Thursday, February 02, 2012

Surely You're Joking Dr. Coleman!

OK, let's look at Achieve the Core's close reading exemplar for Richard Feynman's "The Making of a Scientist" aimed at sixth graders. This is for two or three days with a standard five parts: reading task, vocab task, sentence syntax task, discussion task, writing task.

First off, let me say that I'd not use this text (which is included in full in the exemplar) with kids in Providence, because I think the main takeaway would be "this is why you're screwed." That is, "see how many advantages white middle class kids with educated parents have before they even get to school." I know my main reaction was "I am an inadequate parent."

I'd also note that the way Feynman's father read to his child is not the way the Common Core is advocating ("avoid giving any background context or instructional guidance at the outset of the lesson while students are reading the text silently."):

We had the Encyclopaedia Britannica at home. When I was a small boy he used to sit me on his lap and read to me from the Britannica. We would be reading, say, about dinosaurs. It would be talking about the Tyrannosaurus rex, and it would say something like, “This dinosaur is twenty-five feet high and its head is six feet across.”

My father would stop reading and say, “Now, let’s see what that means. That would mean that if he stood in our front yard, he would be tall enough to put his head through our window up here.” (We were on the second floor.) “But his head would be too wide to fit in the window.” Everything he read to me he would translate as best he could into some reality.

Anyhow, lets go through the "text-directed questions:"

(Q1) What was Feynman’s father trying to teach his son with the tiles? What sentence is the main point of this scene?
Students will likely say that he was teaching his son about patterns or possibly that he was teaching him math. Teachers should ask students to go back into the text to find the main point—something even more important than patterns and math that his father was trying to teach him: “he started very early to tell me about the world and how interesting it is.”

That's a rather fine-grained distinction considering Feynman actually quotes his father as saying "I want to show him what patterns are like and how interesting they are. It’s a kind of elementary mathematics." If you want to be particular about it (as the author of this exemplar clearly does), what the teacher is really asking for is not what Feynman's father was doing but Feynman's subsequent interpretation of his father's actions.

The next question is:

(Q2) In this section of the text, Feynman put the word “doing” (in the final paragraph) in italics to draw attention to it. Why is he focusing on that word, and how does it connect to the lesson his father is trying to teach him in this example?
Feynman’s father is trying to draw a distinction between recalling the name of a bird and genuinely knowing something about birds. The example is meant to illustrate that while the same bird is called different things in different languages, knowing the names of the bird (even made up names) doesn’t tell you anything about the bird—only about what humans have called it. For Feynman, what really matters—the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something—is captured in knowing what a bird does.

I'll just note that this is a rather jarring point to make in an example of an entirely text-focused curriculum. Then the next day the teacher is supposed to start with a follow-up to the previous question:

(Q3) Why does Feynman’s father tell him about the lice and the mites on birds?
Students should connect the lesson learned in the previous example—to know something is to know why it does something—to this one. The bird does something, namely pecks at its feathers. To know the bird would be to know why it pecks, and his father explores Feynman’s tentative answer with him before offering up his explanation.

So apparently the answer to this question is not "to tell me about the world and how interesting it is," but I don't know why it is less so than in the first question. Why does the teacher's answer skew so weirdly meta-physical: "To know the bird would be to know why it pecks?" Would Richard Feynman say anything like that? Is that how a scientist thinks?

OK, next question:

(Q4) Feynman’s father says, “So you see, everywhere there’s a source of food there’s some form of life that finds it”. Explain what is meant by this sentence and why “some” is in italics.
This is another good comprehension question to test and see if students truly understand Feynman’s point about knowing. To his earlier insight about truly knowing something, this example adds the further point that knowledge of the principle in question is key. The details—like the names of the birds or the relationship between lice and mites—might be incorrect in the particulars. But to Feynman and his father, what really mattered was the discovery of the principle that some form of life (no matter how small or insignificant) will utilize an available source of food.

OK... but nobody is really discovering a principle here. Feynman's dad is giving him a good rule of thumb for observing nature that actually holds up well when you think about, say, the discovery of extremophiles. But where they're going with this is increasingly unclear. In science "knowing" is important but precision is not? Is it ok that this "principle" about life is not true and reinforces a common misperception about how the world works?

And so...

(Q5) After re-reading the section of the text on the wagon and ball example, ask students to engage in this experiment themselves if materials allow, or to guide the teacher in physically re-creating it or a similar experiment that illustrates the law of inertia. Feynman’s example shows the principle behind inertia—“that things which are moving tend to keep on moving, and things which are standing still tend to stand still”—a point he stressed in his explanation of what it means to know something. Teachers should note that Feynman’s father is quick to confess to not knowing why there is a law of inertia (“nobody knows”), but does explain the law through an example that he then uses to extract a “general principle.”

OK, so first off we just established two questions ago that "to know something is to know why it does something" and now we're (wisely) discarding that idea. Or at most we should attribute it to biology and not physics. But really, what to do with this sentence: "...Feynman’s father is quick to confess to not knowing why there is a law of inertia (“nobody knows”), but does explain the law through an example that he then uses to extract a “general principle." The elder Feynman refers to a "tendency" called "inertia," not a "law." He doesn't "derive" it, he explains it. For that matter saying you don't know why there is a specific physical law is rather different than saying you don't know why objects exhibit certain properties. The latter is a question that physics might answer, the former is not. Pretty much what you'll probably get when you have English teachers ordered to teach science texts.

My point here is that this question and explanation response is just garbled.

On the other hand, it is nice that they propose an experiment.

Finally:

(Q6) In the final paragraph Feynman says he “was given something wonderful when he was a child.” Using two of the examples from the text, explain what he was given and how it influenced his life.

For homework:

...pick one of the examples that Feynman uses in his piece (the dinosaur, the birds, or the wagon) and in 2-3 paragraphs explain both the example and the lesson Feynman’s father was trying to teach him with it.

At this point, it should be well established that the expectation is to verbosely parrot back what the teacher told you during the lesson, with liberal citations from the text.

What are the underlying problems here?

  • As Jennifer reminded me, this is just what lesson plans written by non-teachers look like, or even plans written by teachers without trying them in front of real kids.
  • You don't necessarily gain much by close reading an article from Cricket even one written by someone as awesome as Richard Feynman. This piece doesn't hold up as a treatise on epistemology. If you do take the close reading approach, you need to be really, really precise as the teacher.
  • You have to be very clear about whether there is only one correct answer to a text-based question or whether anything that can be supported by the text is acceptable.
  • The single most important question in science education is "What is science and how does it work?" All across America thousands of sixth graders are now going to be dragged through this example lesson by English teachers who will only manage to muddy that water (e.g., "To know the bird would be to know why it pecks").
  • The hidden part of the Common Core is apparently life lessons from wise men.

2 comments:

Jason said...

This is a pretty awful assignment. The technicalities suggested by some of the answers, and the inconsistency in the application of these technicalities, is exactly the kind of thing that frustrates the hell out of kids.

Also, this feels like an inappropriate use of a particular technique based on the assumption that all non-fiction is read and understood the same way. An academic paper drawing on other research might use these techniques. Understanding of something that's biography/memoir or more narrative non-fiction (in an even more general sense) shouldn't be determined this way.

Andrew said...

This is a pretty good example of why using a canned lesson without first spending some time to consider it is a bad idea. Just because someone has a PhD after their name doesn't necessarily make their interpretation of a work better than someone else's.

This is a point that is often lost - that interpretation of literature (or even an essay) is personal. English isn't some computer language - it is by its nature imprecise and different people get different things out of a book, a paragraph or even a word. There seems to be this notion that this is a problem.

Some writers are exceedingly good at being clear, but then there isn't much need to discuss one's interpretation, is there?