Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Need for science education

As I've written before, homeschoolers are in a perfect position to provide the best science education for their children, because we can take our kids out into the field and do things with them that make science fun and interesting! My daughter who blogs at Science on the Farm is taking her first college science class this semester, and she already said that she can see why most students say they "hate" science. There is a lot of memorization, and without the practical background, it seems pointless and boring. Here's a quote that pretty much sums up a great article on the need for better science education. (STEM is an achronym for science, technology, engineering, and math.)

"What is most dramatic about this survey is the extent to which the Fortune [1000] executives speak with one unequivocal voice on these issues," said Attila Molnar, president and CEO of Bayer Corp. "Almost without exception, they overwhelmingly recognize this country's great need to tap the potential of the entire STEM talent pool, and the importance of doing so at every point on the development continuum--beginning in elementary school with high-quality, hands-on, inquiry-based science education, through college where STEM talent is refined and recruited, and then into the workplace where it must be further nurtured and encouraged."

Yes -- hands-on, inquiry-based science education -- not memorizing anatomy charts and periodic table of the elements. The people in education know what we need, and the executives in businesses know what they need, but the current educational system is not equipped to provide it.

And I especially liked one of the comments posted by a reader:
Teaching "what" to think (STEM content) is insufficient; they also need to learn "how" to think. Too many of our best minds are crammed full of content but don't know how to make the most of the knowledge. We need to push critical thinking, creative thinking, and systems thinking in the curricula even before the STEM (or any other technical field, for that matter) content. It's like having a huge database but no program.

Again, kids need to be out in the field, getting dirty, doing stuff, rather than sitting in a classroom memorizing a bunch of stuff. Even if you live in an apartment without a yard, you can grow plants, keep an aquarium, or have a couple of pet mice. And you can head out to nature preserves, the zoo, and museums. Most good science teachers would do this if only they could, because they know this is how kids learn science. But alas the schools can't afford field trips every week for their students.

Research on learning

Here is a bit of interesting research.
ScienceDaily (2008-09-27) -- Eight-year-old children have a radically different learning strategy from twelve-year-olds. Eight-year-olds learn primarily from positive feedback, whereas negative feedback scarcely causes any alarm bells to ring. Twelve-year-olds are better able to process negative feedback, and use it to learn from their mistakes. The switch in learning strategy can be seen in the brain areas responsible for cognitive control.
For the whole story, click here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

What do teachers know that parents don't know?

Here is a blog written by a first-year teacher in New York City with 42 fifth graders in a single class!

In 1985, I started grad school at Brown University to earn a master of arts in teaching high school English. I quit at the end of the fall semester. Although I loved everything I learned in the classes at Brown, my time in a Rhode Island public high school was less than positive. In fact, it was my first step towards homeschooling, even though I was not even married at the time. When people tell me they can't homeschool because they don't know how to teach their child, I tell them that a degree in education doesn't teach you to teach -- it teaches you crowd control. It was the hardest thing I had to do in student teaching, and it remains the most challenging part of teaching for most teachers. It is probably the biggest reason that children need to spend an hour on a topic that they could easily learn in five or ten minutes.

And if you think this teacher's experience is unusual, just read the comments. Most of them are from teachers who tell her that they've had similar experiences.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Elementary math

I'm in the mood for Monopoly. You know the game ... Park Place and Boardwalk, pass go and collect $200. We're big Monopoly fans here. It's one of the many ways my children learned math when they were little: counting money, adding, subtracting, buying, selling, and budgeting. Although my children grew up with the traditional Monopoly, today we own four different Monopoly sets: the original, the Lord of the Rings Trilogy Edition, the Star Wars edition, and Gardenopoly, where you go to "weeding" instead of jail, and you get to grow all sorts of plants and build greenhouses. There is also a Farmopoly, which I am tempted to buy, but seriously, how many different Monopoly games does one family need?

My point today is brief ... if you have an elementary aged child, skip the math worksheets and buy a few Monopoly games. It will be way more fun for you and your child, and he or she will learn math in the "real" world.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The real thing

My college students are in the midst of a critical thinking exercise. They are supposed to visit three Web sites and decide whether or not they are credible.
Being the eternal optimist, in every class and in every semester, I eagerly await their posts on the discussion board online. And every year I am frustrated and disappointed. I've been sitting at my computer this morning, reading their responses and thinking about how I'm going to respond. And in so many cases, I find myself saying, "You're not in high school anymore." For so many of them, the goal is not learning -- the goal is a grade. Some have a goal of A, and some have a goal of C or even D. In this critical thinking exercise, most of them are just throwing an answer against the Cyberwall to see what sticks.

I've told them that obviously, we know men can't get pregnant, but I want them to look at the site like an alien. If you don't know men can't get pregnant, how would you determine that this site is a fake? I do this because when they choose a speech topic, they will be entering a foreign world where they don't know what is or is not possible. There will be thousands of sources out there from which to choose. Some will be good; some will be biased; some will be wrong. They need to have critical thinking skills to determine whether a site is credible or not. Every semester I have students lose points on their speeches because they use sites that are not credible. So many of them scoff at my warning and saying, "Well, it's just common sense." Here are a couple of the responses:

I just can't bring myself to believe this. Although it does have newspaper articles and other credible sources, I just can't believe it.

The site is not credible because the live vital signs only show results and no proof that a man is actually hooked up to the machines.
Students #1 is a perfect example of someone who will probably use sources that are not credible. She's in a hurry and didn't take the time to actually click on those links to see if they really do lead to the "credible" sources that she trusts.

Student #2 is thinking skeptically, not critically. How could any website prove what he is suggesting? If it were following a woman's pregnancy, how could they prove that it's real?

This is actually an easy site to debunk. If you click on any of the links, you see that they do not go to stories about the pregnant man; the links just go to the home page of those sites. Also, there is no physical address or phone number for the medical center. You can't even figure out what state it's in. If students only took the time to google "pregnant man" or "Dwayne Medical Center," they'd find other sites that say it is not credible. But most students don't think about double-checking their sources.

The DHMO site is a perfect example of how someone can make something look really bad. Everything on that site is absolutely true. But it is a perfect example of bias. So many students think that biased = wrong. Although DHMO does all of those horrible things, it is also absolutely essential for life. As they say in advertising, the truth is irrelevant -- what's imortant is what people believe! Don't be too quick to say that no one would really make something good sound so bad. The government has done exactly that with raw milk. While raw milk has many health benefits, the government has banned it or severely restricted it in many states because big business has convinced them it is just as dangerous as DHMO. By the way, DHMO is water, and as a result of this site, some people have tried to have it banned -- until they learned that it is water.

The skunk site is credible, and a few students pointed out some good things about it, so today I'll be ending that discussion, and I'll add another one: The Lovenstein Institute. That website was created as a result of a hoax email sent out in 2001 saying that Bush had the lowest IQ of any president ever to be elected, according to the Lovenstein Institute. Today, they throw all sorts of interesting stuff up there and mix it with legitimate news, which makes it a little harder to decipher. Since no one has offered any good answers to the DHMO or male pregnancy discussions, I'll leave those up and ask students to continue responding.

This is what I'll be telling my students ... This is the real world. If you're a doctor, you have to diagnose your patients' illness or condition. If you're a lawyer, you have to figure out the best strategy for defending your client. If you're a physical therapist, you have to figure out the best treatment for your patient. If you're a teacher, you have to figure out what works and what doesn't work with your students. If you're an advertising executive, you have to figure out what will sell your products. You can't just throw something out there and wait for someone else to give you the "right" answer. In real life, no one knows the right answer most of the time. You have to use your education and training and critical thinking skills to figure out the best answer. If you choose the wrong answer, your patient might die, your client might go to jail, your students might not learn, your company might go bankrupt. That's the real world. You don't get grades in the real world. You have to think and make decisions, and if you're wrong, the consequences can be much worse than an F.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Science in the real world

When homeschoolers see me speak or first encounter something I've read, they might assume that I'm a science or math professional. Nothing could be further from the truth. However, I write and speak about math and science a lot more than writing -- I am a writer -- because I had such a hard time with math and science in school. Although my science grades were more consistent than math -- math fluctuated from As to Ds, while I almost always had Bs in science -- I struggled to earn those Bs. Teaching science in the classroom is as bad as trying to teach writing through sentence diagramming. Kids can't learn science without living science. My youngest has a blog where she writes about Science on the Farm. While most people don't have a 32-acre classroom in their backyard, they do have plenty of places to study science:
  • Even a small backyard has plenty of opportunitites to study science. Get a bird feeder and a bird guide for your state and start checking off your visitors.
  • Ask your child to help you decide which plants to put in your flower gardens. Does it need shade or sun? How many hours of sun does each area of your yard get in a typical summer day? How much water does the plant need? What type of soil?
  • Natural areas, such as parks and recreational areas have lots of plants and animals.
  • An aquarium is an ecosystem unto itself and provides great opportunities for kids to learn about aquatic animals and plants.
  • Zoos have programs for kids, such as the Junior Zookeeper program at the zoo in Bloomington, IL.

These are just a few ideas. The most important thing for parents to know is that science is one of the easiest things for kids to learn without textbooks. And having a strong foundation of practical science can make it easier for kids when they go into the college science classroom. When they start seeing all of those scientific names, they have a framework to make it all fit, rather than just trying to memorize a bunch of meaningless facts and names.

What surprises a lot of homeschoolers is that most public school teachers would be doing what we do if they were allowed to do it. Here's a post by a public school teacher in Alaska. He talks about what a positive experience it was to take his students into the woods for 20 minutes. We can take our kids into the great outdoors for hours. But it's a big deal for a public school teacher to do something like this for 20 minutes, because it takes away from the time they need to spend teaching kids what they need to know to pass the standardized tests.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

How do you define success?

A lot of people get caught up in the question of success ... will my child be successful if we homeschool? Well, it's tough to be less successful than the public schools. My last post talked about how some public school graduates are incapable of critical thinking. But the sadder half of that equation are the kids who never graduate from high school. According to HigherEdInfo.org, the high school graduation rate for 2005 was 68.8% in the United States. It varied tremendously from state to state with New Jersey having 87.6% graduation rate and Nevada having only 49.1% of entering ninth graders completing high school. If high school graduation is your criteria, then I have been successful with all three of my children, since they have all started college. I don't think high school graduation is a huge hurdle for most homeschoolers.

What about success in college? HigherEdInfo says that only 29.1% of students at community college receive their associate degree within three years. My oldest daughter did receive her first associate degree within three years, so she succeeded. My son did not finish an associate degree within three years, but then that was never his goal. He just wanted to take a class or two for fun. So, now we are getting into a gray area ... how do you define success? Was he not successful?

We have become a multiple choice society, and I can't help but believe that it comes from the fact that virtually all of us went to public schools, where answers to every question were either A, B, C, D, or E.

How do you become a success in America?
A. Get good grades in school
B. Graduate from high school
C. Graduate from college
D. Homeschool
E. A, B, and C

Most people choose E without question. Every semester, I've had at least one student confess to me that she didn't want to be in college. Usually several students tell me this every semester. But, they are "forced" to go to college by their parents. When I ask them what interests them, they either say that they don't know, or they want to do something that does not require a college degree. In May, one girl told me she wanted to be a personal trainer like her dad, who didn't have a college degree and was quite successful. But her dad believed a college degree was absolutely essential for his daughter to be successful.

Many of those students will not be graduating. With no personal motivation to be there and no goals, they don't try very hard, and many of them wind up on academic probation at the end of their first semester. They fail. But I'm not saying they fail because they flunk out of college. I'm saying they fail because they waste a year of their life following someone else's path, rather than exploring or moving towards their personal goals.

My daughter started college at age 13 and received her first associate degree at age 16. Although she was accepted into five universities to complete her bachelor's degree, she decided to stay at the community college to continue exploring different subject areas. After earning two more associate degrees and still not being sure what she wanted to pursue for her bachelor's, I suggested that she take off a couple years and explore the real world. She worked in retail for a year and a half, which became a very frustrating time for her because so many friends were wringing their hands about her impending poverty in life. A few good friends, who knew her well, were not concerned at all. We knew that she was highly motivated and a perfectionist, and she would find the path that was right for her.

When she started the job, she loved it as she was learning how to do everything. Once she'd mastered her job, she started to hate it. She applied for a management position, and she was promoted. She loved it as she was learning to do everything. Once she'd mastered that job, she started to hate it. Do you see a trend here? She did. She learned something very valuable about herself -- something she would have never learned in school. It was something I knew, but it was something she had to learn for herself. She needs a job that can't be learned in a few weeks or a couple months. She needs something that constantly challenges her mind.

I don't define success with something simplistic like a college degree or a high-paying job. Success is not reached by following a straight line from high school to college to Wall Street. Success is not a destination. It's a journey up and down winding roads and across wide open fields. It's a journey that never ends as long as you're motivated to keep going.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Testing, testing

One of the things that seems to surprise people about homeschooling in Illinois is that our children don't have to be tested. For the past year, if someone mentions standardized testing to me, they get to hear the story of Plagiarism Girl, a student in my freshman speech class in the fall of 2007.

PG was a graduate of the Chicago Public Schools. She screwed up every single assignment all semester. For one of her speeches, she read seven minutes, word for word, from a website and did not understand why that was wrong. I spent an hour with this girl explaining to her in every way imaginable why she could not read from someone's website. She thought that she was not guilty of plagiarism since she said, "According to ..." at the beginning. When I said that would have been okay for quoting a sentence or two, she said, "Well, it was his biography." So what? For an hour, I explained plagiarism, fair use, copyright laws, and everything else I could think of that was remotely related. PG truly had no understanding that she had done anything wrong.

On the assignment prior to this one, she was supposed to watch a presidential tv ad from livingroomcandidate.com and write a short paper that connected the ad to a communication concept we'd studied in class, such as ethics of communication. I could not figure out which ad or which concept her paper was about. Ultimately, I discovered that PG hadn't watched an ad -- she had merely summarized the introductory material about the Bush vs. Clinton race. She wrote that everyone was blaming Clinton for the bad economy and that people hid signs in the Clinton campaign headquarters saying, "It's the economy, stupid." I asked her how the whole country could have been blaming Clinton (the governor of Arkansas) for the bad economy, and she said she didn't know. I asked her if she knew what the word, "conspicuous" meant, and she didn't know. Based on what she wrote, it looked like she thought it meant "hidden." The website actually said that signs were posted conspicuously around the headquarters.

The other stories get more complicated, but the bottom line is that PG was completely incapable of critical thinking. The most shocking thing about this story to most people is that this girl passed my class. How on earth could she have passed when she blew every single assignment, every paper, and every speech? She passed the tests, which were multiple choice. When she had a limited number of options available, she could choose the right answer most of the time. But life is not a multiple choice test. Life is filled with open-ended questions. Children need to learn how to think -- not take multiple choice tests.

Last week, I started my third year of teaching a freshman-level college class. The college requires that students have a mid-term and a final exam in this class, which is required for all students. Most professors use multiple choice because it's easier to grade. Students respond on forms that can be computer graded, which is quick and easy. All standardized tests are multiple choice, and those tests are the way we decide whether or not the schools are doing their jobs. While PG's story is very dramatic, she is not the only student I've had who is completely incapable of critical thinking. The majority of students cannot critically think.

One problem that happens over and over again ... When we talk about research, I have students look at some websites and tell me why they are or are not legitimate. Many students visit dhmo.org and say that it's legitimate because it's a dot-org site, and all of those are credible. The funny thing about that site is that every single word is true. The site is maintained by a man who thinks that we need better critical thinkers, and it shows how you can make something sound really bad -- without ever telling a lie.

On the flip side, I've had some students tell me that no dot-com site can be trusted because they're all just trying to sell something. These kids are NOT critical thinkers. They view life as a series of multiple choice tests. Dot-org is true; dot-com is false. When asked to visit this site on male pregnancy, I tell them to pretend they are from another planet and don't know that men can't get pregnant. Then tell me how you know this site is not legitimate. The majority of students can't figure it out and admit that if they were an alien, they would find the site credible. My point is that throughout their lives they will be looking on the Internet for information, and they will be looking for information because they are like that alien -- they don't know which information is right or wrong, so they need to be able to evaluate the source.

Schools worked great in the 19th century when the country was moving into the industrial age, when our biggest need was for good little worker bees in the factories. Today is a completely different world though, and we need people who can think and solve problems. Kids don't learn that stuff through multiple choice tests.