Missing the point?

As you know, the devil is in the details. Details, you say? Well, the Math Curmudgeon is always worth reading…but I often disagree with him, most especially with some of his details. Consider his post “Missing the Point,” which deals primarily with high-school daily schedules and secondarily with shadowing a student. Let’s focus on the main question — what the daily schedule looks like.

In this post, the Curmudgeon writes about block scheduling. There must be about 42 different types of block schedules, so we might as we’ll look at the particular flavor that he is discussing, even though I will inevitably compare and contrast with Weston’s flavor. First of all, the Curmudgeon lists the alleged advantages of block scheduling:

  • The students could focus on fewer things throughout the day, making for more deliberateness. The phrase “Mile wide and inch deep” is usually tossed in here, as well.
  • They’d have fewer passing times and those minutes could be filled with instruction or projects or meaningful discussion or labs.
  • 80 minutes was a better chunk of time.
  • Teachers would have fewer preps.

Yes, I say “alleged,” but don’t get me wrong. This is actually a pretty good list. I like all four points.

So let’s move on. The next paragraph raises red flags. I quote it in its entirety:

Not a single thought was spared to ask whether 9th graders should be in 80 minute classes or whether Special Education students would benefit from the extended periods. Nobody considered whether having 8 periods for which students could have one or two “free” periods was better than requiring the students to have four academic courses per day and no down time. And nobody dared to question whether 80 minutes was too much math for one day.

I don’t know about his school, but at Weston we considered and questioned all these issues when we moved to block scheduling in 1998. Our answers (or my answers) might surprise the Curmudgeon. Some of my colleagues do think that 9th graders can’t thrive in long blocks. If we’re talking about 80-minute lectures, then sure. But if there are hands-on activities, such as lab work, group discussions, and working on math problems, then it does work. Second, as for special ed students, it’s hard to generalize; indeed some have trouble in long blocks. Third, it’s a false dichotomy to choose between an 8-period day and “four academic courses per day and no down time”: we choose neither. At Weston we have five blocks a day; some students do choose to fill these with academics most of the time, but the typical student has three or four academics in a single day, thus leaving some free time as well as study halls, art, phys ed, etc. Finally, “too much math for one”???? There’s no such thing!

Moving on, another paragraph:

Block scheduling is predicated on the idea that students will be allowed to focus on fewer things for longer periods, that mere “rote memorizing” of content would be subordinated to the intense, “deeper” thinking, critical thinking and problem solving.

Again, sounds good to me. But it can’t happen automagically — it needs to be implemented!

Ah, but now we see this (very slightly edited) paragraph:

The idea that you need to start every class with discussion, blitzkreig-like mini-lessons is entirely dependent on what you’re doing rather than an appropriate plan for every day. Likewise, worrying overmuch about the length of time you speak (and setting a timer) is not terribly good practice. If you’re talking at the students rather than talking with them, you have a problem. A good lecture, on the other hand, can keep everyone in the room engaged for hours. A constant droning lecture, like pre-recorded videos in a “flipped classroom” or a Rocketship academy or Khan Academy, won’t work for much more than as a substitute in your absence.

Yes, yes, yes. That all makes sense.

Read the rest of the Curmudgeon’s post. You’ll realize at one point that he’s talking about a flavor of block scheduling in which classes are one semester on and one semester off. No wonder the kids don’t learn as much! Math (and most subjects) need to last the year. Going from January to September without math is like living without sunlight for eight months. Weston’s classes meet five days out of every eight, and almost all last for the whole year. Usually there’s a “day off” between two consecutive math classes, but never more than one day (except, for course, for vacations).

As I say, read his whole post. He makes some good points, even though I profoundly disagree with his conclusion.

Categories: Teaching & Learning, Weston