Thursday, August 11, 2011

Appreciation vs. Skills

Part of an e-mail from Teacher Cranium, the Head of School at Natural Friends:

Capstone experiences are being planned for each grade. We had great success in the intermediate school (fifth and sixth grades) with this year's simulated mission to Mars. We anticipate deploying simulations as key aspects of the social studies curricula of seventh and eighth grades as well.

For example, preliminary conversations are under way pertaining to a study of medicine in which an Emergency Room simulation is the featured context within which students utilize what they have learned as they play the roles of doctors, patients, first responders, nurses, and hospital administrators. We have a contact at Local Hospital who has invited us to use the simulator there. Medicine may then be used as a lens through which to examine the history of ancient China.

I had high hopes for Teacher Cranium at this time last year. He was hired because of his rep for progressive education. I want to like progressive ed. I really do. I want my kids to have actual experiences besides schoolwork. I want them to grow as complete human beings. I want them to enjoy learning. These are all ideals that I share with progressive ed.

I have nothing against the mission to Mars project, or the mock economy that was created for the second grade. A visit to an emergency room simulator could be interesting for the kids, although how it relates to ancient China is a mystery to me.

But but but ... at the same time, there are basic skills that I want my kids to master. They need to be able to read fluently and type accurately (a goal we still have not reached with Older Daughter.) They need to know at least enough math that they will be able to handle their finances intelligently and make some sense of the statistics and economic theories they will encounter. I would love for them to have working knowledge of a second language, and perhaps be able to play an instrument or compete in a sport.

If the projects at Natural Friends were happening in addition to a solid curriculum that dependably taught kids their basic skills, it would be a wonderful school. (It still might not be the right place for Younger Daughter, but that's a different issue.) But in practice, the school uses lousy curricula like Reading Workshop and Trailblazers Math, because these have been sold as "progressive".

The problem with "progressive" curricula is that they teach appreciation instead of skills. There's nothing wrong with appreciation; courses in music and art appreciation can be interesting and valuable. But you can't staff an orchestra with graduates of music appreciation, and you wouldn't want to have your portrait painted by someone who had only looked at art, no matter how knowledgeable they might be. Orchestras must be staffed with people who can read music and play instruments, and portraits are painted by people who can draw the figure. These are skills that take years of study to acquire.

Similarly, there's nothing wrong with doing logic puzzles with kids. But it's not the same as teaching math skills. There's nothing wrong with using a pie chart to demonstrate why 1/2 + 1/4 = 3/4. But if you don't go on to teach the algorithm, you'll wind up with a kid who can only add fractions if the denominators are friendly enough to produce an easy pie chart.

My dream school would teach basic skills in the most effective and painless way possible for a few hours each day, and then do interesting projects and activities for the rest of the day. Where is that school, besides my fevered imagination?


  1. Yeah, our elementary school had a crapstone course in fifth grade called "Simulated Congressional Hearings" that combined US Government with, um, other stuff that I could never quite figure out. It was awful (and my wife helped as a volunteer so we have an adult's perspective, not just the kids [who also hated it]). Mostly, it took a huge amount of time out of the school year for fluff. Like you said, "there are basic skills that I want my kids to master."

    I took a couple capstone courses my senior year in college. In that environment it makes sense. Elementary school? Not so much.

  2. Matthew, yes, that's a big problem with projects. If the only point is that they're supposed to be engaging for the kids, and the kids experience them as a baffling, irritating waste of time, then nothing has been achieved.

    Part of the problem is the compulsory nature of school, which is almost impossible to overcome. Teachers think, "oh, the kids are so interested and engaged!" while the kids think, "OK, what does the teacher want me to do this time?"

  3. I have that school! I homeschool in the morning (focusing on basic skills) and send dd7 to a charter school 3 afternoons a week, where she gets art/music/PE/Spanish and "investigations" in history and science.

  4. That sounds like a good solution. I wish we could "scale it up" so it was available to everyone!