Monday, March 18, 2013

Getting to Higher Education

A recent series of diagnoses about the path to higher education shed some light on certain problems with elementary education.

In this post, Elaine Tuttle Hansen, argues that many of the top students do not come prepared to do college level work when they get to college. Why? Because they have never been taught the discipline necessary to do the work. They have been brighter than their peers and have not had to work to excel in elementary and secondary education. Since they have not had to work, they have not learned how to work.

In this post, Sarah A. Hoyt, tells of her experience with gifted sons whom their elementary school teachers tried to place in remedial programs because they were not at normal academic levels for their grades, and how the teachers tried to force them backwards in their academic progress.

Others have noted
(1) the low if non-existent requirements for admission to our education schools and (2) a K-12 curriculum shaped almost entirely by the academically underqualified teachers and administrators who come from our education schools.
Those involved in education rarely know what to do with the gifted because few are gifted themselves.

I learned this years ago when I took a class on abstract algebra. The class was the largest math class I remember having at a university level. The reason for that was that it was the weed-out course for math education majors, the toughest course they would ever have to take. So two types of students took the class: math education majors, and math majors. It seemed like every class we would be assigned half a dozen proofs. The math majors would do all the proofs. The math education majors would do two of the proofs and complain about how hard it was to do them. (Admittedly some of them were tricky but they were all doable.) Math education majors are those who go on to teach math in high school. I hope that my generalization did not reflect the attitude of all of the math education majors in the class because it only takes a few vocal complainers to reflect badly on a whole class. The top half dozen of the class constituted the entire next semester's class of abstract algebra, while the rest of the class presumably went on to teach math to our children in high school and junior high. Elementary education majors learn even less math. One can be a fine individual without being a math whiz. I have long suspected, however, that a widespread attitude among elementary and secondary school teachers that they hate math and are not very good at it has produced generations of students who hate math and are not very good at it. Consequently these teachers do not know what to do with a student who is good at it.

Carl Friedrich Gauss was a mathematical genius who was fortunate to have an elementary teacher who recognized that Gauss had an early aptitude for math and knew enough to foster it. Many rate Gauss as the greatest mathematician of all time (I, myself, prefer Leonhard Euler). He may not have become such if his talent had not been recognized and fostered.

But what of those who are neither penalized nor challenged? What becomes of them. When I was finishing graduate school, my department chair lamented that the department in the Ivy League school had a tendency to admit mainly the A students, the one's who were brilliant. It was the B students, however, who actually finished because they were the ones who knew they were not brilliant and worked harder, and thus actually finished their degrees.

These, of course, are generalizations derived from a smaller sample size. Individual cases may prove exceptions. But I have found, time and again, that they serve well to explain what I usually see in education.