Who Cares if Kids Know that the Earth Revolves around the Sun?

I like Sherlock Holmes.  I really like Sherlock Holmes.  I read the original stories as a kid and immediately identified with Sherlock.  As an adult, I’m a little embarrassed to know silly Sherlock details like the names of tertiary characters, but I still have a lot of affection for the world’s only consulting detective (yes, I think the BBC show is adorable).

This is my door. I really like Sherlock Holmes.

I have an older student who also likes Sherlock Holmes.  He really likes Sherlock Holmes.  I know who Victor Trevor is; this student has read essays analyzing Trevor’s importance in canon and non-canon Holmes stories.  I know what happened at Reichenbach Falls; this kid knows the date that it happened because he’s got a timeline of everything Sherlock Holmes ever did.  If I bring up Holmes during a lesson, my student becomes very excited and has a lot of difficulty getting back on task.  His behavior is familiar to me as both a gifted student and an educator of gifted students.

Gifted and twice-exceptional students can be prone to obsessions.  When a gifted student becomes interested in a subject, she often immerses herself completely, unintentionally memorizing trivial facts, drawing diagrams, and sharing her newfound knowledge with everyone in the world.  There’s a giddiness to finding something new to learn.  Self-directed learning is extremely pleasurable.   I spent a month in high school learning medical abbreviations and another month on forensic lingo.  Why?  I don’t know.  Because it was new.  In elementary school, I collected books about fae and could talk at length about the “fair folk.”   We’ve all met children (mostly boys, it seems, but I’m sure there are tons of exceptions) who can list thousands of dinosaurs and their traits.

In A Study in Scarlet, Dr. John Watson, the narrator of the original Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, shares his surprise that the brilliant Sherlock Holmes is “ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System.”   Apparently Holmes has decided that it’s unnecessary for him to know that the Earth revolves around the sun.  He can’t spare the neurons, it seems.  This passage will likely resonate with many parents and teachers of gifted students.  One of my brightest students, for example, could never seem to remember the order of months in the year.  He breezed through math two grade levels above his own, though, and could comprehend incredibly complex stories.  Of course, I can’t allow my student to not know what comes after March, can I?  Isn’t it my obligation as an educator to ensure that my students are fluent in “common knowledge”?  Public schools insist (philosophically, at least) that students master the basics before studying advanced material. Certainly the personalized curricula I create for my students are always based on a broad foundation of general education.  However, Sherlock Holmes makes me wonder if every kid really should be expected to know all the basics.  Although I don’t intend to abandon or even deemphasize my commitment to a broad foundation of learning, the issue is worth researching and debating, I think.

Parents, do you encourage your children to pursue their “obsessions”? Do you allow your children to neglect the basics in favor of more specific interests?  I’m especially interested in how homeschooling families address this issue.

Teachers, do you think a broad general education is appropriate for all students?  Should students ever be allowed to just skip material they don’t like?

Is the act of learning more important than the content?

Please Don’t Make My Students Cry

One of my after-school students recently came home from his school in tears.  His third-grade class had watched a documentary about underwater exploration, and the idea of being stuck in a submarine had given him anxiety.  After the movie, his teacher said something about the class taking a field trip in a submarine; I wasn’t there, but I think she was trying to encourage the students to imagine going in a submarine.  My student misunderstood (probably because he was already anxious) and cried out, “Do we have to go in the submarine?”  His teacher apparently responded with something like, “[student], why are you always so scared of everything? You’re going to ruin the activity for everyone.”  According to my student, the teacher was very annoyed with him.

Again, I wasn’t there, so it’s possible that my student misinterpreted his teacher’s feelings.  He might be wrong about what she said or how she said it.  I hope he’s wrong, because the idea of an adult–a teacher–speaking that way to one of my students is very upsetting.  The idea of a teacher speaking that way to any anxious student is upsetting.  See, I would hope this teacher would be sensitive to my student’s feelings since she obviously knows that he struggles with his fears.  What she doesn’t know is that he has Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), a condition “characterized by persistent, excessive, and unrealistic worry about everyday things.”  In fact, it’s very likely that this teacher doesn’t even know what GAD is; unlike depression and Obsessive-compulsive Disorder, GAD isn’t typically discussed in pop culture, and most teaching programs do not require training in psychology.

My student’s family has not disclosed his condition to his school.  They have chosen not to pursue accommodations for their son because they worry about stigma and discrimination, very real risks.

This incident inspires several questions.  First, should parents report their children’s mental illnesses to their school?  Second, was my student’s teacher out of line in her criticism of my student?  In considering that question, assume she really said what my student believes she said, and that she exhibited some amount of anger when she made those statements.  Finally, and most importantly, should all teachers be required to complete some amount of training in psychology?  Teachers are increasingly knowledgable about learning disabilities and the Autism spectrum (not knowledgable enough, many parents will say, and I agree), but childhood mental illness is largely ignored in both certification and continuing education programs for teachers.

Please share your feelings in the comments, and stay tuned for posts about disclosing your child’s mental illness and psychology training for teachers.

All stories about my students are shared with permission from the student and her/his family.

PRESSED: Education Week: Commission Calls for Radically Different Tests

PRESSED:

Commission Calls for Radically Different Tests

Panel offers a 10-year plan

By Sarah D. Sparks

Emerging technology and research on learning have the potential to dramatically improve assessments, if educators and policymakers take a more balanced approach to using them.Thats the conclusion of two years of analysis by the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education, a panel of top education research and policy experts that was launched in 2011 with initial funding from the Educational Testing Service.In a report that was set for release this week, the commission lays out a 10-year plan for states to develop systems of assessment that go beyond identifying student achievement for accountability purposes and toward improving classroom instruction and giving greater insight into how children learn.Joanne Weiss, the chief of staff to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan but not part of the commission, said the report “shines a needed spotlight on the future of assessment, pushing us to make the next stages of this vital work coherent, coordinated, and sustainable.””When we get assessment right, it helps families, teachers, schools, and systems tailor learning to students needs and make wise decisions,” Ms. Weiss said in a statement. “Today, we stand on the cusp of the biggest advances in assessment in a generation, with assessments that are more useful and less intrusive, thanks in part to advances in education technology.”At a time when student performance on state tests is used to judge everything from teacher effectiveness to school improvement to a high school seniors right to a diploma, many in the education world have been pushing hard for better assessments.Interest in the so-called “next generation” assessments being developed for the Common Core State Standards is so high that last summer visitors crashed the Internet servers of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, one of the consortia developing the tests, when it posted sample test items.

Read the rest at Education Week: Commission Calls for Radically Different Tests.

The Problem with Tests

Memorizing is not the same as learning. We know that. We have studies and experts and books and websites to tell us that memorization is not the same as learning. Those of us who teach, have children, or attend school know first hand: vocabulary words memorized for a test are forgotten in under a month. To learn, students must interact with relevant, contextualized material. Tests that require the memorization of discrete facts clearly incentivize memorization over genuine learning, so why do we still rely on these tests to measure learning, progress, ability, or knowledge?

The obvious answer is that testing is the easiest way to, you know, test. Increasing focus on teacher accountability results in increasing reliance on standardized tests that focus on minutia rather than the learning process. Punishing schools and teachers whose students perform poorly on such tests has lead to an academic crisis called “teaching to the test,” wherein teachers neglect holistic, meaningful curricula in favor of lessons designed to improve student scores on standardized tests. Everyone knows that this is a problem. Furthermore, the content of many standardized tests is frequently considered unfairly biased against students of color. Parents, teachers, administrators, politicians, and even students understand that the accountability system is broken, but progress is slow because the issue is complex and humans often resist change.

Because I work independently with students, I rarely have to interact with standardized testing. Although my students do sometimes have to complete standardized tests, I never teach to the test because, unlike traditional school teachers, my income and resources do not depend on my students’ test scores. However, most children do not have the luxury of individual education, so most children in our country are victims of a completely broken educational system. Frankly, that sickens me. I’m an educator because I believe that education is the most important tool for personal, societal, and global wellness. I’m a homeschool teacher because I believe that our education system hinders real education!

The last standardized test I took was the SAT. I believe that my SAT scores accurately reflected my abilities at the time because I didn’t study at all. However, nearly every student in my socio-economic group prepares in some way for the SAT, making many SAT results indicative a student’s dedication to study and ability to memorize, not the general knowledge and subject fluency of that student. I have several problems with this system. First, test preparation is expensive, so affluent students are at an advantage. Second, I don’t believe that tests should require specific preparation.

Yes, I’m saying that students should (almost) never be asked to study.

When students study for a test, their goal shifts from learning to achieving. I’m not just talking about standardized tests; students typically prepare for a vocabulary test by memorizing textbook definitions of each word, not by interacting with the words in a natural, inquisitive way. Thus they gain only an academic understanding of the word, and they forget even that within a few weeks. Although teachers know this, they worry that a student who isn’t going to be tested won’t pay attention to the material at all.

So what?

Before I began writing this post, I asked a friend to answer a few questions. This friend is a graduate student studying psychology. She earned “good” grades in school. I asked her five questions about junior high level geometry, and she said “Psh, I don’t remember” to four of them. I know she took myriad tests on basic geometry. I know she did worksheets. Junior high geometry lessons are supposed to accomplish two goals: First, they’re meant to help students understand how the world works. The formulas for area, perimeter, etc. are part of spacial logic. Second, basic geometry is meant to serve as a foundation for advanced mathematics. My friend didn’t pursue advanced math, but she should still be able to use spacial logic to determine the answer to questions like “how do you find the volume of a rectangular solid?” The reason she can’t remember how to solve such a problem is that she was taught to memorize the formula rather than to understand what the formula meant. Her math teachers taught to the test. What if, instead of incentivizing memorization, educators simply introduced concepts in context, encouraged students to explore concepts in a variety of ways during class, and assigned minimal homework designed to encourage retention? What if teachers never asked their students to memorize equations at all?

I do think students gain one major skill from studying: the ability to study. Certain professions require memorization. Litigators, politicians, surgeons and emergency personel, and newscasters who perform on live TV or radio all definitely need to know how to study! Even if we created an educational system that was, for example, free of the SAT, there would still be some merit in learning how to study. However, in such a world, studying could be one of many skills taught and utilized in schools. Today, every test is a test on studying.

What would happen if we abolished (“closed-book”) testing completely? I want to hear from you!

Teachers: do you feel that classroom tests help you measure learning? Do you worry that tests encourage memorization and discourage exploration?

Parents: how do you help your children prepare for school tests? If your child earns an A on a test, do you feel that your child has learned that material? How do you react when your child performs poorly on a classroom or standardized test?

Homeschool families: has testing affected your decision to homeschool? Do you rely on testing of any kind?

 

Surprising Anxiety Trigger 7: Something That Happened a Long Time Ago

Your daughter watches “Finding Nemo” for the first time and becomes very upset when Nemo’s mother dies at the start of the film. You comfort her appropriately, and she seems to recover. After all, children are surprisingly resilient, and your daughter will surely forget all about the scene soon. Weeks (or even months) later, your daughter starts displaying unusually severe separation anxiety. She’s reticent when questioned, but you assume something very recent has triggered her increased anxiety.

Unfortunately, though children are indeed resilient, they often become haunted by the scary things they see in life, on TV, and even in dreams. Sometimes they dwell on things that frighten them, spending days reliving their fear. In other instances, the scary event only slips into their minds when triggered by unrelated anxiety, random association, or perhaps a relevant song. Either way, children often feel embarrassed by their inability to release scary memories from the past. Encourage your child to share her feelings by listening with interest, respect, and love. Never mock a child for dwelling on old fears; you may be tempted to say “You’re still upset about that?” but it’s important that you display support instead.

If your child expresses lingering or recurrent anxiety about a minor trauma in the past, explain that it’s normal to sometimes feel stuck with a fear, and then help her address the fear directly. Humor can be helpful (“I promise not to get eaten by a fish”) if your child fears supported and respected. If your child cannot release her fear, it may be necessary to discuss the issue with your pediatrician or mental health professional.

If your child has experienced significant trauma in the past, it’s crucial that you speak to an expert as soon as possible.

Surprising Anxiety Trigger 6: Music

This is the sixth installment of the ongoing series of surprising triggers of childhood anxiety.

We all know that music can dramatically influence mood, but it’s easy to forget that songs have different effects on different people. Songs are often strongly associated with specific memories: Though I believe the song came out years earlier, “We’re Going to Be Friends” by The White Stripes conjures my senior year in high school so dramatically I get almost giddy when I hear it; 12th grade was one of the best years of my life. Alternately, I can’t listen to Sum41’s first album (and luckily wouldn’t care to anyway) because it brings me back to the anxiety and despair of eighth grade. Children have fewer things to remember, but they may also associate songs with memories. A favorite family lullaby heard while away from parents might trigger separation anxiety, or a song from a scary movie (and remember, children are often scared by seemingly benign movies) might cause sudden unease. These associative memories are too complex for most young children to express, so it’s up to parents, caregivers, and teachers to help anxious children explore their fears.

Even if you’ve never heard a song before or don’t have any strong associations to it, some music just makes you feel bad. Sometimes a piece of a lyric can be scary, or sometimes there’s a scary story being told. I mentioned before that “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” was agonizing for me in preschool because I took the lyrics to mean that the singer’s mother was coming but hadn’t yet arrived–and she never even gets there! Also, don’t underestimate the effects of a “plaintive melody” or a dramatic swell. For most people, the melody of the song is actually more powerful than the lyrics. (Yesterday, my roommate pointed out the story being told in “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay.” It’s not as whimsical as you might guess.)

If your child or student becomes distressed during a song, it may be helpful to ask the child whether she’s heard the song before, and where. Next, explain that songs can make you remember something really strongly or even just make you feel a strong emotion. Education, understanding, and training are the best tools to mitigate anxiety, so always use anxiety attacks as “teaching moments.” Then, after the anxiety has been addressed, use distraction to help your child feel normal again. And consider changing the song!

Class Participation Part 4: Can We Fix Class Discussion?

Welcome to what I expect will be the final installment of my series on forced participation in class discussion!

One More Example of How Class Discussions Fail

Class discussions can be used to achieve a variety of objectives, and there are several “teaching methods” that rely of class discussion. One simple method used for class discussion is concept attainment, “the search for and listing of attributes that can be used to distinguish exemplars from nonexemplars of various categories” (Bruner, Goodnow, and Austin, 1967). Here is a very simple example of a lesson using the concept attainment teaching method:

Mr. A writes a word on the board: Hat. “What are some things you notice about this word?” he asks.

“It starts with an H,” says a student.

“It has three letters!” shouts another.

“Good,” says Mr. A. “Okay, what about this word?” He writes Home on the board.

At this point, most of the students have guessed that Mr. A is listing words that start with H. Some of the class begins to lose interest.

“Have you guessed what the words have in common?” asks Mr. A

“Yes,” replies much of the class. One student explains, “They both start with H.”

“Hmm, that’s true,” says Mr.A, “but let’s keep looking at the list.” Mr. A writes another word on the board and asks more students to guess what the words have in common. He then begins listing words that don’t belong on the list. He encourages his class to offer any ideas they have about the lists, and he allows students to politely challenge each other’s theories. Eventually, Mr. A’s whiteboard looks something like this:

YES
Hat
Home
Drum
Student

NO
Hairy
Red
Run
Sing
Quick
Quickly

I’m bored just describing this scenario.

The theory behind this activity is that Mr. A’s students will more thoroughly understand the concept of nouns and will retain their knowledge longer than if they’d simply been provided with a definition and list of examples. That may be true. However, to many students, slow generation of knowledge is excruciatingly boring. Mr. A encourages all his students to participate in the discussion, so the weaker members of the class struggle to make guesses and are often explicitly wrong. Mr. A is a nice man and a good teacher, so he works with these weaker students and avoids saying “No, that’s incorrect.” Thus, other students become confused, and the discussion takes most of class. Worse, Mr. A requires each student to offer at least one guess during the discussion, and he gives additional points to students who are especially engaged, so the extroverted students babble on and the introverts lose points. Anyone who doesn’t have a guess is forced to make one up. Several students, included those who are introverted, shy or anxious, gifted, or suffering from ADD/ADHD completely lose interest early in the discussion and miss any relevant information.

Here’s the strangest thing about this kind of discussion: giving the correct answer ruins the exercise! Imagine that Jahruba, a gifted student, immediately understands the list once Mr. A explains that “hairy” does not belong on it. He raises his hand and says, “All the words on the list are nouns.” It’s been five minutes, and Mr. A scheduled half an hour for this activity. He wanted his students to explore possible answers and slowly come to understand the lesson. Jahruba just ruined the whole exercise, so Mr. A can’t help but act a little angry as he stutters, “Well….yes…uh…but I wanted you to think about it longer.” Jahruba understands that he has done something wrong, so he stops raising his hand as often, and Mr. A worries that Jahruba will ruin future activities, so he avoids calling on him when he does raise his hand.

How Can We Fix The Exercise?

Having lived through public school, I’ve seen the above scenario play out a thousand times. Here are some tips for teachers who want to engage students in discussion without torturing them.

1. Ask a question and let students privately answer.
If the purpose of your discussion is to guide students toward a correct answer, give students a chance to write the answer down and hand it to you. If the student is right, let her opt out of the discussion.

2. Keep student responses focused.
If a student is so off track she’s prolonging the discussion and confusing her peers, cut her off. You can be polite about it, but be sure to be firm!

3. It’s okay to say “that’s wrong”!
Praising every guess confuses students and discourages active thinking. Thank every student for his participation, but be clear when an answer is wrong

4. Encourage peer support, but point out even subtle errors.
It’s great to allow students to answer each other’s questions, but watch out for subtle errors in each answer. If you find an error, praise the student for the rest of her answer and then explicitly correct her mistake.

5. Ask specific questions.
Kids who don’t speak up during discussion may simply not have anything to say. Asking a specific question can help. Instead of saying, “What do you think about the US Civil War, Jenny?” try asking Jenny whether she believes that the war was primarily about slavery. If she says, “I don’t know,” give her a little guidance and then ask a related question.

I Want to Hear from You!

Teachers: do you “force” students to participate in class discussions? Why or why not? How do you keep your students focused and interested?

Parents: do your children complain about class discussion? What are your thoughts?

Homeschool parents: did you consider class participation when choosing to homeschool?

Post a comment or tweet at me. I’ll RT or respond!