The Squeakiest Wheel, Dept.

According to this recent news article, a group of students at Sobrato High School in Morgan Hill, California, signed a petition objecting to the way math is taught at that school.  A number of complaints were raised.  One was that “the math department does not tailor its teaching needs to every learning style of its students.”

Another complaint was that students were forced to work in groups.

According to one student, “Common Core is based on groups, so the teachers aren’t as involved as they would be in another curriculum. Sometimes, we do not even get to ask questions at all from the teacher, we have to work in groups and ask others who are just as confused as we are. So if your members don’t care, then you’re out of luck.  Teachers won’t even give you credit for completing classwork if some of your group members didn’t do their work exactly as instructed, and they won’t help your group if no one knows how to solve a problem.”

A third complaint was  that “teachers move on from one lesson to another before students can even grasp the concepts; they don’t allow students to retake tests that often have subject matter that was not previously covered in class.”

The valedictorian of the graduating class commented that he tutored other students  “going over the basics that the teachers should’ve gone over.” He said he supports the common core curriculum, “but the basics must be taught before you delve into the deep thinking that common core requires.”

While I am not sympathetic to the theory of “learning styles”, I think this complaint will likely get the most attention. Despite the lack of evidence for the learning style theory, it has garnered credibility, starting in ed school and continuing beyond. It is to education as “blood letting” was to medicine, and there’s no sign of the belief abating despite papers having been written that challenge the notion.

Also interesting is the belief that Common Core requires that classes be conducted in groups. It is not surprising that this would come up, given that Common Core has been interpreted in ways that align with math reform ideologies and ineffective practices, despite the statement on the Common Core website that the standards do not dictate any particular pedagogy.

The comment about mastery of basics is also pertinent, but it is not clear whether the valedictorian was speaking about basics that should have been mastered in K-8, or whether he meant foundational aspects of algebra.  The article doesn’t mention what textbooks are used, but it does allude to an integrated approach being used at the school. This means that instead of individual subjects like algebra 1 and 2, geometry, pre-calculus and so forth, there is a blending of all of these topics at various levels within each year. Although integrated math has been used overseas successfully, it has had problems of implementation in the U.S.  Two such programs (that received grants from the NSF in the early 90’s for their development) are Core Plus, and Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP), both of which have received substantial criticism for their poor coverage and implementation. (See for example this article that describes the effects on student performance in college attributed to Core Plus in high school.)

I suspect that despite the credibility the petition might gain within the school’s administration by its mention of learning styles, that will not be enough to compensate for the complaints about curriculum, use of groups, and grading policies.  My prediction is that if the administration does anything, it will look focus on what they think is the squeakiest wheel and will integrate “learning styles” into its practices.  They will hold on to everything else, however, dismissing the students’ other complaints by relying on this old chestnut: “Since when do students know more than teachers”.

Such complaint is part of an arsenal of arguments school administrations use, which also include “What do parents know?”,”What do mathematicians know?” and “If you’re not a teacher you have no right to criticize.” Such arguments are as cherished as the concept of learning styles.  And like learning styles, they show no sign of abating any time soon.


4 thoughts on “The Squeakiest Wheel, Dept.

  1. I’ve heard this learning styles bromide for years, but my son never had a option to choose. It was treated more as a whole class variation – mostly visual in the form of drawing pictures. It was never an option to learn individually rather than in groups, and it was never an option to memorize even when the goal was to learn something like science definitions. They ALL had to draw pictures with crayons in my son’s 6th grade class. It appears that in this article they are turning around and using learning styles against the school. Good luck with that.

    In any case, learning style is supposed to define a method where the process can vary individually, but the result will be the same. The problem is that reform math seems to be all about the process and rarely the result. They assume that the process works by definition. “Trust the spiral.” They supposedly love the balance of skills and understanding, but denigrate the value of checking skill results using simple tests. It’s all about problem solving and understanding. Never mind that those tests provide little to no individual feedback for correction. Yearly state problem solving test results are a year late and many tutoring dollars short. What are classroom teachers, potted plants? How do they know when different learning style approaches work?

    This is also not about acceleration. I used to say that my son’s learning style was individual and fast, but that doesn’t mean much in low expectation full inclusion K-6 these days. Some educators claim that they offer in-class acceleration in leveled groups, but not for everything because they could then separate them with walls and give them their own teacher. Also, this form of acceleration gets reset each year.

    They sometimes refer to it as enrichment, but how much enrichment do you need with basics before it’s better to just move on? What happens to the rest who never get that enrichment? Is enrichment the best use of time, or is it just a way to avoid what they really should be doing? This also ignores the problem that the students in the upper leveled in-class groups are probably getting basic skill mastery and true acceleration help at home. This home help starts to go away in 7th and 8th grades and goes away almost completely in high school. Obviously, parents at home do NOT trust the spiral, and these students become the school’s best students. It would be simple to ask us what we had to do at home.

    There is a lot of nonsense floating around in the education world that is not even backed up by what goes on in class. Where is the critical thinking? Where is the problem solving? What ARE the specific problems of education? They are defined by anecdotes (individual failures and successes are like gold), not big data that doesn’t collect key variables like home help. How are the best students created? We parents can tell you exactly for our individual kids. I’ll wager that the feedback would show a lot of correlation that big data will never tell them. Wet streets cause rain.

    There is no common sense here. Many K-6 teachers know that full inclusion, differentiated instruction, and learning styles don’t work in practice. Many others are completely on board. In first grade, my son’s 60+ year old teacher told my wife and I that our son had a lot of “superficial knowledge,” Others told us that everything evens out by fourth grade. Yet other teachers told us different things in private.

    Whatever. Parents beware!

    Then the education world changes in high school, but none of them seem to care about why there is this complete change in reality. I guess reality pushes down from the real world and college, but never gets to K-6.


    • Good point and one that I missed. The students were complaining about always being in groups, and that such policy ignored their individual learning styles. Nice try on the part of the students. And you’re right: Good luck with that!


  2. Pingback: Educational Reader’s Digest | Friday 2nd June – Friday 9th June – Douglas Wise

  3. Pingback: The Squeakiest Wheel: The Saga Continues | traditional math

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