Professional educators are likely to be put off by some of the language I use in this article. I’m sticking with layman’s terms because I am a layman, and because the terminology of teachers can not only be as dense as that of micro-paleontologists, with the an extra layer of obtuseness because it varies quite a bit between states and even districts. One teacher’s SSD is another teacher’s CEI. So the terms I will use are my own, not that of the teachers. If they bumble into the unclear, the out of date, or even the offensive, I apologize.
The teachers I've spoken with, from different areas and in different grades, feel that there’s a decline in the classroom environment. This decline may not be immediately evident in test scores, though many of these same teachers also feel that test scores are a poor marker of what they’re trying to achieve in the classroom, particularly with middle school children. Even so, it’s highly obvious to teachers who have spent more than a few years in the classroom that there’s a serious problem. I'm focusing mainly on middle school science, because that's the area where I have had the most feedback.
What’s harming the education of children, and particularly damaging the teaching of science? The problems are: innovation, caring and devotion.
But, as you can read below the fold, not quite in the way you might expect.
Innovation: Technology in the classroom
The idea of weaving more use of technology into the science classroom seems both obvious and sensible. After all, science is just one part of a “STEM” curriculum. Students who have an interest in science are also often engaged by technology, and there’s a constant outcry to direct more students along this path. It seems only reasonable then that technology in the school first be introduced in teaching science. The problem is that what’s sensible on paper doesn't always pan out in the classroom.
There are certainly instances in which technology, both simple and complex, can augment the classroom experience, connecting students with information and environments that no school budget could deliver first hand. In addition, technological tools often require from students the same kind of logical approach that serves them well in other aspects of science. However, neither of these factors is reason enough to force technology into places where it’s been poorly tested, and where it interferes with classroom instruction.
For example, dropping traditional textbooks in favor of tablets or PCs means that the teacher must not only be proficient at their subject, but also become tech support for more than 150 eager 12-year-olds, each of whom is more interested in seeing what their device can do, rather than dutifully pulling up PDFs or web pages on the day's topic. You can expect that making this replacement means having the teacher devote some part of each class time to halting games, dealing with a flurry of instant messages, and redirecting students from websites that have nothing to do with the subject at hand (other than occasionally touching on biology in a way that’s not all that fitting for a 6th grade class).
Those are the issues that have to be dealt with before the teacher gets around to addressing issues where firewalls or “white lists” on the devices fail to allow access to classroom material. It’s before the teacher has to deal with the tablet that’s run out of batteries, or simply ceased to function It’s before all the cries of “I can’t find that site.” It's before the the teacher can help the student who has forgotten the pin code on their device. It's before she can help the child who has accidentally erased the school's lengthy WiFi password... again.
These problems are made much more difficult with a philosophy of "Bring Your Own Device." The BYOD issue is one that many companies are facing, but even for the most technologically savvy businesses this is a difficult hurdle. It takes planning, discipline, and great support to smoothly integrate a multitude of devices into a company. Even then, most companies have limits on the devices, operating systems and browsers they will support. Very little of that support is available in a school setting, where the teacher has no ability to dictate the devices students bring. Students come through the door with iPads, with Samsung Notes, with Kindles and MEMOPads and Nooks. They come in with inexpensive tablets purchased at the grocery store or the bargain bin at the local big box. They bring tablets which are running some version of an operating system years out of date, or which have been so heavily modified that the basics of Android or Windows are lost in the muck. And teachers are expected to deal with it all.
Everyone who has experienced the phenomenon of a four-year-old eagerly tapping away at an iPad has had a glimpse into the instant affinity that can occur between children and devices. However, this natural kinship does not extend to informing a child on IP addresses, port issues and other network arcana. It doesn't make them any better at remembering a fistful of passwords than anyone else. And it doesn't apply to every child. The truth is: A roomful of children are not naturally better at connecting to web sites and handling applications than the people in your office. In fact, they’re worse.
As a result, in a class period that rarely exceeds 50 minutes; the teacher will spend five minutes, 10 minutes … or more, just addressing the technological issues that must be handled simply to get everyone looking at the same material. In every class. Every day. Every time the source of information is changed. And while you’re trying to solve one student’s in ability to reach a site or open a document, the next two students start up a game of Flappy Bird. Again.
This isn't to say that this technology doesn't have a place in instruction. Certainly there are wonderful materials available on the internet: games that instruct, videos that explain, whole courses that help turn the most difficult material into (literally) child’s play. A variety of devices means that many students are able to connect to the internet and work with applications, even if they can’t afford, or simply don’t like, the most popular model. It’s wonderful in many ways. However, none of that makes these tools immediately suitable for use in the classroom. There is a necessary and intrinsic difference between those things that engage a student individually, and those things that are suitable for use in a group.
Doggedly replacing textbooks with technology turns devices and material that could be used to engage the students into both a distraction and a net loss of instruction time. It also forces the teacher to be a one-person tech shop, ever able to deal with issues on an alphabet soup of devices.
The technical challenges may be solvable by some teachers in some circumstances. They may be trivial in a few years. That’s not the case now.
If there is value in classroom instruction, that value cannot be found by placing in student's hands devices that carry them away from the classroom. It has to be found by having the students engage with the teacher, not a device, no matter how cool.
Caring: All-in-one Science
Most middle school English teachers today face teaching an advanced class, one or more levels of remedial class, and often a class targeted at students for whom English is not their initial language. Math teachers face a similar array, and preparing the requisite lesson plans for these varying classrooms certainly represents a daunting load.
However, the situation for science teachers in the middle school is drastically different. In nearly all cases, there is no differentiation in middle school science. All students, at all levels, are mixed together. For many students working at a more remedial level, this may be the only class during the day in which they are in the same classroom with students working on or above grade level. In several cases, this broad spectrum of ability is made even wider by bringing in students who have special requirements and who are brought into the science classroom for socialization and exposure to other students.
Why use a topic already so difficult for many students as an opportunity to socialize? Because few of the instructors for special requirements students have experience in teaching science, and because schools often view math and language as core subjects, while science is ... on its own. Remedial science (and advanced science at the middle school level) is a very rare class
The result of this extremely wide spectrum of ability is that science is taught at a level well below where it should be. It's hard to do otherwise. Both English and Math have options for those struggling in those subjects, but science—which requires a strong ability to handle both language and math skills on a daily basis—has no such relief. The struggles of those who cannot read the science text, or who cannot do the requisite math, have to be dealt with in the science classroom alongside those working on or above grade level.
Are many students bored with their science instruction? They should be. While challenging projects can be provided to those students actively looking for work, this is no substitute for engaging, teacher-directed, classroom instruction. These are children, after all, and very few have the ability or desire to seek out work on their own and to stay engaged with a class that isn't forcing them to engage.
But with all that said, few teachers I spoke with really want this structure to change. So few, that the actual number was zero.
For many parents, and not a few teachers, anything that smacks of "tracking" has a sour feel to it. It brings with it connotations of a kind of academic determinism, something that can all too easily become a form of social, economic, or racial segregation in which students who are already ahead are given advantages that put them even further ahead. Are the best teachers, the most engaging, exciting voices, going to be instructing in the remedial class, or are they going to be given the advanced class? Are students in every class going to get the same field trips? The same exposure to Science Bowl, FIRST, and Science Olympiad?
In addition, there are many instances in which having students with a broad array of abilities working together can be uplifting, rewarding and enriching. There's a good argument to be made that placing students with special requirements into a classroom with students who they would not otherwise have the opportunity to work alongside is as important as anything that can be taught, not just in middle school science, but in any subject at any level. When it works, the results can be amazing. Students at all levels can be given opportunities to experience empathy, express kindness, and develop crucial social skills.
Every teacher has seen some moment of grace.
But it doesn't always work, and it's not always helpful for any of the students involved. That demon time, the ticking clock counting off the all too brief period in the classroom, can frustrate the best intentions. Parents can hold so much expectation for their child's progress, that they don't see beyond the test scores. And really, there are some students who are not well served by being thrust into a noisy, crowded classroom--even if that noise comes from enthusiasm.
Teachers aren't asking that middle school science be rigidly tracked. They are asking that schools provide some flexibility in how classes are composed, and that they listen when teachers bring up problems. Schools need to react quickly to situations where teachers are unable to provide a positive environment.
Which brings us to the next issue ...
Devotion: Experiments that never end
There are 13,809 public school districts in the United States. Every one of them, and every one of the 98,817 public schools within them, is an experiment. In ways large and small, each school and each district varies from every other. They vary by their ability to provide facilities, teachers, and material because of financial limits based on the archaic and intrinsically unfair practice of tying school funding to local property taxes. They vary because of regional attitudes, cultural backgrounds, population density and physical climate. They vary because some school boards are full of dedicated adults who are truly interested in doing what’s best for the kids, while other boards are populated by would-be-politicians out to make a name for themselves by making a show out of stomping on teachers. They vary because some teachers are simply better than others.
We often talk of the states as being the hothouses of democracy; each of them an experiment in finding the right mix. The states don’t even begin to touch on the variability found in American schools.
And that’s before you begin considering the 5,277 charter schools in the United States—each of which is almost guaranteed to be the absolute expression of an individual experiment; a statement that something is wrong with the way that education is being done in those other schools, so we’re going to approach education differently. By gum. Ditto for the 22,079 religious schools, the 6,916 secular private schools, and the roughly 1.5 million students spending at least part of their academic life being home-schooled.
There’s nothing wrong with experimentation. Experimentation, observation, determining cause and effect—it would be hard to advocate science and be against these principles. Evolution through natural selection, perhaps the greatest single triumph of reasoning, requires an environment rife with experimentation and variety. In principle, the variation in our educational system should be a good thing, leading to an ever more refined method of instruction.
But that’s only true if a mechanism exists to weed out bad results. Unfortunately, it doesn't.
Experiments in education are often carried out for reasons that have far more to do with principles of politics than with the results of previous experience in educating children. Experiments instituted to show that "private companies can always out think the government" or "you can hire better teachers if you get away from the union" or "sound instruction should be based on the theories of (your favorite philosopher or religious tome here)" may generate good results. Often, they do not.
Sadly, many of these institutions--public and private--are far more devoted to the idea behind their brand of education, than they are to the children acting as materials for their experiment. Teachers may be whipsawed between different approaches to the same problem, but it’s rarely because schools are acting on feedback from teachers or from any sort of semi-objective result. The experiments change when trends change. They change when a new school board is elected, or a new district administrator appointed, or a principle determined to “make a mark” arrives. They change because someone in the district office gets a sweet kickback on a truckload of material.
All too often, they don’t change at all. Because of devotion. Because those running the school are more dedicated to a vague notion of guiding principles behind the institution than they are to what’s proven effective in the classroom.
These principles can be fixed, central and obvious—you’re unlikely to find a school established along fundamentalist principles embracing a modern view of biology, no matter how badly it impacts their student’s chances in life. They can also be subtle and to all appearances benevolent.
To pick one small example of the later, consider notebooking. Having students build notebooks of their work is a popular trend that’s been instituted at many schools at various times, but has been especially strong in the last decade. Just as with bringing in technology, it has an immediate appeal. The idea of turning all those rooms of children into modern versions of 19th century naturalists, sketching out the parts of a flower and making their own observations on the day’s topics, is charming. It’s also put forward as part of a plan to extend writing into every classroom, which is an idea that’s hard to argue against. It's even posited as a replacement for the godawful decision to remove art courses from many schools.
The problem with notebooking is not in giving students paper and pen to draw out their ideas. Many students deeply enjoy the process, and find that it gives them an outlet for creativity that might not be immediately obvious in other forms of work.
The problem is in integrating notebooking as an everyday activity. The problem is when notebooking turns from an opportunity, into a requirement. The problem is when schools become devoted to the idea that notebooking is an unmitigated good.
Forced to pull out their notebook and record the everyday happenings of class, notebooking experiments trend quickly downward from creativity, to note taking, to transcription. It places children in the position of copying machines and leaves teachers faced with the task of determining how to grade several hundred pages a day of hand written text. Even assuming you can interpret the results, do you really want to evaluate which child did the best job of scribbling down every word spoken in class (or which drew the most accurate image of a frog’s intestine)?
Reserved to a sometime thing, notebooking is a fantastic way to allow the students to provide their own interpretation of what they've learned, but driven by administrators who have made notebooking not so much a classroom activity, but another marker of "innovation" they can hold up on parent night, it hampers the ability to teach.
And like to many experiments in schools, it continues on. And on. And onnnnn … long after it’s been demonstrated to have little value. It's a tiny example, even a petty one, but it's emblematic of a system driven far too often by trending notions than by proven processes.
What these teachers want, and what their students need, is a an educational infrastructure that's more nimble on its feet. One that embraces technology, but allows for flexibility. One that challenges students to work together, but doesn't push stubbornly on with arrangements that aren't working. One that is willing to experiment, but equally willing to end an experiment.
They want science class to act like science, where conducting an experiment sometimes means admitting negative results.