Constructing special ed students

Has constructivism increased the number of special ed students?  Niki Hayes, who’s worked as a special ed teacher, math teacher, counselor and principal, thinks so.

The constructivist classroom doesn’t provide the structure children need — especially those from disadvantaged homes, she writes.

It is students from kindergarten through high school “discovering” their own answers by using manipulatives, working in groups, contriving “real world” problems through “project-based’ activities, moving and talking – a lot — and surviving in a hierarchy of those students who can lead and those who must follow according to their skills.

It is lots of colorful, jazzy pictures in books and on classroom walls that show many different ethnic groups, women, with gender-neutral stories, and with child-directed activities that only require teacher “facilitation.” Children rule the day.

. . . It ridicules practice and repetition as “drill and kill” and believes anything that requires memorization is a waste of time that should be used for “creative” thinking.

. . . It believes that if students are having fun, according to perceived “learning styles,” they will like going to school and they will learn the academics they need to prepare for the world of work.

Taught with constructivist techniques, more children will require special education, Hayes writes. Some will become discipline problems.

No one will ever be able to determine how many hundreds of thousands of children, who came from dysfunctional, even chaotic, home environments and who entered the constructivist classroom with its lack of boundaries, no right or wrong answers, and the expectation to “discover” their own answers, were shuffled from the “feel-good, tolerant, and fun system” into special education programs.

By contrast, children learn when given “explicit, step-driven instruction with consistent consequences of positive results, along with direct teacher support,” Hayes writes.

Playing to learn what?

In Old Whine, New Bottle, Robert Pondiscio rips a New York Times op-ed, Playing to Learn by Susan Engel, a lecturer in psychology and director of the teaching program at Williams College.  Engel imagines a third-grade classroom where children

“…spend two hours each day hearing stories read aloud, reading aloud themselves, telling stories to one another and reading on their own. After all, the first step to literacy is simply being immersed, through conversation and storytelling, in a reading environment; the second is to read a lot and often.”

Pondiscio wonders why “phonics and decoding is neither the first or even the second ‘step to literacy’.”  And what about curriculum and content?

Engel wants children to spend “an hour a day writing things that have actual meaning to them — stories, newspaper articles, captions for cartoons, letters to one another.”

That’s three hours on reading and writing. But only “a short period” would be spent practicing computation.

Once children are proficient in those basics they would be free to turn to other activities that are equally essential for math and science: devising original experiments, observing the natural world and counting things, whether they be words, events or people.

Students wouldn’t learn “isolated mathematical formulas” or memorize “sheets of science facts that are unlikely to matter much in the long run.” (Do third graders learn math formulas — isolated or not — or memorize sheets of science facts?)

Scientists know that children learn best by putting experiences together in new ways. They construct knowledge; they don’t swallow it.

Teachers would have conversations with small groups of children so they could have “a chance to support their views with evidence, change their minds and use questions as a way to learn more.”

And there would be lots of time for play and collaboration.

Pondiscio writes:

In short, Professor Engel is offering not one new idea here, but rather a steaming gumbo of fads, failed ed school homilies and constructivist ideology.

It does seem like the kiddies are going to teach themselves reading, writing, math and science with the teacher needed only to engage in conversations.  They’re going to construct knowledge from the sort of experiences available to third graders. It sounds . . . confusing. I don’t think I could or would have come up with meaningful science experiments in third grade or devised instructional math games. I certainly didn’t spend my play time counting things, though I was one of the few third graders who wrote newspaper articles in my free time for The Wednesday Report, which I founded with my best friend, Janice. (Janice went on to become a botanist and I don’t remember her doing freelance science experiments either.)

How innovative are you, teacher?

Yesterday I wrote about the NYC public school requirement that every student have a “learning goal” in every subject. Today I will talk about teacher goals. (What, did you think teachers could slip away without goals? Everyone must have goals!) In setting these goals for themselves, teachers must follow the Continuum of Teacher Development (you have to buy it to see it), a rubric devised by the New Teacher Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Based on constructivist assumptions, this rubric was originally devised for new teachers. Now all teachers must use it to evaluate themselves. Apparently that has been deemed such a success (in advance) that Quality Reviewers use it to observe lessons and rate schools (see slide 13).

I first encountered the Continuum of Teacher Development as a new teacher. My official mentor from the Department of Education, a gracious and knowledgeable woman, would help me fill out the sheets for each category. This took up much of our meeting time, and it had to be done. My mentor spent much time with me in the classroom and at play rehearsals, so it wasn’t all paperwork. I reconciled myself with the paperwork requirement, thinking that after my first year I would not have to deal with the Continuum again.

I was wrong. The Continuum is now for everyone. And a strange rubric it is. Each category and subcategory contains descriptions for the levels Beginning, Emerging, Applying, Integrating, and Innovating. What does it take to be an “innovative” teacher, according to the rubric? First of all, it takes a willingness to hand over the authority to the kids. Second, it takes… er, well, I don’t know what it takes. The descriptions of the “innovative” level are sometimes hard to understand.

Here is a sample of the levels from the subcategory “Facilitating learning experiences that promote autonomy, interaction, and choice”:
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