Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A field trip to the farm

For many of the students at The Harlem Success Academy, a New York charter school, the recent field trip to a farm was their first rural experience, reports The New York Times, one that educators hope will help raise test scores.
New York State’s English and math exams include several questions each year about livestock, crops and the other staples of the rural experience that some educators say flummox city children, whose knowledge of nature might begin and end at Central Park. On the state English test this year, for instance, third graders were asked questions relating to chickens and eggs. In math, they had to count sheep and horses.
Counting stalks of corn and answering questions about milking can stump children who have never encountered corn or milk outside the grocery store, particularly considering that "prior knowledge of a subject can significantly improve a child’s performance on tests." It may seem strange that basic agricultural concepts are foreign to these urban children, but of the 25 students who attended the field trip, only two had ever held a real pumpkin. One kindergartner learned for the first time that eggs come from chickens; another discovered that bacon comes from pigs.

Is there something wrong with this picture? That the worthwhile and engaging venture of taking 25 urban children to visit a farm must be viewed through the lens of standardized testing? It's rather unfortunate that scoring high on a standardized test is more important than striving to achieve a tremendous sense of wonderment and curiosity on a visit to the farm.


Alan said...

National math test scores continue to be disappointing. This poor trend persists in spite of new texts, standardized tests with attached implied threats, or laptops in the class. At some point, maybe we should admit that math, as it is taught currently and in the recent past, seems irrelevant to a large percentage of grade school kids.

Why blame a sixth grade student or teacher trapped by meaningless lessons? Teachers are frustrated. Students check out.

The missing element is reality. Instead of insisting that students learn another sixteen formulae, we need to involve them in tangible life projects. And the task must be interesting.

A Trip To The Number Yard is a math book focusing on the building of a bungalow. Odd numbered chapters cover the phases of the project: lot layout, foundation, framing, all the way through until the trim out. The even numbered chapters introduce the math needed for the next stage of building and/or reviews the previous lessons.

This type of project-oriented math engages kids. It is fun. They have a reason to learn the math they may have ignored in the standard lecture format of a class room.

If we really want kids to learn math and to have the lessons be valuable, we need to change the mode of teaching. Our kids can master the math that most adults need. We can’t continue to have class rooms full of math drudges. Instead, we need to change our tactics and teach math via real life projects.

Alan Cook

LT said...

Wow, what an interesting article! First of all, I'm shocked that only two of the 25 children had ever held a real pumpkin. I feel like that's strange, even for urban kids. I mean, pumpkins are sold at the supermarket! Carving pumpkins around Halloween seems, at least to me, to be a fairly common practice in urban areas. It's pretty incredible to me that a pumpkin could be a foreign concept to a kid, even an urban kid.

Second, I totally agree that it's a bit silly to have to justify a field trip to a farm by viewing it through the lens of improving standardized testing scores. Field trips to the zoo are pretty common practice for young kids, but it's not as if zoo trips are really for the kids to "study" the animals - they're more just for the kids to see things they've never seen before. I don't see why this same reasoning isn't sufficient justification for a visit to a farm.

Spec said...

This was a fantastic article in the September's Harpers http://www.harpers.org/archive/2009/09/0082640 , entitled "Dehumanized: When math and science rule the school." the article discusses how the focus on math and science in our schools and the de-emphasis on the Humanities, is really an extension of capitalism. How what is taught is a reflection of what society feels is important and that math and science are quantifiable and therefore can be inputted into some kind of cost/benefit analysis.

What has become important is whether our children are ready for the "marketplace" not whether they are really learning anything.

aoue said...

I agree with Slice of Pink that it is unfortunate that the school needed to justify a trip to the farm with reference to standardized testing. This rationale suggests a devaluing of what can be considered "rural" knowledge in that urban students only need to learn about farming, for instance, when it relates to their performance on an examination.

What is more alarming is the lack of proficiency these students have in, as Alan above says, "reality." The story notes that many of the students' knowledge of nature begins and ends at Central Park. To this end, it is interesting to think about ways that a school's curriculum can bridge the rural/urban divide by emphasizing "rural" forms of knowledge (i.e., more hands-on or outdoors-type activities that may be considered more “rural” activities in nature, such as planting a garden as a component of a science course) not as a means of excelling on standardized tests, but as a learning tool to help students achieve core competencies in math, science and the humanities.