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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Ohio -- Add One More Year to High School

You don't teach children "things" and leave it at that. That kind of learning is superficial and involves little grey matter. The object is to teach them how to think, how to digest information, how to reason, and how to research answers on their own. Doing this kind of teaching is extremely difficult because it requires the teacher to know the theory and the "big picture" of how teaching something relates to the value of acquisition. Many teachers never consider anything beyond knowing simple facts, yet those who do make lasting impressions on their students. They teach the Big Why?

To teach without theory or "reason" smells of artificial intelligence. I believe we simple cram too much "stuff" into students' heads without insisting they make essential connections. The hardest question for teachers to answer comes from the students who ask, "Why does this rule or this fact or this information matter?"

Too many instructors simply answer, "Just, because it does." And, in fact, they really don't know the answers themselves. Students see right through this deception. They call this "learning bullshit" and soon forget these unrelated, unexplained details: their brains become sifters that lose trivia during the educational process.

An instructor should never doubt the intelligence of his students. I've heard many people complain about the enormous number of "dumb kids" in school. Most of these distraught instructors are really expressing doubt about their own shortcomings when they say this. The best teachers constantly invent new methods to teach theory in order to make explanations clearer and more precise. If facts matter, reasons for facts matter so much more. The job of a teacher is to explain the reasons and to encourage and provide help for self-exploration in students.

For instance, consider teaching those "danged dangling" phrases:

"Having arrived late for practice, a written excuse was needed."

The underlined phrase is misplaced simply because the following clause names no logical doer of the action ("arrived late"). So, a fix could be simple -- make sure such a phrase doesn't dangle in mid air, but instead is followed by the person or thing doing the action: "Having arrived late for practice, the team captain needed a written excuse."

When I taught and found no apparent reason for a rule or for a theory, I found it necessary to do some deep research myself until I discovered appropriate connections to logical thinking. It often was a daunting challenge to find reasons for teaching something, but, in the process, I learned valuable lessons myself. I also became fascinated with reasonable explanations for the toughest questions. In fact, my own investigations usually uncovered multiple answers -- often in conflict -- for these rules and theories.

The duty of a teacher is to present the entire scope of a lesson, similar to the way a journalist reports the 4 W's -- the "who", the "what," the "where," and most importantly, the "Big Why?" And, the good teacher knows how to pound the "how" in simple terms even challenged students can understand. For seasoned instructors, doing this becomes somewhat of a game of "picking and choosing" the right methodology to meet the appropriate audience.

Shortcuts, memory techniques, acronyms, mind stimulation, heated discussions -- all of these aids increase understanding, and I believe the best teachers employ them to enrich lessons. Sometimes these things also help when no logical explanation can be found.

For example, ever wonder about the exceptions to the "i before e except after c" spelling rule? Try to get this simple little sentence out of your mind once you've repeated it: "Neither financier seized either weird species of leisure." These are notable exceptions to the memorized rule.

I remember having a terrible time remembering long lists of facts in grade school. A teacher made us memorize the Presidents of the United States in order. I was struggling mightily until my mother said, "Heck, that is not tough. Just use this goofy rhyme as an acronym aid. She proceeded to teach me: "When a joke made me a joker Van had to poke the fiery poker, but let John get his gun and come home carrying more rabbits to wrap his cool hands real tight each knight (with a "k")."

Washington, Adams (John), Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Adams (John Quincy), Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison (William Henry), Tyler, Polk, Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln, Johnson, Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, Harrison (Benjamin), Cleveland (again), McKinley, Roosevelt (Theodore), Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, Roosevelt (Franklin), Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy. That was the President in office at the time of my assignment. I guess you can add to the rhyme for Lyndon Johnson though Barack Obama. Dumb rhyme = easy assignment.

I found teaching became both easier as the Big Why? was met and also tougher due to time constraints on allowing for digestion of material and production of proof of accomplishment. Today, education on steroids demands instructors (1) teach it quickly, (2) condense material, and (3) water down curriculum.

In end of my career, I hated the constant pressure to zip through complicated lessons while cutting needed enrichment. An example? No student can consider an appropriate topic for an argumentative essay; allow time for proper research of the pros and cons of the argument; prewrite, multiple draft and revise the paper; and write and proofread a logical final copy in a week.

Enter frustration, stress, and unneeded haste -- each a detriment to learning what counts: theory, reasoning skills, and instilling a thirst for independent learning. And, did I mention the totally unreasonable time restraints upon the language teacher to grade and notate -- complete with detailed comments of achievement and critique for improvement -- scores, even hundreds of essays a week?

Reality and time consumption become the proverbial bitches of such teachers. They realize they can't possibly accomplish what they know they need to accomplish for the students in the flurry of administrative busy work, required clerical duties, accountability reports, computer postings, testing review, and scads of other details that cut actual classroom instruction time.

Do you honestly believe any extra time is allowed for teaching the most demanding skills that require greater efforts? From this language skills teacher, the answer is definitely "No." If anything, a competent teacher is asked to do more busy work because he or she knows how to produce a good product. Meanwhile, the classes that teacher instructs suffer in the headlong sprint just to get things done.

Teaching requires nurturing the Big Why? and now few teachers can afford the time to fertilize and grow the ideas they are nurturing. I do not like modern high schools that push acceleration of concepts and over-acceleration of students. I believe high schools should calm down and revert to being high school, not prep colleges. The stresses, the strains, the lightning pace, and, yes, even the "no child left behind fiasco" and the "be the responsible parent because I can't be due to my schedule insanity" cripples instruction.

Kids need a relaxed, comfortable, safe atmosphere for learning -- they need schools that value fun and achievement at a slower pace that encourages development of deeper thinking and reasoning. These things cannot be rushed or short-changed, not for students and not for teachers. Teachers must find out "why" they are teaching what they do teach and thoroughly explain that to their students. Then, students must be given time to prove they can use this knowledge on their own.

So, today I propose that the State of Ohio should add another year to high school -- a fifth year. I found many high school seniors had developed enough of a frontal lobe to understand the most complex of problems by the time they were seniors. The difficulty is that they were then thrust into college after their senior year like half-baked products. They had dreams and great ambitions but so many lacked the independent skills to accomplish them with some semblance of ease.

Therefore, I think most students enter college and flounder for at least a couple of years. In the meantime tons of money is wasted and precious time goes by. We need to bolster their ability to make competent decisions and to discover ways to succeed in post-secondary schools. Now, we simple leave too much to chance, and the majority don't really have a clue.

I'm not really interested in producing more high school students who have already entered college while still attending high school. I'm interested in making high schools better, less frantic proving grounds for teaching reasoning and critical knowledge that can help students after high school graduation. I want "take your time" schools that don't sport legions of kids who suffer from anxiety and mental illness. I say add one more year and cool the pace for long-lasting wisdom.

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