Guest 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?