Sunday, December 19, 2010

not an anomaly

In today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper, an article presents an interesting insight into remediation rates, which is the number of students graduating from high school that will require preparatory or remedial courses in reading or math upon college enrollment. Fewer than 10% of those students requiring remediation graduate from 4 year colleges, so fixing the remediation problem is crucial to our children's success.

Districts Deal with Remediation by Scarlet Sims.

The state-wide rate is 45.1 percent, but there are pockets like the Decatur School District in Northwest Arkansas with rates much higher. The 2009 remediation rate for Decatur was 87.5%, equivalent to that of the poorest areas of the Arkansas delta. The high rate in Decatur did not catch the superintendent by surprise: "It's not an anomaly. That's kind of the way it's been here for a long time." Which raises the question, "Why don't they do something about it?" And if students know so little about reading and math, how much more are they missing about science, history and political science? Are we supposed to have confidence that these students can be entrusted with democracy?

The standard approach is to blame the teachers for failing schools, but there are things that only the very best teachers can fix, like kids who have learned to not care about learning. Sophomore Logan Jamison explains it as follows: "Why know when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue when you are laying bricks?" Logan's ambition is to become a bricklayer like his father and grandfather, and you can't get kids to suddenly become interested in math and physics if they don't see the point. Obviously no one has helped Logan to understand the interrelationship of all things.

Pushing abstract academics in place of hands-on relevant learning to kids who are not ready to embrace abstract learning is counterproductive. Not only is it ineffective, it creates resistance to learning and attitudes of hostility toward academics that can last a lifetime and even be passed to the next generation. One of the outstanding characteristics of education in Finland is the notion that all children should have training in sloyd, just as all students should have training in math, science, language arts.

When Uno Cygnaeus, founder of educational sloyd, was given the responsibility by the Russian Czar of forming the Finnish Folk Schools, he created a culture of learning, and without that culture, children fail to see the relevance of things that we all know to be important to them.

"We're all mystified," explains John Tuthill, associate vice president for student learning at Northwest Arkansas Community College. "We blame the high schools, they blame the elementary schools, and the elementary schools blame the parents."

The important thing is not the assignment of blame, but the question, "How do we dig our way out of this educational morass?" The situation with remediation rates is not an anomaly, but a predictable consequence, in some areas and with some students, of social and economic class expectations having to do with disparagement of the importance of learning.  How do we fix things? Establish a culture, based on a renewed understanding of hands-on learning and its impact and implications for all students. We are all smarter when our hands are engaged in learning.

In the meantime, our Nation's First Full-Time High School Culinary Program Opens. It really doesn't matter whether you learned your fractions in the wood shop, or student kitchen. Or home kitchen or granpa's woodshop for that matter. But what matters is that the hands provide the means through which to grasp learning. Do it with your hands, and ideas take hold. Where they will take you from here, God only knows. Make, fix, create.

Here's an article that sings the praises of standardized testing. A must read. Standardized Testing: The New Wild West by Tod Farley, author of Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry


  1. As an educator, I agree that hands on work can be a vehicle to teach all students in every subject area. However, it can be difficult in certain subjects. I do believe that character education should, and could, be a vehicle as well. Allowing students to explore questions such as- Who am I? What do I stand for? Where am I going? How am I going to get there? - can be vital for their individual growth. The lessons learned by exploring these ideas stay with young people. So maybe English and Math can take some tips from the Hyde Schools and their "Character First" approach. The Gates Foundation is a strong advocate for the Hyde Schools. The reality is that all subjects cannot do equal justice to the hands on approach, however, as a teacher, you do have the liberty to base your lessons on a philosophy that you deem worthy. I strongly feel that it is HOW we teach our students that will ultimately determine WHAT they are able to learn.

    All the best-

    Chris Sagnella

  2. Chris, I agree that hands on learning may be harder in some subject areas and unnecessary at some stages of learning. For example, educators used to discourage children from counting on fingers. Recent research tells us that children who are instructed to count on fingers at an earlier age move into more abstract counting sooner, eliminating the sometimes embarrassing need to count on fingers at a later age. It seems the same portion of the brain does both things, manipulating the fingers and calculating sums, so it is an expression of natural alliance to utilize the connection, rather than fight it as educators once tried.

    by acknowledging the important connections between hands and mind, we enlist the full capacities of the child to learn.

    Susan Goldin-Meadow's work on gesture tells us that when gesture is used in the teaching of algebra, student have a 4 to one better chance of getting the right answer, but then after the lesson is learned, they don't have to continue gesturing the solutions the rest of their lives.

    All this fits the educational dictum, Move from the concrete to the abstract. The abstract isn't something to be avoided, but rather to be embraced from a foundation of real experience.

    I'm not sure what you say is true for all teachers "having the liberty to base lessons on a philosophy they deem worthy." Many teachers are chained to their textbooks and administrators challenge, "are you on page such and such this week?" Teaching to the test takes away some of the teacher's role in devising curriculum. Some teachers may not be interested in that. But being creativity involved in trying new things is what many teachers would want if given the chance, and one of the points listed by most employees as creating job satisfaction is to see their own ideas tried and tested. And to be trusted to be creative.

  3. Doug,

    This is an area that has caused me great concern for many years. Despite the rhetoric, I don't think there is an easy answer. Rather, I think many factors have affected students' desire and ability to learn, including lack of family support, breakdown of the nuclear family, availability of quick, easy-to-retrieve data via technology, lack of focus as a result of this immediacy of information, and on and on. It is always so easy to blame the previous link in the educational chain, but that seems rarely the cause.

    I wish I knew the is surely a huge dilemma that is having a negative effect on our nation. I really, really fear for the future, given the up and coming generations and the values they do or do not have.

    The notion that ALL should go to college is no more true today than it was 30-40 years ago. What we seem to lack is a work ethic, a pride in what we do, goals. I, too, am convinced that working with one's hands can readily fill all three of these voids, and the learning gained can transfer to other areas. As a woodworker (and soon, hopefully, a boatbuilder) the amount of mathematical knowledge required to do what we do is astounding...not to mention science, physics, etc., etc. Relevancy of math, science, and physics when involved with such construction projects is much more obvious than these subjects in a vacuum.


  4. JD, you are right that college is not the answer for all. I really don't mind that Jamison wants to be a bricklayer like his father and grandfather. What a noble inclination. Ruskin said lay a brick level in its mortar and you have learned a thousand things of which the words of man have never spoken. And there is truth to that.

    But I am discouraged that students are not encouraged to make the connections between what they might aspire to with their hands and the intellectual pursuits that the hands can touch and awaken. By constructing an artificial dividing line between vocational studies and college prep, both are diminished.

  5. Doug-

    I see your point about teachers not being given the time to be creative by administrators and the demands of standardized testing. I personally don't expect the time ever to be given to me by my administration. It hurts, but it's the truth. Creativity and innovation to teaching are top priorities in the education realm. Teachers don't even talk about it, most just want to get through their day. It's up to the teacher to make the lessons hands on, and this can be done, but it costs time and energy, too much of which probably gets taken away by meeting the demands of state. The sad thing is that there are many of us who are burned out by the burden of this and even though we want to be creative, we feel as though we are rebelling when we do such a thing.



  6. It takes a lot of confidence to stand up to the administration and assert the value of your own creativity and experimentation. They don't want you to experiment, they want "results." Have you seen the BBC segment on Finland School which I have linked from my website.

    The teachers and administrators attribute their success to the "t" word, trust. Administrators are given some autonomy, and the administrators give autonomy to the teachers. When you have designed the curriculum, you have a great deal invested in the outcomes. American administrators and politicos often don't understand that.

    The BBC news segment on Finland schools is an eyeopener, and illustrates the reasons for our failure as well as their success. You hire the best, train them to do their best, and let them do their best. Trust.

  7. Doug, just thought of something interesting. I recall my elders telling me to "go to college so you don't have to do X all your life.". X was always some sort of manual labor. Did you hear this from your parents and grandparents, too? This notion was ingrained in my head from early on. Only of late have I realized this.


  8. My parents never spoke ill of tradesmen that I recall. My grandfather on my mother's side was a farmer, an on my father's side a lawyer and judge. So they talked about me going into law and attempted to steer me in that direction. My father owned and managed a hardware store and my mother was a kindergarten teacher. Both of those things were honorable, and nearly anything a man or woman can do if done in the right spirit and for the right reasons can be honorable. When we delivered the toy cars to the food bank, women were there preparing the usual free meals. I see more volunteerism in this small community, with people investing time in service to others, pets, included. And so what is success? We need to do a better job of allowing children to find themselves. Send me an email and tell me about the boat you are planning.

  9. Doug, I haven't seen the BBC episode on Finland's schools. I will check it out though. By the way, I am working with some spalted birch from a friend's backyard- it is beautiful stuff, what a smell when you cut the stuff!

  10. Doug,

    Yes, my elders were trades people, too. It's not that they spoke ill of them. Their message was that they wanted a "better life" for their children and grandchildren. Whatever that meant in that day, I'm not sure.