Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Overentertaining Engagement

American students are spoiled.* There, I said it. This New Yorker article assumes that people already know that American children are spoiled, its thesis mostly couched in the "why?" But if American children are spoiled, doesn't if follow that American students are spoiled as well?

*While I am focusing on American students, this does not necessarily mean other nations' students are not spoiled.

To clarify, spoiled doesn't necessarily mean well-equipped. Far from it. More often children/students are spoiled in direct proportion to how neglected they are, not the other way around. You can picture the child with the latest DSL, PSP, X-box, what have you, but no discipline, but also picture students whose classes have been dumbed down to the point of having coloring for homework in high school. Of course students won't perform such token homework; it doesn't teach them anything. Both of these children are lacking in responsibility, giving them the impression that they cannot handle responsibility.

I think there's too much emphasis on teachers being "engaging." If engaging means meaningful and interactive, then school should of course be engaging. However, more often than not engaging means entertaining. The best teachers would be entertaining as well as engaging, but even they can't keep it up 100% of the time. Not even academy award winning movies entertain everyone all the time.

I and many of my friends were(are) good students, which means we learned the material regardless of the teacher. I'm not one of those people who claims to have learned nothing in college, in part because I actually put effort into my classes and found them engaging. Chicken or egg?

But I was a terrible student in Chinese school. The worst. While I had one of the highest reading levels and was doing extra math from a textbook a grade level up in regular elementary, in Chinese school I was one of those kids who stares at the wall the entire time, doesn't do homework, and writes nothing on tests. Chinese school was volunteer run by parents, not teachers, so . . . they weren't necessarily the best teachers. I certainly don't remember any of them being engaging. Would I have paid attention if my teachers had been? Maybe, but what would have helped me a lot more was if I had had adequate training and materials.

I was not properly placed at Chinese school. All of my classmates knew bo po mo fo (ㄈ) ABCs of Mandarin Chinese. To this day I still don't know this system. Therefore, unless I memorized what sound went with each character in class, I had no reference. My spoken Chinese was also subpar, and we were using Taiwanese elementary textbooks (most 2nd language Chinese textbooks are designed for adults; Chinese elementary textbooks would use simplified characters). That mean there was no English. At all. Which meant that even if I had known the sound for the character, I wouldn't have known the meaning.

These obstacles wouldn't necessarily have made it impossible for me to learn Chinese, but they did decrease my motivation to the point that I made it impossible. Engaging should mean meaningful, not necessarily fun.

No offense to Sir Ken Robinson or anything, but sometimes you need a factory-type system. While unfortunately schools are becoming more and more factory-like, often what you get in schools is a system that fosters neither creativity nor competence (as in literacy). Prepping for standardized tests is definitely not creative, but neither is it meaningful. Students are not taught self-discipline for the sake of accomplishment; they're taught to eat up SAT classes and their tips and tricks to game the system (I kid you know; my students take an SAT class that for the essay portion teaches them to write large, fill up the page, and even tells them how many lines per paragraph to write. Then my students talk about how they like to end a paragraph at the beginning of a line, so that it looks like the essay takes up more space--see?).

I have issues with unschooling, a movement that has hijacked Ken Robinson the way Fundamentalist Christians have hijacked Jesus. They propose no schooling at all, focusing instead on pure, self-directed exploration.

Bad idea. There's a time and place for unschooling. It's not during school time. It's probably not during dinner time or chore time or bedtime either (but I'm not focusing on the degradation of children in general). Just because a system has swung too far to one side doesn't mean the solution is to swing to the other extreme. Ken Robinson said that creativity is as important as literacy, not that it should supersede it. Students need to take some time to know something so that they can deconstruct and reconstruct it. And hey, MATCH schools and Asian test scores agree with me (please see Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell).

MATCH schools serves underpriviledged kids. Un/Homeschooling is only viable for the middle class and above. Either one parent has to take time off work or the family needs money for a private teacher or the family has to pay for multiple non-public school classes. Let's face it. People who attempt this have college degrees. Their children will have the cultural capital to go to college. Children of well-heeled parents come back to school in the fall knowing more than they did in the spring. Good for them and their summer camps and private tutoring. Low-income children, however, come back to school in the fall knowing less than they did in the spring, because they spent a majority of their summer in front of the TV.

MATCH works as a socioeconomic equalizer partially by keeping kids in school longer by extending the school day, the school week, and the school year. Time spent learning is as important as method of learning. I would like to digress for a moment now and argue that schools dramatically reduce summer vacation (who can afford the childcare, anyway?). That way, we can teach slower, but better. We can even reduce homework, the way Race to Nowhere wants us to. This would also benefit teachers because 1) We wouldn't be called lazy for not working in the summer (although my boyfriend has scheduled 5 hours a day for prepping for his classes) 2) we can work less overtime doing prepping and grading. After all, a larger than 40 hour workweek has increasingly diminishing returns on productivity.

Asian National children really outperform American children, including that 2% of Asian Americans, at math. This has nothing to do with genetics and everything with culture. There is a direct correlation between percentage of test finished and percentage score, which means that Asian children don't necessarily get a bigger percentage of math questions right; they just do more of the test. Of course, it's unreasonable for ask a 3rd grader to sit and take a test for several hours. Unless you're Asian. In Taiwan, these kids start schooling at age 2, including for English. When they're old enough to go to real school, they go to class after class.

This is not necessarily a good thing. The pressure for kids in Asia (or at least in Taiwan) is too high. For one thing, there is rampant cheating (i.e. copying of homework) in schools. For another thing, there isn't much room for creativity, discovery, and experimentation. Americans don't want to be like Asia. We are arguably more creative and definitely more independent. That means we're more likely to be entrepreneurial. However, if you do work at a start-up, you have to be prepared to work a lot. Mature a couple of hours at a time for a 3rd grader to an adult standard.

Furthermore, all of this work? It ain't gonna be all fun and games, even if you love the field and the work is really meaningful to you (as it should be), it won't necessarily be entertaining all the time. It may not even be engaging. There's always the red tape bureaucracy and persnickety details you don't have the money to pay someone else to take care of.

For example, my Chinese is now good enough that I'm learning fairly complex Chinese characters (i.e. 幫, which means help). My teacher has taught us all sorts of semantic tricks using the radicals (those individual shapes) involving sound and meaning. It helps a lot (I remember the previous character by remembering that if they are two dirt clods on a white cloth, even an inch would be a lot of help).

However, at the end of the day, the only way to know 1500+ characters instantly (2000 is barely enough to read a newspaper; 8000 characters is considered fluent) is to write them over and over again, repeating the word whilst writing it. So I don't mind if my students don't find their homework interesting. It's not supposed to be. It's practice, which by definition is repetition. That doesn't mean it's not engaging.

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