Should we still require cursive?

I just came across a piece entitled Ten Reasons People Still Need Cursive by Jennifer Doverspike, in the Federalist. The piece is obviously on the importance of teaching cursive. As one who found its imposition on me as an elementary student to get in my way, rather than help me (and in fact, my teachers in middle school were glad when I quit using it, since they found it difficult to read my cursive), I decided to critique the 10 claims.

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  1. Cursive Helps People Integrate Knowledge

So do lots of other things at least as well, such as the arts, theater, physical education, all of which there is way too little of in most public schools. These others sound like better and more interesting ways to integrate knowledge to me. And print is just as tactile as cursive, so would it not do this integration just as well?

  1. Writing Long-form Teaches Us How to Write

The author cites a correlation between the good writing and good handwriting in children. However, it may be that those that have good handwriting as children do so simply because they have matured earlier, both physically and mentally—so do not confuse correlation with causation. I would have to see evidence of such a correlation in adults to give it any credit. If you want fast, then learn to type—that is what I did, since I have atrocious handwriting.

  1. Our Hands Should Be Multilingual

“Should be?” Well, there are lots and lots of things maybe we should be—like be multilingual. Is its more important than all the other things that time could be spent on. Remember, time is school is an extremely limited resource. I do not see a reason to force this one particular “should” over all the others I can think of that we do not find time for in school.

  1. We Learn Better When We Write It Down

We can write it down without knowing cursive. In argument 2, they focus on the need for speed in writing, yet in this argument they argue slow is better. Well then go to print. And what the author is referring to writing down is lecture notes. Children rarely do have to do this, and a better way to learn is to be actively doing something rather than listening to lectures anyway.

  1. Handwriting Leads to Cognitive Development, Self-Esteem, and Academic Success

It may only do so because we give it that importance. And in fact, since good handwriting is easier for some, requiring it actually gives an academic advantage to those who have better dexterity, but may not be any smarter. Again from the research cited, they may very well be confusing correlation with causation, or even reversing the cause-effect relationship.

  1. It May Help Those With Special Needs

And it may hurt them too. That it “may” is not a reason to impose it on all. For many using a keyboard opens up a world denied to them, especially students with physical impairments which make handwriting more difficult. If it helps a particular student, great, but this is a sweeping generalization.

  1. It Reduces Distractions and Inspires Creativity

Maybe it does for some, and for others it becomes another burden—I know that when I started typing (in middle school) and then using a computer (in college), it was way less frustrating for me, and in each case I felt more creative, not less. I do not think I am all that unique in that way.

  1. It Keeps Our Brains Active in Old Age

There are millions of ways to keep one’s brain active in old age. It does not happen to be the one I would choose. If you like it great—but do not impose it on me.

  1. We Need to Be Able to Read Cursive

Actually, I have found extremely few times in my adult life when I need to read cursive—and the claim you need to be able to write it to read it is just plain false.  If and when such a time comes up, one can learn it. There is no critical age for learning to read or write cursive. Learning to read it can be done in a tiny fraction of the time needed to learn to write it. To force all to learn to write cursive for the few that might find it necessary seems wasteful and arbitrary.

  1. We Can Create Something Beautiful and Unique.

Again, there are millions of way to create unique and beautiful things. To impose this one way is arbitrary. I would hate it to be imposed on me.

My main argument is not that cursive is bad—but it is no longer necessary in modern society. I could make 10 easily as justifiable arguments for learning to ride a horse , but we do not require horse back riding or many other wonderful things that can integrate our brains and help us be creative. All of the arguments relate to why it may be worth doing, but do not justify it as a requirement, especially given the limited time that schools have with children.

As a teacher I happened to have liked teaching cursive—but that was because I could keep the kids busy and quiet at the end of a long day in a mindless activity that as third graders they saw as important. Learning cursive was, and may still be a sort of right-of-passage. That is the best argument I can come up with to teach it.

 

 

 

Multi-graded Classroom

We think of the age-graded classroom as so normal, as if it is just the natural order of things—and forget that it is a relatively recent modern invention.

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The first public schools were mostly small one room buildings with kids of all ages and a teacher. This was mostly done not out of any belief in multi-aged classroom, but since most people lived in rural areas, schools were not likely to have more than a classroom full of kids from the town and surrounding farms, and their attendance often sporadic.

The age-graded classroom was a product of two simultaneous and connected changes in society: urbanization and industrialization. In a primarily agricultural society, there were too few students in close enough proximity to fill up more than a class or two, especially given that most did not spend much time in school. Most of what anyone needed to know could be, and really had to be, learned at home on the farm. Basic reading, writing, and arithmetic were all that was needed from school for most people, and not to a very sophisticated level.

Urbanization meant more of the population was living in larger cities, which meant schools could have larger enrollments. With more of the population living in large cities, now in many places there were enough children of one age to make a entire class or even more than one. It also meant more people’s jobs were working for someone else, and so schooling seemed more important as well. Further, since parents were working outside the home, they needed a place to send their kids.

Industrialization brought with it as well the idea of assembly line efficiency. It only made sense to apply the modern ideas of such efficiency to the classroom, especially given having so many children in one place. Curriculum was designed along these lines, where all teachers could give the same lessons to all the kids of a certain age in the proper order.

Soon this way of doing things, where students were grouped by age and taught subjects and content in a linear order, became what seemed the natural order of things. Multi-graded classrooms were now just an inconvenience of the few places left rural enough not to be able to have age-graded classrooms, or in larger schools to avoid hiring extra teachers when the numbers did not work out to have a complete class at every grade, putting the extra kids form two grades together.

When most teachers are now assigned such a combination grade class they dread it. After all, it is gong to mean two different curricula they have to teach; kids of different ages to manage; more different groups. How to instruct one group while keeping the other busy doing something meaningful? Given the paradigm of teaching as the delivery of curriculum, these fears are probably realistic ones.

However, if one has a different paradigm, multi-graded teaching can be wonderful. In my third year of teaching, when I had a second grade, I asked to keep my students the following year. I found it a huge advantage to start the year knowing my students. I felt I developed a much deeper relationship with these students. I could start the year right off and take them on from where they were. Classroom management was easier since we had already established the classroom norms. Having students for two years was a blessing.

The following year I switched school districts and was assigned a first grade. But as the year progressed, I started scouting among the other faculty for a teacher that might want to join me for teaming for multi-graded classrooms. My idea was to do a first/second, and keep half of my students, but the teacher I found that was willing to try this with me did not want to do first, so we ended up agreeing to do second/third. After doing that for several years, I also had years where I did 4/5, 4/5/6 and 3/4/5.

The big difference in the paradigm that makes one seem advantageous over the other is a belief in how people learn. Much of schooling is based, mostly implicitly, on a belief in learning as a linear process, generally passed from teacher (or any form of directed instruction which can be in the from text books, workbooks, or even computer programs as well as a teacher) to pupils. In this paradigm, teaching a group where everyone is around the same level is most efficient for delivering the correct instruction.

Another paradigm of learning—one which follows most of our out of school learning, is that we learn in communities of diversity, where different people have different levels of knowledge and ability, and just different ways of approaching and looking at things. We learn in this context by doing purposeful activities along side others—learning with and from them. If this is your paradigm for how learning takes place, then you will see multi-graded classrooms as an advantage rather than hardship.

As in moving up a grade with my students, my multi-grade classroom meant that I already knew half of my students. I could see how they were maturing, what they needed. In many ways knowing I had two years with them meant I had more patience for the natural differences in how children develop at different rates.

Learning is also to a large degree built on trust. Real trust is something that comes over time and with two years that trust is also deeper. This goes for the teacher’s relationship to the family families as well as the students themselves. In having my students for two or three years, I found the trust level increased exponentially.

Then there is socialization to how the classroom runs. With half the children knowing the routines, the other half easily learn them as well, as they can follow the lead of the students who were with me the previous year.

In terms of curriculum, for much of it, I use a thematic approach. A thematic approach allows students of a variety of interests, abilities and styles to approach the theme in their own way at their own level. When students are reading real books and literature rather than text books, they naturally find the books that interest them—and a book that is too easy or too hard is not interesting. The same goes for writing, using a writer’s workshop model. For math, students would have self-paced workbooks for arithmetic, and I would do on-the-spot grouping for particular skills, as well as thematic projects for the whole class to work together on. Themes could be anything from building a town, creating houses, studying bugs, investigating the environment, learning about the solar system, studying the peopling of the America’s to name just a few that I have done. The possibilities are practically endless.

In the multi-graded classroom, less-able students have more experienced and knowledgeable students to model and guide them, who are just enough above to act as effective models. The more-able students, in helping guide the less experienced, actually learn even more in the process of offering such help and guidance. It creates a form of having to meta-cognize—think about their own knowledge—in helping others. Teaching can actually be the most powerful form of learning.

In summary, multi-graded classrooms offer a variety of advantages: Getting to know students and families better; allowing more time to work with students; building greater levels of trust; easier classroom management; creating a more natural environment where those of different abilities learn from and with each other; and built in peer tutoring.

For these various reasons multi-graded classrooms can offer a more powerful environment for learning than a standard age graded classroom.

Intelligence

What is intelligence? Can we measure it? Do some have more of it than others?

I have just started to reread Stephen Gould’s “The Mismeasure of Man” If you have not read it—it is a must read, especially for anyone who calls themselves an educator.

intelligence test

He starts with two main points—or fallacies. One is the fallacy that intelligence is a thing at all. Rather, it is a construct, an idea. Intelligence is actually no more or less than we define it as.  The other fallacy he points out is ranking—as though there is some linear range, like height or weight on which to line up intelligence.

Our ideas of intelligence are socially and culturally created as well as historically situated, as Vyogtsky pointed out almost a century ago. Intelligence is only what we define it as. Our ideas of what it is are firmly entrenched in our belief systems, in our cultural paradigms. And also due to this any test of intelligence is to some degree a tautology. How do we prove someone is intelligent? Their score on the IQ test. How do we know that the IQ test is valid? We designed it so that those we “knew” were most intelligent got the highest scores and those we “knew” were less intelligence got the low scores. This is as true today of IQ tests as it was of the previous methods of measuring intelligence (craniology for instance). New versions of intelligence tests and even other forms of standardized testing are assessed on whether the same group that did well on the previous version do well on the new versions, and the same for those who did poorly—the curve needs to stay the same. If a different group does better on new test items (which are beta-tested first) those items are discarded as invalid (unless of course the test designers decide they want a different group to do better or worse).

The uni-dimensiality of intelligence has currently fallen into controversy, but it is as unprovable as intelligence itself—it is nether true nor untrue—since “intelligence” is what we define it as, we can choose to define it either way, and to categorize the different dimensions as we find useful.

The same is true of another assumption of intelligence—that it falls along a “normal curve.” This is a logical assumption based on other natural traits, such as height and weight. But we should not lose fact that it is another unprovable assumption, not a fact (and actually presupposes there is a thing called intelligence to measure and put on such a curve).

Because intelligence is a cultural construct, any test of it will be therefore biased toward those who share the knowledge, assumptions, world views and paradigms of the dominant culture. This again is unavoidable. A test has to have content, and any content exists in some context.

Because of these attributes of intelligence, I find the use of any measurement of intelligence highly suspect. When used to sort people in any official way, it is dangerous to a democratic society.

School Deform

Regarding the current moves of so called school “reform” at the national level. The aspect of this is toward a nationally standardized curriculum (i.e. Common Core). And it is standardization, not standards that are being mandated—make no mistake about it. Standards refer to the quality of something. There is little about quality in the national curriculum—rather what is mandated is the content. The only mandate about quality is about competition—that students have to score above certain cut off scores (and teachers being paid according to those scores). But scores do not equal quality—they equal quantity. These scores tell us virtually nothing about the qualities of the work that students (or teachers) can perform, certainly not about work that matters beyond testing.

FireTeachersCartoon

What mandated curriculum means is that what we want from public schools is a standardized citizenry. It really is that simple. We cannot teach innovation, creativity, and certainly not democratic citizenship in a school system where one answers to test scores on a curriculum to which those carrying out and engaging in that curriculum have virtually no say.

Those that are enacting this know that those with resources have a way out—schools for the rich still allow for creativity and self governance. That is what the privatization movement, along with the charter school movement is about (at least in part). This, as we know of everything else that is privatized, leads to a system in which the quality is based on one’s ability to pay for it. Those with the most resources can and do pay for schools that still allow for creativity, choice and abundant resources.

So really, the question is simple—if we want a system that teaches one group of children (and their teachers) to be obedient and standardized, and another group educated to be creative and powerful, then we should continue these current reforms. If we want democracy, then we need to democratize schools, and give them the resources and freedom that the rich seem to feel their own children deserve. It really is that simple. Have we or have we not given up on the idea of democracy?

Bloom’s Taxonomy

On the theme of popular ideas that I feel a need to critique….

Bloom’s taxonomy has been around for a long time as an aid to teachers, presented as a hierarchy of sophistication of thinking. I was first introduced to it when I started teaching in the 1980s. The college where I currently teach asks all of their instructors to keep it in mind when developing and teaching their courses.

I have two central problems with Bloom’s taxonomy, both of which I will discuss. Then I will mention how it can be used positively.

First of all, when I have used Bloom’s list, or the new revised list, to analyze a lesson and to think about which categories are being tapped into, I find it hard to pigeonhole activities or questions. My teacher education students and I often find that we can put the same questions into multiple categories depending on how we interpret them. In other words, real ideas and lessons do not seem to fit neatly into these categories, and getting agreement on categories is not intuitive, making them less useful. For instance the top of the six categories is: Creating, putting information together in innovative ways. But “Applying” (third level from bottom) on one chart I am reading is listed as using the knowledge gained (level 2) in new ways. What is the difference between applying knowledge in a new way and being creative or innovative?

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A bigger problem I have with Bloom’s taxonomy is that they are presented as a hierarchy, and Bloom meant them that way. In this hierarchy the first stage is knowledge or remembering. In other words, rote learning comes first. The next level, understanding, is that then we learn the meaning of what we memorized. Next we learn to apply the knowledge. After that we can analyze it—break it into parts. Then we can judge it. And finally we can use it creatively. For instance, I was told by someone instructing college professors that they would not get to the highest category with undergraduates, but should reserve that for graduate students!

If Bloom’s taxonomy were used just as a taxonomy—in other words a description of different types of thinking, I can see them as interesting and possibly useful. But generally they are used in the former way as developmental steps to be gone through, as Bloom designed them to be used.

My experience in elementary school bears this out. The “low achievers” and “remedial students” we are told first need to get the basics, and they are given tasks that focus on rote memorization, factual recall and following instructions. The “advanced” or “gifted” students are given assignments that allow them to be creative and analytical. They are asked to evaluate the characters in the story, to do the creative extension activities, and in math they get to do the extra “thinking” problems in the textbook.

This hierarchical idea of thinking ignores what Piaget demonstrated so long ago. Even babies are engaged in all levels of this taxonomy, and the different forms work together synergistically not separately. Learning by rote is the most inefficient way to learn. We are more likely to remember something when it has meaning attached to it. Then even more likely when we apply the knowledge, which is why hands-on and authentic activities are so often recommended. I would want most of the activities that students are engaged in at school to have them using all of these levels of thinking as they carry them out.

Any kindergarten teacher will tell you her kindergartners are creative. In fact there is some research that shows that we actually become less creative and innovative as we progress through school, less able to see the world in new and novel ways, not more so. I hope we do not wait until our students are in graduate school before we let and encourage them be innovative again, the way they naturally were as children.

It is possible to use Bloom’s taxonomy in a positive way. For instance, we create a teaching unit (level 6). We can analyze our unit to see it if includes all the levels of Bloom’s taxonomy (level 4). We apply the unit as we carry out our lessons (level 3), for which we must have understanding and knowledge of our content and pedagogy (levels 1 & 2). As we go along and at the end we evaluate the unit and how it went (level 5).

For a full look at this whole idea of teaching children to think, one should read Franks Smith’s book, To Think.

Relationships

The more I think about education and learning, the more I see relationships as the key to what really matters. If I think about all the movies I have seen about “great teaching,” both fictional and those “based on a true story,” while the actually teaching going on in them varies enormously, what they all have in common is a teacher that builds caring strong relationships with their pupils, from “To Sir with Love” “Up the Down Staircase” of the 60s, to more recent movies such as “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “Dangerous Minds.” But of course that portrayal could just be the license of the writers and directors.

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But I would say I have found the same in my experience as a teacher. I worked with teachers with many different pedagogical approaches. If you have read my previous columns, you will see it is clear I have strong beliefs abut which are more effective. However, the most consistent thing that I noticed of teachers that appeared to me as more effective was that those teachers all had strong relationships with their students. The students knew their teacher expected them to learn, and was there to help them succeed in doing so.

It was really much for this reason that I decided to become an elementary rather than high school teacher. I did not see it as possible to really build those relationships if every hour I had a new group of students. With elementary school kids I had the same ones all day long. (It is also a reason I have never liked “regrouping” with other teachers—I never saw the trade off as worth the loss in knowing my students fully).

One anecdote. At one place I taught, we were using the Reading Recovery program for our struggling first grade readers. Reading Recovery is a strongly researched based program giving intensive support to the lowest readers in first grade, based on some of the best research of learning to read, with a strong research record of its own, and all the practitioners of it have to be credentialed teachers who have gone through an intensive training in the model. However, as a second grade teacher, my struggling readers did not qualify. So instead we used instructional assistants, who had a rudimentary training in more traditional phonics approaches to work with them. I would argue that second graders who are still struggling with reading are probably actually more difficult candidates, as they have a longer history of failure to overcome.

Yet, in the decidedly non-random and small sample that this consisted of, my instructional assistant succeeded with every one she worked with to at least getting them to the point of breaking the code in learning to read. The same cannot be said of the Reading Recovery program that had about a two-thirds success rate with our students. I attribute it to the strong relationship she built with each of them—letting them know that she believed they each would and could learn to read.

This, maybe, is what worries me most about many of today’s’ educational reforms. They make those relationships more difficult. Scripted curriculum, larger classes and school consolidation. use of technology for instruction, and worst of all, the tactics of fear—trying to scare teachers and students into doing a better job. Each of these, in a different way, makes it slightly more difficult for teacher and students to develop strong relationships.

I am about to embark on teaching an all on-line teacher education course. I will see to what degree this mode allows for and interferes with such relationships.

Poverty and Education

Progressive educator Deborah Meier and Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation have been debating on EdWeeks’s Bridging Differences blog.

In his most recent post Michael claims that poverty is not the issue (even though, as another commentator to his post mentioned, the issue was not originally framed as poverty, but inequality, even in his own words).

From Petrilli’s Bridging Differences blog:

  • “Most were born to single mothers, and their fathers have been absent from the start, or by the time they turn two or three;
  • Most of their mothers were teenagers or in their early 20s when they gave birth;
  • Most of their mothers have very little education—a high school diploma or less–and thus few marketable skills;
  • Many of their mothers suffer from mental illness or addiction or both;

“If we give these families more money…will it erase the huge gaps….between these kids and their age-mates born into two-parent families? With highly-educated mothers and fathers? To believe so, you’d have to put as much faith in cash transfers and social services as some reformers put in schools. You’d have to believe in miracles.”

income gapIn response, I would say that tackling poverty and creating full employment and tackling society’s inequalities would actually help solve those too. Fathers are absent because they cannot support their families. Young motherhood is often a symptom of hopelessness, as is drug addiction. Michael shows data that America’s poverty is not really that much worse than other countries (though still worse even by his figures), so the problem cannot really be poverty (since he also accepts the data purporting that they do better academically). What he leaves out is that even if its true, those other countries do a better job of providing the supports for the poor that he derides as useless–housing, medical care, food, pre- and post- natal care—than the U.S. It may be those supports that keep fathers at home, create less single motherhood, and provide the supports needed for those who are single mothers.

While most critics of our current economic system and I think giving the poor more money and supports is a good idea, we do not see it as the solution either, but rather a band-aid, and when you are bleeding a band-aid is good to have! What is needed is a society that can provide meaningful employment for its citizens, that can provide decent housing, food, medical care, etc. It needs a society organized for a more equitable distribution of the resources.

A better education for the poor helps the individual student succeed, but it does not create more jobs nor reduce the overall rate of poverty nor solve the issues of inequality in a developed country such as ours. It does not change the number of winners and losers, though it just might even the odds a bit as to who gets to be winners and losers.

As John Dewey noted almost a century ago, a certain type of better education, i.e. one that help students participate and understand democracy and develop certain habits of mind, can be one of the aspects to creating that society, but it alone cannot do the job. And most of the reforms that Petrilli supports—more testing and top-down “accountability” based on that testing—actually create a less, not more democratic culture in schools, especially schools for the poor.