One statement in Grant Wiggins’s review of the survey he gave to 7300 students from middle and high school students nationally was particularly infuriating to me. He had posed the question, “What was the most interesting work/task/project you had last year in school?” In reviewing the student responses, (73 of which were posted on the blog), Wiggins casually noted that “..almost nothing from English or Math was highlighted.”
How can this be?
English and math classes did not offer interesting tasks or projects? Really? I cannot speak for math, but as an English teacher, I feel bit defensive. English teachers of the students in this study could not find “interesting” ways to teach grammar or literature or writing skills?
Wiggins does state that the “results do not reflect a ‘normal’ national sample” since the schools that participated were either directly involved with his Understanding by Design workshops or requested to be involved in the survey. Sadly, the evidence from the students posted on the blog does seem to support this point; a class project, a series of responses dedicated to Lord of the Flies, was one of only several English/Language Arts assessments that made the list of the “ most interesting work/task/project you had last year in school?”
I wonder if this a problem of familiarity. Students are programmed what to expect in English/Language Arts classes, and according to this study, so are the teachers.
Consider that every one of the students responding has had to take an English/Language Arts class for each year he or she is in school. The focus of curriculum in these classes, regardless of grade level, is the improvement of student skills in reading, writing, and speaking. That’s it. Year after year of reading, writing, and speaking. Yes, the work becomes more complex, but the work in English is fairly routine. Students read. Students write. Students speak.
There are other disciplines that are sequential, a series of prescribed steps that build on knowledge. For example, a student must understand addition before moving onto multiplication. The acquisition of reading, writing, and speaking skills, however, is measured differently. A student will encounter the comma long before he or she understands its function in a sentence. A student will decode a metaphor well before he or she knows what the literary term means. A student will decipher the meaning of a word in context in reading without the aid of a dictionary.
English is not really sequential set of knowledge steps but a weave-a continuous layering of warp and woof. Students are initiated in improving the skills of reading, writing, and speaking in pre-school and continue to develop these skills at each grade level.
Could students simply be tired of the “same old same old”? Do they not appreciate the importance of the skills they learned in the English/Language Arts classroom?
The standards in the Language Arts Common Core follow a sequence of growing complexity, but ultimately is the Kindergarten Standard (K.RL.1) “With prompting and support, ask and answer questions about key details in a text” that much different from the Grade 12 Standard (12.RL.1) “ Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain”?
These standards require that during a student’s 13 years in education, there must be multiple opportunities to cite, analyze, respond, write, and speak. English/Language Arts teachers must develop assessments that move students to meeting these standards. Other disciplines may assess a student’s ability to build, demonstrate, create, or illustrate with a “hands on” approach. Certainly, English/Langauge Arts can have students build (a character), demonstrate (a vocabulary word’s meaning), create (a film), illustrate (a chapter), but ultimately the student skill assessed is aligned with standards that measure continued improvement on the skills of reading, writing, and speaking. Ultimately the conundrum English /Language Arts teachers face is the skill used is the skill being tested; including a 3rd dimension- engaging in the physicality of English/Language Arts- is not required by Common Core standards. One could simply meet each standard with pen and paper, with “words, words, words”…
Take for example, some of the student responses to the survey’s prompt “what was the most interesting work/task/project you had last year in school?”:
- Building a house. This was interesting because I had to make something new everyday and the project always had soemthing[sic] to work on and i never got bored.
- We are currently dissecting a fetal pig in Biology. It is interesting because dissections are a very good chance to see how an organism works firsthand.
- A mock trial in my Business and Personal Law course was the most interesting work I’ve had to do.
- Made a rocket car for Metal
- The lemonade game in economics. We got to run a sim of a lemonade company.
- testing the PH levels of water of the pond at our school.