Education

This Year’s Model

It’s been interesting seeing stories pop up about projects funded by the 2009 Recovery Act, the so-called “stimulus package.” It’s funded such an odd assortment of things, as I suppose it was designed to do. I was pleasantly surprised to come across this article, detailing a plan to renovate Sausalito, California’s Bay Model, a hydraulic scale model of the San Francisco Bay Area that allows you to see how the tides and currents work from the Sacramento River Delta to the Golden Gate. I used to love visiting this when I was a child, and though the renovation will cost $13.2 million, it strikes me as a better use of government money than the bank bailouts.

Economics
Education
Politics

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Both Sides of the Story

Here’s a depressing report on the forced resignation of Christine Comer, former director of curriculum for science at the Texas Education Agency. Comer was forced to resign after forwarding an e-mail about a lecture by Barbara Forrest, author of Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design. Her ouster is apparently part of a plan on the part of Gov. Rick Perry and his cretinous minions to introduce, yet again, the intelligent design “debate” into public school curricula. The State Board of Education will be reviewing the science curriculum in January, Flying Spaghetti Monster help us all.

Education
Politics
Religion
Science

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The New Crib Sheet

CNN recently ran a story about students using iPods to cheat on tests. It talks about students who have recorded course material to listen to during their tests, resting their heads on their hands to hide the headphones. Several schools in the U.S. and Canada have subsequently banned all electronic devices from their schools.

Cheating is bad, obviously, but the ways in which classes are too often taught in the U.S. and elsewhere is as much to blame as new technology. When I was in high school, students cheated much more often in the dull classes than in the hard, challenging classes. (And we did it the old-fashioned way—by writing on our hands!) In dull classes, students are expected to be something like an “electronic device” themselves: recording facts and formulas so they can be “played back” during the test. When history, for instance, is taught as a list of facts and dates to be memorized, it’s small wonder that students use their technological knowledge to avoid such tedium.

The best classes I took in high school and college introduced me to ways of thinking—disciplines—more than simply to a body of information. The tests then asked us to apply those disciplines to new subjects, an approach which makes it difficult to cheat. You couldn’t use an iPod very effectively to cheat on an in-class essay test, for instance, or a biology test that asked you to devise an experiment to test a particular hypothesis. Interesting classes are harder to cheat in, and because they’re engaging, fewer students will need or want to cheat in them.

My guess is that many teachers teach boring, “cheatable” classes not just out of laziness but due to state bureaucratic demands for standardized, quantitative ways of comparing school performance. This story in the L.A. Times cites figures showing that fifty-seven percent of California teachers who quit their jobs cited “bureaucratic interference” as a reason for leaving. As long as students are expected to be iPods, some of them will outsource the work to the real thing. The great irony is that students using technology creatively like this (however dishonestly) may often be learning a more valuable skill than they would if they bothered with memorizing a long list of facts.

Education
Technology

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Soon It Will Be as Beloved as Algebra

A member of the Texas House of Representatives, Warren Chisum (a Republican from Pampa), has introduced a bill that would require Texas’s public high schools to offer an elective class on the Bible if enough students (twelve, I think) ask for it. The bill calls for the class to be taught in “an objective and nondevotional manner” and states that it “may not disparage or encourage a commitment to a set of religious beliefs.”

I might support such classes if they were taught by teachers with scholarly training in a relevant discipline and were truly critical and non-religious. (Though it hardly seems the most pressing need when the resources could better be spent on improving the teaching of math, science, and writing.) But it isn’t hard to imagine how the scenario will play out in the average small town in Texas. After the school board fails to land one of the legions of Biblical scholars who want to teach high school students, some zealous citizen will stand up and say, “Well, Brother Thompson down at the First Baptist Church knows a great deal about the Bible. He even got a degree from Oral Roberts University. He’d be a good influence on those kids, too.” And soon the class will be non-religious only in the sense that it will not be actively devotional, and maybe even that’s being optimistic. I don’t want to play mindreader, but it would not shock me to learn that the bill’s authors are hoping for just such an outcome.

I can’t help thinking, however, that this sort of thing might backfire on its supporters in the long run. One of the best ways to get most teenagers to think something is square, useless, and boring is to make them study it, take tests on it, and then grade them on it. Chisum might at least consider the possibility that his classes could raise a generation who consider the Bible to be as exciting as a chemistry textbook.

Education
Politics
Religion

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