Breaking Down Barriers

By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

How do we fix K-12 education in the United States? Will Race to the Top contests do it? Will Investing in Innovation Funds make the crucial difference? Can the Gates and Broad foundations buy great education in this country? Should we break down all large schools into small ones?

An article by Sam Dillon in the New York Times, “4,100 Students Prove ‘Small is Better’ Rule Wrong,” suggests otherwise. The article focuses our attention on the largest high school in Massachusetts, Brockton High School. Its principal, Dr. Susan Szachowicz, brought together a small group of willing teachers to see if they could do anything to fix this really broken school.

The detailed numbers have been omitted from the article, which claims that the school had abysmal scores in 1999. Then, they acted. The 2001 scores were still below acceptable levels but far above the 1999 scores. By 2008, Brockton High was in the top 10% statewide in English test scores and remains there.

The solution was deceptively simple: turn every teacher in the school into an English teacher. English composition even became a part of physical education and mathematics. As you might expect, some teachers resisted the change, and one was dismissed due to intransigence.

I am sure that each reader will find a different aspect of this two-page article to take away. For me, the significant aspect is the breaking down of interdepartmental barriers. Some may suggest that putting the teachers in charge did the trick. Fortunately, I have John Adsit (private communication) to set us right on this concept. Dr. Szachowicz led the way and made certain that the program remained on track.

For years, I’ve read of people suggesting that we cast away the old departments and core subjects, that we revolt against the old and sweep in the new. I haven’t yet seen clearly what the new is, however. The Brockton experience opens a different door to improvement, an evolutionary one instead of the revolution many advocate. That fact is crucial because our education system is huge. The changes some advocate would alienate nearly all faculty. In Brockton, the nay-sayers were a small minority.

Literally every course a student takes in high school can involve writing, even music and physical education. They also should involve other aspects of communication skills, including creating YouTube videos, a distinctly new mode of communicating, and reading for understanding.

To me, that concept, teaching English in every class, smacks of breaking down the barriers between subjects. In the old way of doing things, English is the sole provence of the English instructor. No one else should be doing it because they might do it incorrectly and because teaching English would interfere with teaching their own subjects. Breaking down barriers involves two distinct victories. Firstly, you have to convince English to give up their sole proprietorship of English teaching. Secondly, you have to convince the other teachers to add on more work, work that many don’t like. Consider the math teacher who prefers the black-and-white answers to numerical problems to the very subjective analysis of writing. But that wasn’t the point. It was to get students more exposure to writing and, in particular, to have the opportunity to write about something they cared about, for example sports or music.

You can be sure that a small group of teachers did not overcome these barriers and win these victories alone. Leadership made the difference.

Can similar improvements be coaxed out of schools in other subjects? How many physical educators can inject mathematics into their programs? What about the drama teacher, the art teacher, and, very importantly for symmetry, the English teacher? Some of these subject matter experts are even more shy about mathematics than the mathematics teacher is of English. What would it take to break down the mathematics barrier? Is it worth the fight?

Once you’ve done English and mathematics, it’s only fair to bring in the other core subjects: history and science. These will take more effort. Few who don’t teach or do history have a real comprehension of what history is really about. The same is true, perhaps even more so, about science. Can we really expect a physical education teacher to cover English, mathematics, history, and science in a bodily movement class? What about the art teacher? Where’s the science in an English class?

While this concept might work, I have a different idea. This idea could be better, equal, or worse than the one of spreading the core subject education all around the school. My idea comes straight out of my bias as a scientist. Focus the entire school on exploring and discovering the world around us. Keep the same subject matter experts (teachers). Each investigation can spin off work that involves art, drama, music, physical activity, history, mathematics, communication, and any other subject. Organization would have to be very good.

This concept is simply a different way of breaking down barriers. I’m not so chauvinistic that I cannot see other subject areas as the center of attention. History has some real potential, for example. Yet, I cannot escape thinking about how important a good science education is to countries if they’re to remain or become competitive in the new global economy.

By harnessing the great human joys of discovery and creation, we can enhance education and have the communication skills and the numerical skills learning alongside the adventures of finding out and making things. We can best do these things by removing the barriers among subjects as Brockton High has done with English. We can experiment with different paths to this goal. I only suggest that a science focus is one possible path.

8 Responses

  1. When I was 16, the teacher of science began the course on geographical astronomy by declaiming the poem Alla luna, by Giacomo Leopardi.

    This impressed me deeply. Beyond the content, the mere fact that a teacher of science could tell us a poem, opened a whole new way to look at the world.

    As far as teaching English within math lessons is concerned – for instance – I remember so many times where, trying to help a student in a math exercise, the real problem was the understanding of text.

    Or the text was written in a poor way or the student had a language understanding problem instead of a mathematical one.

    This fact pertains to the broader issue of the extremely harmful division between humanities and science, that is made in all kind of schools and in our culture itself.

    Pardon me for my floundering english …

  2. Ciao, Andreas: benvenuto!

    When I was teaching French as a foreign language in Ticino, I attended a further training seminar organized by the experts for Italian teaching in middle schools. The seminar, meant to show ways to improve students’ mastery of Italian (main language of Ticino) in all subjects, was open to all middle-school teachers.

    Unfortunately, few of those who kept complaining about students “not even understanding test questions” came. Pity, because the lecturer presented a research based on real instances of questions asked in tests where the use of pronouns and synonyms to avoid repetitions actually was a serious obstacle to comprehension.

    Avoiding repetitions at all costs is a tenet of language education in French- and Italian-speaking countries. And as many teachers tend to have been “good pupils” who accepted this and other tenets, they replicate them when they write for their students.

    This repetition taboo may not be as strong in English-speaking countries, but perhaps teachers there have their styles cramped by other school-inculcated language taboos?

  3. I was once a part of a program that tried to teach English across the curriculum. It went nowhere because of teacher resistance and the fact that I left for other work soon after starting it. I think that part of the problem with the teacher resistance is due to a misunderstanding of the real benefit of it, and I believe that a more proper understanding is consistent with Harry’s vision.

    The concept is unfortunately sold, as was this program, as a way to improve reading and writing. Teacher resistors don’t see that as their job. What they don’t realize (because they are not taught this idea) is that using reading and writing in their curriculum will help dramatically improve student understanding of the content of their curriculum. If students have to compose responses to questions about that content, if they have to support those thoughtful responses, they will learn far more than through a multiple choice test. The fact that their reading and writing will improve is a happy byproduct of that learning.

    The same thing would happen if students had to use math in some of those thoughtful projects.

    If schools were focuses on inquiry and problem solving, as Harry describes, then all of this would work as an organic whole.

  4. Claude: “This repetition taboo may not be as strong in English-speaking countries, but perhaps teachers there have their styles cramped by other school-inculcated language taboos?”

    Claude, what a fascinating question! For English teachers in the US, repetition is a mortal enemy. The battle is ongoing with both students and staff.

    Perhaps the biggest culprit is the college’s business office, which finds itself in an adversarial role when students question policy on refunds, class changes, etc. To leave absolutely no wriggle room for statements taken out of context, they endlessly repeat key terms from sentence to sentence. And they also repeat the policy, in its entirety or partially, throughout a document or even among documents, wherever it’s mentioned.

    The result is repetition that renders text unreadable and policy that’s hopelessly confusing and often contradictory. The problem comes to light when someone actually takes the time to understand the policy in all its various manifestations — and worse, tries to clarify it. With so much repetition in so many different places, revising and updating is a nightmare, and entries that escape detection will return time and again to haunt and play havoc with the policy.

    Repetition in student writing is often difficult to fix. It often goes beyond mere annoying sound issues. It has to do with how students perceive information units. If they view the sentence as a basic independent unit and don’t understand the interaction among sentences in building meaning, then they will probably needlessly repeat key terms.

    I try to get my students to think in paragraphs instead of single sentences. I tell them that, within the paragraph, they can assume that certain references are understood so they can be omitted or replaced by pronouns.

    But this ability to recursively shape and reshape a whole (paragraph) from evolving parts (sentences) to create a coherent, unified thought is a complex skill. But then writing is, after all, a systematic, anti-entropic process to create clarity out of chaos. (No wonder that some curriculum reformers choose to rally around it as a field unifying skill.)

    When we add the caveat that students should, finally, think in terms of a bunch of paragraphs or even an entire essay as the basic unit of thought, then we’ve made the difficulty of the task even clearer. An essay, an article, a book, a series of writings, the whole should ultimately be the basic unit of thought — with all the parts serving to develop it.

    With this whole in mind, repetition is entropic, confounding the reconstruction process. Thinking, at its best, soars. It’s happiest on an autobahn and least happiest on congested, stop and go city streets. It prefers dealing with forests rather than trees, and forcing it into tree by tree focus is a kind of torture.

    In talks on education reform, endless repetitions of terms with increasingly ambiguous meanings raise the noise level, creating a kind of torture chamber for those seeking clarity.

    For those who are willing to endure the shakeout, understanding that this messy process is perhaps the only way, the ultimate reward is closure, a satisfying sense that one has finally gotten most of the parts to fit together in a way that makes sense. At least for a moment. -Jim S

  5. Jim, of course mindless repetition also raises an obstacle to understanding: boredom. What I meant by “repetition taboo” is teachers using “it” instead of what is referred to in a math problem, because they were taught as kids that repetitions are bad and to be avoided.

    Now I just used “they” in the previous sentence, lol. But I’m writing a reply in a discussion where the participants and potential readers are highly literate, and thus won’t have to stop and look up the former plural noun “they” stands for. In a math problem, it might be better to use “these teachers” instead of “they” (1).

    As to making students write in all subjects: when I was in primary school in Geneva, we had to describe what we were doing and why at each stage of solving arithmetic problems. We kids perceived this rule as a measure against cheating. Perhaps that was some teachers’ idea too. Nevertheless, this rule also improved our capacity to set reasoning in words.

    (1), Math problems are rarely about teachers, though…

  6. […] insegnanti e persone professionalmente coinvolte nella scuola di tutto il mondo. Il post, Breaking Down Barriers, scritto da Harry Keller, mi è piaciuto molto e concerne l’importanza di contaminare […]

  7. Here’s a quote (emphasis added) from the article: “Then Susan Szachowicz and a handful of fellow teachers decided to take action. They persuaded administrators to let them organize a schoolwide campaign that involved reading and writing lessons into every class in all subjects, including gym” (url). -Jim S

  8. The program had results in 2001 (dramatic when compared to 1999), and Dr. Szachowicz became principal in 2004, three years later. I should have read more carefully. Nothing in the article says anything about the principal in 2001, except that he or she was convinced to help out. Too bad. From the article, I have the impression that Dr. Szachowicz was the group leader and was eventually promoted to principal based on her success and leadership. She must have worked constantly with the administration to overcome all sorts of problems. I doubt that they just made her defacto principal.

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