Creativity without content

D-Ed Reckoning’s Ken DeRosa is a grinch.  He looks at a nice, little story about children’s creativity in a National Engineers Week Future City Competition and asks whether students are learning anything.

The competition challenges middle school students to design a city of the future with a focus on water conservation, reuse, and renewable energy. The students use the game SimCity (Deluxe 4) to help them build their three-dimensional models to scale. They have a semester to dream up and then construct their miniature cities entirely out of recycled materials. Supposedly, this inspires them to consider engineering as a profession.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette describes one entry, called L.U.R.E., set in New Mexico:

School is free for everyone, brought into individual homes via a holographic teacher. Nearly everyone in town is gainfully employed as an engineer.

Mountain goat racing and sand surfing satisfy a yen for sports and leisure. And if, for no apparent reason, you need a getaway, there’s the Space Shuttle Gilligan to whisk you on a four-month vacation to the moon…

Students used a Starbucks frappuccino cup to model a coffee shop; they made office buildings from paper towel rolls.

Students were supposed to be learning “how engineers turn ideas into reality.” But they didn’t need any engineering knowledge to build their models, DeRosa grumps.

It’s not as if they built a teaching hologram or used recycled materials to build a real building or designed systems to conserve water and use renewable energy.

My husband, born to be an engineer, built a color TV set when he was in high school.  It worked.  His father, also an engineer, built model planes as a teenager. They flew.

My first husband, a math-physics guy,  designed an atomic bomb in fifth grade for a school project. “It probably wouldn’t have worked,” he said. But he’d studied the science and the math.  It wasn’t an art project.

We know how to teach reading

We know how to teach reading to poor black, Hispanic and white kids, writes John McWhorter in New Republic. Why aren’t we doing it?

Starting in the late 1960s, the federally funded Project Follow Through studied nine teaching methods: Siegfried Engelmann’s Direct Instruction “was vastly more effective than any of the others for (drum roll, please) poor kids, including black ones.”

DI isn’t exactly complicated: Students are taught to sound out words rather than told to get the hang of recognizing words whole, and they are taught according to scripted drills that emphasize repetition and frequent student participation.

DI has a track record of success in Baltimore, Houston, Milwaukee and elsewhere, writes McWhorter. Yet educators prefer “creativity.”

Indeed, schools of education have long been caught up in an idea that teaching poor kids to read requires something more than, well, teaching them how to sound out words. The poor child, the good-thinking wisdom tells us, needs tutti-frutti approaches bringing in music, rhythm, narrative, Ebonics, and so on.

. . . But the simple fact of how well DI has worked shows that “creativity” is not what poor kids need.

Matt Yglesias warns of overselling DI, but says McWhorter is basically right.

Update: D-Ed Reckoning has more on DI’s effectiveness: It raised cognitive skills as well as basic skills.