Powering the Global Education Conversation: About edCircuit

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Mr. Educator, Tear Down Those Walls (sorry Ronnie)

(Or) Ich bin erzieherin (sorry Jack)

by Larry Jacobs

I don’t know about you, but here’s the way I think every day. First, I think for 45 minutes about math and nothing else. Then I erase that completely from my mind and think for 45 minutes about history. Done with that, I erase it from my memory banks and think for 45 minutes about science.

DING…Erase… Oliver Twist is next. Then, after reading Dickens, I know I always enjoy jumping jacks and rope climbing for a good 45 to allow me to forget completely about Fagin.

You’re probably the same way. Who isn’t?

Oh, that’s right… everybody, mainly because nobody, including me, thinks like that, yet for some reason, we somehow came up with the nutty idea that secondary school works best that way. Break it up into subjects and for the most part, keep them separate. Hello!! The real world doesn’t work that way because people don’t think in a vacuum. In the real world, we take everything into consideration all at once before we act. At least, I hope we do.

Secondary school teachers major in a subject that they always liked. They are subjectmeisters. I was a history teacher. Why? I liked history. Hence, 120 students every day had to like it too, because, as I told them year after year on day one, “if you don’t understand history, you’re doomed to repeat it,” a quote that I made up, later stolen by Georges Santayana.  Yet some of the kids were resistant to my wisdom. I just can’t imagine why. It’s seemingly impossible that they wouldn’t learn it and appreciate it like I did… and still do.

Both myself and the Great State of Pennsylvania thought history was important to know. It is, but not by itself. After a few years of teaching, I learned that. And the question became how does one get kids excited about what I taught them after they leave my classroom after they take my tests and quizzes and then understand the implications of what was to today’s world?

The same goes for math which I struggled through. It wasn’t all bad as it did get me a free ticket to a Phillies game on ‘D’ Student Night in my senior year. I saw another math joke recently on the Internet, “I’m 60 today which marks the 42nd year in a row I had no reason to learn algebra.”

But algebra is logic, and history gives us warnings as to the nature of human beings. How do we make kids understand that what they are learning makes sense in the real world, how logic becomes common sense before social decisions are made, how all things are intertwined?

Way back when, in the mid-seventies (the 1970s, not 1870s), three other subject teachers and yours truly, at what was then a junior high school, realized something was missing, and came up with the brilliant idea of doing something inter-disciplinary, a fairly wild concept back then, and making learning real for the kids.

We created an eight-week unit on Endangered Species which actually turned out to be honored by several organizations. I taught the social aspects; Math taught population trends, Science taught the biology and English had them do reading and writing on the subject. The principal gave us a four-period block of time and everything they learned in social studies had something to do with the math they were learning, and the English and the Science.

It worked. The kids loved it and so did we. And they all learned their subject matter better than they ever did before because everything tied in with everything else.

How about that… in the seventies, no less! Again, the 1970’s.

On Education Talk Radio where I host two or three shows every day, I talk about the need for interdisciplinary education and most educators, though they love the idea, are taken a bit aback when I bring it up. They usually say something like “yeah, a little” and they’ll tell me that they met with a teacher in another department on whatever about whatever.

Want to know what I think? Doesn’t matter, it’s my column. Eliminate the departments and the 45 minute or whatever blocks of time and just call it “school” and let teachers from all the subjects get together and makeup what they’re doing, incorporating what the kids need to know, together.

Here’s an example. Today out of Loveland CO, they taught Geometry to the CTE students studying Construction so they could understand the math behind building and guess what, at the end of the year assessments, those kids in the building trades curriculum scored higher in math than the others. They understood it. They got it.

Here’s another: I hated physics and chemistry. Well, I didn’t hate it, I just had no idea what in hell they were talking about and I am not a stupid person. But physics and chemistry hold the world together and that is a fairly relevant concept especially since, over the years, I really learned to enjoy such things as gravity. Wish I had learned more back then and the reason I didn’t was quite simple. It was taught in a vacuum.

Come to think of it, I must have learned what a vacuum is, though admittedly I have no idea why the thing that cleans my rugs is called a “vacuum cleaner” which probably wouldn’t have been a bad way to teach what a vacuum is, e.g., explaining why a vacuum cleaner has the word vacuum in it, but I digress. I have a feeling that a lot of kids today are like I was.

So teach it all like this. Is there anything science does that doesn’t have social impact. Polio vaccines, space shuttles, climate change??? Is there anything that science does that doesn’t have math ingrained in it. Isn’t there a lot of great reading about science… like what we call “science fiction?” On a show I just did with The Council of State Science Supervisors, they loved the idea.

Want more? In history, I taught colonial America, but I didn’t teach what science and math got us across the ocean from the Old World; things like longitude and latitude and the math to build a wooden boat. How come I didn’t have the (then) “Vocational Arts” department show them boat building in wood shop? Have Home Ec show them the value of cotton and even have the Detention Supervisor teach them about tobacco. I know why now…. because I taught history.

And while I was teaching it, I hope they were learning it. But do they remember it all by itself? And, by the way, it isn’t a vacuum in a vacuum cleaner. It’s all about air pressure being reversed and lowered. I learned that finally on my CSSO show, about 50 years later than I should have.

Further Reading
  1. US News and World Report – Educators Discuss Integrating STEM Education Throughout Curricula
  2. Education Dive – How a New Jersey high school transformed to stay relevant for students
  3. Ed Week – Finland’s Education Minister Discusses New National Curriculum and PISA Scores
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