"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Right Time and a Right Place

"There is a right time and a right place" is perhaps better known as a collection of words that talks about luck or serendipity. But in a curriculum for basic education, it speaks of appropriateness. An earlier post in this blog, "A Question of Heroes: A Question of Education Reforms", talked about resolutions for the coming new year which included avoiding some phrases when describing education reform. One of those phrases was "high standards". No education reform out there would claim anything other than "higher standards". It is within this context that the phrase "Right Time and a Right Place" maybe helpful.

A good curriculum in basic education wisely chooses the skills and content to be taught that are appropriate for the background and age of school children. I recently came across an article, "A Day at an Elementary School with a Cognitive Psychologist" by Cedar Riener, assistant professor of Psychology at Randolph-Macon College. I really enjoyed reading this article and having a son who is currently in first grade made his observations quite easy to relate to.

My son browsing through images of cheetah on the internet
My son recently worked on a first grade science project in which he prepared a poster describing cheetahs. He knew that he would be able to find images of cheetahs from the internet that would help him construct his poster. This was something he learned when he was in kindergarten. He had homework then at the end of each week. One of the letters was assigned and he was supposed to find five pictures that corresponded to words that began with the assigned letter. He always picked animals so every week, he had to think of five animals whose names began with the week's letter.

Finding images on a search engine is quite straightforward if one knows how to spell and type. What I would do at those times was to ask him what animals he was looking for (so he had to think of which animals had a name that started with the given letter). Then, I would type the name of the animal on the search engine. He could already recognize letters, but I did not want him to spend time on knowing how to spell the words correctly and finding the letters on the keyboard. Helping a child become familiar with the keyboard can use other exercises on the web that are far more interesting and engaging (My son liked "ABC's Zoo Learning Game", for example).  He would print out the images that he found, cut them out, and paste them on a sheet of paper. He would write the name of the animal under each picture. Making the poster on cheetahs was really a culmination of these weekly exercises. One thing was clear, my son was aware of what he might be able to find out there on the web.

Riener started with optimism in his article, citing that elementary education in the United States has really gone a long way. There is a lot to be glad about how our children are being educated in schools these days. Riener stressed the importance of visiting elementary school classrooms and observing how children are taught to appreciate correctly what is going on in basic education. There are indeed good things, but, of course, there are still instances that leave room for improvement. The following are excerpts:
In one kindergarten classroom, I assisted at a station where the activity consisted of practicing logging in to the computer over and over again. They had to remember an order of operations, and what to do on each step. They had to begin by pressing ctrl-alt-del at the same time, then type in their login number and password (which were both written on a popsicle stick). In between fields, they had to remember to hit the tab key (and remember where the tab key was as well as the enter key). Then, once they logged in, an adult (me or another assistant) would log them out and the students would start all over again. Several kids I was helping were getting frustrated with this–because they could not remember the steps, had a hard time pressing all the keys at once, or had some difficulty finding and recognizing all the letters and numbers in their login sequence and password. 
Logging in to a computer is not something you need to, or can, practice. Knowing where the keys are? Yes, that’s important. But there are so many better ways to practice that. Hitting ctl-alt-del is a dead simple thing to learn when you are eight years old, but tortuous when you are five years old, so why bother practicing it when you are five? This struck me as a classic example of practicing something that can’t and shouldn’t be practiced. It also struck me as something which is likely driven (albeit indirectly) by test-based accountability. This is a subject for another post, but even though most kindergardeners aren’t included in standardized testing (yet), there is still pressure to familiarize them with testing routines. Eventually they will be using the computer by themselves to take these tests, so the schools and teachers are eager to get an early start on computer skills and familiarity with the computer. This could be applied to testing situations, but would also seem to apply to life in the 21st century. Everyone needs to know how to log in, right? But again, why practice something which later comes effortlessly?
Riener also had a couple of cute photos that came along with the article. It is definitely a good read, click this link to read more: "A Day at an Elementary School with a Cognitive Psychologist".



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