my subconscious and effects my writing positively to this very day.

What is so wrong with Montessori that it hasn’t become the norm by now?

More time in class is certainly not the silver bullet.

I teach in China, where students regularly go to class from seven in the morning until ten at night, with cram schools on weekends. Despite the hype, the students these systems produce are usually massively unprepared for life, and I teach college classes to a middle-school maturity level.

Because they have never had free time, the majority of students come to college with absolutely no time management skills and little idea how to study independently. Because they have held jobs, they have unrealistic expectations of life as an adult. Because they have not dated or had time to develop friendships outside of the classroom, they experience massive isolation and loneliness despite being surrounded by people. Because they have not had time for hobbies and extracurriculars, they have trouble figuring out what to do with their spare time and have very little seems to engage them- I had a class once where my students were hard pressed to think of “one thing you are interested in that the rest of the class may not know much about.”

Too much time in the classroom hinders independence and maturity, which is something a successful adult in our society needs to succeed. It doesn’t make for much better students, either- most of my English major graduates have memorized thousands of vocab words and can recite their grammar textbooks, but have trouble asking me even simple questions.

Please note that I’m not saying the Chinese system is inherently bad, although it may come off that way. It’s good at preparing people for Chinese society, but our society expects different things out of our graduates.

Only if you air condition the schools, or redesign them for better ventilation. Or at least put powerful fans on all day. In all the schools i went to (and my daughter is going to) the rooms got uncomfortably hot and humid at the tail end of the school year, and sitting packed in a room with 30 other students would constitute cruel and unusualk punishment.

I agree that not every school is located where this is an issue, and some may already have air conditioning, but I think the vast majority of US public schools don’t, and were built assuming they wouldn’t be used during the summer.

I am an elementary school teacher here in Louisiana. One thing that I feel is definitely not working is high-stakes testing. The entire school year revolves around testing now. Preparing for testing, taking tests to make sure they’re on track for testing, getting rid of P.E. so they can study for testing. Learning how to take tests so they can do better on testing. It’s just ridiculous. Principals keep coming up with all these ways to try to improve test scores so their school performance scores don’t suck. But in the end, all we have are kids who can barely make the minimum requirements to pass a high-stakes test.

As far as rote memorization goes, I am not sold on that. What we need to do is teach critical thinking skills from the time they are in Pre-K on up. I think that most teachers have poor critical thinking skills where I teach so the kids get no critical thinking skills.

Personally, I think the single best thing we can do for students is give them more opportunities to read real, substantial books, to hear unfamiliar words used in conversation, and to wrestle with big, unfamiliar ideas. They should be exposed to interesting, intellectually curious people (their teachers, first and foremost, but I think they should also have some contact with professional writers and scientists and historians, whether through field trips or guest speakers or whatever).

Sadly, most of the current trends are going the opposite way – more worksheets, more teaching-to-the-test, more short, canned reading passages with only a limited amount of real content.

That’s actually interesting. In primary school we had our one teacher covering all subjects all year. The in high school we had specific tachers for all subjects. Mr. Smith taught English that was his specialty. He didn’t teach anything else. Mrs. Jones taught math and she really knew her shit! Mr. Brown taught “business” but mainly had LSD flashbacks while you typed whatever you wanted to during typing class.

But anyway, Mrs. Jones could tell when a students was struggling. She’d been teaching math for so long, that she could smell the fear of the math-impaired. So she would be able to sort it out and work out a system so the kid would get the hang of it. Heck she had a whole filing cabinet of alternative exercises, so if you didn’t catch on with the main assignment, you could try a different approach (yes, it meant taking home extra work, but it meant actually figuring things out).

Back in primary school, my one teacher who didn’t specialize in any one thing, didn’t really have the skills to deal with deficiencies in any area. If you’re covering everything you can’t possibly prepare a filing cabinet full of back-up plans for kids who get stuck.

And the fact is that you can’t teach each subject the same way, either. Some areas will require more rote memorization than others. Others will need more critical thinking. Others will need more memorization at this point, but later on need more critical thinking, etc.

Rote memorization of the times tables is still a good idea. You won’t need to think each time you need to do quick mental math (of the “8x7” variety, I mean).

History is one of the worst subjects for rote memorization. The best history professor I had flat out said to us, “I don’t give a shit if you remember the month, day and year that World War 1 started. What I do give a shit about is that you know what happened in the 50 years prior that led up to it and see why it happened, what happened during it and what happened as a result of it”.

For that class (a seminar on both world wars), we started in 1860. We spent the first 1/3rd of the class studying pre-20th century European politics. And you know what? After taking that class, I understood the world wars so much better than I ever had before, it’s not even funny. The only “dates” we had to memorize were things like “early 1914”, “two years into the war…”, etc. Memorization of dates is missing the forest for the trees. If you don’t understand (really understand) why the first world war happened, why on god’s green earth does it matter if you memorized the date it started?

To piggy-back on some of the previous:

  1. Dump required math past Algebra 1/Geometry. 90% of the students will never need anything more, and those who are interested are the ones who should progress into the higher maths.

  2. Standardized tests only work on standardized students. Since you don’t have the latter, why insist on the former?

  3. Bring back VocEd with a vengeance. The billions we are spending on testing should be going to establishing “School to Work” programs to actually teach kids useful skills. there is nothing wrong with not teaching “advanced whatever” to students who couldn’t care less and will never use the material even if they did learn it.

  4. Ban all advanced degrees in Education. Make having a PhD in Education a capital crime. Hound them, harry them, drive them swordless into the desert. Education is a process, not a subject.

These x 10000. Well said.

Yeah, there are definitely things that kids need to memorize. Multiplication tables. Geography. The Pythagorean theorem. However, many subjects are taught exceedingly poorly by memorization and benefit from approaches like JohnT’s daughter’s project.

More seriously…the bottom 5% should be expelled from the education system and enrolled in ditch-digging school.

A cartoon on my classroom wall shows a road crew slaving in the hot sun, with a sign in front of them that says Men who wished they’d paid attention on Career Day Working.

Arrrg. I used to teach math and I think I was the ONLY person to ever argue that math requirements should be lowered, not raised. By raising requirements you are actually lowering them.

Let me explain - If you require EVERYONE to take Algebra II or {shudder} pre-calc then EVERYONE will need to be able to pass them. This means that the Algebra II in a high requirement school will be MUCH weaker than a school that only requires 1 year.

Make them take Algebra I and then some sort of day-to-day math course if they don’t wish to take anymore and send them on with the rest of their life.

Hmmm…lemme think about that one.
In the meantime, try going back to the old-fashioned concept that we actually teach the kids in school, instead of just warehousing them. We set standards, we expect them to perform at or above the standards and if they don’t, they repeat the course. Screw this politically correct no-child-left-behind bullshit.

Standardized tests are fine, but the school boards should simply use the SAT or something similar, with “passing” levels adjusted by grade. That way, it’s administered by an outside firm and there is no “teaching to the test”.

And bring back The Board Of Education.

I feel that public education in the US does not have the primary goal of educating students. Essentially, it’s a state-run day care system. In some areas, it’s a juvenile detention center, in others, it’s a prison.

In my state, for example, police will catch students off campus and bring them back to the school. However, the police do not come to classrooms to see if students are actually learning.

However, the solution is not simply “more hours” or “more pay for teachers.” I agree (as stated earlier) that the entire system needs to be scrapped and re-done. Personally, I like the “open school” model because I think it matches US ideals of freedom, rights, equal opportunity and fairness, while eliminating agism, social promotion, and unconstitutional detention.

That made me laugh out loud. My ex used to study to become a math teacher until her department screwed her over, and she has choice words for education “specialists”.