Thursday, September 16, 2010

do the math

When was the last time YOU factored a binomial equation? Perhaps, like most of us, it was in high school. You may have struggled with it and you may have been made to feel stupid and unworthy, or it may have come easily for you and you may have felt selected as being smart. It might even have been fun. Then again, you may have wondered, "This is OK, I can do it, but will I ever find some way to actually use it?" And the answer was "probably not."

It is widely accepted and completely unquestioned that the ability to do math is an important building block for reasoning skills, and even though most college graduates don't do much algebra, the ability to do it is considered predictive of success in higher levels of learning.

We have widely assumed that success in math is directly predictive of success in all else. But we all know what assumptions make of u and me. There is no direct evidence that our assumptions are at all correct, even though they have driven American education for over 100 years.

And so, I would like to work towards spelling out the means through which the arts can serve as the primary assessment tool to measure school and student performance. First of all, it won't be an individually assigned number grade, or an exacting percentage, but more akin to the Beaufort scale... based on directly discernible phenomenon, like a leaf turning gently in the wind or smoke rising straight up from a chimney or like a morning with the air so still that the sails of your small boat hang in breathless anticipation. The interesting thing about the original Beaufort Scale was that it allowed a common seaman without instruments or external authority to become a skilled observer of scientific phenomenon and take part in assessment of wind and weather that had direct application to the performance of his ship. The captain, the first mate and the lowliest hand on deck could observe, accurately measure and agree on exactly the same thing.

This morning you have the chance to participate in the creation of a Beaufort Scale for education... a conceptual tool that anyone can use to observe educational failure or success. It is time to extract assessment from the clutches of educational authority and place it squarely in the hands of parents, teachers, and the like where it can do the very most good in reshaping American education.

This act of creating a new scale won't be done in a single post, and I invite you to help me work things out using the comments function on this site, or by private email through which your thoughts and observations may support or help shape my own. I had mentioned before that assessment by the arts is a revolutionary concept. Revolution is not something that arises from the top down but from the bottom up, and just imagine parents and teachers empowered with a full comprehension of how to build great schools!

The first thing I want to state is that many parents send their kids to schools that they know to be unsafe, where they encounter bullying by students and derogatory comments from teachers and yet these parents send them having no other choice. I want to point out that the Beaufort Scale for education works works like that for wind, except that Hurricane force learning is the state to be desired rather than frightened of, and the zero is exactly what we think of as an absolute zero in education. A complete waste of time. In the Beaufort Scale for Education, it is the zero that is potentially the most destructive. The scale rises sequentially from stuffed still air at zero to a fully engaged whirlwind of human comprehension and creativity. The baseline, moving from 0 to 1 on the scale involves the question, "Is my child physically and emotionally safe?" And if you are having a tough time getting your child to go to school, the answer is "possibly not."

In my own Admiral Beaufort Scale of Educational Assessment, being safe to express oneself in the arts is a building block for everything else, and if your children are not creatively, emotionally and physically safe to express themselves in school, you had best keep them at home and teach them yourself, or find a school like Clear Spring in your neighborhood and invest there in your children's education. If there is no Clear Spring School nearby, be prepared to go to school as a parental hurricane, Beaufort number 10, raising holy hell to make certain that ALL children, not just your own, are physically, emotionally and artistically safe to create.


  1. Richard B.7:58 AM

    Questioning the assumptions about maths education? Now there is a gumnut worth cracking!
    I would be happy if all my students could do basic calculations and knew their tables. Is that too much to ask? So many of my students struggle with the basics of maths yet they have spent a large part of their school time in the math's class. The push here in Australia is for more time for Literacy and Numeracy classes at the expense of practical classes. Is it that English and Maths classes are more important or that they are cheaper and safer to run?

  2. Richard, please don't tell anyone that I'm questioning the basic assumptions about math education. That would send some into an algebraic tizzy.

    Yes, it is cheaper to teach math. You can crowd 30 students in front of a blackboard. Is it safer than teaching practical arts? I the practical arts, you might lose a finger if things are very poorly managed. In math class, you can waste your whole life if things are poorly taught or if you are ill prepared.

    But please don't tell anyone and launch the math buffs into a screaming tizzy.

    I don't mean to imply that math education has no value. We just don't have any real evidence that it does for most students, and until we do, we should regard our own anecdotal evidence as having some validity. And that means for most of us who are not engineers or architects, or even for those who are, algebra is what we did in high school.

    And actually wood shop is a perfect introduction to engineering and architecture. As stated by Otto Salomon, move from the concrete to the abstract. Get kids interested in building and they will learn the math as needed for their own advancement.

    My God, what sacrilege... I should be expelled, right?