Writing Competency is not just for English Class [Teachers Who Don’t]

A recent article on Salon discussed at length the growing problem of American teenagers getting to college without basic writing skills. The article focuses on English classes, and how they are moving away from more traditional writing focus to more presentations, discussions, and other more “soft” teaching methods. The author, Kim Brooks, considers the possibility that “‘this typical high school English class, dividing its curriculum between standardized test preparation and the reading of canonical texts, might occupy a central place in the creation of a generation of college students who, simply put, cannot write.”  Why the avoidance of more strict writing education? It’s too hard.

I do not disagree that teaching writing is hard. But why is it so hard? Teaching reading is difficult as well, and most college students enter as freshman with the ability to read their required reading. Similarly, basic math skills are rarely a deficiency with your average college student.  What makes writing different?

In American schools, writing is a silo subject, while reading and math are not. In your history class, you are required to be able to read the text book. In your physics class, you are required to solve math equations. If you are required to write a paper in either, you will not be graded on spelling, grammar, formatting, or source citations.

We are taught, from a young age, that writing skills only matter in English class. Very quickly, this translates into a mentality that these skills also don’t matter in the “real world.” Any effort to build a proper piece of writing is only expended when absolutely required. Similarly, any chance to avoid evaluating and grading a proper piece of writing is also avoided by teachers, with the rational that “those skills will be covered by the English teacher.”

This lackadaisical approach has far reaching effects outside of just writing. If a student is taught that citing sources is unimportant, why would they ever fact check their own thoughts and views? Teaching students to do research, to form coherent arguments based on facts, these skills are vital to being informed, productive adults. Too many people believe in things that have zero basis in reality. Theses are not “unknowables” like god, but basic physics or medical knowledge. The evidence is available; people simply do not have the mental framework to seek evidence and support for their views.

As a society, we must hold our students (and ourselves) to a higher standard. We have to teach writing as a core skill required of all students, all adults, all citizens of this country. Writing is not just for English class, but for all classes. Writing competency is for life.

-That is all.

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The Need to Know and Support Science [Teachers Who Don’t]

I believe that a great deal of the problems in the United States are caused by problems in education. This is caused by the nature of democracy. In order for voters to made good choices, they need to have the proper information. Education enables them to not only be taught some information, but properly gain the correct information throughout their life. I will be addresses several areas of deficiency in our education system over a series of posts.

Along with math and literature, science is a core foundation of education. More than the other two, science is about the natural world. Math is more abstract; literature more personal and mental. Science, especially at lower levels, is focused on elements that students can find around them: animals, weather, the sun and moon. It helps build a framework in which students understand the world.

Science is founded in evidence, experimentation, repeatability and peer review. Truth is an accumulation of years of this process. I have talked of this before, but the general process is one of continually becoming “less wrong.” The flat world became a spherical one, which gave way to an oblate spheroid. Our scientific knowledge is not perfect, but it is the best representation of the natural world that we have.

The truth of the biological diversity of life is that it is caused by the process of evolution. This is established by every metric we use to evaluate our frameworks of the natural world. Other explanations simply lack proper evidence and do not hold up peer review and repeatability.

What does all this have to do with teachers and our education system? The job of a teacher is to impart knowledge and information. In the case of a science teacher, their job is to teach what the scientific community has established as truth. Unfortunately, they do not.

Penn State political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer recently published a report on the attitudes on evolution of America’s biology teachers. They examined data from the National Survey of High School Biology Teachers, a representative sample of 926 biology teachers from across the country. The results are terrible depressing.

They estimate that “only 28 percent of those teachers consistently and “unabashedly” introduce evidence that evolution has happened, and build lesson plans with evolution as a unifying theme linking different topics in biology.” That is less than a third. Less than a third of biology teachers believe and fully teach the central premise of biological diversity.

That next statistic is also depressing: 13% of our biology teachers are openly and unashamedly creationists who teach creationism in the classroom. Another 5% “reported that they support creationism in passing or when answering students’ questions.” This means that we have nearly a fifth of our teachers not just failing to teach the truth. They are actively teaching lies to their students, endorsing a framework for the world that is not scientific.

What about the rest? The people who Berkman and Plutzer dub the “cautious 60 percent”? These teachers refuse to take sides. They approach it with a variety of deflecting methods. In many ways, these are almost as bad as lying:

The cautious 60% may play a far more important role in hindering scientific literacy in the United States than the smaller number of explicit creationists. The strategies of emphasizing microevolution, justifying the curriculum on the basis of state-wide tests, or “teaching the controversy” all undermine the legitimacy of findings that are well established by the combination of peer review and replication. These teachers fail to explain the nature of scientific inquiry, undermine the authority of established experts, and legitimize creationist arguments, even if unintentionally.

How do we fix this problem? There are two major issues. The first is that many of the timid teachers also do not feel adequately trained to address evolution well, and that’s a significant factor in their reluctance to press the topic (creationist teachers, on the other hand, are full of unwarranted certainty and lie to their students with confidence). We need more thorough education on science for our teachers and require classes in evolution.

The other is to provide a better support structure for biology teachers. When controversy hits the classroom, the teacher in question is largely alone. We must stand up and support those who teach the truth. We can not let them be ripped apart by fear and intimidation of those who oppose science.

We have to create an environment where the cautious 60 percent step up and join the 28% who teach evolution with confidence and without fear. We need to limit and remove the percentage of teachers who oppose evolution. We want teachers who do believe and teach evolution. The classroom is no place for teachers who don’t.

-That is all.

Every Educator Should Read [Teachers Who Don’t]

I believe that a great deal of the problems in the United States are caused by problems in education. This is caused by the nature of democracy. In order for voters to made good choices, they need to have the proper information. Education enables them to not only be taught some information, but properly gain the correct information throughout their life. I will be addresses several areas of deficiency in our education system over a series of posts.

As I pointed out when arguing for giving e-readers to children, I think that reading is a key skill for not just children, but all people. There are two components to this. The first is basic literacy; the ability to actually read. While this is a concern, it is not the topic of this post. The United States needs to be better at promoting literacy, but it is something that is well established as a concern.

The second comment to making readers is to instill a love of reading. Too many people have the ability to read; they simply never use this skill. This condition of having the ability but no interest is known as aliteracy. This is a problem in America that continues to grow with time. A 2007 poll found that “one in four adults read no books at all in the past year.” The same article talks of a 2004  National Endowment for the Arts report that found “only 57 percent of American adults had read a book in 2002, a four percentage point drop in a decade.”

So people are not reading very much, and what little they a reading is less than they have read in the past. What is the cause of this? The reasons are multiple, complex, and not able to be summarized in its entirety in this post. Instead, we will address a single issue: when learning to read, why do children not also learn to love to read?

The most common answer is something known as the Peter Effect. This is a metaphoric reference to the biblical story of the Apostle Peter who, when asked for money, told a beggar, “How can I give what I myself do not have?” The name refers to teachers how are tasked with conveying an enthusiasm for reading to their students that they themselves do not have.

Survey results asking students about their reading instruction, you get lots of interesting answers. They speak of how it consisted of “reading dull books” and “doing book reports.” Complaints of teachers was that they often “did not make reading interesting.” Students were very good at identifying the attitudes of their teachers about reading, with the majority of their impressions negative. How bad are attitudes about reading?

The Applegate study found that 54.3% of prospective teachers were unenthusiastic about reading. Only 25.2% of teachers had an unqualified love of reading. Even more depression, even those who identify as enthusiastic readers often do not do much actual reading. A separate study of preservice and inservice education graduate students found that only 57% of enthusiastic readers had read two or more books over the past summer (only 6% of unenthusiastic readers had). Most importantly:

We found a statistically significant difference between enthusiastic and unenthusiastic readers who had an elementary school teacher who shared a loved of reading. We found that 56% of unenthusiastic readers did not have a teacher who shared a love of reading, whereas 64% of enthusiastic readers did have such a teacher. These findings suggest that the teacher meaningfully affects student enthusiasm for reading.

This means that we need to change our tactics. Rather than focusing on students, we need to help encourage better reading habits in our teachers. Classroom instruction is largely driven by the beliefs of the teacher. It seems reasonable to then conclude that some teachers will be unable to promote the value and pleasure of reading through their instruction because they have had no experience with it. This will cause the Peter Effect to perpetuate into many of the students and the cycle to continue unchanged.

So what can we do? There are a variety of suggestions in the studies I read. We can focus efforts when training teachers to encourage them to have a greater enjoyment of reading. While hiring, we can put greater emphasis on reader enthusiasm as part of teacher screening and hiring practices. When dealing with students, we must give greater opportunities for self-selection of reading material and put a larger emphasis on talking and analyzing reading.

These strategies and may others can be vital to changing the educational system in America. The more citizens read, the better all of us will be. A key step? Changing our teachers who don’t read into teachers who do.

-That is all.