I hear the whining all the time at school: “Why do I have to learn a foreign language? Everybody in the world speaks English.” Yes, but you can’t always count on it, and by learning a new language you learn about a new culture, a different way of life. Discovering a culture other than one’s own is an incredibly enriching, eye-opening and sometimes mind-bending experience. Not to mention the fact that in today’s global marketplace, chances are good that at some time in your career you will be working with someone from another country. Or you may be transferred to another country in which your company has a branch. Alan November, an education technology consultant, apparently is fond of recounting a story about a conversation he had with a senior executive at a global investment bank. November asked the executive what was the most important skill a student should learn for future success. The answer? Empathy – the ability to understand and respect different points of view. The marketing executive stated that it was easy enough to find smart, talented workers, less so to find those that were able to empathize with the needs and values of different nations.
Learning a different language helps build this cultural empathy. And a growing number of k-12 leaders are starting to realize that exposure to foreign languages and cultures, even from a very early age, is critical to student success and forms an integral part of being a global citizen. I can personally attest to the value of learning a language from the elementary years–I started learning French and German in fourth grade, Spanish in sixth. I kept up with my French studies in high school, eventually earning a double major in French and Anthropology. But I remember enough of both German and Spanish to be able to hold a rudimentary conversation even though more than 40 years have elapsed. And learning a language at an even earlier age, like preschool, can result in native or near-native pronunciation and intonation. That’s why, in part, that the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages recommends that students “be provided the opportunity to learn a second language as early as possible in school.” Other benefits to learning foreign languages in the early grades include “strengthening of literacy in students’ first language, raising standardized test scores in other subject areas, and developing comfort with cultural differences,” the council states.
This is nothing new to most European nations, who start teaching English to very young students in preschool. As my students noted earlier, most foreign students speak English fairly well by the time they reach their teens, so they balk at having to learn something other than their mother tongue, which some of them speak and write only marginally well into the bargain. But until the great education policy makers in places of power get on board with the fact that learning a foreign language is a critical skill necessary in today’s global marketplace, the status quo will remain, and English-speaking-only individuals will be left behind in the multi-lingual dust of their competitors.
There has been a long and conflicting attitude regarding class size and academic results, dating back at least to the 1990s. Study results have been mixed; yes, class size matters, no, class size is irrelevant. A meta-analysis out of Australia takes the issue back into the fray and seems to verify what I’ve felt all along–smaller classes impact student achievement, especially at the elementary level. I think that smaller classes allow for more individualized instruction, greater amounts of teacher-student interaction, and gives students a leg up when they continue on to middle and high school. Young students, with their shorter attention spans, can only benefit from more teacher involvement, and the teacher can spend more time on actual teaching than dealing with discipline problems that may arise when there are more bodies in the classroom. This particular study also found that smaller class size went a long way to reducing the minority-white achievement gap, which has all kinds of positive implications for society at large. Results for smaller class size in high school remain inconclusive, but the evidence in favor of smaller classes at the elementary level should provoke education officials into action.
There’s a working paper out of Harvard Business School Social Science Research Network that upholds the notion that reflecting on lessons learned aids in performance and perceived self-efficacy. The authors studied over 300 participants, some from varioius Northeastern universities and some from India, upon which to test their hypothesis. The authors state “In our field study we showed that taking time away from training and reallocating that time to reflection actually improved individual performance.” This emphasizes the importance of taking time to think about what you’re learning, as opposed to being fed information on a continual basis, without taking a breath. You need time to digest information in order to process it and make sense of it, thus learning smarter, not harder. To me, this makes perfect sense. I need time to think about the things I learn, letting them seep slowly into my consciousness, unfolding and unfurling their nuances as I contemplate their place next to the facts I already know. That journal that your English teacher made you keep? More useful than you could imagine.
Wow. Something else I was always curious about–turns out people who take notes using longhand retain information better than those who take notes via laptop. Laptop users tend to take verbatim notes, while those who use longhand process the information and write shorter, more consise notes. The paper, out of Psychological Science, was published just last week.
I’ve always felt there was a connection between hearing and seeing information, then writing the salient points down for reference when studying for an exam. Something about the physical act of writing longhand while thinking about the subject matter covered adds to the whole retention process. The current technology push to put electronic devices into the hands of every student is thus a little misguided. Some old-fashioned things are just worth keeping.
That’s the question posed by a working paper out of the University of Virginia in January. It’s something that has bothered me since my own kids were in kindergarten ten years ago. I remember kindergarten as a place of play and learning to get along with others. I didn’t start learning to write the alphabet until first grade, though I do remember my mom going through flash cards with me during kindergarten. I always thought that kindergarten was more of a socializing stage, where you learned to share and learned the first rudiments of conflict resolution. A formalized curriculum was not the order of the day. My kids, on the other hand, learned their ABCs in kindergarten, and regularly brought home projects to be completed. They had spelling tests every Friday, and at the end of the year there was a little graduation ceremony with caps and gowns and diplomas. Pretty scary.
“In some ways, kindergarten classrooms in 2006 do, in fact, look more like first grade classrooms in the late nineties than they do kindergarten classrooms. Specifically, the increase in time spent on ELA as well as the drop in time spent on art and music, are more aligned with the time-use patterns reported by first grade teachers…we find strong evidence that, relative to their counterparts in 1998, kindergarten teachers in 2006 are far more likely to believe that academic instruction in literacy and mathematics should begin in the preschool and kindergarten years.” (p. 21) The study also stated that there was a trend toward less time spent in PE activities, which could negatively impact the benefit children receive from physical activities.
Bottom line, the effect of the changes of kindergarten from 1998 to 2006 remains “an open-ended question.” Teaching academic content “need not be at odds with ‘play’ and other types of pedagogical approaches considered developmentally appropriate in early childhood.” (p. 22) Somehow, some way, the pendulum has to swing to find a happy medium in teaching academic content in a pedagogically appropriate manner, ensuring we don’t mess up our kids any more than is absolutely necessary.
As I mentioned in a previous post multi-tasking is largely a self-imagined myth. Another study, published in 2010 by Dr. Nick Perham, a lecturer in the School of Health Sciences at the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff, demonstrated how music can interfere with short-term memory performance in serial recall tasks. Interestingly, Perham discovered that listening to liked or disliked music impaired serial task performance equally, and both were worse than the quiet room control condition. He also stated that it was the lyrics in music, not acoustical variation, that was responsible for impairment while reading. “You’ve got semantic information that you’re trying to use when you’re reading a book, and you’ve got semantic information from the lyrics,” Perham says. “If you can understand the lyrics, it doesn’t matter whether you like it or not, it will impair your performance of reading comprehension.” David Cutler, a high school history and government teacher from Florida, interviewed Dr. Perham in 2013 and wrote an article for Spin Education, describing his experience with his own students and their desire to listen to music while working on assignments.
There is some evidence that suggests that listening to something you like (whether music or a book on tape) before attempting a task may improve arousal and mood, leading to better task performance. More studies have to be done to confirm this supposition, Mozart effect to the contrary. In the meantime, the bottom line is: don’t listen to music while trying to perform other tasks.
What I’ve suspected all along has just been given weight in a report published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS). Contrary to public opinion, a liberal arts major is the equal of any STEM major in terms of long-term earning potential and employment. “Recent attacks on the liberal arts by ill-informed commentators and policy makers have painted a misleading picture of the value of the liberal arts to individuals and our communities,” said AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider. “As the findings in this report demonstrate, majoring in a liberal arts field can and does lead to successful and remunerative careers in a wide array of professions.” The report also notes that liberal arts graduates are over-represented in social science fields, such as social services and counselling. Unemployment rates are low and decline over time.
With all the increased emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) classes lately, liberal arts have gotten a bad rap. This report demonstrates that a liberal arts degree does indeed have high value. The authors note that “the liberal arts and sciences play a major role in sustaining the social and economic fabric of our society.” We need liberal arts every bit as much as we need STEM, and perhaps more so, as the liberal arts provides the teachers and counselors that will guide the next generation.
I felt this one was too scary not to post. Literacy rates haven’t changed in 10 years? Good grief. I will continue to be a book proponent at all levels at my high school and hope to stem the tide.
Originally posted on NovaNews:
It’s not often that I cross post on both my blogs, but I felt that the content of this one was as relevant to NovaNews as it is to BevsBookBlog. So here it is:
As I gear up to make a presentation tomorrow at the annual VATE (Victorian Association of Teachers of English) State Conference 2013, my mind is easily turned by headlines that highlight illiteracy levels.
Stumbling on a post in the GoodReadingMagazine blog I found myself trawling around for the stats that were highlighted in a September 2013 Huffington Post article: The US illiteracy rate hasn’t changed in 10 years. As it turned out, the stats were based on a study conducted by the US Department of Education and the National Institute of Literacy which I found published online on Statistic Brain.
32 million or 14% of US adults being illiterate and a…
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Here’s at least one study that correlates distracted driving with increased fatalities for pedestrians and bicyclists. It charts an increase between 2005 and 2010, with victims being disproportionately male. It’s something that I feel very strongly about, and I’m adamant about not doing anything while driving except driving. For heaven’s sake, the phone call or text can wait!
Apparently, kids really like solving puzzles. According to Istar Schweger, Ph.D., puzzles provide ways for students to build on emerging skills. And from Marcel Danesi, Ph.D. comes “The thinking involved in solving puzzles can be characterized as a blend of imaginative association and memory.” So I’ve started putting out jigsaw puzzles for my students to put together in the library. Some days I get big groups working on them, but most days it’s just a few that keep plugging away. Some days I get teachers drawn in to work on a particular section, or some of the admin staff will wander over to put in a piece or two. Solving jigsaw puzzles requires concentration, paying attention to patterns, and building on information stored in memory. Plus, there is something very satisfying about placing a piece next to its companion, watching a clear section emerge from the chaos of individual pieces. I like to think that I’m helping train students’ brains and helping them in ways of which they may not be aware. The biggest thing, though, is that I want them to have fun. There’s such pressure built in to every school day that a break now and again is nice.