Blogging the string in the labyrinth of Crete

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Bible in Schools

Many reasonable people who point out that religion has had a significant effect on society and is therefore worthwhile of study, even in public schools. Generally, because of the impact Christianty has had in American culture, they suggest Bible courses.

I don't have qualms with the argument itself -- the Supreme Court has recognized that while teaching religion is unconstitutional, teaching about religion is acceptable. Knowing about the world includes knowing about religion and how it affects us. There is even aesthetic value, as many authors and artists reference religious beliefs or scripture. There are serious reasons to worry considerably about the implementation of courses, however.

The ACLU recently filed Moreno v. Ector County School Board, a complaint by eight parents against a Texas district which initiated a 10th-grade Bible study elective course. In their complaint, the plaintiffs claim the curriculum of the course teaches a particular theological point of view. It should be noted that none are necessarily atheists, and at least one is specifically a Presbyterian minister. Generally, one might think suing on a viewpoint taught might be difficult from an evidentiary perspective. One recent New Jersey case would have gone uncorroborated if the student had not been plucky enough to audiotape the lectures (for which, incidentally, the school chastised him).

As all complaints, a statement of facts is included. These only tell the plaintiff's side, and have not yet been supported by evidence. However, certain assertions are almost certainly true, simply because verification would be simple:

  • The King James version (which the complaint says is a Protestant version) is used in the course.
  • Roman Catholic beliefs on communion are described in course text as "warped" and brought on by "mysticism"
  • Scriptures are memorized and at least one assignment asks students to discuss their significance to their own lives
  • A supplementary video uses many unconfirmed quotations of the founding fathers to argue a religious foundation for the government, without presenting contradictory quotations

A true-false exam presents a list of questions. The answers to all of the below, quoted verbatim, are "true":

  • Jesus was resurrected on a Sunday
  • During his prayer, Jesus sweated drops of blood
  • Judas was paid to show the Jewish officials where Jesus was
  • When Jesus dies, the sun goes black
  • Jesus ascended to heaven on the Mount of Olives

Perhaps those who are better educated about the Bible can tell me whether those represent specific religious viewpoints, but I would be quite surprised if all the Biblical faiths (including varieties of Christianity, Judaism, and Catholicism) all subscribed to these.

Many other claims and examples in the complaint will probably be disputed by the school district, including a claim that the selection of the particular curriculum was rigged in favor of a less objective curriculum. The claims, however, are believable. The complaint suggests that while two curricula were evaluated, only one was eventually presented to the Board. That the other may have been more objective is implied in an email from the Director of Curriculum and Instruction, Shannon Baker, in which she writes: "YES, WE ARE USING NCBCPS :) :) :)! HA! Take that you dang heathens!"

What does this tell us about religion classes in schools, and curriculum selection in general? Well, it may be fraught with corruption and personal interests. Baker's email suggests she's not only not trying to remain objective, but that she feels her religion requires her to advance a certain religious viewpoint. It's difficult to teach a Bible class objectively even when the materials and instructor both genuinely share that purpose. Given that people and processes are rarely so pure, Bible classes are dangerous enough that the decision of most schools to simply not offer them is a wise one.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Raising Bicultural Children: Undokai

Undokai (OON-DOH-KYE) is the Japanese version of field or sports day. Kids all get together and participate in various track-and-field activities. This weekend, my two older sons had undokai on Saturday and Sunday.

Unlike American field day, which from what I recall of my childhood was pretty much just an in-school event, Japanese undokai is usually held on a weekend, and parents and other family members attend to watch. It is extremely popular: my wife tells me that in Japan, families will sometimes arrive at 6 am to ensure getting the best seat. Calling the events "track-and-field" is something of an exaggeration, as many of them do not resemble standard sports.

Four-year old CharmerBoy's undokai was 40 minutes away. My wife and I woke up at 6 Saturday morning and started drowsily making lunch of onigiri, tamagoyaki, and edamame (rice balls, small sliced omelettes, and soybeans). We packed up the car, dropped Superboy off at his Saturday school, and managed to arrive at the event just before 9.

There were perhaps 300 people at the field, and perhaps about 5 were American (3 husbands and 2 wives). People set out their blankets and umbrellas, got their cameras ready, and chatted before the activities got underway. The atmosphere was pretty relaxed and friendly, and the opening event -- a 50 meter race -- was done with much fanfare but virtually no competitiveness. This set the tone for most of the events, where the winner was more of a footnote than anything else. Indeed, it was often difficult to even tell who (or which side, since most events were group competitions) had won.

One aspect of undokai that's very different from American field day is the expectation of parental participation. This is especially true at the preschool level, where the parents probably did more than the children. My wife had circled every event on the "parental participation" sheet the day before, indicating we'd do pretty much anything they asked. Some of the events involved races, games, or dances with the kids, and some were parent-only events that the kids would enjoy watching.

"Love love couple", for example, was a race which started with the wife blindfolded. The husband would clap to lead her to a table, where she could remove the blindfold. Then the couple would run to a marker while holding hands, circle it, and race back to the starting point. This event, and actually pretty much every race, was done as a relay. Personally, I found the father's "triathlon" -- situps, jump rope, and spinning ten times in a race around the track --
the most challenging, falling heavily after spinning and then trying to run at top speed around a curve.

The undokai lasted until about noon, when everyone stopped for lunch. There was then a brief closing ceremony where the kids all got medals, and after some more chatting everyone went home. My wife was impressed mostly by CharmerBoy's popularity. Other children were continually coming over to pull him away to play or run around whenever there was a break in the action.

Superboy's undokai on Sunday was a larger affair, and more competitive, but still retained some of the elements of family participation, the midday lunch, and a fondness for relay races. It also involved more preparation: this time, my wife and I woke up at 5:30 am to make a more impressive lunch, make a zabuton (small seat) for Superboy from a newspaper in a taped plastic bag, and sew his blue nametags onto the front and back of a white shirt. Once again we arrived just prior to 9 am to find an already-substantial crowd (in the picture) camped out on the field, with a growing crowd in the stands. Huge banners had been painted at the top of the stands, and there were shade tents for the hundreds of participants from various grades. About twenty parents had set up tripods along the race track in preparation for capturing the perfect shot.

The children had previously been divided into red and white teams, and events throughout the day were scored and a running tally kept. The division into teams seemed to increase the competitive spirit considerably, and there was a lot of rhythmic cheering, flag-waving, and victory celebrations. There were track races (relay, mostly) scattered throughout the day, interspersed with other events such as tug-of-war and tamaire (teams have three minutes to throw as many bean bags into a raised basket as possible -- sort of a group basketball).

A lot of the events involved unusual rules. Tug-of-war, for instance, was done with many ropes of differing lengths laid out on the field, and the contestants would run from opposing starting lines to get as many ropes as possible (which naturally leads into tug-of-war). Another interesting event involved the few hundred members of each team lining up on each side of the field and then trying to surround as many members of the other team as they could with a linked human chain. Unlike American field days, there were also several dance performances.

Families were again more than spectators. Superboy and I managed to win our heat's parent-child three-legged race mostly through diving at the very end. There was a race for younger children which involved running up to one of the older children with a pokemon hat and playing a short game of janken (rock-paper-scissors) for a piece of candy before running to the finish line. All the children somehow managed to win the candy, and were far less concerned with being the first to finish than with having the candy. I sat out of the parent dodgeball variant and another race which involved the kids finding a parent with some random quality (so there were kids running around with signs asking for "A father who likes soccer" or "A mother who enjoys going to the hot springs"), who would then have to run back to the finish line with the kids.

The day ended at about 3:30 with the white team finishing 200 points ahead and each kid receiving a bubble pen as a prize. Chatting continued for some time while everyone filtered off the field making afternoon and dinner plans (mostly eating out or the husbands making food -- it was Mother's Day, after all).

The downplay of competition, incidentally, is apparently somewhat recent, as my wife indicates that there were a lot of medals and trophies given out when she was in school. Still, even then there were apparently many group events and relay races designed to limit individual culpability for wins and losses. It's hard to make any clear statement as to whether the Japanese undokai is something which shapes Japanese culture or is an expression of it. Certainly some of the activities and the way events were run would play easily into many stereotyped opinions of the Japanese, both good and bad. Undokai are a lot of fun, though, and most Americans would find them fascinating.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

On Waldorf

On another blog (unnamed, as the comment was deleted), Richard Rawlings recently ranted on his issues with Waldorf education, claiming it was religious and racist and rapidly reaching into the arena of public education.

Curious, I read Rawling's "expose┬┤", the websites of the American Waldorf Schools, several individual school websites, and a forum generally critical of Waldorf education. Waldorf schools appear to be oriented towards producing very artists and humanitarians, with a lot of focus on drawing, crafts, and kinesthetics. I would have to guess they are somewhat weaker on science and mathematics, though not uniformly so: its graduates do include scientists and physicians as well as actors and artists.

Most of Rawlings' claims appear to be based on his personal experience as a student and the writings of the founder of Waldorf schooling.

Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was the founder of Waldorf education. He died in 1925, and promptly stopped writing books about education. Some of his writings do seem pretty flaky -- they reference esp, unseen forces, and the like. To the extent this survives in the Waldorf educational system, it would be in the field of anthroposophy, a sort of spiritual/mystical belief system with some rationalistic properties. Rawlings claims it's a "religion", but it seems to lack a lot of the features of a true religion and would more appropriately be called a "quasi-mystic philosophy". Steiner had tried, and failed, to have it accepted as a science, but it has been applied in fields such as medicine, architecture, and agriculture.

Rawlings has difficulty actually citing the religious bent in the schooling itself, as anthroposophy is not an official subject of the curriculum. He notes that there were no scriptures studied or learned dogma, but notes that a "strange aura" hung over the school. He suggests the students' "otherworldly" water-color paintings suggest the link to "talismanic representations of the spirit realm". Other than that, he notes that glimpses of the spiritualist nature were "hidden". Some of the evidence for the spiritual nature of the curriculum was in the literature studied: the Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost.

Rawlings also mentions Steiner's alleged racism in his diatribe. While arguably Steiner's writings contained evidence of racism, and some Waldorf schools may have some racist teachers, he admits he does not know the current state of Waldorf schools, which may have changed from when he attended. Viewing some of the websites shows a relatively broad racial mix of students and teachers. Which brings us to when he attended -- he graduated more than 40 years ago, in 1964. I thus find it difficult to treat his experience with any relevance.

This is not how an educational system should be judged. One does not do research on a system as it was 40 to 50 years ago, or on the founder's ideas almost a century ago, to determine how well it works today. One does not do research in the form of one person's testimony (or even the several who post on the Waldorf critic forum). A system must be judged on what it produces. It should be measured, either in test scores or through some other measure. It can then be compared and judgments rendered.

My guess is that Waldorf education is guilty mostly of being "famously fruitcake" (in the words of one commentator). Looking over the curriculum of its' schools reveals they all have "eurythmy", a sort of dance and body awareness, a lot of comparative religious study focusing mainly on Hebraic religions and then Greek and Norse mythology, a focus on crafts and music, and a resistance to teaching reading before second grade. German and French are learned from a relatively early age, and I would imagine most students achieve at least a usable proficiency. Much of the education appears to be very "hands-on", similar in some respects to Montessori schooling. Artistic endeavors are prominent among its graduates, and many appear to be attending college late in life. The colleges they attend range from mediocre to competitive. The teachers appear to have suitable degrees in the fields they teach from well-known institutions.

Rawlings has utterly failed to convince me. Suggestively, the lawsuit Rawlings' references against a charter and a magnet school in California was dismissed for lack of evidence. I'm not inclined towards education that leans towards a "spirit realm", and vigorously argue against any sort of compulsion in religion, even to the point where I disagree with the two well-known words in the Pledge of Allegiance and the four words on currency referencing a deity. I would not likely choose a Waldorf education for my children. Where school choice exists, however, I feel it's important to have as many forms of education as possible. In a free market of education, I think Waldorf would represent one viable alternative.


Thursday, May 03, 2007

Constructivism, Holism, and teaching

For some people, thinking in linear logical sequences is natural. They can traipse unerringly along a trail of reason, easily dissociating irrational or extraneous cues on their path to a goal. These people may also be blessed with terrific abstract spatial or mechanical abilities, be able to wield abstract concepts effectively, and have great memory for details. We might say these people are reductionistic thinkers. Superboy is like this.

CharmerBoy, my second son, is not blessed with any of these abilities (sleeping on the beach in the pic; kids often seem orthogonally opposed, don't they?). For a long time, my wife thought he was "kind of stupid". At four, he still only really speaks one language, and barely knows the 56-character Japanese alphabet. It's often difficult for him to follow sequential instructions, even though he is quiet earnest in attempting to do so. Math is beyond him. However, he understands people and emotions. I've seen him cheerfully lead children in playground activities and reduce children to sobbing in arguments while knowing virtually no English, understanding them without understanding their words. He can nearly instantly separate similar and dissimilar images without focusing on details. Somehow he seems to intuitively discern certain relationships far more quickly than Superboy, like the connection between the tv remote and the tv. He loves the rain, putting his face in the snow, and pretending to be different types of animals. CharmerBoy is a holistic thinker.

Swimming is a holistic activity, particularly when compared to the land-based analog, walking. Swimming depends on harmony between the body and the water. Walking is a reductionistic, largely nonintegrated activity -- when walking, one can twist their upper body, twirl their arms, or even engage in complex tasks such as writing or playing a musical instrument with virtually no effect on walking. These activities done while swimming would greatly alter the ability to swim, potentially dangerously. Even how deeply or evenly one breathes has an effect on buoyancy and the ability to swim. Walking is done along two-dimensional planes, while swimming is in three-dimensional space. Swimming leaves trails of ripples emanating outwards, while walking often leaves no sign of passage. Further, many people enjoy swimming as a leisure activity and find it improves their bodies.

The constructivist argument regarding whole language is that because language is a holistic activity, it should be taught contextually and holistically, with the focus on the learner constructing their own meaning. They argue that this produces the best learning.

A child's constructivist swimming lesson would be easy enough to devise. First, you would give a demonstration, either swimming yourself or showing videos of swimming. This would probably include various strokes with clear visual features, such as the butterfly stroke, the crawl, or the backstroke. You could then put the children into the deep end of the pool -- oh, wait, it should be an authentic environment, like a lake or the ocean -- and call out tips to them for staying afloat. Of course, you wouldn't necessarily anticipate all the children would be successful right away, so you'd continue to do this day after day. During this, you would try to stress how much fun it is being in the water.

Teaching them skills separately in a reductionistic fashion would be antithetical to this approach. You would not engage in the "drill-and-kill" of first teaching them to kick by holding onto the dock in a calm environment and having them just kick their feet, making sure they did that correctly. You wouldn't have them move their arms and hands in a swimming manner while standing in the water, correcting their hand position or stroke and making sure their fingers were together rather than splayed. That wouldn't be allowing them to construct their own method of swimming. You would call this method "inhumane" and "dehumanizing" when compared to the first method, regardless of efficacy.

I need not point out how most swimming instruction is actually done today, though it is worth noting that people have in the past advocated the first method. You'll sometimes hear people speak about it as a badge of honor that their parents taught them to swim by just throwing them into the lake. I don't recall anyone mentioning how enjoyable it was to learn that way, however, nor how dehumanized they felt with a direct instruction method. For that matter, I haven't heard advocates of instant immersion touting their spectacular teaching skills, and haven't heard anyone complain of the direct instructors following a rote script and not "teaching". The fact is, whether the type of activity is a highly compartmentalized, reductionistic one or a very interconnected, holistic one has little bearing on the proper way to teach. One may be able to think holistically, but teaching holistically has not been shown to work.

A few weeks ago, we walked into the bathroom, where CharmerBoy was staring contemplatively up at the ceiling, floating effortlessly on his back in the tub with a slight smile playing on his lips, completely at peace with his surroundings.

Parenting is a lot of fun.