May 12, 2014
This is the tale of two History classes. Both of them were 11th Grade US History classes, but unlike each other in almost every other way.
In the first class, the students are bright-eyed and active. Thoroughly engaged in the topics as the teacher begins discussing the events leading up to the American Civil War, the students actively ask questions and discuss possible answers among themselves. The students successfully produced college-level work and were expected to be able to demonstrate critical thinking and content knowledge to thrive in an academically rigourous environment – an environment in which the students worked hard and strove to succeed.
The second class was reviewing for a test on the Clutch Plague and World War II. The review sheets they were expected to fill out were compilations of note packets they had received in class and matched the contained the answers to the next day’s test. Those earlier note packets were simplified versions of the text book with blanks for the students to fill in for ‘guided note-taking.’ Those blanks also provided the first letter of the word that was being looked for. Hanging from the ceiling was a previous project – mobiles depicting the Separation of Powers among the Legislative, Judicial, and Executive Branches.
The only different condition between the schools was the education models used by each. The former was a small, independent school focused on using the Socratic Method and integrating their Arts, Humanities, and STEM curriculums to build on each other. The later was a slightly larger charter school adapting the Common Core curriculum.
I spent parts of this past week musing on the disparities. I discussed it with some fellow secondary-level teachers – most of whom are public school teachers dealing with the effects of Common Core, Race To The Top, NCLB, and all the other sundry Public Education policies. They commiserated about the over-reliance of graphic organizers, the hand-holding, and the expectation on the part of the students to be pulled up from further and further below grade level. Several agreed that when looking for lesson plan ideas, they pull from 6th and 7th Grade plans because, ‘. . . that’s where our students are at – even our Seniors.’
I know, Common Core sounds good on paper.
These learning goals outline what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade. The standards were created to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live.
What it really does is reduce education to an artificial baseline. All students are expected to pass standardized tests that may or may not be within their grasp or understanding (And really, all they need to do is learn the formulae for answering standardized tests). Higher students languish in a Remedial Gulag while lower-performing students learn to develop a dependency on the teacher to answer the questions and do the work for them.
As an aside, I’d like to point out that it’s not just Common Core that frustrates me. Recently an administrator asked me what I thought about it and how I would explain the hullabaloo over Common Core to a non-Educator. I honestly told her that Common Core wasn’t really a big deal in the grand scheme of things. It was just the latest in a long line of knee-jerk Federal reactions to sagging performance, and that in 3-5 years there’d be another brand new, untested education fad that made people upset. Of course, what I didn’t mention was that I believe the root problem here is over-involvement by governmental education officers with little-to-no education experience.
Ok, back on track. . .
The Socratic Method used by the first school is a critical element of a classical education. It sharpens a student’s oral and analytical skills and teaches them how to logically and critically argue a point. They learn to ask critical questions and define terms. It teaches students how to take ownership of their education. There is a standard of content information and literacy that must be delivered, but there is a huge breadth of perspectives and issues to explore. The Socratic Approach allows students to drive inquiry – something that teaches students how to be functioning adults in society. In the Real World, they’re not always going to have a teacher to give them a graphic organizer or an unlimited number of retests. They learn how to find their own answers.
This method of student-lead inquiry also has the added benefit of fostering an appreciation of true diversity – not the sugar-coated false diversity often paraded around. Students who share their personal thoughts, beliefs, and questions discover those things that all humans share and those differences that make us unique.
You’re probably saying, ‘This is nice, but you said this was a private independent school. Not everyone can afford to send their kid to some hoity-toity private school.’
Would you believe this school was founded when several parents got together and said they didn’t approve of the Public Education curriculum? The family has the primary responsibility for educating its children – a responsibility that they teachers of the first school took seriously. They’ve translated this responsibility into something akin to the One-Room School house and their children have prospered educationally as a result. State and Federal Standards are not required because the students do not require the remediation that their PublicEd counterparts tend to need. As a result, Socratic/ORS-style students stand a better chance of being in a much better place in their adult lives than the ‘Workforce Ready’ students of PublicEd.
Resources for Social Studies Students & Teachers