Sunday, January 3, 2010

Researched Based -- commentary

"Research based and data driven" -- these are the current buzz words among educators. Don't try to sell any programs to public schools unless you have research and data to back it up.

I must admit to being a bit skeptical about research since it has led to so many contradictory warnings over my lifetime. I'm the same with data. The troublesome part comes in how we choose to respond to the information.

Ako Kambon, featured speaker at the Arkansas School Board Association convention, presented a provocative piece of research from the University of Michigan.

The research tried to establish what in our culture has had the most influence over our children. They found five factors: home, school, church, peers and TV.

The study then listed the five influences in order of importance by decades. Kambon didn't list all the decades studied, but he listed the following with the areas of influence in their order of importance: 1950's -- home, school, church, peers, and TV; 1980's -- home, peers, TV, school, church; 1990's -- peers, TV, home/media, school (church had slipped to number 10), and by 2000, media had become number one along with its sub categories of videos (including TV and games), internet, computers, movies, and network TV.

So, there is the research, what are we going to do with it? Kambon, who is an educational consultant, told us what it all means: Students have a shorter attention span, they are accustomed to being entertained, they have a remote in their heads and will switch channels if the teacher doesn't keep their attention, they are accustomed to receiving information faster than we are accustomed to giving it and students are now visual learners. Kambon concludes, "The student we have in front of us now is a different student," and he insists we must adapt our teaching to address these realities.

I look at this research and reach a different conclusion. Listeners have always been able to receive information faster than instructors can deliver it, so good teachers already address this. Also, students have always had an internal remote. As a public school student more than 50 years ago, I could turn a teacher off in a moment, though I had never yet heard of a devise called a remote control. Good teachers already deal with this.

The short attention span has led to a style of teaching where the teacher uses mini-lessons and then puts the students to work with independent practice. A teacher may use several mini-lessons in a single period. But again, good teachers, at the public school level, have always done this.

The fact that the modern student is accustomed to being entertained and has become a visual learner is being addressed with technology in the classroom. Though I applaud this use of technology, I'm just old school enough to believe that students can be taught that life isn't all entertainment and that hard work counts when it comes to school. And, though they have become visual learners because so much information comes at them through various video devices, nothing will replace the printed page for true depth and understanding. A printed piece can be read, re-read, and thought about. Printed material can be easily browsed for critical passages, underlined, and notes made in the margins. We do students a disservice if we over indulge them in video learning with the excuse that research shows they are visual learners.

Yes, students are different, but only in superficial ways. If their attention spans have been shortened by the influence of media, then we can retrain them to have longer attention spans. So they are visual learners, the printed page is visual too, and kids can be taught to use it.

The school environment is not supposed to duplicate what the student already experiences. Let's not lose sight of the fact that we are training kids for life after school. We are training them for the work place where they will have to read boring manuals, regulations, and policies. In the work place, they will have to have attention spans longer than five minutes and they will have to behave in a civil manner. We don't do them any favors when we adapt to their superficial changes; rather, we must teach them to adapt to the expectations of their future workplaces.

The real important and real sad part of this research is the lost influence of the home and the church, and these two are related. Researchers would do well to find the causes for the loss of the influence of the home and come up with some cures. It is this lack of influence in the home that has led to so many of the discipline problems in our schools and to the decline of the influence of the church. If I were to venture a guess as to a source of that loss of influence it would be the abandoning of children to media. Too many parents fund their children's every media desire and whim and allow them to satiate their appetites unsupervised and uncontrolled. They have surrendered their influence to media: cell phones, Ipods, TV, video games, the internet, movies, and computers. But then, that's just a guess. To be confirmed it must be research based and data driven.

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