1973 - when I started asking questions, like, "Why are we all dressed so funny?"

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Scheduling and Courses

Before you yawn, think about this: Who says that we must have an 180 day year with classes five days per week, each lasting 50 minutes each?

What does the above kind of scheduling and the courses that conform to this schedule (note the inversion here of means and ends!) indicate about the various subjects? To me it indicates that they are all equally (un)important.

A Typical High School's Graduation Requirements.

Here is one from Jefferson County R-1.


Course of Study Requirements

The following requirements are approved by the Board of Education for high school graduation. Principals have the option to grant waivers in course requirements based upon individual student needs and circumstances in order to deal with unusual cases. Students will be informed of a course waiver through the registration process. A credit is the equivalent of the completion of a full year course. A half-credit is the equivalent of the completion of a semester course.

English Language Arts: Four credits

-Four years of English language arts in high school
-Competence in all eight English language arts standards as demonstrated by classroom performance in the curriculum
-Three credits of required core courses that focus on and assess all eight English language arts standards
-One credit during the senior year based on the English language arts standards as defined by the school

Social Studies: Three credits

-Three years of social studies in high school
-Competence in all social studies standards including geography, civics, history, and economics as demonstrated by classroom performance in the curriculum sequenced by individual schools.

Mathematics: Two credits

-Two years of math in high school
-At least one year of high school math at the level of algebra I or above to demonstrate competence in high school math standards

Science: Two credits

-Two years of science courses in high school
-Competence in standards aligned with earth/space science, life science, and physical science as demonstrated by classroom performance in the curriculum sequenced by individual schools

Physical Education/Health: One-half credit

-One semester of physical education/health in a course aligned with the physical education standards, or
-Participation in a school-sanctioned activity that is aligned with the physical education standards and that receives pre-approval from the principal or designee. Students should confer with their counselor if interested in a waiver.

Fine/Practical Arts: One-half credit

-One semester of course work in one of the following: visual arts, music, technology, business, world language, consumer and family studies, or technical arts, or
-Participation in a school-sanctioned activity that is aligned with the applicable content standards and that receives pre-approval from the principal or designee

Electives: Ten credits

Four years of course work in additional academic core areas and/or school sponsored elective classes to equal ten credits


Now I have numerous observations that could be made, but I'll limit myself to just a few. One of my observations is that this district (and it is by no means exceptional) has really no idea what it is doing. Seriously. 12 credits required and 10 left wholly to the discretion of the student?

Another is this: We sanction what is important by requiring it. Are the twelve credits equally important? Are there things missing from the "required column" that ought to be there? Should some of the required courses be deemed optional?

Third: need it be this way? Must the high school curriculum be directionless?

A sample curriculum sans electives

This is just a sample. As you will see, there are two things different about this curriculum and the typical high school curriculum. First, the courses do not have the standard 45 or 60 or 70 or 90 minutes of length. Course meeting times are different based upon purposes. The number of students in a given "part" of a course will vary.

Here's the idea: each course consists of some or all of these delivery methods: (1) traditional lecture (15-35 students); (2) seminar (10-15 students); (3) Shared Inquiry discussion group (10-15 students); (4) Debate or outside speaker (whole school); (5) panel discussion (whole school); (6) student-led demonstration of learning (whole school). The time spent in each of these venues would be different (e.g., more time would be spent in a seminar than in a demonstration of learning), but the courses would not fit the traditional time-bound mode.

For example, a literature class over the course of a semester might have 25 hours of lecture; 25 hours of seminar; six hours of debate; 3 hours of Shared Inquiry; 11 hours of DOL; 20 hours of panel discussion.

All courses required

Here's a very rough sketch of what might constitute the required courses. The district and state standards would be exceeded in all required areas without doing violence to the arts -- fine and physical.

Literature: Three credits (but really really five and one half credits, as will be explained below)
1. Composition; 2. Research Report Writing; 3. British Literature; 4. American Literature; 5. Modern Literature; 6. Post-modern Literature; [7. History, ILL; 8. Science, ILL; 9. Math, ILL; 10. Fine Arts, ILL; 11. Physical Arts, ILL].

History: Four credits
1. History: Its Language and Literature (=ILL; These foundational courses explain the philosophical and literary underpinnings of the subject, hence meta-history, meta-science, meta-mathematics, etc. These are dual listed as Literature and the subject matter); 2. Western Civilization I; 3. Western Civilization II; 4. European History; 5. Asian and African History; 6. American Government; 7. U.S. History I; 8. U.S. History II.

Science: Three credits
1. Science, ILL; 2. Technology and Society; 3. Biology; 4. Chemistry; 5. Physics; 6. Earth Science

Mathematics: Four credits
1. Math, ILL; 2. Algebra I; 3. Algebra II; 4. Geometry; 5. Pre-calculus; 6. Calculus; 7. Statistics; 8. Economics.

Fine Arts: Three credits
1. Fine Arts, ILL; 2. Art Appreciation; 3. Music I; 4. Music II; 5. Sculpture; 6. Post-modern Music and Art.

Physical Arts: Three credits
1. Physical Arts, ILL; 2. Basic Physical Fitness; 3. Yoga; 4. Orienteering; 5. Track; 6. Self-defense.

Philosophy: Three credits
1. Introduction to Philosophy; 2. Greek Philosophy; 3. Christian/Medieval Philosophy; 4. Eastern Philosophy; 5. Modern Philosophy; 6. Existentialism/Post-modern Philosophy.

Somewhere to be determined: One credit
1. School and Society, ILL (lower division); 2. Senior Thesis and Presentation (upper division).

Cultivating Controversy II

Notes on a curriculum unafraid of controversy

What would be included in a high school curriculum that was at once juridically responsible and intellectually far-reaching?

I can think of no better way to preface my remarks than to quote from G.K. Chesterton's Heretics:
When the old Liberals removed the gags from all the heresies, their idea was that religious and philosophical discoveries might thus be made. Their view was that cosmic truth was so important that every one ought to bear independent testimony. The modern idea is that cosmic truth is so unimportant that it cannot matter what any one says. The former freed inquiry as men loose a noble hound; the latter frees inquiry as men fling back into the sea a fish unfit for eating. Never has there been so little discussion about the nature of men as now, when, for the first time, any one can discuss it. The old restriction meant that only the orthodox were allowed to discuss religion. Modern liberty means that nobody is allowed to discuss it http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext96/heret11.txt.
Turning loose "the hounds of inquiry" would seem to be the kind of education that is needed in our time. With respect to a juridically responsible education, a bit more research must be done. Nevertheless, here are some topics that an interesting high school ought to approach:
  • The nature of the universe
  • God (Eastern and Western views)
  • Science (what it can tell us and what it cannot)
  • Theology (what it can tell us and what it cannot)
  • The nature of the human person (from conception to death; good and evil; immortality; etc.)
  • What makes the difference between great art, music, literature, or any other subject and lousy art, music, literature, etc?
  • What it means to live a good life (beyond economic utility)
  • How to judge reality and live a good life

Naturally, we will include "required" courses, but there seems to be no reason to avoid questions that actually mean something. How this might translate into specific courses and structure of the school is still to be determined.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Cultivating Controversy I

"Thou shalt not offend"
In some school districts this would seem to be the eleventh commandment. School boards have a diverse clientele to keep happy, so avoiding controversy seems to be a way to "give the people what they want." So a district may offer a curriculum that is said to be "academically rigorous" but one that also fails to address controversial issues or questions in a vigorous way. Sometimes topics are not discussed out of ignorance. More often though, the strategy of "avoidance" is employed by either banning certain discussions or, more commonly, simply avoiding speaking their names. These issues and subjects (a la The Village) become "those we don't speak of."

Those we don't speak of
God, human nature, death, marriage, sex (unless it is about plumbing or avoiding -- physical and physical alone! -- consequences), politics, and, my personal favorite, the tasks of education. All of these "get discussed" on various occasions but they are generally avoided. They are not "part of the curriculum" as a whole. Put another way, most education is broad, shallow and lukewarm.

Cause and effect
Another word for lukewarm is mediocre. Subtract controversy from education and not much is left. In fact, if you curtail discussions of religion and/or politics, what is left? Sports? (How odd that there are more cases of parental violence over their children's sporting events: parents killing each other or coaches or referees!). I don't know of one can "scientifically" correlate "controversy avoidance" and "functional idiocy" (by a functional idiot I mean the high school graduate whose human aspirations don't go beyond sex, drugs and/or video games), but it would seem there is a connection. After all, if one asks stupid or vague questions, one can expect sub-standard answers.

Not asking the questions
Recently I overheard an administrator tell her teachers that because Christmas was coming up, they should avoid telling students their religious views. What was interesting to me was not only what was said, but what was left unsaid. She is surely on shaky constitutional ground to suggest that teachers lose all "free exercise" protections of the 1st Amendment when they enter the classroom, and that this personal (if temporary!) agnosticism is (somehow) necessary to ensure a non-establishment of religion at the school. What her comments suggested was that religion is off-limits: don't share your views. This tactic of soft intimidation might work on young educators, but anyone who has read even a few Supreme Court cases on religion in the schools can tell you that while the public school cannot be a place of "proselytizing," religious views are not forbidden, nor is the discussion of real existing religions. If a discussion leads to the Gulf War and Christianity and Islam and a student asks, "Miss, what do you believe?" -- must you whip out a roll of duct tape to ensure your "religious ideas" don't seep out? By no means. It is wholly constitutional to tell students what you think or to refuse to tell them. If it weren't, why draw the line at religion? Why not avoid sex, marriage, politics? In short, the teacher would become a mere appendage of the (wholly) secular State, whose metaphysical views were masked by a claim of "religious neutrality." Thank God it hasn't come to that.

A consequence
But the cumulative effect of administrative over-reactions and/or muddled thinking seem to have led to a regime of "don't ask, don't tell" when it comes to controversial questions. Another generation raised without being challenged to look at all aspects of life. Another generation offered inadequate answers to the yearning of their hearts. If students don't engage in meaningful questions in a civil and curious way early in life, how will they face life as adults? Just like the majority of Americans: plugged into TV and satisfied to rely on the secondhand opinion of the "experts."

The mystery of the incurious
A question for another time is, Why are so many so-called educators seemingly satisfied to not help their students ask deep and meaningful questions about life?