Elementary School Model Better Than Middle Schools?

Recent research suggests that middle schools are not the ideal model for students.  Students who participate in K-8 elementary schools do much better in math and reading.  Why might that be?

by Scotty Reifsnyder

by Scotty Reifsnyder

An article called Do Middle Schools Make Sense? by Mary Tamer, highlights recent research in Florida middle schools. The article explains that children who go through the transition of middle school lose ground in math and reading. These kids are also a lot more likely to drop out by 10th grade. The study suggests that this might be due to the corresponding social transition that occurs:

“kids tend to say they feel safer [in K-8], so there is less of a Lord of the Flies environment at a critical stage when they are “navigating through social currents. For many kids, it’s distracting.”

K-8 school children also experience a drop when they enter Highschool. However, the drop is quickly recovered and they come back up by 10th grade. Children who go through middle school experience a sharp drop and continue to decline through middle school–some even into Highschool. This implies that its middle school, not just the transition, that is affecting students. The question that remains is, why?

When assistant principle Joseph Bumsted stated,

“The things that make it especially difficult moving from grade five to grade six is the students go from a self-contained, supportive atmosphere where they have one teacher they know … to sixth grade and they are confronted with seven different [teachers’] personalities. They don’t know how to handle it,”

I think he noted a very important distinction between middle school and elementary (K-8) school in a way that he might not have intended. Perhaps, the elementary school model is better from a student perspective because of the reasons he stated: “supportive atmosphere where they have one teacher they know.” This allows a student to have a very individualized education. Teachers only have to handle 30 students per year, instead of more than a hundred. Teachers get to know each of their students rather than just their favorites. With this in mind, teachers in a K-8 school can easily adjust their curriculums and teaching styles to fit each of their students.

Another benefit is that there are no set time constraints per subject as there are in middle school, where every class is held for about 50 minutes. In class with one teacher who teaches all of the subjects, the teacher can adjust how much time is spent on each subject in reference to how much time the teacher’s individual class needs. So if the class understands fractions easily, they can spend less time on it and more time on understanding geology. This also allows the teacher to set time aside for a free period, as needed, where students can work in groups and ask the teacher questions.

However, one major setback to having one teacher is the problem of expertise.  The major benefit to requiring students to switch classes every 50 minutes (in Highschools with block scheduling, about 1.5 hours) is that they get to experience a teacher who is an expert in the field.  One single teacher probably cannot teach physics while teaching other subjects as well as a teacher who only teaches physics.

Is there a way to integrate the specialized teachers from Highschool and the individualized structure of elementary schools?


The Feast: Learning Methods

The world is hosting a dinner party, sponsored by The Feast.  Next Friday, October 5th, the world will sit down, have dinner with friends and talk about important issue the local and global world is facing.  GE and Intel are among the companies that have given the world’s citizens some challenges to focus on.  By the end of the feast, each dinner table will have pinned down the problem they want to solve and design a solution and commit to it.

I will be hosting a dinner party next friday and the topic I want to discuss is learning.  Specifically, different learning methods.  Research screams that we don’t all learn alike–that some are better than others in certain environments.  It might be hard to accomodate every individual’s needs when a classroom can be from 10 to 200 people big.  However, I don’t think that it is necessarily that inconvenient.

For example: If a student does not get much out of the classroom, why waste an hour of that student’s learning time?  Perhaps a student learns better on his own using the book and other resources.  For that student, a teacher could, very easily and not too inconveniently, post online topics that are covered and important points to pay attention to.

However to do this, its important to understand different learning methods and which learning methods are possible for particular topics.  That and how to convey this to our teachers is what I want to discuss.  What other factors do I need to consider? See you on October 5th!

Lets Switch our Focus to Learning Rather than Achievement

We’ve always been told that getting an ‘A’ in school is important.  Our parents will often give us wide smiles and perhaps some money or a nice dinner out.  Rarely does anyone ask, “What did you learn in that class?”  Is that praise for an ‘A’ helping us learn?  According to a psychology study, focusing on performance can result in road blocks for our young learners.

According to Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck, children focusing on their performance tend to avoid tasks if it might be hard and result in failure.  After performing a set of problems that they were told they scored high on, 5th graders were given choices indicating what kinds of problems they wanted to do next. These choices colored their attitudes towards learning.  The first three choices, “problems that aren’t too hard, so I don’t get many wrong,” “problems that are pretty easy, so I’ll do well,” and “problems that I’m pretty good at, so I can show that I’m smart,” are geared toward attitudes focused on demonstrating their abilities.  The last choice, “problems that I’ll learn a lot from, even if I won’t look so smart,” demonstrated that their main concern was for the development of their ability.  What determined their choice?

In the study, 5th graders were given three types of feedback after being told their score: “you must be smart at these problems,” “you must have worked hard on these problems” and the last group was only told their score, with no additional feedback (the control group).  Children who were told that they must have been smart chose attitudes geared toward demonstrating abilities, while those who were told that they exerted a lot of effort chose the attitude focused on their development.

Children with attitudes geared toward demonstrating their abilities, in turn, tended to want to avoid activities that have the prospect of failure, even when they know that they might gain a valuable learning experience.  To avoid being seen as incompetent now is more important than becoming competent later.  This can be so severe that children who strive to perform well will often freeze when faced with failure and perform worse then they would otherwise. To them, their ability seemed like a stable trait, something they could not change, and, therefore, things that test that ability are worth avoiding when faced with failure.

However, children that focused on their development tended to see failure as a step along a road towards learning.  They attributed their failure to not having put enough work into it yet and that if they worked hard enough, they would get it eventually.  To them, their ability was variable depending on how hard and much they worked on it, instead of stagnant.  They believed this so much that, when tested for their persistence and fun in the problem sets, they were eager to do more after failing a second and harder problem set, unlike their demonstrating-ability counterparts.

This study provides support for praise for effort only after a child has done well.  What do you say in times of failure?  I’ve heard many people say, “well, at least you tried your best.”  The problem I see with this is that the statement ends there.  It does not imply any continual effort.  It only indicates past effort but does not suggest that more is needed.  Perhaps a better way to say it is, “I’m sure if we spent some more time on it, you’ll get it!”  What do you think?

Mueller, Claudia & Dweck, Carol. “Praise for Intelligence Can Undermine Children’s Motivation and Performance.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 1998, Vol. 75, No. 1, 33-52

Update: Learning Like Water in College

…is extremely difficult. As I explained in an earlier blog post, I planned to test out a compressed method of learning to avoid all the losses and backsliding inherent in learning a subject over a several month period. I sent requests to several professors asking to rearrange homework deadlines, and all but one of the professors denied my request. (The one professor to accept was a statistics professor who became really excited at the chance to teach experimental design concepts and statistical analysis through the design of my experiment.) Bureaucracy is frustrating.

I have, however, been able to set-up an independent study and devote much of my time to research for a capstone project. I have just four classes with standard meeting times, but attending those classes wastes a vast amount of time (esp. with walking between classes and losing 5-10 minutes stopping one task and starting another).  It breaks up my day into significantly less productive chunks, so I will try to find a better way to block my schedule by not attending class. I have never in the past skipping more than 1-2 classes per course, but I believe this semester it will be beneficial to do so.

I shall share my strategies for teaching myself all the information as I develop them this semester.

Learning Like Water

Halfway through Scott Young’s TEDx talk about his attempt to complete a four-year MIT computer science curriculum in one year for just $2,000, I realized that I’ve seen it before. He describes how, despite the lack of access to professors, students, and all the other resources available to students studying at MIT, he felt that he had a certain advantage over those students. The most important of those advantages, in my view, was his ability to compress an entire class (normally spread over 3+ months) into as little as two days.

This reminded me of a concept from fluid mechanics: pipe flow. An odd connection, perhaps, but I think it is an apt one. A simplified equation (Darcy-Weisbach) for losses due to friction in pipe flow:

h_{Loss}=\frac{L}{D^2}*f(  stuff )

Where L is the pipe length, D is the diameter, and there is some other stuff in there that is not worth mentioning. The equation means that water flows more easily in a wider pipe and less easily in a longer pipe. So what does this have to do with Scott’s MIT challenge, and what point am I trying to make?

Scott removed the friction from learning with a method that widens his learning pipe by using many more resources and shortens it by rapidly progressing. His wider pipe (containing in it all the resources available to him across the internet) allows him to take many different routes to the end goal of understanding a subject.  If he doesn’t understand the video lectures, he checks the textbook or searches for an explanation on the web or asks a question on a message board (many exist, such as Physics Forums). Some of the many resources available on the internet which are rarely used by students: Google the subject, ask the question on message boards, email an expert to ask a question, watch lectures on the subject from other universities (MIT’s OCW and others), etc.

Using more resources has some pretty obvious benefits, but how does rapid progression help you learn? Over such a short time, you won’t forget what you just learned. If you don’t think about the material in the mean time, will you remember what you heard 7 lectures ago? If it was 3 weeks ago, probably not. If it was 3 hours ago, you probably will. The difference in learning, therefore, is that you will be free to make continuous progress rather than the two-steps-forward-one-step-back routine of repeated refreshers on old material. A side benefit: continuous progress is more emotionally invigorating.

So how can we normal, enrolled, 12+ credit hour per semester students merge this with the structure of college? There are definitely many challenges here. Attempting to convince teachers to change test schedules to accommodate your desires will probably be unsuccessful. A less radical change: ask to turn in all the homeworks at the same time between each test. This smaller exception would allow me to go through all the material in a few days (say 3), learn everything, and finish all the homework. Pending professor approval, this is how I’ll structure my semester. I’ll soon post my exact plan for mastering a month of material in just three days.

You may think that this is exactly like cramming the night before a test. In many ways, it is. In two key ways, it is definitely not. First, I will not have a test the next day. I won’t be stressed and frustrated; if I need more time to learn some particularly challenging idea, I have that time . Second, a deliberate method will make my studying more efficient and thorough than a scattered late-night-before-midterm cram session. I hope to soon see if that is how my system actually plays out. What are your thoughts, and do you have any other ideas on how to make this work?