Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Doing it right

Occasionally I get to step back from exciting things like budgets and facilities offers and staffing ratios, and actually get to look at education.  Today I wanted to share a little of that with you.

One of the concepts getting a lot of airplay in education circles is that of integrated learning.  Some call it "cross-curriculum"", and others call it "project based learning", and others call it other things.  The idea is pretty simple though- students learn best when the topics tie together.  After all, that's life in the real world.  Rarely in my day job does someone throw an equation on a white board and ask me to solve it.  For some reason, I'm seldom asked to diagram a sentence from a mail message. Often, though, we use skills we learned in English class to extract the key ideas from a discussion, and then we may reduce those thoughts into a mathematical formula to determine a business outcome.  The educational theory is that kids are more successful in the real world if they've already learned those skills when they are in school.

Recently I was working with a 5th grader on a tech project.  She was building a web site about the radioactive element Radium. At one point, she came across a "fun fact": it takes 10 tonnes of Uranium to yield 1 gram of Radium. She wanted to understand what that really meant, and find a way to explain it so that others could grasp it too.  She started by calculating the volume of 10 tonnes of Uranium and 1 gram of Radium,  Then she did some calculations to convert that into volume.  Realizing that her volume was in a metric unit, she then went back and looked up the conversion rates and finally explained it in terms that made sense to her:  It takes about large three trash cans full of Uranium to yield a ball of Radium the size of a pencil eraser. 

I was fascinated as I watched this young lady shift effortlessly between scientific concepts, research, and mathematics.  No one "taught" her how to do this- she just connected the dots of the many things she's learned in class and produced a useful result.

I've seen this in other places too.  On a recent tour of Egan, Brenda Dyckman showed us how an English teacher had worked with her colleagues in other departments to develop consistent standards for writing analysis papers.  Each department had a consistent rubric so that the papers were evaluated both on subject matter content (science, history, etc.) and on their adherence to the rubric.  it's a simple concept, but it ensures that students are able to effectively articulate the ideas they've learned.

There are a lot of things that make our program special.  We don't do a lot of shameless self promotion, but maybe it's time we change that.  "Teaching to the test" wouldn't get even close to what we do.  Measures that are considered "best in the State" are just a starting point of what we want for our kids.  While we can always improve, we should also recognize what we do well.