Sunday, February 19, 2006

Refreshing Educational Insight on Teaching Algebra

In today's Courant and article talks about an educational philosophy that the NCLB cancer is trying to stomp out. It's entitled; Johnny's Lessons - How A Tough Kid Found Key To Mystery Of Math: Multiplication - February 19, 2006 by Karin Klein.

Read the whole thing, it will bring tears to your eyes. Ms. Klein was asked to tutor a boy who was failing Algebra. She recalls that experience in responding to the LA Times recent series quoted earlier in this blog. Educational commentary is rarely better stated than in this piece.

"Today's failing high school students, though plagued by more poverty and upheaval than Johnny or I ever knew, bring the same scanty skills to algebra class, according to the Times' series. They never quite grasped multiplication tables, but still they moved on to more complicated math.

Who can focus on the step-by-step logic of peeling back an equation until "x" is bared when it involves arithmetic that comes slow and slippery, always giving a different answer to the same calculation?

Yet in all these decades, the same school structure that failed Johnny goes on, dragging kids through the grades even if they don't master the material from the year before. This especially makes no sense for math, which is almost entirely sequential.

Leaving children back isn't a solution; it simply makes them feel stupid. They learn, like Johnny, to look at the floor. The floor can't embarrass them.

What I learned from Johnny - aside from the fact that greasers could be sweet-natured and very, very smart - is that schools are structured to help administrators feel organized, not to help children learn.

Young children's skills are all over the map, yet we corral them into second grade, third grade and so forth, where everyone moves at one pace in all subjects. Better to group them according to their skills in each subject, without the "grade" labels, and let them move on to the next skill when they have mastered the one they were on. If they're not getting it, give them extra tutoring, but don't push them forward until they're ready. This way, there is no failure - only progress.

It requires a sea change in thinking, but it's not impossible or even all that hard. Back before standardized tests put classes in lockstep, some progressive schools already were using team teaching to do this in math as well as reading and writing."

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