We had a nice lunch meeting with a couple of middle school science teachers at one of our traditional feeder schools recently. They wanted to hear from us about what we do, philosophical approach, whether we use standards, and most of all, what we wish their students could do when they get to us.
It was a great conversation and I appreciated the effort they were making. I kept my feedback to them simple: I just wish all kids were more comfortable with asking questions and with open-endedness. Too many think science is just a set of facts to memorize and tricks to employ. I want them to experience creating knowledge.
But after they left I was thinking about how weird that conversation is. We were polite and collegial, but the form wasn't so different from the whinging-session that happens any time educators at one level talk about what goes on at lower levels:
Grad school: "why can't these first years solve de's? It was required in their program, right? I'm going to have a chat with the faculty at those colleges"
College: "why can't these frosh write a coherent paragraph? What were they doing in high school? We need standards."
High school: "Why don't any of them understand fractions? That's a fifth grade skill. We should talk about book selection."
Sadly, I don't even know the scene well enough to write one for middle school or for kindergarten. The point is that standardization seems to flow downward, and it comes from frustration at what a student can do now and an assumption that this could have been fixed with different practices sometime in the past. It's profoundly disrespectful and ignorant -- blaming today's issue solely on the past abdicates responsibility for what we can do now, doesn't it?
Real learning satisfies an intellectual or practical need. The student and their current teachers are best situated to identify those needs and strategies for satisfying them, and they always do the best job they can within their constraints. So if your student has a need today that you think should have been met in the past, consider that either they tried and it didn't stick, or that you are wrong, they didn't have that need until they got to you. Rather than whinging about what they should have done before, you have an awesome opportunity, because you've discovered what you should be doing now.
For a very long time, primary and secondary teachers have understood that lecturing doesn't work. But many have done it anyway, because colleges do it and they feel a responsibility to prepare their students for what they will experience in the future. Wouldn’t it make more sense for the college faculty to listen to the collective experience of thousands of professional educators who have direct experience with a much smaller set of students, who all say “Don’t lecture! It’s stupid! They don’t retain anything!” Why aren’t college faculty more willing to change what they do, in response to what their students need now?
Wouldn’t it be cool if, instead of just receiving whinging from the upper levels and then running around to make the professors happy, the “lower” levels provided some helpful advice that could flow upward?