Posts Tagged ‘social studies’

Night at the Museum

December 2, 2016

night-at-the-museum

I’ve run some pretty spectacular birthday parties in my time, but Indiana Jones and the Museum of Mystery was my opus.  I turned the National Museum of Natural History into a giant scavenger hunt for my boy and his mini-Indy-hatted bunch, completed with a weathered-bag hung from a totem pole in the foyer containing a 10-pound anatomically correct Belgian chocolate skull.

It was an amazing experience.

And in all the time I’ve gone to museums or to the zoo, that’s the way I’ve always come out, thinking about the “experience.”  Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.  Museums are places to spectacle at our past, and our culture, and who we are as humans in this seemingly infinite multiverse of space, time, and emotion (which I would argue is a universe unto itself).

Indeed, I never saw a thing inherently wrong with all the times that I took my boys on the school trips to the Smithsonian.  Be it preschool trips to Natural History (indeed, that’s what inspired the party) to the annual elementary trips to the National Zoo, I found them a lovely way to take advantage of our proximity to the Nation’s Capital and give the kids a chance to get out of the classroom for a while.  On the bus ride back to school, I would always throw out some of the interesting facts we learned with the kids in my group.  I’ll admit there was a little of the CoachN in me, as I just can’t help trying to make pretty much anything into a learning experience.  Just ask my kids after we go to the movies: I’m insufferable…

A couple of weeks ago, my wife Kirsten and I did something that radically altered my perception of the museum “experience” and its place in our children’s lives.  We are contributors to the Smithsonian and often get (and dismiss) invitations to special events.  Busy people, busy lives and all.  But before summarily tossing another invite into recycling, Kir noticed that this invitation was to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.  A special dinner event after normal museum hours.

My wife passes by the new museum every weekday on her way to the office, and even as early as 7am she has seen lines crawling around this gorgeous addition to the Mall as people seek the very limited number of same-day tickets.  The waiting list for advanced tickets now stretches into the summer.

And so we leaped at this opportunity.  Ole’ CoachN managed to dust-off and fit into a suit, and we headed for an evening on the town.  After a lovely meal of African American-inspired dished prepared by celeb chef Carla Hall, we snuck away from the speaker as we wanted to maximize our time touring.  As we headed down the elevator, Kir and I were chatting with the operator.  “You’re really in for something.” He said, his voice almost bursting with pride.  “Just remember that you’ve only got a couple of hours.  It’ll be easy to get lost and never make it out of the first couple of rooms if you’re not careful.”

“You mean we can’t get it all in tonight?” I said half-jokingly.

“No,” he deadpanned.

He could not have been more spot on.

The very design of the museum helps to tell the story.  Starting down below, we begin in narrow, dark corridors speaking to the origin of the slave trade.  I was spellbound by a particularly dark enclave with remnants of an actual slave ship, interspersed with both art and writing of the time of the misery and depravity of the trade both from the perceptions of the slavers and the enslaved.

The upward arcing story moves through emancipation and civil rights up until this very day, the swathes of artifacts, hand-written letters, films, music, and dynamic interactive features (the “lunch counter” computerized feature was particularly fascinating—a “choose your own ending” on topics such as bus boycotts and the Black Power movement that compared your answers with others attending) so rich that each small corner felt like its own separate lesson.

And that’s when it hit me.  Instead of thinking about a museum as experiential, what if we instead thought of it primarily as an educational device?  Yes, I do recognize that the two are wrapped up together, but from my time in museums and zoos, while the students might come away learning something, we think about how it was as a whole.  The learning is secondary.  Indeed in our rush to “cram it all in,” I believe we deprive younger students of true immersive learning.

Right now, the Arlington County Public School system is engaged in thinking about “re-imagining the classroom.”  Trying to think out-of-the-box about what education should look like.  My time in the African American History museum tore through that box and even the brick-and-mortar of the school itself.  Even more, it belied the growing obsession with “personalized learning” – a good concept based in the fact that students have different needs, but a danger in looking toward an increased reliance on technology in the classroom as its primary solution.

While I am in no way against iPads and laptops, I believe that technology further removes the student from the tangibly real.  That simply compounds the initial problem that a classroom is in itself a prism that instructs on reality of the world around us, but it is walled off from it as well.  Technology enables a more organized, diverse, personalized, and deeper box, but it’s still a box inside a box.

Museums are by their nature interactive.  At the very least, they require people to move from piece-to-piece, rather than having the pieces paraded before them in pages or on a screen.  They are three dimensional.  They are tangible.  They are real.  So instead of simply having a “day the museum” what if schools actually integrated topical segments into their established curriculum?  So, for instance, instead of trying to work through the entire Museum of African American History, the students spend time only on slavery.  All the students could go through a specific tour, or students could be broken up into groups and come back and report to the rest of the class on what they learned.  Then perhaps lunch and an hour to tour the rest of the facility as they’d like.  In-depth education with a little experiential on the side—essentially flipping the usual usage model on its head.

In this increasingly screen-centered world, we need to keep making tangible connections so that our kids might not only learn about our world, but to be reminded that our world truly exists.  Those connections are increasingly crucial as our online universe stovepipes information to an extent that facts and truth become disturbingly relative.

So what, Scott, are we going to bus kids to the museum every day?  That sounds ridiculously expensive, unrealistic, and only beneficial to children close to them.  What kind of pie-in-the-sky, lefty liberal solution is that?

Well, I have an answer for all of that, but involves something that has long been a struggle for the education system in America—integrated learning.

Next on this thread, a modest proposal.

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The Agony and Joy (Hakim) of Teaching Kids History

September 10, 2012

As my musings on this blog have gone on, I’ve gotten fairly consistent feedback that while my book and movie reviews are somewhat useful, and my tips and occasional missives are okay, what folks like most are my stories.

And that makes sense, right?  I mean, everyone loves a good story.  Something that brings you inside an event.  Makes it meaningful.  Allows you to relate to it on a personal level.

So, on that note, allow me to present to you two versions of the same story.  A true story no less:

The most insightful theory I’ve seen as to how the glaciers parted to make way for homo sapiens in America.

Version 1

Watch that band of people move across the plain.  They look hungry and tired.  The tribe is small, just 20 people in all, and only six are men of hunting age.  But they are brave and their spears are sharp, so they will keep going.  They follow the tracks of a mammoth.

If they can kill the mammoth—a huge, wooly elephant—they will feast for much of the winter.

The trail of the great animal leads them to where no people have gone before.  It leads them onto a wide, grassy earth bridge that stretches between two continents.  They have come from Asia.  When they cross that bridge they will be on land that someday will be called America.  The trail of the mammoth leads them from Asia to a new world.

They don’t realize what a big step they are taking.  They don’t know they are making history.  All they know is that they have lost the mammoth.  He has outsmarted them.  But it doesn’t matter; the new land is rich in animals and fish and berries.  They will stay.

All that happened a long time ago, when families lived in huts and caves and the bow and arrow hadn’t even been invented.  It was a time when ice blankets—called glaciers—covered much of the northern land.  We call it the Ice Age.  Some of the glaciers were more than a mile high.  Nothing man has built has been as tall.

Version 2

The Land-Bridge Theory  Between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago, much of the world was covered by glaciers, or thick sheets of ice.  As more and more of the world’s water froze, the level of the oceans dropped.  Areas that once were covered by water became dry land.  One of these areas stretched between Siberia and Alaska.  It became a bridge of land many miles wide.  The area now lies under a narrow waterway called the Bering Strait.

The land bridge may have appeared and disappeared several times.  However, many scientists believe that people first came to North America between 20,000 and 30,000 years ago.  They were hunters, possibility following the coast of Siberia as they hunted prehistoric mammals such as the woolly mammoth.  Over thousands of years, hunting bands moved over the land.  They eventually spread across North America and South America.

Almost as big and heavy as the monument itself

Pretty much the same information, right?  Right down to highlighting the word “glacier.”  So a question for you.  Which one is a text book, and which one is a story book?  Would you believe that the answer is that they are both text books?  Unfortunately for my son, his text book for his 6th Grade American Studies class is version 2, Pretence Hall’s America: History of Our Nation.

While this may sound familiar from your primary school years slaving through lip-crackingly dry passages as exemplified by #2 above, author Joy Hakim remembered that history is his-story.  She wrote version #1, and what many believe is the best primary-through-middle school textbooks on American history, Oxford’s A History of US.

I was first turned onto Joy Hakim in this interview in Wired Geek Dad (unfortunately the full interview seems to have disappeared from their site).  She is truly understands what our kids, and teachers, are up against:

Well, there was the day a son brought home a new middle school history. I knew that textbooks are rarely page-turners (although they should be), but this book was beyond dull. The writing was barely literate, the page layouts dreary. I was so enraged by it that I actually called his history teacher.

“I hate the book too,” he told me. I shook my head. How could a book so obviously flawed make it into schools? (I would find out.) Anyway, being a journalist, and caring about words and ideas, I decided to see what I could do.

As for storytelling, that’s the classic way civilizations have always passed on their ideas and information. That we have turned away from it in teaching our children has been a tragedy.

With emphasis on “story”

And while I do understand that the primary text book is only one resource a good social studies teacher uses, there is simply no getting around that it is that book that sets the tone with the kids.  That is because the kids are more than smart enough to understand that what is in that primary text book is the content that will be on the holy grail of the year here in Virginia, the lamentable, borderline contemptible state Standards of Learning (SOL) exams.  The “other stuff” may be all well and good, but they know they don’t have to remember it, because, unlike their text book, the supplements don’t have a giant red band with VIRGINIA stamped on top of it. Yet another wonderful way to suck all the joy (pardon the pun) from learning history.

One place where I actually take issue with Hakim’s point is in her notation that “the page layouts so dreary.”  Well, from the first official social studies book Gus got, the error-filled Our Virginia to this one, the layouts are colorful, and vibrant, filled with maps and sidebars.  And I think that’s about the worst idea I can think of.

Yes, when kids are early readers, highly illustrated, colorful books with big pictures and little text are the order of the day.  But these are pre-teens here.  From Harry Potter to the Hunger Games, the books these kids are devouring now have few-to-no pictures.  And yet they love these stories.  Why?  Because they are well written and exciting.  Life and death struggles that they can relate to.

The design of a textbook by its very nature separates it from the books kids love, making it different and alien.  It’s too big, too wide, too heavy.  Cumbersome to get in and out of the backpack.  It reeks of something they have to read.  And I believe that kind of tactile differentiation can have a profound impact in itself.  While Hakim’s series is smaller than the elephantine Prentice Hall tome, it still screams “I’m a school book!”  Even more than adults, that matters to kids.

This icon stew might excite some teachers, but to a kid it just means “here’s more work for ya.”

Once you head inside, the book reads like a bureaucrat with ADD and CD-ROM of clip art put the thing together.  The sidebars are these icon-laden, totally unhelpful notations on exactly where the content connects to the SOLs (yes, this is in the student edition), then adds a notation on what exact learning skill this section teaches.  Incredibly, in the very section I quoted from it actually asks the student to scan all the myriad sidebars before delving into the content as a key learning tool.  This is SO antithetical to the way actual natural reading and learning happens, a student really has no choice but to shut off from the material rather than be turned on by it.  At least with Hakim, the sidebars are interesting, related factoids that add food for thought to the main text rather than burying it in a Technicolor yawn of nonsense.

History is such an amazing tool to show kids that some of the best stories in the world are the ones we have live and are living right now, and that we are the main characters.  From critical and independent thinking, to problem solving, to civic participation, history is a genuine gift that we can pass onto our children.  And while great teachers can overcome bad textbooks, wouldn’t it be better if they were actually aided by great ones?  Especially if those tools are already at our disposal?

If this doesn’t change radically, the history we give to our children is nothing but a tale told an parrot, full of sidebars and icons, signifying nothing.

Are Coaches Better Teachers Than Teachers?

April 25, 2012

A couple of days ago, I came out of a joint meeting between the Social Studies Advisory Committee for Arlington County Public Schools that I serve on, and the Science Advisory Committee (SAC).  We came together because we recognized that in the County’s focus on bumping up student math and reading scores on state standardized tests, our two subjects were, more and more, being pushed to the side at the elementary school level.

Book improved, but I learned the key is HOW the material is taught

I had initiated the idea of the two committees getting together because I had heard the SAC’s presentation to the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) on which I also serve (Note: This makes me sound like an education expert—I am not.  I’m just a Dad who got involved in the PTA and got pissed that my son’s Social Studies book stunk).  During their presentation, I was struck by the fact that, despite the significant differences between the two subjects, there were core similarities in the way historians and scientists think. Ask a question (“Why is the sky blue?  Why did the Allies win World War II?), form a hypothesis based on a base-level understanding.  Research to confirm or refute hypothesis.  Present evidence and conclusion as argument.

Such a process not only applies to drawing conclusions, but thinking creatively.  Whether it is presenting ideas on how best to feed the most people with the least environmental impact, or arguing whether the world would have been better off had Weroance Opechancanough had driven the English invaders out of America in the 1600s, this process of thinking is essential to teaching children how to apply knowledge.  Time and time again, the business executives of today are clamoring for employees not with encyclopedic knowledge of a particular area, but the intellectual curiosity to learn, a capacity to work well in teams and think creatively in driving toward new solutions.  Indeed, the Partnership for 21st Century Skills has coined the term “21st Century Thinking” to promote the importance of just this approach.

Loewen uses Virginia's standardized tests as example of how to do Social Studies wrong

And yet despite the obvious expertise and experience far beyond my own in the meeting, I could not help but feel frustrated that we spent most of our time talking about the standardized tests and how to help kids meet required levels for subject retention in elementary school.  While I understood the need to look at these tests to at a minimum ensure that Social Studies and Science are taught at all at the elementary school level, I found it frustrating that the base thinking skills that these two subjects can teach, and when taught together can reinforce, really played second fiddle to learning the content.

Frankly, that feels backwards to me, especially at an elementary school level.  While learning basic arithmetic and reading are fundamental building blocks for learning, those are no more important—and no more teachable—than the thinking skills that subjects like Science and Social Studies can instill in young minds.

So what does all this have to do with my rather provocative title, you might ask?  After the meeting, I ran into a fellow ACI rep and friend from back in my arms control lobbying days Natalie Goldring, who is now a professor at Georgetown University.  Natalie sits on the Gifted Services Advisory Committee.  Always a font of sound information and ideas, Natalie brought up a key issue that their committee is looking at, that of differentiation.  She noted that this was not simply a process to figure out who the gifted kids were, but to get a sense of the relative level of each child in order to ensure that they are deriving an educational benefit no matter what level they are on at the time.  Standardized tests and the “race to the middle” often robs advanced kids of the ability to explore beyond the norm, and makes struggling kids feel like they simply cannot learn.

courtesy T.J. Arrowsmith

It was then that a light bulb went off in my head.  As a baseball coach, I am all about differentiation.  In teaching the kids an appreciation for the game, I can plainly see how much kids know about the game itself (how many outs in an inning, where is your play with runners on first and third, etc.) and their relative skill level (fielding, throwing, hitting).  My goals have always been constant.  Teach them to understand and love the game, improve to the best of their abilities, and learn to think and act like a team even in this, perhaps the most individual of team sports.

But, of course, I do not have to test my kids…or do I?  Games are actually the ultimate tests—they put our practice into demonstrable effect.  But what defines success for one player (catching a fly ball) may be different for another (allowing the ball to drop, but keeping it from getting past).  Failure isn’t permanent, but transient, as other opportunities are always in the offing.  Supporting your teammates, talking to each other about defensive positioning, backing them up in case of overthrows are all crucially important.  And counter-intuitive thinking (swinging harder actually slows your bat down, pitching slowly can actually be more effective than pitching fast) are crucial to understanding and improvement.

In other words, one can make the argument my coaching approach teaches my five-to-eleven-year-olds more of the 21st Century Learning Skills better than the conventional education system does.  Not only that, but kids at all skill levels derive benefit without being subjected to the often damning law of averages.

Of course, I’m hardly the first or only person to have this revelation, and as I noted I’m no education expert.  So I will practice what I preach and provide evidence to support this hypothesis.  In the education section of the book Abundance (Yay, finally working it into a post!), authors Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler cite a number of provocative examples of both the problem with the current educational methods, and the potential solutions of shifting to a more coaching-oriented method.  Here are some of the most notable ones:

The Grandmother Method…: Indian physicist Sugata Mitra tested children at a slum nearby to his office by putting a computer out for public use.  He found that without instruction, they were learning how to use the computer and find information off the web by working together well enough to score 30 percent on a subject test—amazing evidence of the power of team-based self-motivated learning.  But when he added on another layer he coined as the “grandmother method,” in this case a slightly older girl who had no knowledge of the subject, but encouraged the kids with positive feedback like “Wow, that’s cool, that’s fantastic, show me something else!” the test scores jumped to a 50 percent, which as the same average as high-school kids studying the same subject at the best schools in New Delhi.

… Becomes The Granny Cloud: Bringing that same method to England, Mitra created a Self-Organized Learning Environments (SOLES) method where four children always share one computer at school.  In areas where there are a lack of qualified teachers, he created a “Granny Cloud”—a corps of grandmothers from all over the UK that agree to tutor the kids for an hour a week on Skype.  Test scores on average increased 25 percent for students being urged on by coach grandma.

Focus on Retention=Less Retention: Our current educational emphasis on fact retention is not actually ending up with students retaining knowledge.  Two fifths of all high school students need remedial courses upon entering college.  In Michigan alone, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy estimates that remediation costs college and businesses about $600 million a year.

Gaming Makes Learning, Testing Fun: Dr. James Gee, a linguist at Arizona State was stunned to find out while playing the video game Pajama Sam with his six-year-old the surprising complexity and difficulty of the game, and the fact that despite failure and frustration, it somehow held his child’s attention.  He concluded through study that a game-style system where learning is integrated in an interactive, problem-solving environment, and grades are cumulative based on your progress (like a video game), rather than a zero-sum game penalizing both a lack of knowledge (an F) or putting an upper boundary on what can be achieved (and A), kids were entirely more motivated to learn at their level, and integrated creative thinking and problem-solving into their work than in more traditional environments.  Schools like Quest2Learn in New York are integrating this philosophy into a curriculum where activities include creating graphic novels based on ancient poems, and playing strategic board games such as Settlers of Catan.

Technology Frees Teachers to Coach Rather than Lecture: Salman Khan, a successful hedge fund analyst in Boston decided to help out his younger cousins in New Orleans by creating some short YouTube videos teaching basic math and science facts using a digital chalkboard.  He soon discovered that his cousins actually preferred the video version of Khan to the real one (at least for learning) because they could pause and rewind where they didn’t understand, skip ahead when they already got the point, not feel embarrassed if they didn’t get something the first time, and, if they really had an issue, would only then ask for personal help.

Sorry, just couldn't resist.

The result is the Khan Academy (which just released its current library of 2,200 videos in App form) and a whole new style of teaching.  Partnering with the Khan Academy, the Los Altos School District in Northern California are assigned to watch Khan Academy videos as homework, and the class time is spent solving problems provided by Khan.  Correct answers earn points that are in turn traded in for merit badges.  As Diamandis and Kotler say, “This lets teachers personalize education, trading their sage-on-a-stage role for that of a coach.”(emphasis added)  In the first twelve weeks of the project, students doubled their scores on exams.

Yes, in a number of cases I am ironically using the example of traditional test scores— something I railed on earlier—as an example of the success of a coach-style, process-over-content approach to learning.  Yet in conflict resolution, one of the steps is to find the “win-win” scenarios.  In an environment where standardized tests on all subjects are likely be a major part of the educational landscape for some time to some, using the proof that a different approach to teaching not only helps create the kind of more adaptable and employable thinkers that today’s employers desire, but actually better satisfies the baseline educational tests seems to me the definition of a “win-win” solution.

Of course many teachers are already doing many of the things that I am talking about, including several that my sons have had at their school.  But until the 21st Century Learning Skills have been elevated right along the “Three Rs” in the way we teach our kids, we will not institutionalize the kind of education that is most valuable, empowering, and, just as importantly, just plain fun for our kids.