Mitochondria, Co-Tangents and Plath- Oh My!

KyleGuest Blogger Kyle Pederson is the Executive Director at Learner’s Edge – one of the co-founders of the company.  He’s a jazz musician,  former middle school geography teacher and is our resident style guru.  He shares his cheerful self with his lovely wife Katie and his loyal companion, Forest the Dog.

Name 5 pillars of American Literature who wrote during the 17th, 18th, or 19th century.  This question was posed in some random party game I recently played.  Neither I, nor my teammates, could muster any more than 4 correct responses.  Our opponents laughed at us.   A few rounds later, they were tasked with naming 5 parts of a typical cell (nucleus, ribosome, mitochondria, etc).  They couldn’t do it.  And we laughed a sweet, vengeful laugh.

Let’s dig into this a bit. All 10 people gathered around the table that day were highly educated adults.  7 of us had straight A’s throughout our K-college experience.  5 of us have Masters degrees.  And yet we didn’t have basic knowledge of content we spent months studying in junior high and high school.   This isn’t a particularly revelatory finding; the hit TV show, “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” thrives on the humor of adults who apparently don’t remember a thing from their years in school.  Good TV to be sure, but it doesn’t provoke a wider conversation about what this may mean about education.

On a personal level, I decided to do a little experiment, and I challenge you to do the same.  I jotted down all I could remember from my 12th grade chemistry class.   I had roughly a paragraph.  After 9 months of chem class and all A’s on tests, I remembered a mere paragraph of material.  Then I did the same with my trigonometry class and calculus class.  A mere 3 sentences of remembered knowledge for those two courses combined.  I could do this with countless other classes and have only moderately more success.

This isn’t a matter of poor teachers.  On virtually any scale of teaching excellence, my teachers in these courses would rate near the top.  They were personable and knowledgeable.  They engaged students in the learning.  But I (and one can assume the vast majority of their students) remember next to nothing.

I do not intend to indict the entire educational system here.  After my 12 years of public school, I became a pretty good reader and writer and a decent thinker.  And I played well with others.   And though I have no obvious recall of knowledge or skills attained in many courses, there were likely some tangential benefits (improved study skills, persistence, organization, etc).

But I’m quite concerned that many educational reformers and theorists are holding up my historical experiences at school as the model for turning around the many ills of America’s education system.  How do we close the massive achievement gap between white students and students of color?  How do we raise test scores across the board?  I have a strong hunch that most reformers would be ecstatic if all students received an education similar to the one I received.  Strong teachers, surrounded by motivated students, in a nice safe school building with technology, supported by engaged parents and in a community that had high expectations of success.  This is the recipe most often touted for success.  I had all of this.  My friends around the party table had all of this.   But what do we have to show for this?  A few paragraphs of remembered bits of knowledge.

What does this mean within the context of the current educational debate?  I’ll offer just a few suggestions:

1.       Reformers typically argue for more of various content–more math, or science, or whatever.   We must intentionally think this through; if highly motivated students with good teachers don’t remember a thing from their advanced math and science courses, how would throwing yet more math/science courses onto the plate help?  (you pick the content area—I do not have anything particularly against math or science)

2.       Teachers (and educational policy makers) must think through the primary goals of each course in the curriculum.   If I teach biology, and I know that 90% of my students will forget 90% of what they learned in my course within a few years, that should make a big difference in how/what I teach.  Would teachers be better advised to concentrate on habits of mind—problem solving, curiosity, wonder, critical thinking, etc—than loads of specific content?  Indeed, you need rigorous content to develop strong habits of mind, but what is the right balance?

3.       Are there certain teaching techniques/strategies that result in higher retention rates?  Even two of the more highly recommended techniques (project-based learning and teaching others) did not result in long-term retention for me.  Twenty years later it made no difference whether I taught others about Sylvia Plath, or did a research project about Chile, or created a game about mitochondria, or wrote a play about tangents and co-tangents.  Are we doomed to forget virtually everything we learned, regardless of the strategy used to teach it?  If so, how might teachers better utilize class time?

The common core standards movement is gaining momentum nationwide.  Is anybody asking, “For how long should students be able to meet the standards?”  That I (and the majority of educated adults) remember nothing about Plath, Chile, mitochondria, and co-tangents—and could not successfully meet any variety of standards today that we successfully met twenty years ago—should prompt far-reaching conversations. I’m fired up to have this discussion.  I think it’s important.  What do you think?

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3 Responses to Mitochondria, Co-Tangents and Plath- Oh My!

  1. Rhonda Phillips says:

    I immensely enjoyed reading this thought-provoking blog.

    The problem has been building for decades as we try to mold ALL students into the higher ed track (using an antiquated term here, I know). Unfortunately, all other tracks are deemed less worthy in our society. The more we push for this homogeneous uber-academic curriculum and the more we try to validate its worthiness, the more we are actually causing a huge gap. The predominant value/worth we hold in our society is tied to achievements in academia. When we, as a society, begin to value all individuals based upon their innate talents and gifts, then we will understand what will work in education. We try to define our society through our educational values. What would happen if we defined our educational needs through societal values? Change the heart of our society (i.e., changing the way we value our co-citizens and their place in our society) and then we’ll be better able to change the ‘heart’ in our educational system.

    I see nothing wrong with upping the ante of our standards for those who are on the academia track. I see nothing wrong in redefining our standards for those who will profit little from advanced academic subjects. I do not need my trusted, valued (and loved) auto mechanic to be the best speller, nor the smartest person concerning world politics during WWI. I would love to see us value his/her mind because it can solve problems, can organize effectively, and is motivated to finish the job to the end. I see nothing wrong with giving students in special education their own individualized standards. I have observed students with IQs less than 70 in college track classes, becoming more frustrated with lower self-esteem issues, and yet are not being taught important life skills needed for their valuable place in our society. It all comes back to our place in society, and the false, unhealthy importance we have placed on academia.

    I hope this has not been misconstrued that I do not value higher ed. I am an instructor for Masters level education students at a Virginia university, so I definitely DO value education. I also value each life in our society. We all have been given God-endowed abilities. We need to value those individual attributes instead of squashing them (hiding them or devaluing them). In 20 years, we all struggle with what we know from our academic years. Yet, for many, the struggle will be deeper. It will be expressed through wrong employment paths (because they were tracked wrongly) and by low self-esteem issues (causing society to pay through divorces, loss of jobs, wrong choices resulting in a magnitude of consequences, etc). I see people in this category whose spiral downward started in school, when they were set-up to fail. Not only did they fail, but we all have failed THEM by closing our eyes to what is needed.

    I realize I went off on a tangent. Your blog certainly opens a can of worms, but I like to think it was earthworms…great for cultivating the soils of education. Great thoughts, and I’d be interested in reading more thoughts from others.

  2. Paula Kluth says:

    I loved this! When I do seminars and ask teachers about what they remember learning in high school the most common answers are sewing, driving, typing, and performing (music, plays, sports)! Friends, love, and cross-curricular sorts of stuff come up next (time management, writing). So….active learning and helping kids make connections with one another seem critical. And “yes” to your point about in-depth teaching– in some ways this should free us to teach differently focusing on such things as problem solving and critical thinking. Bravo!

    I have actually just started my own blog here on WordPress called Differentiation Daily to try and promote the idea of “getting it off the page” and using new, interesting, fun, and accessible ideas in the classroom in order to reach and teach all ( I will absolutely be featuring The Chalk Blog next week! Thanks for so many great posts.


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