Wednesday, June 16, 2010

"Bee"ing Educated

In "Competition Makes a Comeback," an article in Education Next, June Kronholz writes,

Today’s teachers generally cringe at everything about [the popularity of competitions]. All those hours spent on one narrow academic focus! All that rote learning! All that stressful competition! And if some children shine on that national stage, what about the self-esteem of every other child whose luster is publicly shown to be not as bright?

Good points, perhaps. But they haven’t slowed the apparent growing interest among middle schoolers in the Scripps spell-off or any of the other bees, bowls, and academic olympiads that will climax in national championships this spring.
Attempting to explain the discrepancy between teacher and student enthusiasm, Kronholz takes a look at history:
The squeamishness about competition reached its extreme with the self-esteem movement of the 1990s, when researchers decided that low-performing kids would do better in school if they just, darn it, felt better about themselves. Schools dropped honor rolls, the class valedictorian, and assemblies that recognized academic stars, but not, of course, assemblies that recognized football or basketball or golf stars. At the feel-good movement’s most absurd, “authentic experience” triumphed over standardized spelling and grammar.
In spite of this, she explains that stereotypes of "bee" contestants may not hit the mark.
The popular image of bee contestants, moreover, is that they spend hours on grinding memorization and mind-numbing rote that robs them of time for creative thought and interdisciplinary learning.

But the kids I talked to saw their bees as a happy experience that broadened their knowledge rather than narrowed it.
Let's stop there for a moment. Fact 1: These kids are spending time on memorization and rote learning. Fact 2: They're seeing results that broaden their knowledge. Exactly! The skills they practice equip them for creative thought and interdisciplinary learning. For anyone with a thirst for knowledge, the tools of learning are a starting point, not an end. As Kronholz goes on to say,

The best spellers aren’t memorizers, “they’re word sleuths,” the spelling bee’s Paige Kimble told me, spelling out “sleuth,” just as you’d expect a spelling maven to do. The most successful contestants are kids who learn about language patterns and “have an incredible sense of how language is put together,” she added.

Some kids assembled mountains of flashcards and binders of maps, lists, and fact sheets. Arjun Kandaswamy said he studied for the geography bee finals by “layering”—starting with “the basic stuff” like continents and countries, and gradually adding layers of geographic complexity.

The one common denominator among the kids I talked to is that they read—a lot.
In this example, Arjun has discovered the pattern of all good learning: start with the "basic stuff", and then devour books as you add layers of complexity to your heart's content!

Kronholz concludes her article by saying, "Maybe that tells us something about bee contestants, and maybe bee contestants tell us something about our kids and our schools."

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