11 October 2009

Teaching Ignorance

No, I'm not talking about the "good type" of ignorance - the form that enables one to judiciously ignore the irrelevant and distracting. In fact, in Ontario, we're teaching precisely the opposite: how not to think, reason, or be aware. In a recent issue of University Affairs, Alan Slavin writes:
Has Ontario's educational system taught a decade of students not to think? There is growing evidence that the combination of standardized testing with a content-intensive curriculum that's too advanced - both introduced by the Conservative government between 1997 and 1999 - has done exactly that.
Slavin outlines six possible contributing factors to the loss of students' ability to think, reason, and construct knowledge and concludes that the major factors are primarily two-fold:
1. In 1997, the Ontario government introduced a new, content-intensive curriculum for grades K to 8 in mathematics and language, followed in 1998 by the science and technology curriculum. The design of this curriculum was top-down, unlike earlier curricula that had been designed by local teachers and their school boards under general guidelines from the Ministry of Education. Much of the new curriculum in the junior grades is considered by many experienced teachers to be beyond the mental development of students at that level. This encourages blind memorization rather than understanding. Moreover, the new curriculum significantly reduces time spent on the visual arts, and was so content-heavy that it greatly limited the amount of time available for developing analytical and conceptual-understanding skills from kindergarten on, even though the development of these skills was a stated goal of the curriculum...

2. In 1997, the Ontario government also introduced standardized province-wide testing in math and reading/writing in Grades 3 and 6, with a math test in Grade 9. I am told that much of the teaching at the elementary level is now directed to passing those tests, as schools are rated publicly on the results. Students must also pass a standardized literacy test to graduate from high school. This emphasis on passing standardized tests which cover too much material at too advanced a level increases the dependence on rote memorization and takes time away from the development of conceptual understanding and analytical skills.
Politically, the new curriculum is precisely what one would expect from a BAH organization: heavily content-focused, with the measure-of-goodness based exclusively on relatively straight-forward, (pseudo-)objective metrics that are more-or-less commonsensical to a lay public. However, when set against one of my research findings, that BAH organizations are unable to perceive quality, (and especially in an uber-BAH organization like government where metrics are designed to demonstrate the success of the system, rather than the success of those measured), the standardized tests are worse than simply being inaccurate indicators of educational achievement: They actually contribute to the deterioration of educational quality itself. More that that, they specifically encourage they type of curricula that prepare good citizens for the 19th century, rather than teaching the skills necessary in the 21st century.

I agree with Slavin's conclusion:
The indications are strong that we have taught students to memorize and not to think. If we do have such a problem, we must move quickly to determine its magnitude, and deal with its causes. A new Ontario curriculum was introduced for K-8 in Mathematics and English in 2005 and 2006, respectively, and a new high-school science curriculum is currently under review as mentioned above. Let's hope that local teachers and school boards are bringing their expertise to the development of this new curriculum, and will be involved in its monitoring and evaluation. There may be 10 years of students who have been taught not to think, and reversing that effect will be not be easy without a determined effort.
That determined effort will not be easy without a change in the BAH mindset that blocks quality, innovation, and simply knowing the right thing to do.

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1 comment:

Lisa said...

It's funny that a fellow parent just stated this very fact to me: If her daughter does not understand what she is learning she will just try to memorize the steps and spit back what she was taught.

As a parent I am tired of putting up with an education system (read curriculum) that frustrates parents, discourages children, that teachers say they don't like and is obviously not doing the job it is meant to do - prepare the next generation to be good and productive citizens.

Are there any activist groups made up of parents, teachers and education experts that are lobbying against the status quo of the last ten years?

I would really like to work on creating a system that works and puts less stress on an already overburdened home and school life!


Lisa Dennie