Saturday, March 9, 2013

Long Term

The third trimester has begun, so I now have four sections of the "B" part of the honors pre-calculus course.  What this means in practical terms is that I have already taught this material through Harkness before, and as such the worksheets are in "version 1.1" of their existence.  It also means that all of the students in the class know how the class is taught and what to expect.  As happens every year, a few kids have dropped back to regular pre-calculus for the second half of the course. Having made it quite safely through part "A", they heard that part "B" is "so much harder" and have abandoned ship without giving themselves a chance.  It's a strange phenomenon in our pre-calculus course that about 50% of the students come away from the course saying that the first half - the part that contains polynomial, rational, exponential and logarithmic functions, as well as sequences and series - is the more difficult part of the course, while the other 50% of the students are firm in their conviction that the second half of the course - the part that contains trigonometry and the conics - is most certainly the more difficult part.  From my perspective, it seems to come down to the answer to the question, "Is the student more comfortable with mechanics or with pictures?", because the first half of the course tends to be mechanics supported by pictures, while the second half of the course is pictures supported by mechanics.  So, the visual kids are more at home with part B, while the symbolic manipulation kids are more at home with part A.

The reason I mention this is that the other day one of the students who earned an "A" in the first part of the course but chose to drop back to regular pre-calculus for the second half of the course came to me to return her textbook and said the main reason she chose to drop back was that she struggled with geometry two years ago and with basic trigonometry in algebra 2, so she felt she really just needs someone to tell her what to do.  And with that statement, a small part of my soul died.

One of the best and brightest that our school has to offer chooses to be told what to do rather than to think for herself, and what's worse she sees this as being a good choice.  By implication, others such as her parents and her counselor do as well, because otherwise the change to her schedule could not have been made.  Much as we might think we are teaching the kids to be independent, to think for themselves, to be life-long learners, and so on, apparently what we are really doing is teaching the kids to be completely comfortable with their dependence on us for the information they need to pass our tests and with the lack of drive to even want to actually learn the material beyond this surface-level knowledge.

This is why Common Core and the new end-of-course testing are coming in.  These tests will require the students to have a knowledge of the material that goes beyond the "I memorized this just long enough to pass the test"  stage.  The current graduation test in Ohio tests at this basic level as well, and as such it is not even close to being a good measure of whether or not the kids are ready for college.  We need to stop fooling ourselves into thinking that we are doing anything other than teaching the kids to  perfect their short-term memory.  We need to admit that we have been lying to ourselves for years, and that the changes that are coming are long overdue.

Harkness, of course, forces the kids to put the information together for themselves, to struggle and come to terms with the material, and  to understand it to the point of being able to be at least a little creative with it.  In short, Harkness promotes and effectively does everything that we have claimed to be doing for years.  Having taught "both ways", I guarantee you that traditional teaching doesn't come anywhere close to actually teaching the material to the kids.  Harkness does.

The students and parents are in for a shock when the new standards are fully implemented.  Sadly, there are a lot of teachers who, instead of taking on the challenge presented by the new standards (and admitting the gross shortcomings of the current ones) are either placing their heads firmly in the sand in the hopes that the new standards are just a passing fad, or are abandoning ship faster than the student I mentioned above.  They are unwilling to see the need for the coming changes, or are admitting defeat before they even get started.  And seeing that attitude, another part of my soul dies.

On the positive, optimistic side, the overwhelming majority of the kids in my classes are back for the second half.  And other teachers are taking up the challenge, making changes to their classroom that will better meet the needs of the students as they prepare for the new testing and for college.  I am fortunate enough to teach with several of them, and like them, I'm in this for the long haul.  Hopefully, by promoting Harkness, I can influence others to get on board with the necessary changes and start actually teaching the kids.

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