One sentence that sums up American education?

“Classrooms are where people learn to think like machines.”

This can be a very productive, very useful thing.  A machine is an amazing creation.  They make ideal employees.  They are always obedient and extremely efficient when programmed well.   Classrooms are a good thing.  All schools should have classrooms.

But education should be more than machine-like learning.  The human side–creativity, artistry, thinking outside the box–is important also.  This type of learning is most likely in a stimulating, rich, and most importantly, free environment.  The rigid structure of a classroom does nothing towards the discovery of new approaches or new questions.

Schools should contain both.  They should have classrooms where practical, useful skills are learned.  But education should equally take place outside of these classrooms.  Education should take place in courtyards, around tables, in leisurely discussion rooms, in libraries where students are free to come and go as they please.

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Grades

Why do some students care so much about making good grades? Does the $3,000 bump in starting salary that they may or may not get really explain all of it? Will any of us really not be able to make enough money to be happy if we get B-’s instead of B+’s?

I don’t think that’s it. Why do we care so much about our grades? For acceptance.  We want to appear virtuous to our friends and family. We want to be able to tell them, “At least I tried my hardest.” And these people know us too well for us to be able to fool them. They know what we’re capable of if we work hard enough, if we spend enough time doing exactly what our professors ask of us, pandering to every subtle suggestion they make about how to get that A in their class. And so we do exactly that. To do any less would be to admit to friends and family “I don’t want to spend my life working hard, living out the life of privilege that corporate economics or government grants has handed me.” Such a confession is a heavy responsibility in our society.

But you see, an activity will only take you as far as the ideals which are motivating that activity. Many students’ motivation for making good grades is an ideal of obedience, of trying their hardest to do what others have suggested. The ideal of obedience has its place; society would fall apart without it! But in order to grow spiritually, we need higher ideals than that.  We need activities that make us feel like more than just a machine, a purpose higher than simply increasing the efficiency of a system that we had no part in designing/creating. Unfortunately such activities are becoming harder and harder to find.

Education, properly, should be motivated by the ideals of excellence, and of creating equal opportunity within society. These, and not just the economic incentives of grades, are the myths, the promises, that should motivate our approach to learning.

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High School observation 10-9-07

Today the other members of my Teaching Science Methods class and I did a session of “microteaching,” where we each spend 10 minutes teaching a different topic to the class,  in the physics classroom we have been observing for the past two weeks.  I felt a lot more comfortable this time than I did three weeks ago, the first session of microteaching, but I don’t know if it was because this was a physics class, or if I am actually getting more comfortable standing in front of a classroom.  Probably a little bit of both.

Anyway, I thought it was a good idea for me to talk about the abstract/concrete spectrum that Dr. Evans has emphasized in class.  I think students could benefit from thinking about the first step in word problems as “translate the abstract words to imagine the problem in a concrete (real-world) situation.”

I wish I had gotten more time to talk about math as a tool vs. math a language.  The day before in class, the teacher had referred to some students’ modeling lab results as ‘beautiful results’ since the velocity they measured was changing equally over equal time intervals.  That was a good example of math being a language since that beauty is communicating something to us about how objects fall to the ground; so the math was doing more than just being a tool to provide an answer to a problem.  I don’t know how interested the students would have been, but at least I felt I would have been comfortable talking some more!  (Teaching tools aren’t the most important part of teaching, but it’s good to know you are able to use them.)

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High School observation 10-3-07

“I’d like to go back to the idea of mistaking the tools of teaching for teaching itself. Here’s the problem: a real education is about getting students to choose to learn; our system is about using grades and test scores as incentives/punishments to manipulate students to learn. Grades and test scores aren’t necessarily a bad thing. But they are currently way overemphasized and are drowning out students’ ability to feel that learning is a choice, rather than a chore or obstacle.

“So we need to get students to be motivated by reasons other than grades. What does this have to do with teaching methods? I feel like it’s easy to use teaching methods to keep students engaged or ‘on task’ in some activity and then convince yourself that students are learning simply because you’re using ‘proper teaching method.’  I mean yeah, students are learning something by these methods; of course they are; humans learn from all of their experiences. They are learning that sitting quietly and doing what the teacher wants gets rewarded. And yeah, they are learning enough about science to pass a standardized test on it, probably enough to pass it in college, maybe even get a job within that field.

“But that’s not an education. An education gets people to ask ‘What does society need? How can I provide that?’ Our system of incentives/punishments gets people to ask ‘What do I need? How can society provide that?’ “

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High School observation 10-1-07

“Are we putting yoo much emphasis on teaching methods? It seems to me more time should be spent addressing ‘Why is this knowledge good to know?’ rather than assuming it’s good to know and trying to figure out what teaching method is best at manipulating students to learn it.

‘What makes this knowledge interesting, valuable? What specific opportunities will it open up within students’ lives?’ These questions seem to me to be at least as important as good teaching methods, but are rarely addressed at all in high school classrooms.

“It’s easy to mistake the tools of teaching (lesson plans, engaging activitices, etc.) for teaching itself, I guess.”

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High School Observation 9-17-07

“Which should be a teachers’ bigger priority, the content they are teaching or the social development of the students? In our system of education, the first priority of a teacher is to teach their content. The good ones will do a lot to work socially beneficial lessons and activities into the content they teach, but they are working within the framework of their content area.

“Maybe we should sometimes take the opposite approach to education. Maybe we should start in the framework of the the students’ social development and try to fit the content into that.

“In other words, instead of starting class with a lesson topic (i.e. ‘the food chain’ or something) and hoping students will occasionally find some way that topic is relevant to their lives, maybe we should at least half time start class discussing the students’ lives and hope that we can occasionally connect their lives to the subject content.

  Class begins with: We are hoping that:
Education now – Today’s lesson plan Students can connect the lesson to their lives
Education as it could be – The students’ lives Teachers can connect students’ lives to the subject content.

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High School Observation 9-12-07

For part of my current education class, teaching science methods, we have to spend time observing a high school classroom and then writing a journal entry/reflection about it.

Here is my entry from observing a high school anatomy class.

“Our teacher started class today with a lecture reviewing the organs in the abdominal pelvic cavity, (located from the hips to the bottom of the lungs). This took about 25 minutes, then the class got the rest of the time to split into groups and work on their projects. I thought this was a pretty good break for them; sitting listening to a lecture can get pretty boring. The teacher does things like asking for volunteers to do a demonstration for her or answer questions, but it’s still definitely more lecture than discussion.

“As teachers we assume that the content we teach is important and worth learning. For students though, it usually feels more important to be playing sports, trying to figure out what things they enjoy, and trying to find their place socially (even if they’ve sometimes convinced themselves that these feelings are wrong.)”

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