Thursday, March 31, 2005

Scenes from the Front: Mold

By: Charles J. Sykes

The scene is a school board meeting of a semirural Midwestern community. Parents have mobilized opposition to the new Outcome Based Education curriculum in the district and a junior high teacher has been designated to reassure them. She is neither shrill nor doctrinaire. In fact, she is every good teacher you ever had.

She assures the parents how much she cares about their children, and obviously means it. But she wants to set the record straight: She wants to teach her students more, not less, and all this talk about “dumbing down” the curriculum misses the point. Her goal, she says, is to try to teach “what is important for kids to know.” That means ditching much of the traditional – useless – science curriculum, such as teaching “the names of the nine planets and how far they are from the sun, “ which she calls “facts that are not applied; facts that are not used.”

She explains that she and other junior high science teachers have diligently tried to determine what exactly is scientifically “important.” To determine this, she says proudly, they consulted experts. In this case high school science teachers.

The real change, she says enthusiastically, is that from now on she and other teachers will approach science from a “whole learning” perspective. By this she means she will integrate other subjects into science. For example, teachers now “incorporate writing and reading into science.” She appears to genuinely believe that this is a remarkable innovation. (The work of Ptolemy, Descartes, and William James apparently don’t count. They are, needless to say, also not part of her curriculum.)

“Education practices,” she insists, “have to meet where we are going.” The lights dim and she begins a slide presentation on where, apparently, we are going. She wants to show the parents children “doing things.” Despite what they may have heard, the children aren’t doing anything “kinky or weird.”

Just dull and trivial.

She doesn’t see it that way. She insists that the new hands-on science is exciting, enriched, packed with higher-order thinking skills. No longer do kids sit neatly in rows and have rote facts jammed into their heads; in her classrooms, the children are doing science themselves.

They grow mold.

In poster-board presentation after poster-board presentation students demonstrate: How We Grew Mold.

There was, teacher says, “a lot of communication and a lot of observation. We really emphasized the higher order thinking skills.” What she meant, of course, was that they talked about mold, looked at mold, and compared mold. This was no mere rote mold. Not simply information about mold. This was higher order mold.

Of course, mold does have its illustrious place in the annals of science. But the teacher makes no mention of penicillin or the story of its remarkable discovery through mold. The emphasis here is on relevance. Reads one poster board: Moldy Pizza and Mold.

“We know how to grow it,” she tells the parents. “We know hot to avoid it.” This, no doubt, is an example of how higher-order thinking skills can be applied in, say, the refrigerators of college dorms. For the teacher this “usefulness” is in obvious contrast to the frivolous and unnecessary study of – and this is her example – the solar system, the knowledge of which cannot be applied to lives as conveniently as the mastery of the properties of mold.

Contemporary educators are convinced, as were their fathers and grandfathers in progressive education, that the driving force behind education must be the interest of the child. It is an article of faith that kids can only be engaged in the study of science or history if it is made directly relevant to their own lives. But the same folks who talk so much about making learning “interesting” also imagine that mold is more likely to fire a child’s imagination than space.

Outside of the classroom, youngsters are devoted fans of Star Trek and Star Wars; they understand the difference between impulse power and warp speed; they devour science fiction novels; video games beyond number presuppose intergalactic travel. There are no popular video games based on mold.

Excerpted from: Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves but Can’t Read, Write, or Add. Charles J. Sykes, St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

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