The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Saturday, March 29, 2003

LessonLab, an education consulting and research company, has just released the results of a four-year multinational study on the effectiveness of math teaching in the 8th grade, and has found American teachers to be severely lacking in the ability to teach mathematical concepts to their students.

In other words, most teachers take the quick-and-dirty path: Present the mechanics of problem-solving in step-by-step method and skip the thought process that imparts a meaningful understanding of the whole discipline. Basically, this gets the kids through the lesson, but it doesn't stick. All they really learn is how to "get through it".

This is the ultimate in short-term thinking. It doesn't really teach the kids how to use math as a tool, and the problems compound under this approach because the students never get to see how all the elements of mathematics relate to one another, and therefore make more sense.

I'd really be interested in seeing similar studies on other subject matters, because I'm sure they would reveal the same thing. I noticed throughout my education that this was the case especially with history. A lot of students complain how uninteresting and boring learning history is, and most teachers/professors I had in that subject did absolutely nothing to help matters. As we went through the term, they'd do nothing but take shortcuts by presenting periods of history as self-contained epochs that had the barest of connections to each other: For instance, when it was time to study the Mexican War, that's all we'd look at to a ridiculously exclusive level. There'd be little to no mention of how, for instance, that war served as a training ground for most of the major military players in the Civil War only 15 years later. And of course, lessons would often be reduced to little more than rote memorization of dates and names, with hardly any effort put toward exposing the meaningful connections between all these things. Instead of presenting history as a big, long, interconnected story narrative, it gets reduced to memory exercises.

It's easy to blame the teachers for all this. And I'm going to. Yes, they're working under a lot of pressure every day, with less-than-stellar support. But really, I've met a fair number of teachers in my area, and I haven't seen much that gives me confidence in their basic teaching acumen. It's no shock to me that these same people would excel at taking all manner of shortcuts in their lessonplans, in effect short-changing their students. By and large, the teaching professionals I've encountered--and I've been friends and acquaintences with quite a few--have all been pretty flaky, and strike me as having fallen into teaching as a road of least resistance, careerwise. I hate to conjure up the old stereotype of "those who can't, teach", because I'm sure there are some very good instructors out there. But from my experience, they aren't representative of the whole.