Saturday, October 29, 2005

Homework Can't Teach

I know at least one of the things that is wrong with American education today. Students are expected to learn their basic skills from doing homework, not from introduction, instruction and explanation in the classroom. I'm not sure what does get done in the classroom, but it seems the most fundamental teaching is absent. Once upon a time, homework was an exercise to practice skills that had first been taught in the classroom. No more.

If by some chance, anybody is actually reading this site (God be praised), among those who read these words will no doubt be a few teachers. I mean, individuals who have pursued professional training, dedicated themselves to teach as a profession, who go into classrooms every day and work hard. Among those teachers will be some who are competent, even exemplary, who teach their subject effectively. Such teachers will naturally object to the broad sweeping statement in the first paragraph. Rightly so.

I am sure there are many competent teachers who somehow manage to impart knowledge and skill and cultivate aptitude. The best evidence that this is so, is that millions of Americans show considerably more ability to think and do productive work than the abysmally deficient example offered on a daily basis by our president. Somebody must be doing some effective teaching. Maybe it even happens at Yale sometimes. I once met a Yale graduate who seemed intelligent and competent. Unlike most Harvard graduates whose written work I have read, she also knew how to spell English words correctly and consistently.

What do I know? I do a lot of tutoring with students struggling with homework, who have no idea where to begin. I'm not certified. I'm not paid. I show up at the library in a Boys and Girls club. I drop by friends homes who have school-age children. I get called over to a table in the break room at my job driving a paratransit bus, to help a driver who is pursuing a degree while working full time, and is trying to master a course in mathematics as applied to cryptography.

I'm not one of those opportunistic "tutors" who get paid $20 an hour and up to spend an hour or two for a few weeks with children from "failing schools" on funding from the No Child Left Intact law, then walk away when the money runs out, and never see them again. (I looked into such a job once. I was horrified by the attitude of the petty little entrepreneur who ran it, who could talk about nothing but that people who worked for him last year really made a lot of money. I think HE must have billed $40 per hour for each child allegedly served.)

As a matter of fact, I suspect that the lack of teaching in the classroom is closely related to the government's, and the education profession's, addiction to standardized tests. By "the education profession" I do not mean dedicated, certified, experienced, hard-working professional teachers. I mean, the gurus that dominate the upper levels of education and administration with new fads, pet theories, and the bright ideas that are passed off as Ph.D theses in a world overcrowded with knowledge. These gurus exist in every profession. They cover the ideological spectrum from "left" to "right" – as if those archaic terms have any meaning.

Here is what I do know: at the beginning of the school year, a young lady in 3rd grade named Tinika walked into the library with some subtraction homework. It took me four hours to work through it with her. Why? Because she had no idea what to do with it. I don't give answers, I ask questions that lead the child to find the answers for themselves. But that wasn't enough this time. I had to teach her what subtraction is, teach her what to do with the numbers on the page, teach her how to carry or borrow or regroup. (Each of those terms is a slightly different approach to doing the same thing. No doubt someone got a Ph.D degree, an article published in a professional journal, or a book published by a textbook company, for coming up with each "new" approach.)

There was no deficiency in Tinika's brain. How do I know that? Because the second day, the woman who runs the library only needed to spend two hours with her. The next day, I only needed to spend one hour with her. The next week, Tinika breezed through it all by herself, even though the problems were getting more difficult. Once we taught her how to do subtraction, she took off on her own. The problem was, nobody taught her how to do subtraction at school. (An even more mindless use of homework: I see first graders coming in with homework. They are expected to follow written instructions – but they have yet to be taught the fundamentals of reading. Homework uber alles!) Nobody should be given homework sooner than 4th grade. The idea that we will produce highly educated advanced human geniuses by cramming them early is ludicrous.

Nobody in the school system responsible for Tinika's education seems to teach much history either. I was helping Tinika find a book to read one day, after she finished her math. One of the books on the shelves was a child's biography of Malcolm X. Tinika looked at it, and asked "He go to Malcolm X school, right?" I said, no, there was no Malcolm X school when he was a child. "The why his name Malcolm X if he don't go to Malcolm X school?" I should have known nobody was teaching anything about Malcolm X in that school district. Most of the children at this club are up in each other's faces all day long, "you're darker than me, you're nappier than me, you're ugly, ugly ugly." Nobody who understood Malcolm X would indulge in that foolishness.

Nobody has taught them anything about "Black is beautiful." I'm trying to find ways to do that. My melanin-deficient skin and hair that is a mix of straight Germanic and curly Jewish shouldn't be an overwhelming obstacle. I'm reasonably certain that my mother's mother's family includes some runaways from colonial Virginia, both European and African, as well as some east Tennessee Cherokee. If the One-Drop Rule were consistently applied, two thirds of the population of the United States are black. That never-ending and inescapable mind game doesn't help any when trying to teach of course.

But back to quantifiable branches of education. College level. Cartesian planes and temperatures and graphing and functions and algebra. I must admit I cheated a little helping a young woman with homework in that field. When I was eight years old, I learned that to convert Centigrade to Fahrenheit temperatures, you multiply by 9, divide by 5, and add 32. Conversely, to convert Fahrenheit to Centigrade, you subtract 32, multiply by 5 and divide by 9. Simple formulas, difficult to keep straight, useful when memorized properly. Easier to apply accurately if you kinow WHY they work. Memorization alone does not give a working perspective on the relationship between these two temperature scales. But I knew these formulas. And I used them to get the graph started. Then I tried to explain what I had done. I ran into a blank wall for a while.

The problem, essentially, was to graph the relationship between Fahrenheit and Centigrade on a Cartesian plane. Of course, that produces a line with a slope of 5/9, and an x-intercept of 32. That much is easy. The y-intercept, it turns out, is -17.777777777777777777777777... (It is, if Centigrade is the vertical axis, and Fahrenheit is the horizontal axis). That would have been a harder number to work with on a graph. But to make sense of all this, I had to spend an hour explaining what Centigrade is, what Fahrenheit is, drawing little diagrams to show that one Centigrade degree is 1.8 times one Fahrenheit degree (i.e. 9/5), and one Fahrenheit degree is 5/9 of one Centigrade degree. Then I worked with x1-x2 / y1-y2 = slope, and y=mx+b.

The significant point, for the way education is being done in the USA these days, is that this was all news to the woman struggling with this homework! It was no part of the preparation for assigning these problems! Or, if it was, it was somehow presented in a manner that completely escaped her. She did not have the conceptual tools to even ATTEMPT to solve the problem! This reminded me of a course I tried to take in Fortran many years ago: the instructor, a stoned-out TA, said little more in the classroom than "find time to go to the lab and work on your program." Program? I had no clue what the language was, or how to punch the cards! I eventually dropped out of that course.)

Oh yes, the Centigrade scale is now known as "Celsius." Why? Because some dern fool in the scientific establishment decided that since the Fahrenheit scale is named after Mr. Fahrenheit, the Centigrade scale should be named after Mr. Celsius. What fatuous nonsense! Centigrade is a perfectly good name that explains what the scale is all about: 100 degrees from freezing to boiling point. A very practical approach. Who cares who invented it? It was a contribution of the French Revolution, developed by committee. Who knows anything about Mr. Celsius these days anyway? And unlike Malcolm X, who cares? But that leads to another point: why did the Fahrenheit scale set freezing at 32 degrees, and boiling at 212 degrees? BECAUSE MR. FAHRENHEIT SAID SO. Why did he say so? Nobody knows. It was completely arbitrary. It is also a pain in the neck.

Which leads to a more important conceptual point: water freezes at the temperature water freezes, with supreme indifference to what number we assign to it in our own thinking. When the air is hot enough and the sunlight direct enough to cause heatstroke, it doesn't matter what scale you measure it with, your life is in danger. You can't change that by assigning a different number. I could decide that freezing is 100 degrees, and boiling is 1000 degrees, and then there would be 900 degrees between one and the other. But why is the ratio 5:9? Because, with a Centigrade scale, it takes exactly 100 degrees to get from the freezing point to the boiling point of water. With Fahrenheit, it takes exactly 180 degrees (212 - 32 = 180). The ratio of 100 : 180 can be reduced to 5 : 9. So that's what we have to work with. But that hadn't been taught in the classroom either.

Now what, in the name of God, are the government bureaucrats, the meddling idiots in the White House, the latest gurus of the educational establishment, the little household gods of the textbook publishing industry, the school boards, the trustees, and the almighty funding sources for education, getting our teachers and students wrapped up in? Why was the above was not taught to this aspiring, intelligent, but not-yet-very-knowledgeable college student BEFORE assigning the homework which required these skills and perspectives? Why had nobody in the public schools taught the bright, eager, but clueless little Tinika HOW to do subtraction?

I really count the teachers as victims of the whole process, as much as students. If we could break up the national educational establishment, pull the federal government OUT of setting endless reams of standards and regulations, ABOLISH STANDARDIZED TESTING (which benefits only the companies that reap lucrative contracts writing and grading them), return initiative not only to local school boards but to individual teachers, and then set some minimum standards to deal with districts that are truly incompetent or indifferent, we would be a lot better off. Some of the best teachers available are not even certified. Me, for instance. But I have my limits. I am not skilled at maintaining discipline in a room of 30 or 40. I have trouble with five or six. Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools be silent.

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