Helsinking: Finns’ scores slide

Finland’s much vaunted school system is Helsinking, reports the Economist. PISA scores are falling, especially for boys and the children of immigrants.

Furthermore, surveys should Finnish students are “glum” and more prone than other Europeans to say their classroom environment is bad for learning, reports the Economist. “About half of 14- and 15-year-olds feel that their teachers do not care about their lives.”

Finns worry that test scores are falling and students are unhappy.

Finns worry that test scores are falling and students are unhappy.

Starting in August, a new national curriculum is meant to restore the “joy and meaningfulness of learning.”

In addition to more art, music, teachers will assign more multi-disciplinary team projects, such as a module on Earth’s origins “combining the Big Bang with religious lessons and Finnish poetry.”

Critics say this will worsen the rising inequality “by reducing the time poorer pupils spend on core subjects.”

Both defenders and opponents of the new curriculum think children are less motivated, reports the Economist. “Ten years ago education was highly valued among all Finns,” says Ilppo Kivivuori, deputy head teacher at Hiidenkivi school in Helsinki. “Now that is less clear.”

Teen hates: Group projects

Student-led discussions that waste time and group projects top the list of things teens dislike about school, writes Maureen Downey in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“Repeatedly, students told me they could learn twice as much in half the time if teachers rein in their rambling peers,” she writes.

As for group projects, “the smartest kids do all the work because the grade matters to them,” students say. Slackers slack.

One achiever told Downey he’d always dreaded group assignments or labs until he took nothing but advanced classes his senior year. “When you work with someone who wants the A as much as you do, group projects can be pretty fun,” he said.

My daughter ran into another problem in honors physics. Her lab partners wouldn’t let her do any of the work for fear she’d threaten their A+ average. They couldn’t teach her the material: It was so obvious to them that they couldn’t understand why it wasn’t obvious to her. Knowing they couldn’t carry her through the tests, she transferred to regular physics, where she was the A+ student who couldn’t understand how classmates could be so dim.

Schools overlook introverts’ learning needs

Education trends such as “collaborative learning” and group projects ignore the needs of introverts, writes Michael Godsey, a California English teacher, in The Atlantic. One third to one half of students are introverts, he estimates. They do best working independently and quietly.

Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking was a hit, yet “classroom environments that embrace extroverted behavior — through dynamic and social learning activities — are being promoted now more than ever,” writes Godsey.

The University of Chicago library plans to turn a reading room into a “vibrant labratory of interactive learning.”

“Students must overcome isolation in order to learn to write,” according to Dartmouth’s Institute for Writing and Rhetoric.

Recently, he visited a large public high school where all but four of 26 teachers had arranged students in groups or with partners.

I told two teachers on separate occasions that I’d feel incredibly exhausted at the end of every day if I were a student at that school. . . . One recalled learning best when arranged in rows, while the other concurred, “I know, right? How exhausting it must be to have another student in your business all day long.”

Three of the four classes where students were seated individually in rows were AP or honors courses, Godsey observes.

. . . I’m reminded of Sartre’s famous line, “Hell is other people,” when I see that Georgia College’s webpage dedicated to collaborative learning, which includes the topic sentence: “Together is how we do everything here at Georgia College. Learn. Work. Play. Live. Together.” Everything, that is, except quiet introspection, free of cost and distraction.

Diana Senechal, who teaches philosophy at a New York City high school, wrote about the need for solitary reflection in Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.

Introverted Kids Need to Learn to Speak Up in School, argued Jessica Lahey in 2013. Two thoughtful responses persuaded her to modify her views. She recommends Katherine Schultz’s Why Introverts Shouldn’t Be Forced to Talk in Class, and Susan Cain’s Help Shy Kids, Don’t Punish Them.

Group projects in the real world

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From Awful Group Projects at 11D.

The classroom as ‘exploration studio’

The Fifth-Grade Exploration Studio, imagined by Greg Stack and Natalia Nesmeainova of NAC Architecture in Seattle, is the winner in Slate’s contest to reinvent the American classroom.

In their classroom, small student learning teams share a common area. Students can work alone, work together on projects and view web and video content from their stations.

The entire class shares a central project area in their studio that is equipped with a variety of seating and work surface choices.  This area contains a wet area with 2 sinks for science and art projects, as well as adjustable height tables, tables for group projects, and soft seating for informal discussions or private reading.  A large “smart board” computer screen between the sinks along the window wall can be used for student presentations, lectures by the teacher, or to connect to other classes in other parts of the world via Skype or similar programs.

Arranged around the perimeter of the room, the student stations and computer screens can be seen by the teacher at a glance from the center of the room.  Mirrors placed behind the computer screens and tilted up slightly allow teacher and student to make eye contact without the need for the student to turn around.

The trapezoidal shape of the room reduces noise, creates a base location for the teacher and “allows natural light from the windows to penetrate deep into the room.”  The studio is connected to other studios by a shared project/large group area.

Outside, students can use a covered plaza for experiments.

On one side a door and windows connects students to the exterior, while on the other side a roll-up glass garage door can be opened on nice days allowing class activities to spill out to the exterior.  A story telling circle and a garden for growing food nudge into a natural landscape which includes native vegetation and a water course so students can study their environment.

More than 350 entries were submitted, writes Linda Pearlstein.

To what extent can classroom design improve learning? I’d guess it falls fairly low on the priority list.