Jewish World Review Feb. 9, 2004 / 17 Shevat, 5764

Joanne Jacobs

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Consumer Reports

The Limits of Discovery Learning; science lite; not just a buzzword; fish, unfried | "Discovery learning" is great, except when it's ineffective, says Reform K12.

The discovery learning method is a way for teachers to allow the child to discover things for himself or herself, because when a child makes the discovery, the learning is much deeper and more likely to be remembered. That spark of "Eureka" or "I have found it!" is what kindles the true flame of learning.

Actually, we don't disagree, it's just we have a better proposal: Teach! Students will learn a lot more in less time.

Just so there's no misunderstanding, we fully support the responsible use of guided discovery in the classroom. Master teachers have known this for years.

What we don't support is the abandonment of direct instruction, especially for some key concepts and techniques which must be taught.

For example, in the University of Chicago's Everyday Math program, they don't recommend teaching children the long division algorithm, saying "let the children discover a division algorithm for themselves." (The program also embraces calculator use starting with kindergarten, so we bet we know which "algorithm" the kids would pick!)

We were fully grown before we understood completely how the long division algorithm works, so we'd place the chances at our discovering it in childhood, oh, at about zero.

Isaac Newton said, "If I have seen further, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants."

Good thing Newton didn't have teachers enamored with the discovery learning method, or he would have been relegated to standing next to the aforementioned giants.

The California Curriculum Commission is urging the state ed board to not buy K-8 science books that rely heavily on "hands-on" materials and discovery learning. The Washington Post reports:

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Thomas Adams, executive director of the curriculum commission, said critics are misrepresenting the panel's views. He said commission members are trying to balance the need for a comprehensive science curriculum with the limited science background of many K-8 teachers. Twenty to 25 percent of hands-on instruction seemed like "the most reasonable amount of time for someone faced with the challenges of limited facilities and limited time," he said.

Kimberly Swygert of Number 2 Pencil says too much lab work can become busy work.

Smart teachers call it "hands on, brain off."

Science Lite

Science testing  often is done so badly it doesn’t measure science knowledge, says this Education Week article. It gives examples of questions that telegraph the correct answer, testing students' ability to read and use common sense, rather than science knowledge. Here's my favorite example from an eighth grade science test:

Your school's Academic Team has chosen Archimedes as its mascot, and for the team shirt you have created a new symbol to represent Archimedes and his discoveries. The team members have asked you to attend their next meeting to inform them about your symbol. Write a speech to read to the team members, which describes and explains your symbol and tells why it is appropriate for the team.

Perhaps designing an Archimedes logo for a shirt does relate and use knowledge of Archimedes, but it also tends to treat science as a "scenic" background rather than a central element of the test. Another example from a 5th grade assessment asks students to measure the length of a caterpillar in a picture. The item tests only the skill of measuring, not knowledge about the living organism or its development.

What about kids who aren't good at design, drawing or writing but know a lot about Archimedes? They’re out of luck.

Here's another example.

The statement that the relative humidity is 50 percent means that:

A. The chance of rain is 50 percent.

B. The atmosphere contains 50 kilograms of water per cubic kilometer.

C. The clouds contain 50 grams of water per liter.

D. The atmosphere contains 50 percent of the amount of water that it could contain at its present temperature.

Even if students don't know the correct answer, they may sense that more effort went into writing answer choice D, and that the writing seems more cautious and scientific. As a result, students may be drawn to the correct answer for reasons unrelated to knowledge of science.

My science knowledge is limited, at best, but I could guess the right answer to every question cited in Ed Week.

Not Just a Buzzword

"Evolution"  is back in Georgia's proposed biology curriculum. Last week, the state superintendent, Kathy Cox, ordered the word removed because it is "a buzz word that causes a lot of negative reaction." Cox now says she goofed.

Fish, Unfried

When fire threatened the third-grade classroom at a Minnesota school, the class fish saved the day. Dory was swimming in a vase on a desk.

A forgotten candle started a small fire on the desk on Jan. 24, setting off the smoke alarm and shattering the fish bowl, spilling enough water to put out the flames.

Firefighters found a few embers still glowing on the desk -- and Dory still alive in a puddle.

Revased, Dory is doing well.

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JWR contributor Joanne Jacobs, a former Knight-Ridder columnist and San Jose Mercury News editorial writer, blogs daily at She is currently finishing a book, Start-Up High, about a San Jose charter school. Comment by clicking here.

02/02/04: Flight from excellence; the look that screams; show them the money
01/26/04: It's the Parents, Stupid
01/20/04: High School Blahs, Naked Math, Boys in Trouble
12/22/03: Saving the teacher, skipping a grade, paying for AP tests, laptops don't boost scores
12/15/03: Missing Columbine; tuned out; kindergarten kamikazes; Suffer the Little Children; ungot greats; dangerous rhymes
12/08/03: Desensitizing students to f-word; Like a Rock; Unmannered; Cool Christians on Campus
11/24/03: Integrating lunch; peewee athletes; The Promise
11/17/03: School Principals Gone Wild; School vs. Bloggers; A Is For Absent
11/10/03: Feeling history; no-sided history; passing on a record; winning respect; bright flight
11/03/03: Super Pay for Super Teachers?; ‘Failing’ Teachers; Dissect the Bunny; Yuck
10/27/03: Parent, teachers, parents as teachers; cramming in education; out of control
10/21/03: Go, Samaritan; 2 + 2 = ?; Majoring in Middle-class Status
10/14/03: To Gag a Mockingbird; saying 'hate' is hate speech; protest school
10/08/03: No Homework Overload; Self-centered Social Studies; The Boy Code; Codswallop; College 101: Don't Jump Out of Your Bunk Bed
09/29/03: Flunking mom; classroom classics; ritalin gag rule; lousy children
09/22/03: Order, disorder
09/08/03: No Child Left Behind: A Primer
08/29/03: The Decline and Fall of Social Studies
08/18/03: F is for valedictorian
08/14/03: Start-up success
08/11/03: Subliterate Superintendent
08/04/03: Alternative High School
07/28/03: Out of the System
07/21/03: Too Snobby for Shop
07/14/03: Be very afraid
07/09/03: Know-nothing nonsense
06/30/03: Affirmative action reactions
06/23/03: Overdressed Students, Underdressed Teachers, Dressed-down Exams
06/16/03: Paper 'Is-ness,' Excluding Awards, New Racial Consciousness and Politics
06/09/03: Racist math, red tape for charters, potty reading
06/02/03: Teacher Pay, Illiteracy , No Republicans Allowed
05/27/03: Research papers, athletics, reading
05/19/03: Soft America, plagiarism, Minutemen and Jets
05/12/03: Demographics, nerves, valedictorian, vouchers
05/05/03: Gender Bias, Banned Words, Helen of Troy
04/28/03: Tests, home-schooling, self-esteem
04/25/03: Lessons, American Pride, Iraqi Schools
04/14/03: Iraqi Textbooks and the English language
03/31/03:Teachers, hugging, text messaging
04/07/03: War talk at school
03/24/03: Watching the war
03/10/03: Classroom chaos
03/03/03: Teaching tales
02/24/03: Segregation stories
02/18/03: Writing Essays, America, Beyond Bert and Ernie
02/13/03: Size matters
02/10/03: Parental homework, cheaters and memoirs
02/03/03: Diplomas, academics, preschools and Ritalin
01/27/03: Head Start, Social Studies, Marx, Africa and Math
01/22/03: Teachers as targets
01/13/03: Big Bully's Feelings
01/06/03: School of 60's Whining and Communal Destruction
12/23/02: Teaching in
12/16/02: Chocolate city?
12/10/02: Mandatory Victimhood --- and when cleaning up a school is 'racist'
11/25/02: Multi-colored math, sensitive science
11/20/02: How to leave no child behind
11/18/02: The tummy track
11/11/02: Dysfunctional documents?
11/04/02: Why go to college? Why test schools?
10/28/02: Pride goeth before an F
10/21/02: Diversity adversity
10/14/02: Bad hat day
10/07/02: Inflated sense of worth
09/30/02: The Royal road to knowledge
09/24/02: Sierra's Club
09/20/02: Stupidity Watch
09/03/02: First, win the war
08/26/02: Out of their field, out of their minds?
08/20/02: Fun with failure

© 2003, Joanne Jacobs