Should Class Participation be Judged by Verbal Exchanges?

This is the last in a series of posts by Jeff Walton commenting on “five truths” of progressive education identified by Maya Thiagarajan in an Education Week blog on August 15, 2016.  Thoughtful Christian educators reject many of the practices of progressive American education because progressive principles and practices sometimes conflict with biblical truth about the nature of children and the nature of learning.  Maya Thiagarajan is an American-educated English teacher who has been teaching in Singapore.  She is the author of Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting in the Global Age.  In her Education Week guest blog on August 15, 2016, Maya frankly discusses five “universal education truths” that as an American teacher she believed and “religiously” followed until her move to Singapore in 2010.  In earlier articles, I commented on the first four truths.

Truth #5: “Class participation is all about talking in class discussions and group activities. All kids must learn to share their ideas verbally, and ensure that their voices get heard.”

At the end of my first semester of teaching, I gave an East-Asian student in my class a low score for class participation. In every way possible, this kid was a model student: she worked very hard, she did all her homework, her essays were fantastic, and she was always polite and well-behaved. Yet, she was quiet and reserved in class discussions. As a result, I gave her an ‘insufficient’ for class participation.

She came to see me later with tears in her eyes. I said, ‘But you don’t speak up in our class discussions.’ She looked at me confused. She then explained to me that in her old school, class participation involved being prepared for class and listening very carefully to what the teacher said. Class participation involved listening, not talking.

In Singapore, and across East Asia, kids are taught to listen, and listening seems to be valued more than talking. I still expect my students to speak up and share their ideas in class discussions, but now I do things differently: I explain what I mean by participation more specifically, and I also value listening a whole lot more. Our kids need to learn to listen to each other and to adults. And when we assume that participation is all about talking, we devalue listening unfairly.

Two criteria for judging class participation

In these paragraphs, perhaps more important than the specific issue of criteria for judging class participation, are these two elements: (1) the importance of listening, and (2) the importance of understanding the perspectives of others.

The importance of listening

One of my favorite books about relationships is Stephen Covey’s book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. One of the relationship principles Mr. Covey teaches is “Seek to understand, then to be understood.” This principle emphasizes the importance of listening–listening before speaking and listening with the intent to genuinely understand.  Every teacher knows how badly most of our students lack this skill. Too often we lack this skill ourselves. I have been on a multi-year quest to improve my listening skills, too often with inadequate success. But what a worthwhile effort it is, for ourselves and for our students.

The importance of understanding the perspectives of others

This is the point of Stephen Covey’s “Seek to understand, than to be understood” principle. A teacher’s success must be built on relationships with students and parents. Positive relationships require that we learn to see from another’s perspective. The key to learning to see from another’s perspective is listening. Ask questions, and listen. An effective tool for improving your listening skills is to “say back” in a paraphrased form the statements made by others. This is most effective when it is done verbally, but often when I find my thoughts racing ahead in a conversation I begin internally to practice this, and I listen better by doing so.

I expect that Maya Thiagarajan is a very effective teacher, and not so much because she developed a better rubric for class participation, but because she practices listening to understand her students.

Reference:

Thiagarajan, M. (2016, August 15). Five lessons from teaching in Singapore. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/global_learning/2016/08/five_lessons_from_

teaching_in_singapore.html?qs=teaching+in+sigapore

Should We Forget Memorization in the Age of Google?

This is the fourth in a series of five posts by Jeff Walton commenting on “five truths” of progressive education identified by Maya Thiagarajan in an Education Week blog on August 15, 2016.  Thoughtful Christian educators reject many of the practices of progressive American education because progressive principles and practices sometimes conflict with biblical truth about the nature of children and the nature of learning.  Maya Thiagarajan is an American-educated English teacher who has been teaching in Singapore.  She is the author of Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting in the Global Age.  In her Education Week guest blog on August 15, 2016, Maya frankly discusses five “universal education truths” that as an American teacher she believed and “religiously” followed until her move to Singapore in 2010.  In earlier articles, I commented on the first three truths.

Truth #4: “Making kids memorize stuff is not just unnecessary in the age of Google, it’s downright bad pedagogy. Twenty-first century learning is not about ‘knowing’ information, it’s about analyzing, synthesizing, applying, and creating. ”

In Singapore, and perhaps across Asia, many parents and teachers still harbor a deep reverence for the power of human memory….In his defense of a ‘knowledge rich’ curriculum, the former Singaporean education minister Heng Swee Keat said, ‘If creativity is about connecting the dots, you need to have solid dots in the first place, or you will have nothing to connect.’ Kids here memorize a lot of information, and they know a lot. Perhaps the emphasis on memorization in Singapore is excessive and comes with opportunity costs, but it has certainly challenged my paradigms.

In American education, the memorization-application pendulum swings, and debate (healthy, in my view) continues.  This is true in Christian education as well as in public schools. I have many times heard or read some form of the “students no longer need to learn facts in the Internet age” statement. To that statement I echo Dr. Keat’s response–How will students connect the dots in learning if they have no dots to connect?  On the other hand, I have many times observed in Christian school classrooms and have come away discouraged by the complete reliance on memorization and regurgitation of facts and missed opportunities to lead students to comprehension, application, and deeper understandings.

Often, students are memorizing multiple “dots” and struggling to retain the information about the “dot” with no connecting information to provide structure and understanding.  I have particularly observed this in math classes.  I have observed scores of classrooms where teachers required students to memorize an algorithm (a step-by-step process) for solving a type of math problem while missing excellent opportunities and making no effort to help students understand why the algorithm works. I have even sometimes witnessed teachers refusing to answer the why questions of inquisitive students, telling them to “just follow the formula.” That’s a tragedy. In those classrooms, only those students with excellent abilities to memorize and retain will make progress. Most will flounder, frustrated and confused because they can’t keep all of the dots straight and have no structure of comprehension to connect them.

So, do students need to automate information (memorize), or do they need to comprehend and apply factual information? I hope your answer is “yes.” Students need both. Learning facts provides the dots the student will connect. Comprehension and application and higher-level learning activities provide the connective structure that allows students to make sense of and retain the dots.

By itself, memorization is a form of learning and is a skill that students can and should develop. Wise teachers and school leaders will judiciously select the important factual content and will provide age-appropriate explanations and activities for comprehending and applying that information. For instance, when teaching junior high and high school history classes, I required that students memorize fewer than ten really significant dates in a school year, but they also memorized some key paragraphs from notable historical documents (more significant and worthwhile learning, in my view). We also thoroughly analyzed and wrote about those passages. In my high school math classes (most of my teaching experience) students memorized only a few commonly used formulas and spent a good amount of class time in completing exercises (automating fundamental skills) and complex problem-solving activities. Interestingly, my ninth- and tenth-grade students also spent time doing flash cards involving basic operations with fractions because many had not automated processes with fractions…so they struggled with more advanced math because they didn’t have the more basic dots to connect.

I’m sure the memorization-application debate will continue.  Wise teachers will reject the notion that we can “forget memorization” in a digital age but will also understand that memorization merely provides the dots that students must connect with more complex learning.

Reference:

Thiagarajan, M. (2016, August 15). Five lessons from teaching in Singapore. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/global_learning/2016/08/five_lessons_from_

teaching_in_singapore.html?qs=teaching+in+sigapore

Should Learning Always Be Fun?

This is the third in a series of five posts written by Dr. Jeff Walton commenting on “five truths” of progressive education identified by Maya Thiagarajan in an Education Week blog on August 15, 2016.  Thoughtful Christian educators reject many of the practices of progressive American education because progressive principles and practices sometimes conflict with biblical truth about the nature of children and the nature of learning.  Maya Thiagarajan is an American-educated English teacher who has been teaching in Singapore.  She is the author of Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting in the Global Age.  In her Education Week guest blog on August 15, 2016, Maya frankly discusses five “universal education truths” that as an American teacher she believed and “religiously” followed until her move to Singapore in 2010.  In the first two articles, I commented on the first and third truths.  In this article, I’ll take up the second truth.

Truth #2: “Learning should always be fun. As a teacher, you’ve got to make it fun. If kids are not engaged, it’s the teacher’s fault.”Learning is Fun

In Singapore, parents and educators seem much less concerned with entertaining kids and making learning fun.  In fact, the word “fun” seems to suggest a game or a party, and education on this island is certainly no game or party.  It’s serious business.

But that doesn’t mean that kids don’t like learning.

What I’ve realized is that many students find serious academic work very satisfying, and as educators, we shouldn’t be hesitant to engage our students in challenging work and demand excellence from them.  One Chinese teacher at my school told me… “We Asians aren’t so interested in constantly having fun.  Our kids learn to like serious studying and learning.  They don’t want or expect everything to be a game or a party.”

Should You Be Accommodating Short Attention Spans?

This is the second in a series of five posts commenting on “five truths” of progressive education identified by Maya Thiagarajan in an Education Week blog on August 15, 2016.  Thoughtful Christian educators engage in reflective practice but reject many of the practices of progressive American education because the practices and the principles those practices reflect conflict with biblical truth about the nature of children and the nature of learning.

Maya Thiagarajan is an American-educated English teacher who has been teaching in Singapore.  She is the author of Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting in the Global Age.  In her Education Week guest blog on August 15, 2016, Maya frankly discusses five “universal education truths” that as an American teacher she believed and “religiously” followed until her move to Singapore in 2010.  In an earlier article, I commented on the third truth.  In this article, I’ll move back to the top of Maya’s list.bored-childbored-child

Truth #1: “Kids of all ages have a short attention span [sic], so educators need to divide their lessons into short, engaging, and fun segments that will keep kids engaged.”

Many of the Singaporean educators I spoke with, particularly elementary school teachers, described the benefits of making young kids complete long and demanding academic tasks.  Kids spend hours learning how to write thousands of complex Chinese characters. From grade two onward, they take exams that last for 90 minutes in each of the four major subjects.  Yes, that’s right: seven years olds can sit down and concentrate on math for an hour and a half.

When I expressed surprise (or shock and horror, to be more precise) over this [to parents and educators]…none of them seemed to think it was asking too much to make a young child sit down and focus on a single task for an hour and a half. “These tests and activities help train our children to shut out distractions, focus their minds, and concentrate,” said one teacher.  Said a parent, “It is important to teach our children to focus for extended periods of time.  That’s a very important skill.”

I don’t have enough experience in elementary classrooms to comment with any authority on whether it is realistic to expect that American elementary students focus on a single task for 90 minutes, but I think it is unlikely that any American elementary teacher would enjoy the experience of attempting to do so.  That said, teaching children to focus and to concentrate on a task is certainly a worthwhile effort.  If it is true that American children today have shorter attention spans and are less able to focus than their counterparts in earlier generations, should Christian educators simply cave in to cultural reality and accommodate, or should we strive, instead, to help our students expand their capacities for concentration?  I contend that we should help each child, incrementally, to increase her ability to focus on worthwhile tasks for extended periods of time.

Fundamentality, education is change (Romans 12:2).  The child is changing intellectually and spiritually – she is growing.  Part of that is growth in ability to concentrate.  It is absolutely necessary that we sometimes accommodate, but let’s not be satisfied at that point.  The goal of accommodation is to provide the scaffold that allows the child to build at an appropriate level.  In this case, the wise teacher will help her build her ability to focus on meaningful tasks for extended periods of time.

Reference:

Thiagarajan, M. (2016, August 15). Five lessons from teaching in Singapore. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/global_learning/2016/08/five_lessons_from_

teaching_in_singapore.html?qs=teaching+in+sigapore

Should You Be “The Sage on The Stage”?

Thoughtful educators continuously engage in reflective practice.  They read professional journals and articlesTeacher reading to class of teenagers (14-16) about education.  They listen to their students and the parents of those children.  They evaluate their instructional methods and classroom practices in light of classroom or school-wide assessments, standardized test scores, and other measures of student progress.  They are aware of current trends in education, and they weigh the value of new methods and tools for student learning.  They reflect on their practices and their beliefs about education, and they strive to make their classroom the very best place for meeting the very individual needs of the children God sends to them and parents entrust to their teaching and care.

Be a Critical Thinker

Thoughtful Christian educators engage in reflective practice but reject many of the practices of progressive American education because the practices and the principles those practices reflect conflict with biblical truth about the nature of children and the nature of learning.  Recently, Education Week published a blog by Maya Thiagarajan that questioned some of those progressive principles and practices.  Maya is an American-educated English teacher who has been teaching in Singapore.  She is the author of Beyond the Tiger Mom: East-West Parenting in the Global Age.  In her Education Week guest blog on August 15, 2016, Maya frankly discusses five “universal education truths” that as an American teacher she believed and “religiously” followed until her move to Singapore in 2010.  I am going to consider each of the “five truths” in a series of posts, beginning with the third in Maya’s list.

Role of the Teacher

Truth #3: Good teachers are always “the guide on the side.”  No good teacher should be “a sage on the stage.”…With phrases like “sage on the stage,” American educational rhetoric literally ridicules the idea that a teacher has wisdom to offer young kids.  In every way, the rhetoric exhorts teachers to stay on the sidelines and play only a facilitating role while empowering kids to take the lead.

While I think that playing the role of a guide or facilitator has its place in a 21st century classroom, I’ve also started to think deeply about the Singaporean belief that the elder not only has wisdom to offer the child, but also has a responsibility to be front and center in the child’s life.

When I read American rhetoric exhorting teachers and parents to empower children by giving them more choices and greater freedom (and in the process, less explicit guidance), I can’t help but wonder whether it makes sense to marginalize the role of the elder.  When we let machines and peer culture teach our children, aren’t we devaluing our own wisdom and expertise?  Aren’t we abdicating a central responsibility that the elders in communities around the world have performed for millennia?  Don’t children benefit from some explicit guidance?  And shouldn’t there be some times when we are “the sages on the stage”?  (Thiagarajan, 2016)

What is a Sage?

Consider the meaning of sage—a wise and venerated elder.  Consider the pattern of learning repeatedly emphasized in Scripture—an elder (parent, grandparent, pastor, teacher) instructing, guiding, and mentoring one who is younger and/or uninstructed in truth.  Consider the example of Christ with His disciples.  Isn’t it apparent, then, that Christian school teachers should be the “sage on the stage” in their classrooms?  If you think that means a daily lecture in every discipline where students are passive listeners to your continual droning, then I pity the children in your classroom.  If you think that means a classroom without digital resources, online connections, and multi-sensory experiences for learners, then you are misunderstanding the real meaning of sage.

If your classroom is a place where you wisely direct active learning experiences for your students, connect to digital and online resources that enrich and reinforce student learning, share your knowledge of a subject with engaging lecture that sparks student questions and discussion about significant topics, and lovingly shepherd children and teens through their many social, emotional, and spiritual crises – then I think you truly understand what it means to be “the sage on the stage.”

Reference:

Thiagarajan, M. (2016, August 15). Five lessons from teaching in Singapore. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/global_learning/2016/08/five_lessons_from_teaching_in_singapore.html?qs=teaching+in+sigapore

This article will be included in the Winter 2017 issue of The Journal for Christian Educators, a publication of the American Association of Christian Schools.

Closing the Gap

Michael Fullan is an internationally recognized authority on educational reform.  His ideas have informed the thinking of thousands of educators in many countries.  His long list of published works includes The New Meaning of Educational Change, published in its 4th edition in 2007.  This summer, while reading Chapter 3, “Insights Into the Change Process,” I scribbled in the margin of my book “Wow, I don’t agree!”  Let’s take a look at the statement in Fullan’s book that caused me to write that and a connection that I believe exists to an issue we are discussing often today, the Common Core Standards.

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In Chapter 3, Mr. Fullan (2007) lists ten “elements of successful change.”  He expands each of the ten elements with explanation that is often insightful and challenging.  My copy of the book is filled with highlights and my personal notes, most in agreement.  What, then, prompted me to write “Wow, I don’t agree!”

Wow, I Don’t Agree!

Michael Fullan is an internationally recognized authority on educational reform.  His ideas have informed the thinking of thousands of educators in many countries.  His long list of published works includes The New Meaning of Educational Change, published in its 4th edition in 2007.  This summer, while reading Chapter 3, “Insights Into the Change Process,” I scribbled in the margin of my book “Wow, I don’t agree!”  Let’s take a look at the statement in Fullan’s book that caused me to write that and a connection that I believe exists to an issue we are discussing often today, the Common Core Standards.

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In Chapter 3, Mr. Fullan (2007) lists ten “elements of successful change.”  He expands each of the ten elements with explanation that is often insightful and challenging.  My copy of the book is filled with highlights and my personal notes, most in agreement.  What, then, prompted me to write “Wow, I don’t agree!”

Asking the Right Questions About Professional Development

Professional development or continuing education is part of the culture of teaching, as it is a part of the culture of many other professions. Doctors, accountants, and automobile mechanics all regularly “go back to school” to stay current with changes in their field and to hone their craft. We expect that they will do so and we would not trust our surgery to a doctor who didn’t keep up with advances in medicine or trust our automobile repair to a mechanic who didn’t stay current with changes in under-the-hood technology.

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Teachers, perhaps even more than those in other professions, should understand the importance of lifelong learning and professional development. We value education. It is essential that teachers develop their skills and model learning for their students by engaging continually in professional development activities. But it is not sufficient to engage in activities merely for the purposes of renewing certification or checking off a requirement assigned by an administrator. Teachers and school leaders must ask the right questions about professional development.

Stewards of God’s Children

Recently, I had an opportunity to provide some professional development for the teachers at an AACS school in Virginia. We spent three hours one day taking a very quick overview of the Christian philosophy of education. I have had many opportunities to present to teachers on this topic, and from my study I have developed a presentation that asks and answers eleven foundational questions. The third question in the series is “Who has ownership of children?” The Bible answers that question in Ezekiel 18:4, “Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine.” Children are owned by God, and God has first claim upon their lives.

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The sixth question in the series is “Who is responsible for educating?” If God is the owner, then He can tell us who is responsible for educating children. The Magna Carta of Christian education is Deuteronomy 6:6–7, “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children.” Paul writes in Ephesians 6:4, “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”