Friday, August 5, 2016

A time for the practical in education

A time for the practical in education
English, History, Math and Science should all be taught with a foot in the real world. Civics, which deals with matters ranging from the entirety of our public lives, should be required. 
Long before the wars between charter and public schools, long before the anti-Mexican "English-Only” propositions, and long before the Christian Right stealth campaigns for school board, another problem had arisen within the U.S. public schools.  Somewhere along the line, teaching things practical or in an applied way was lost and abandoned.
If there is one thing that my fellow parents, school teachers and residents all seem to agree upon, it is that the K-12 schools should do a better job of teaching practical life skills and teaching the curriculum in the context of how it would be used in everyday life outside the classroom.
Yet we still have a focus on the theoretical side of almost every subject and a day-to-day practice of making students spend a horrible amount of time sitting at a desk getting ready for tests in classes that have one, and only one, real goal:  college preparation.  
Ask anyone involved and they will agree that we need to accent the applied, but when it comes to changing the school day, most of what results is an addition of some word problems and maybe an “experiment” or two in lab.
Anyone who has gone to trade school can recall the routine of learning based on doing projects.
Basic electronics?  We started by building a radio.  >From scratch.  The math, the materials, the science, all come into play when one winds a coil and sets the variables to capture a resonant frequency.  (that means tuning in a station)
But project based learning is hardly the only way to be teaching the practical.
All across the curriculum there exists possible links from the subjects we supposedly teach to what is going on in the world around us.  History can be linked to the morning news.  Geography, language, and art can be connected to our international place in the world.  Math can take us to electronics, but it can also take us to filling out a tax return or to calculating the actual dollar amount of the percentage of the gate won by a famous prize fighter.
For the most part, bringing relevancy to content is not a problem that needs loads of money to fix.  It needs teachers and administrators who are willing to open themselves up to a transformation that would keep the standardized tests from driving our kids back to their desks within the confines of the classroom walls. 
Time needs to be taken to modify the curriculum to get students out of their chairs and DOING THINGS and even MAKING THINGS -- activities that will help them grasp the concepts of their core coursework.  The work of curriculum development takes deliberate review of existing projects that have already been designed and learns how to use them effectively.  It is admittedly hard, albeit rewarding, work, and anyone who tells you that there are lots of insurmountable problems is just plain wrong.  Almost any trade or skills training program accomplishes these tasks every day.  There is not much new, just a need for new technology subjects and a sex and race discrimination free environment.  Fortunately, there is already a lot of work being done along these lines.  For a small example see:
Some other resources could be found looking for STEM applications to the “real world” of everyday life.
It will take some leadership to make this change to how we teach K-12 in Oakland.
To be more precise, this is a change back to a past era.  People my age and over remember shop, civics, home economics, and art classes, and much more.  In my child’s charter school we started to reintroduce such things in a small way. The kids benefited from it, and it was a satisfying feeling to see girls using bike repair tools to fix a flat tire and boys using a sewing machine to make a marble bag because we made all students do both.  The kids wanted to add "app coding" and wood shop. 
I would like to have us work our way back slowly, starting with small, but fun and practical, projects that every student could do as part of their current course work RIGHT NOW.  The reason for RIGHT NOW is that we are losing too many students for the simple reason that school work is often too abstract and boring.  Too many students believe that school has not been designed with them in mind.  Just ask them.  
We need to go back to the days when schools grew plants in milk boxes, did art projects with egg cartons, and pulled classroom discussions from current news events.  One of our biggest problems is that students of every age are not engaged, and when they get older a disastrous number of them drop out. School needs to become more fun.  Students need to feel that they are learning something worthwhile.  In short, school work needs to be relevant to the larger world around them.
There was an old word I used among my examples: “civics.”
We need to bring back and expand civics.   There are all kinds of matters relating to ordinary citizens and their everyday concerns that should be a study in and of itself. 
Most of us remember civics as being where we learned that a state has two senators.  Such basic understanding of our government is badly needed.  Our students and their parents need a better understanding of how our local government works.  As a political candidate for school board I get a lot of questions about what precisely are the functions of the school board.  I would like to see students have some form of civics taught throughout their studies, and once in middle and high school with an eye on preparing them to become good citizens and informed voters.  Schools are locations where students and their parents should be able to register to vote and are often where they do vote. 
But participation in civil society entails more than just voting.  We open bank accounts, file taxes, join the military, rent homes, apply for jobs, receive public services, continue our studies, use health care, and insure our homes and cars. Every reader could add something important to this list. No student should leave our schools without a bank account and an ID card.  Civics is where we can make such things happen.  Of all the things I have mentioned here, this one will cost real teacher salaries and the expenditure will be worth it. 
More practical education will help us keep students in school.
Browbeating the students to be interested in a tedious series of pointless exercises, such as regurgitating on standardized tests some facts that they might use “someday” when they compete for a college entrance that most will never see,  is a recipe for failure and poor classroom discipline, which is way too much of what we have now.
Project-based learning, along with electives providing “identifier projects” for the students to work on, have shown themselves to improve overall school results, starting with staying in school.  I promise another blog to talk about this more in depth. 

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