Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Global Achievement Gap

I have an interesting group of students in my 7 am class this term. One of my students is exploring conspiracy theories about the Rothschilds and who controls the world's money. One is from Ghana, and another from Cape Verde. One's family is from Liberia, and she hopes to settle there when she graduates. One of my students is, I think, a fellow geek. At least two had attended vocational high schools. They're just all interesting people and it's not a hardship to come in at 7 am! The first 15 minutes or so are tough as I wait for students to trickle in, though.

This morning, I did News Day. Since the class is a persuasive writing class, we have a lot of persuasive genres to write in, and I let students choose the topics they're interested in. Sometimes, it helps to pique their interest in topics by getting discussions going. Today we talked a lot about education. I'm reading Tony Wagner's Global Achievement Gap and, as our next project is the Problem-Solution essay, I shared with them the Albert Einstein quote that leads off the book:

"The mere formulation of a problem is far more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skills. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science."

However, we started talking about education. I pointed out that Wagner's main claim is that we need to formulate the problem of education differently. The problem is not that schools have gotten worse; it's that the world has changed, and the schools need to teach different skills because our workforce requires different skills. What's interesting to me is that I also watched Hanna Rosin's TED Talk on "New data on the rise of women" last night, and she made similar points. The workplace has become less dependent on manufacturing skills and instead relies more on service and knowledge/creativity. Leadership and management is no longer hierarchical but collaborative and team-oriented. Women are more likely to excel at the new skills.

We talked about education for a while. The student from Ghana reminded us how privileged we are in the United States. He told us that when students wrote research papers when he went to school there, they had about 5 books and no Internet to rely on. We talked about how discipline is different in the U.S. Parents here don't require total obedience, nor do teachers. I suggested this was a reaction against arbitrary use of power. Some students said that they don't mind harsh punishments from good teachers, but they do mind them from bad teachers. I pointed out that what was happening was a kind of ethos appeal; if you have confidence and trust in the teacher, you can be persuaded that the punishment is justified.

I told the students about an article in Sunday's paper about the truancy courts in RI. They were initially shocked by the idea that a judge would send a 12 year old to (essentially) jail for slamming a door, but then a few wondered what could be done with the more difficult students. I asked questions: is the problem the girl's parent(s)? The school system? The judge abusing his power? (the ACLU thinks so). All of those? None of those? Asking the right questions is essential in a case like this one.

The students were very engaged in this 7 am class. We really didn't want to stop talking, but I had to move along and cover some other material. They crave discussion of these kinds of issues. So far, we have a wide range of opinions on most topics, too, and we've done a good job of respecting them, I think. Maybe I should do an anonymous survey when we get back just to make sure.

I will continue to read the Global Achievement Gap next week when we're on break (trimester system here--we are in the 3rd week of winter tri now) and report further on Wagner and his 21st century skills project.

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