As my career as an educator progressed, I became more and more interested in assessment (testing/evaluating, etc.) and became fixated on trying to get students to ask “wadja learn?” rather than “wadja get?” when a test, essay, or other evaluation was returned (with comments and/or a grade). So, regarding the 10 questions I assigned as “homework” to yesterday I will ask: What did you learn? I’m guessing that, with no grade or “homework check” hanging over your head, nobody “looked up” answers to the questions --- particularly knowing the results would be revealed today (which says something else about compulsory education and our entire evaluation system --- but more on that another time). So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the first five questions and their answers.
#1 – What’s the educational philosophy behind the 7 or 8 period day that most secondary schools use?
At the end of the 19th century, U.S. universities wanted to make high school curricula more uniform so they could better assess their applicants. They created the “Committee of Ten” in 1892, headed by the President of Harvard University, Charles Eliot. The Committee was charged with “standardizing” the high school curriculum (there were competing philosophies being promoted and implemented around the country). That Committee’s report (published in 1893) became a blueprint for American secondary schools right up to the present day. Regarding the 7 or 8 period day: the Committee recommended that all high school students take courses in Literature, History, Mathematics, Science, and foreign language (Latin & Greek were favorites at the time). That's five "main/core" subjects. Add physical education, art/music, plus lunch and you get 7 or 8 classes per day (Phys. Ed./Art/Music might alternate days). The standard time allotted for high school was basically 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. So, if you take your 7 or 8 periods, and divide that into your 7 hours you get 52.5 or 60 minutes. Consider that you need to allow “passing time,” “homeroom” (for attendance), etc. and you can see how the 40/42/45/47/49/52 minute “period” became the “standard” for high schools.
So, to answer our question: there is NO educational philosophy behind the 7 or 8 period day! There is only arithmetic. This reflects the influence of the Industrial Revolution in the U.S. and a man named Frederick Taylor who led an “efficiency” movement. Beyond separating sheep from goats (managers from workers, in Industrial parlance), students were taught some basic “skills” for “good workers” (“Follow directions, move at the bell, defer to authority, etc.”). Moving large numbers of people efficiently was as much a part of the 7/8 period day as the arithmetic. Grant Wiggins, my late colleague who was a leader in school (re)design and assessment in the late 20th century, posed a simple scenario to assess the educational value of this system:
Imagine if Bill Gates asked his engineers at Microsoft to get up every 45 to 50 minutes and move to a new workstation with a new supervisor to work on a totally unrelated task (from the last supervisor’s) five or six times a day. How effective would the company be?
The answer is obvious --- “not very effective.” Yet we expect adolescents not only to do this every day but to “master” all those subjects! It’s amazing, really, that so many people come away from it with any reasonable skills and competencies!
#2. Why is the curriculum arranged and sequenced the way it is? (e.g. “Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry” “Biology, Chemistry, Physics”)
This one is simple but stunning. While the Committee of Ten made “recommendations” as to what subjects should be taught, they firmly believed Local Districts, knowing their students, should determine not only what specific subjects be taught (English Literature? World History?) but also recommended that the Local District should determine the sequence the courses be taught in. As a Guideline they listed possible courses alphabetically (Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry; Biology, Chemistry, Physics). Those courses have become embedded in U.S. curricula everywhere and there are administrators and teachers who will fight you to the death if you try to change that order --- even though there’s no research or philosophy to support that alphabetical order!
#3. If we truly believe “all students can learn,” is sorting and tracking the best way to help them attain that goal?
We talk a pretty good game in the U.S. of A. about “equality for all” and “equal opportunity” but our schools, from Day One begin sorting the “winners” and “losers” (often based on “objective” testing or some other kind of “achievement-based” or "anecdotal" tool). While grouping students with similar aptitudes or skills for some portion of a school day can be productive, the rigid tracking that we see in most high schools is deleterious to an overwhelming majority of students. There is tons of research about this (I’d recommend Jeannie Oakes’s classic Keeping Track as well as Anne Wheelock’s Crossing the Tracks as evidence) and a factor that adds to the winner/loser mentality is often generated from teachers. Again, there is a mountain of research that proves teacher expectations are often based on a belief their students are “gifted/honors/etc.” or “challenged/below-grade-level/etc.” This totally works against trying to create a school that is a genuine Learning Community. As I wrote back in 2003:
The balkanized curriculum taught in short blocks to tracked students has managed to serve only a small percentage of “winners” in the system. Yet these assumptions remain unquestioned and are seldom, if ever, discussed in school districts. (p.6, The Student-Centered Classroom)
It’s never too late to engage in that discussion in your school or school district. We certainly don’t need any more first or second grade readers being told, “You guys are the Bluebirds and you guys are the Vultures.” Kids know!
#4. Why are students grouped according to their date of birth rather than their stage of development?
This question is fun because the school (particularly secondary schools) internally contradicts itself on a regular basis with this one. Because of slavish commitment to grouping people by birth date --- an easy way to organize people but not necessarily a truly effective one when we consider intellectual and cognitive growth --- schools trap themselves in untenable situations, unless/except when sheer performance is the major criteria for success. What? Simply put: the naturally gifted sophomore running back is not told he has to remain on the Junior Varsity because that’s his "age group." The brilliant freshman cellist is given the first chair in the school orchestra because no one questions that she is the best and deserves it. Whenever students can show what they know or can do birth dates magically fly out the window! In sports and the arts/music, we don’t care about when they were born! So, my challenge to schools is, “When are you going to start creating performance-based assessments to gauge whether students actually know and can do excellent work?"
#5. Why does multiple-choice (and “objective”) testing dominate schools when it is barely present in the rest of society?
Given what we’ve already looked at, the pervasiveness of multiple-choice testing (as well as other “objective” measures like “ fill-in-the-blank”) fits perfectly into a system that requires sorting/tracking and short periods of instruction. It also insures that classes will be (have to be) teacher-centered and harken back to what we used to refer to as the “mug-jug” approach to education. Students are empty vessels (mugs) who need to be filled with knowledge from the all-knowing teacher (jug). The problem with all of this is pretty evident. Did the student really know the answer (“c”) or is (s)he a really good guesser? If we ask the same question a month from now (without “review”) will they still answer correctly? And, just for the hell of it, where in “real life” (aside from the DMV or the tv show “Jeopardy” or, maybe, in an Emergency Room --- where you can, btw, consult with others – “cheat”) do you ever encounter a multiple-choice test where you have to answer “on-demand” questions? Nonetheless, our schools are still rife with these tests --- not to mention the SATs, ACTs, Law Boards, etc. They are quick, they are convenient, they are an easy way to process large numbers of people --- and, while some believe it shows “how smart you are” it doesn’t at all show how (in what ways?) you are smart!
Tomorrow: Answers to 6-10