Friday, November 9, 2012

Finding Out What the Words Mean

Yesterday I helped out in a program I heard about from Katharine Beals (of Out in Left Field.) It's an after-school tutoring project founded by a man from the Ivory Coast, who aims to help other French-speaking African immigrants educate their children.

At the end of the 2 hours, there's some time to help the kids with their homework. I sat with one 6th-grader who pulled out a vocabulary list. Each teacher (math, science, social studies, reading) assigns five words; every Friday the kids take a test where they're given the definitions and have to write the appropriate words.

It was clear to me that the definitions given were way over the head of an average sixth grader. For instance, the definition for "sequence" was something like "a list of elements corresponding to the natural numbers with predetermined order" (I don't remember it exactly -- I'm just trying to reproduce the level of difficulty.)

Me: "Do you know what a sequence is? Have you ever seen one?"

Kid: "No."

I wrote the numbers 1, 3, 5, 7, and asked her what the next number would be. She said "9".

Me: "That's an example of a sequence."

Kid (brightly): "Maybe if I find out what the words mean, I could get extra credit!"

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Learning to Take Tests

Two recent articles in the NYTimes caught my eye:

After Number of Gifted Soars, a Fight for Kindergarten Slots

and A New Kind of Tutoring Aims to Make Students Smarter.

The first article reports that nearly 5,000 children qualified as "gifted" in New York City this fall, more than double the number only 4 years ago.  It is now routine to prep 4-year-olds for the tests that bring this coveted label.

The second article reports on a booming new tutoring scheme, that aims to raise kids' performance on IQ tests. 

This is what education has become in our country.  It's all test prep, all the time.  It's not about inquiry or experiment or developing real interests or even about learning any particular subject matter.  It's about getting a good score on the test.  What the test measures is hardly even discussed; once a test is out there, the race is on for a good score.  

Education has become a kind of sport.  It's all about competition; sorting winners from losers.

Anyone who truly cares about learning is out of luck.