Op-ed column: Outlawing textbooks, rejecting tests are not ways to foster learning

Student-directed learning employs the term “learning” loosely. The theory is that children should be

Student-directed learning employs the term “learning” loosely. The theory is that children should be allowed to pursue their interests rather than conform to prescribed content curricula, which explains why even many capable students know so little about so much but everything about whales or dinosaurs. Consider the sixth-grade science program where texts are outlawed, “teachers get out of the way,” and students just “follow the science,” leaving them free presumably to rediscover that the sun revolves around Earth.

Consistent with their rejection of specific content requirements, these reformers commonly also reject tests, preferring instead that students demonstrate what they know through individualized projects. In addition to better demonstrating what students have chosen to learn, experts tell us that students enjoy projects far more than tests, an assertion my students laughingly dispute each year when I assign their first quarterly history project.

Senior projects

This penchant for projects extends beyond individual subjects. Many schools now require that students produce a senior project in order to graduate. The Los Angeles Times featured one senior’s PowerPoint presentation “on the challenges of trading stock options and what he learned while attempting to climb Mt. Rainier with his father,” specifically his self-esteem realization that “he failed because he didn’t believe enough in his abilities.” His personal slideshow was touted as a “better way to assess students’ academic achievement” and readiness to graduate.

This year the senior project most in the news involved a Washington student who pretended to be pregnant for six months in order to “explore people’s reactions if a top student, someone you wouldn’t expect, were to get pregnant.” In on her “ruse” were her mother, principal and boyfriend. His parents were outside the circle and “thought it was going to be a boy.”

Described variously as a social experiment, a blow against stereotyping, and a statement about Latina teen pregnancy rates, her project, as reported by The Associated Press, “resonated with viewers of popular teen mom reality shows” at a moment when teen moms, including Bristol Palin, have “taken spots alongside movie stars on magazine covers” and MTV.

Let’s set aside what lionizing pregnant children says about our society, that there is some reasonable middle ground between tattooing a scarlet letter on a girl and giving her a TV series, but that we don’t seem to be able to find it. Let’s also set aside whether a girl who deceives her boyfriend’s parents into thinking they’ll soon be grandparents really qualifies as “empathetic.”

What’s it worth?

Let’s examine the project’s scholastic merit.

Pretending to be pregnant in no way “shines light on Latina teen rates.” Since her high school is 85 percent Hispanic and statistically 51 percent of Hispanics become pregnant before they’re 20, her classmates probably already knew someone who was really pregnant. It’s unclear how she “reached her peers.”

Pregnancy is a notable condition, especially in students, so it’s hardly surprising that she found “she was treated quite differently when people thought she was pregnant.” That a classmate might observe that she seemed more annoying is hardly earthshaking data.

In short, while her project got her to “Good Morning, America,” it, like many “innovative” school activities, is distressingly light on academic content. Before we leap onto the projects bandwagon, we need to ask ourselves if we want our high-school students to be doing more of this, or more of something else.

When students aren’t engaging in projects of dubious value, they may find themselves sorting their lunch scraps into buckets. If this sounds unremarkable, consider that they’re sorting their food under the watchful eye of their school’s Farm to School coordinator. Authorized by Congress and active thus far in nearly ten thousand schools nationwide, Farm to School works to “build links with local farmers,” incorporate “farm and food-related topics” in classroom discussions, “encourage students to integrate more fruits and vegetables into their diets,” and promote “just” food delivery systems.

Naturally all this takes time and money. Last year one typical cash-strapped New England school received grants for $36,000 to fund food field trips, “free” fruit for snacks, and a school garden. Since most vegetables in New England are harvested during summer recess, the school next hopes to purchase a flash freezer.

Money and time

Money is painfully finite these days. At school, time is even more precious. That’s why as far back as 1983 A Nation at Risk warned that the “rising tide of mediocrity” in academic achievement was largely due to our having lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling and the often conflicting demands on time, money and expertise that we’ve placed on our schools.

That’s why we need to consider carefully adding even activities as seemingly benign as Farm to School. It’s why we need to be even more wary of other touted initiatives, pilot programs, and allegedly cutting-edge, research-based bandwagons.

Before we leap onto anything else, we need to ask ourselves if we want our students doing more of this.

Or more of something else.

Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vt.

Categories: Opinion

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