Friday, January 23, 2004

Teaching Methods: Just going in circles?

If you read Number2Pencil or Joanne Jacobs or ReformK12 regularly, as I do, you hear a lot of anti-constructivist, anti-ed-schools talk. They don't like the "new" (somewhere between 10-100 years or older) ways of teaching math and reading. You might think teachers who use these methods have no idea what they're doing and are just parroting their ed-school indoctrination.

Well, I got indoctrinated (so to speak) before & during ed-school, while I was teaching in a tough, big South Bronx junior high school. Sometimes, the constructivist methods seemed so far from reality - I just wanted the kids to sit down and learn something, anything - that it was easy to scoff. But I did my best to try out the stuff I was learning in my classroom. I did hands-on, group science activities, I incorporated student choice into my curriculum, I thought about ways of doing the same activity that make it more student-centered vs. more teacher-centered, and what difference that makes to student learning.

Some of my experiments taught me a lot: my students planned a one-day itinerary for people visiting the Galapagos, which required them to do tons of research, work together, learn about Darwin & evolution, etc. Since real people were going to follow their itinerary, my kids got so excited! I've never seen such motivation! At the same time, I had concerns about the amount of time the project took, and reflected on ways to improve it in the future. A unit on asthma in the Bronx had similar results and taught me important lessons for future projects. The idea that authentic, contextualized projects get kids working hard and caring about what they learn, and help them remember what they learn - that made sense to me.

At the same time, I kept in mind an article I had read in college. Unfortunately, I can't remember the author's name right now, or the title of the article. If it comes to me, or someone recognizes the article from my description, I'll post it. The author may have been Lisa Delpit or one of the people she often writes with. She argued that many "disadvantaged" students get far along in their education without being taught certain important basic skills - fundamentals of standard english grammar, for example, or how to cite sources correctly. She said this lack of explicit teaching of basic skills left these students at a profound disadvantage; more privileged students tended to be exposed to these skills at home or along the way somewhere, while the less privileged hit a brick wall at some point, or got passed over for promotions, awards, honors, admission to grad school, because they'd never been taught these things.

This also made sense to me.

I try to combine the two approaches in my classroom. Certain skills must, eventually, be taught. Directly, explicitly, formally. But when kids figure something out for themselves, they are much less likely to forget it. And when they take their knowledge and DO something with it, they will probably NEVER forget it!

Anyway, a schoolyard blog eloquently describes how different philosophies and methods of teaching can be combined in a classroom - and how "real life" can get in the way.

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