Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What Is Happening in High Schools?

The main challenge of teaching freshmen is, for me, having to struggle against the unhealthy learning practices students bring with them from high school. They expect to be spoon-fed large doses of information that they will be able to memorize and reproduce during exams and mini-quizzes. Writing an essay or making a presentation for them means finding some loosely connected facts on the Internet and then regurgitating them orally or in writing. They prefer PowerPoint presentations to lectures because each new slide gives them a chance to do what they love doing: copying the information from the slides into their notebooks.

To say all this is frustrating for a college teacher is to say nothing. In my course on Hispanic Civilization, I have gone to extreme lengths to wake the students from this note-taking stupor. I have made very provocative statements about all kinds of issues but, for the most part, they just write it down and then repeat word for word during exams.

All exams in this course are analytical and not factual. All students are required to do is provide their own opinions on the issues I propose. For the majority of students this turns out to be a very daunting exercise. The very idea of analysis terrifies them. They'd much rather memorize long lists of dates and names than offer their opinions on politics, history, and art.

I have heard horror stories about the damage done in the last decade to secondary education by making learning test-oriented instead of aimed at developing actual thinking capacities in the students. Now I am seeing the results of these efforts and, boy, are they sad.

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NancyP said...

Aggravating, isn't it? The same people who can go on for hours about the merits of this or that obscure band are incapable of stating their mind about some aspect of their course topic.

Welcome to 21st century academia. I bet that many of the students at Yale had some of the same attitudes.

Clarissa said...

Oh yes, absolutely. This is a general tendency that I saw both in Canada and here in the US in every school where I've taught (four in total.)

Melissa said...

I had a high school English teacher who tried to combat this tendency with a rule that we could never use a passage on a test or in a paper that had been discussed in class. On the one hand, it did force us to think originally and not regurgitate class discussions. On the other hand, if we spent a lot of time discussing a book, it got progressively more difficult to find useful passages that hadn't been mentioned in class. It actually fostered a somewhat resentful feeling in the classroom...people would get upset if someone else "took" one of their favorite passages by bringing it up in class so they couldn't use it anymore.

There has to be a way to encourage original thought in students without resorting to rules like that one.

Anonymous said...

It is weird because I still believe in my old test format:

Part I, identifications (names, facts, dates...)
Part II, short answers (books, events...)
Part III, essay; interpretive / speculative discussions of issues, arguments, etc.

It's quite easy, actually, especially with a study guide of sorts, but they consider it hard.

They want matching and the easy kind of multiple choice.

Clarissa said...

Melissa: Yes, that sounds like taking it too far. I think that any text offers a lot more opportunities for analysis than anything that can be covered in just one class. So I wouldn't prevent students from writing about what we discussed, as long as they don't simply parrot my opinions.

Profacero: I do something like this, too, but the fact-based assignments in my course are olimited to mini-quizzes.

Brianna said...

I rate the quality of my education as fairly high, read voraciously, and have always had a very analytical mind. That said, I know precisely what you're talking about. One of the things I've been reading about in my "independent reading" is the state of modern education... and it ain't pretty. Also, the list of things I discovered that should have been taught in school and weren't quickly became very, very appalling... and like I said, I had a good education.

Steve Hayes said...

I taught in a department where we tried to get students to think and to handle sources critically. The problem was that some of them were taking courses in the Education faculty, where rote learning was the rule. This confused them and inclined them to "play it safe".

jeevans said...

I completely agree with you. I grew up in Arizona and I'm sure you know that our education system is horrifying to say the least. Thankfully I was a student who always pushed myself and wanted to take the advanced classes. In Arizona there are two options for a high school diploma. You can get a standard diploma or a scholastic diploma. For the standard diploma you only have to take 2 years of science and 3 years of math from Algebra 1 and higher, and you don't need to take any foreign language. Basically the standard diploma is a bunch of electives like shop and ceramics. Oh yes and history is basically disregarded, which drove me crazy because history was one of my majors during my undergrad.
For the scholastic diploma you need 4 years of English, 3 years of math and science, 2 years of a foreign language, and I believe 3 years of history.
In my opinion I had a good education only because I had a few excellent teachers who did force us to use our brains and write literary analyses and argue opinions based on documents. These were great preparations for college because they were the types of essays and short answers that didn't necessarily have right or wrong answers. You just needed to be able to argue your point with sufficient textual evidence.
However, these teachers I had taught only the advanced courses. Any students who did not take advanced courses and did a standard diploma were completely coddled so that they at least passed their classes and graduated so that the schools did not look bad.
I cannot agree with you more that the state of our education is absurd. I also have beef with how little emphasis is placed on the humanities, of course I'm biased because all of my degrees are in the humanities but I still hate that I have to be asked the question why I chose to study these topics.