There's a Place for Cut-and-Paste Learning, and It's Not Fourth Grade

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, June 4, 2009

Dear Extra Credit:

Because you asked, I think I can give you a fairly clear example of how the emphasis on testing is taking over instructional methods.

I have three children in Fairfax County schools. When my sons (now 16 and 14) were in fourth grade, they used their history textbook. As homework, they read sections of the book and extrapolated the important points, which they noted in a notebook or on index cards, which were then checked in class. Classwork consisted of a variety of techniques, including games and projects to help the kids learn the material.

My 10-year-old daughter is in fourth grade. At back-to-school night, her history teacher announced that the textbook was "too advanced" for fourth-graders. She said that instead of using the book, the kids would be creating a "multimedia journal" containing the material they would learn in class. The teacher stressed the importance of the journals and implored us to protect them, because they couldn't be replaced.

My daughter's journal is a composition book in which she cuts, pastes and colors on informational pages given by the teacher. I can only describe the pages as CliffsNotes. Each page lists important points condensed into SOL facts for the kids to memorize. Clip art is inexpertly scattered on each page to organize and identify information.

One homework question asks: "Where was Jamestown located in 1607? Where is it located today?" The page that supposedly supplies this answer shows a map with a peninsula and then an island. The location of Jamestown is not marked. One must assume from the text on the journal page that Jamestown was initially on that peninsula and is now on the island.

My daughter spent the better part of 20 minutes trying to answer this question before asking me for help. She basically wasted 20 minutes, because the journal page, in my opinion, is a horrible way to learn. The textbook, on the other hand, has wonderful information about why the original Jamestown location was at first deemed suitable but found to be unsuitable, most importantly because of marshy, salty water.

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