I recently came across a blog called Out in Left Field whose author espouses the polar opposite of all my views on educational theory. Katharine Beals, PhD, rails against Balanced Literacy Instruction and Constructivist math in particular. Here are links to my own views on why I love Balanced Literacy Instruction and Constructivist math.
Katherine Beals takes shots at Bill Gates whom she describes as being misguided, misinformed, and possibly having Asperger’s Syndrome. She also rails against Stanford University professor Keith Devlin, also known as “The Math Guy” on NPR. I haven’t read any of Professor Devlin’s books, but I now want to read all of them! I’m not so sure about Dr. Beals’s book Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World: Strategies for Helping Bright, Quirky, Socially Awkward Children to Thrive at Home and at School, but I might try reading it anyway just to fairly consider a point of view so opposite than my own. (Note: if you have a child on the Autism spectrum, this book would be of a lot more interest to you. Read the reviews on Amazon, and see why.)
Out in Left Field bugs me for a variety of reasons; she blasts teachers as sometimes being too stupid to teach math, she thinks academics often don’t know what they are talking about, she implies that many mathematicians are cowardly for not speaking up against Reform Math, and she repeatedly professes a belief that rote learning of traditional algorithms is the best way to create mathematical thinkers. But what really bothers me, is Dr. Beals’s general thesis that Reform Math and Balanced Literacy Instruction are B-A-D- Bad!
Teaching with a point of view is not bad, not mater which pedagogy you choose. I could spend the next fifteen minutes telling you why I support the particular education philosophies she hates, but that would be a waste of time. What I know, is that it’s not the curriculum that helps children learn, it’s the teacher.
If you give me a group of well-fed, middle class Kindergarteners from moderately stable homes I will teach them to read. If you me a Whole Language curriculum. I will teach them to read! If you give me a Phonics Based program. I will teach them to read! If you give me a Balanced Literacy program. I will teach them to read! Magic pedagogy is not creating readers, good teachers are.
Educators have to teach whatever curriculum the school district hands them. Good teachers deliver the curriculum as instructed, and then use common sense. They see that little Johnny over there is going to be able to read by seeing a new cereal box in front of his breakfast bowl each morning. Great! Let’s make Johnny some patterned books. Little Suzie over there? She really needs more phonics. Bring out the phoneme cards. The reason I like Balanced Literacy Instruction is that it includes both. Teachers have to be flexible!
Now, if you give me forty third graders coming back and forth from Mexico, sleeping next to refrigerators, scared by roving pit-bulls on the playground, no working smoke-detector in my classroom, a principal who downloads pornography in the middle of the school office, no support services whatsoever, and then fail to give me my first paycheck, I’ll give you my 110% best but I can’t make any promises. Even if you give me a phonics based program like Open Court, I might not be able to teach all of those children to read unless you, the community, give me some help. I’m a teacher not a miracle worker.
When I was teaching math at a Constructivist Charter school and I had kids who said, “I’m going to solve this subtraction problem in the traditional way,” and started to borrow and carry, that was just fine with me. It wasn’t okay with all of the teachers at my school, but I was fine with certain kids using traditional algorithms when they wanted to. Kids who have trouble verbalizing, kids who can think faster than they can write, kids who don’t do well in group learning situations… these are students that good teachers make common sense accommodations for.
Good educators teach in ways that accommodate the differentiated learning style of each student. Some kids are going to need to be taught algorithms as a life-raft they cling to. Other kids will become the high-schooler in Academic League who can just look at the question and know the answer. It is unfair to force any one style of learning on all of your students, but it’s not bad to lead into instruction with pedagogy to provide framework and support. As far as pedagogy goes, I think Balanced Literacy Instruction and Constructivism have a lot to offer.
P.S. Ironically, both Dr.Beals and I love Story of the World. 🙂