It’s Not Polite to Point

Since the year 2000, students from the United States have been outperformed by students from countries of comparable wealth like Canada, Finland, Germany, Japan, China, Singapore, and South Korea. This time, Ireland and Poland joined the winners’ circle. Even the richest students in America failed to match the results of equally well-off students from other countries.

The idea that American educators and academics should not be concerned because there are already more students graduating from college than can be utilized by the labor market is unacceptable on two counts. First, the implication is that our students are already too successful, and we should slow them down. Is there anyone who doesn’t find this position absurd? Second, education is not just about joining the labor market. Among other things, it is about developing the intellectual tools to create new and inventive niches in the market. Who remembers vinyl records? CDs anyone? How about MP3s? You get the picture.

If we agree that there is a problem and it should be solved, if possible, then we should first look at the solutions that have already been in place for quite a while now and assess them. That’s easy. They haven’t worked. Overburdening teachers with producing “accountability data” keeps them away from their chosen profession at the expense of the students. Insisting that teachers spend the majority of the year preparing their students for standardized tests has taken the students even further from their hope of actually being educated. The proliferation of standardized tests has resulted in the plundering of academic skills across the board and the country.

Basing a teacher’s success on the students’ standardized test scores is as meaningless as it is illogical. Test prep is not teaching, and it is quite possible for a student to learn what is legitimately important in a subject and still do poorly on a standardized test. It would be unfair to assess the student’s ability based on the results of such a standardized test; it would be criminal to assess the teacher.

Improving our public schools, offering more training and “support” for teachers, the federal government “encouraging” states to agree on common education standards, demanding “stronger” math and science education, requiring more “rigor” in the nations high schools, providing additional resources to prepare students for college-level studies, demanding “stronger” math and science education, etc. are all code for, “The teachers are to blame for the failure of our students to compete academically with their international peers.” Why not? Teachers are an easy target and a relatively small voting block.

The idea that we must “cure” poverty in order to set the educational ship aright at least begins to take a look at what just might be the most significant problem in American education today. The problem just might not be in the schools, and if it is, it just may not be the teachers. Instead of mindlessly pointing fingers, why is no one asking the question, “What is going on inside the walls of today’s American household that is affecting the academic performance of our children, both positively and negatively?”

Where are the longitudinal studies that follow students from placenta to PhD that will give us real insight into who succeeds, who fails, and why? There are billions of dollars being spent in this country on studies to determine things like “What really makes men happy?” No kidding! This was recently reported on the nightly news in New York City. It seems we could throw some of that money at trying to find out why so many of our children are not learning, why some are learning, and how can we bring the conditions of the successful students to bear on the lives of those who are not successful. After all, the first step to finding a solution is identifying the problem, not pointing a finger at the easiest target.

by John DePonte

It’s Not Polite to Point

Since the year 2000, students from the United States have been outperformed by students from countries of comparable wealth like Canada, Finland, Germany, Japan, China, Singapore, and South Korea. This time, Ireland and Poland joined the winners’ circle. Even the richest students in America failed to match the results of equally well-off students from other countries.

The idea that American educators and academics should not be concerned because there are already more students graduating from college than can be utilized by the labor market is unacceptable on two counts. First, the implication is that our students are already too successful, and we should slow them down. Is there anyone who doesn’t find this position absurd? Second, education is not just about joining the labor market. Among other things, it is about developing the intellectual tools to create new and inventive niches in the market. Who remembers vinyl records? CDs anyone? How about MP3s? You get the picture.

If we agree that there is a problem and it should be solved, if possible, then we should first look at the solutions that have already been in place for quite a while now and assess them. That’s easy. They haven’t worked. Overburdening teachers with producing “accountability data” keeps them away from their chosen profession at the expense of the students. Insisting that teachers spend the majority of the year preparing their students for standardized tests has taken the students even further from their hope of actually being educated. The proliferation of standardized tests has resulted in the plundering of academic skills across the board and the country.

Basing a teacher’s success on the students’ standardized test scores is as meaningless as it is illogical. Test prep is not teaching, and it is quite possible for a student to learn what is legitimately important in a subject and still do poorly on a standardized test. It would be unfair to assess the student’s ability based on the results of such a standardized test; it would be criminal to assess the teacher.

Improving our public schools, offering more training and “support” for teachers, the federal government “encouraging” states to agree on common education standards, demanding “stronger” math and science education, requiring more “rigor” in the nations high schools, providing additional resources to prepare students for college-level studies, demanding “stronger” math and science education, etc. are all code for, “The teachers are to blame for the failure of our students to compete academically with their international peers.” Why not? Teachers are an easy target and a relatively small voting block.

The idea that we must “cure” poverty in order to set the educational ship aright at least begins to take a look at what just might be the most significant problem in American education today. The problem just might not be in the schools, and if it is, it just may not be the teachers. Instead of mindlessly pointing fingers, why is no one asking the question, “What is going on inside the walls of today’s American household that is affecting the academic performance of our children, both positively and negatively?”

Where are the longitudinal studies that follow students from placenta to PhD that will give us real insight into who succeeds, who fails, and why? There are billions of dollars being spent in this country on studies to determine things like “What really makes men happy?” No kidding! This was recently reported on the nightly news in New York City. It seems we could throw some of that money at trying to find out why so many of our children are not learning, why some are learning, and how can we bring the conditions of the successful students to bear on the lives of those who are not successful. After all, the first step to finding a solution is identifying the problem, not pointing a finger at the easiest target.

by John DePonte

The Demonization of Repetition: Education’s Biggest Blunder

My sister needed to take a science course to fulfill a college requirement. So she registered for a biology class. The only problem was that she had inadvertently chosen a biology course for medical students. She was in a class filled with aspiring doctors. Come final exam time, she couldn’t understand a single word in the required text. Let me repeat that in case you don’t believe me. She did not understand a single word.

What could she do? It was too late to drop the class. It was even too late to try to find someone to explain it to her. Her only choice was to read the required passage over and over and over again. Repetition. Why? She could think of no other course of action. Each time she read the passage, she didn’t understand any of it. She read if again. No good. Again. Nothing. Many, many more times. Still nothing. One last time. What? Wait a minute. It’s all clear now. Not part of it. Not most of it. All of it!

In my sister’s words, “It was like a light went on in my head.” It’s not a coincidence that most people who have a revelation of some kind describe it as a light going on. In fact, something electrical does happen in the brain when understanding occurs. Forget the science of it; why did it happen to my sister? Repetition. That’s right. Repetition: education’s favorite whipping boy. Teachers in training are actually taught that repetition is a “lower order learning operation.” It doesn’t require “critical thinking.” Some have even gone as far as to label repetition corporal punishment and therefore, abuse.

The result? Our schools are churning out illiterate, innumerate graduates who are in no way prepared for graduate work or the job market. Teachers are forever looking to engage their students in critical thinking when they should be employing the irreplaceable strategy of repetition. Of course critical thinking is appropriate for things like exchanging ideas and debating positions. However, it is not appropriate for a large proportion of what students need to learn in order to excel. Mental math and second language learning immediately come to mind.

The Russians have a saying: “Repetition is the mother of learning.” In my sister’s case, it was the brute force of repetition that actually caused understanding. In fact, she was the only student to get an A in that Medical Biology course. As a pianist, I was already quite familiar with the magic of repetition. So are athletes. As a language learner and teacher, I know that if I could choose only one technique in order to learn or teach a new language and I could not have recourse to any other technique, it wouldn’t take me as long as one second to choose repetition. Not only is it underrated; it should be the number one instrument in every student’s toolkit.

by John DePonte

Language Roulette

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I like to study. It’s just that I like knowing the things that you can only learn through studying. Since speaking a new language is one of those things that require constant study and practice, I’m always on the lookout for ways to make the language learning process more efficient and fun.

My latest experiment involves cutting the material down to even more digestible chunks. Since I need to practice more than one language at a time, it simply isn’t realistic for me to work through an entire chapter for each language every day. After all, each sentence has to be broken down into several useful phrases each to be repeated many times. So I practice one page of one language three times before moving on to the next language.

This week it’s Italian, Spanish, and Japanese. The texts I use have beautiful grammar sections complete with translated sentences that I practice for total fluency. When I’ve completed one page of Italian, I move on to Japanese, and then to Spanish. It’s a sort of language roulette. It’s quick, effective, and fun. Any book with translated sentences will do. There are some great books of idioms in many languages that are quite useful for this purpose.

Let’s look at an example. If you’re learning English, your page may have five to ten translated sentences you need to practice. Let’s say the first sentence is: If I practice English this way, I’ll be fluent in no time. This sentence divides nicely into four useful phrases. Read the first phrase while looking at the text: If I practice English. Now say it without looking at the text: If I practice English. Imagine you’re saying it to someone you know; you’ll remember it better that way. Now read it again while looking at the text: If I practice English.

Now, apply this technique to the next phrase: this way. That’s a short, easy one, but very, very useful. Then with I’ll be fluent. And finally: in no time. Each one of these phrases can be used in an infinite variety of contexts. That’s why this method of language practice is the best. You never need to memorize an entire sentence, unless the sentence itself is a short, useful phrase.

When you’ve completed the first sentence, continue through the rest of them until you’ve worked through all the sentences on that page. Now do the entire page the same way two more times, for a total of three repetitions. Depending on how many sentences there are on the page, this can take anywhere from around five to twenty minutes. You can continue through as many pages as you want in one language, or switch off to another language. It’s entirely up to you. If three repetitions of the page take too long, do two, but no fewer. The brain loves repetition; humor it.

by John DePonte