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The Hechinger Report


New Teaching Methods to Serve a Younger Generation

A sampling of Hechinger reporting for The New York Times’ Learning section

Published: Wednesday, April 29, 2020 - 11:02

Students generally learn about moles, atoms, compounds, and the intricacies of the periodic table in college, but Daniel Fried is convinced kids can learn complex biochemistry topics as early as elementary school.

Fried is an assistant professor of chemistry at Saint Peter’s University in New Jersey, and in his spare time, he creates biochemistry lessons for kids, teaching fourth through sixth graders at a nearby Montessori school and sharing lessons with other teachers and homeschooling parents around the country and world.

“When the kids are young, they’re highly motivated,” Fried says. “It’s easy to teach them. They pick up on the patterns so quickly. They appreciate everything.” High school and college students, by contrast, take a lot more work to engage, and Fried has found getting children interested in biochemistry to be a breeze—especially when they hear they’ll soon be able to correct older siblings or cousins. “The harder part is getting the adults on board to allow it to happen,” he says.

Sydney Rosario modeling the concept of hydrogen bonding in fifth grade last year at Our Lady of Mercy Academy in Park Ridge, N.J. Credit: Gabriela Fuentes

At Hopatcong Middle School in northern New Jersey, Jim McKowen is one of the first public-school teachers to take on this curriculum. He teaches it to sixth graders. McKowen said after one lesson where students learn about flavor molecules, kids go home and scour ingredient labels for chemicals they recognize. After his class, he says, kids doodle molecules in their school notebooks.

Fried has introduced biochemistry to students of various ethnic groups and socioeconomic statuses in schools and museums, finding that all of them happily grapple with the curriculum. While men tend to dominate STEM fields, girls are as interested in these lessons as boys, he says.

Both teachers think the curriculum could bring more diversity to STEM. “Hopefully it does translate into a greater interest in science later in life, and we start to see those results,” McKowen says.

To get there, though, teachers must believe children are capable of more than they may think.

“We do sell kids short sometimes.” —Jim McKowen

Fake frogs, real lessons

Dissection day always made Karina Frey queasy. Even as a self-proclaimed science and math girl, she didn’t like the idea of cutting into an animal’s chemically-preserved body.

“I believe that animals have souls too,” says Karina, a senior at J. W. Mitchell High School in New Port Richey, Florida.

With vegetarianism and environmental concerns on the rise among young people, the option of learning on something that didn’t have to die for that purpose is increasingly attractive.

Enter SynFrog: an amphibian that’s as slimy as a real frog but never drew a breath.

The anatomically accurate fake frog made its debut at Karina’s high school last November. It met with avid approval from biology teachers and students, according to Principal Jessica Schultz. She said the school usually goes through about 300 frogs a year, and several students in each class always opt out of the assignment.

The SynFrog is an alternative to the formaldehyde-preserved frogs currently used for dissection in schools nationwide. Credit: Judge Public Relations

Three million frogs are harvested each year for classroom dissections in the United States, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which partnered with the manufacturing company SynDaver to develop the synthetic frog.

At $150, the first SynFrog was more expensive than a frog carcass ($7 to $10 each); the company hopes to reduce the price in the next version. As the frog is reusable for most dissections, the cost could be recuperated over time.

Since the frog’s debut, the company has had trouble filling orders fast enough, according to its CEO and founder, Christopher Sakezles. If SynFrog catches on, it could change a staple of high-school education.

A work college makes room for growth

With the average cost of college now about $20,000 annually at public and $41,000 at private institutions, many students have jobs to help cover costs. But at nine institutions federally designated as work colleges, working is incorporated into the curriculum to offset tuition and fees. Paul Quinn College, a historically black college in Dallas, became the newest work college in 2017, and the only urban one. Now it is expanding.

“We’re not one of those schools that’s overstaffed,” says Michael Sorrell, the college’s president. “A lot of the jobs that other schools might hire people to do, we’ve invested in the students to do.”

Classes are primarily held Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, leaving Tuesday and Thursday for students to work uninterrupted. They work in the president’s office, on the campus farm (where you can find radishes, arugula, spinach, kohlrabi, and more) and off campus at businesses such as JP Morgan Chase and Liberty Mutual.

The model clearly works well for Paul Quinn. The retention rate for first-year, full-time students rose from 63 percent before the change to 71 percent in the 2017–2018 year. Two new buildings are slated to open this summer: one a residence hall, so enrollment can grow beyond the roughly 500 students it has now, the other a gym and wellness center with classroom space. And, having added a new campus in nearby Plano in 2018, school leaders are searching for the next site.

“I think you’ll see another campus within the next three years.” —Michael Sorrell 

Flexible design pushes desks aside

School desks neatly lined up in rows may soon be a relic of the past. Districts across the country are pouring millions into redesigning classrooms, trading the traditional layout for beanbags, rocking chairs, and furniture on wheels. The North American school furniture market is expected to grow to $2.4 billion by 2024, from $1.7 billion in 2018 as technology-driven change increases the demand for more flexible classroom space.

Bryan Ballegeer of KI, a Wisconsin-based school furniture company, says this is what he hears from school administrators: “We’ve been sitting in the same chairs for 40 years, and our school system is changing. We don’t want any one part of the room to be the front of the room. We want our kids to collaborate more.”

In response, KI eliminated some of its desk/chair combos. Its catalogue now includes standing or counter-height tables where students can work in teams and comfy couches where they can settle in to read.

To figure out if its furniture helps schools, KI completely re-outfitted some classrooms in nine schools and gave a before-and-after survey to students and teachers. Both groups reported higher levels of engagement and participation after the furniture swap. Other research backs up the idea that changing a classroom’s physical characteristics can change what happens in it and improve student performance.

Still, Bryan Ballegeer, a former educator, offers a cautionary note. “My advice is take a moment, talk with your teachers, talk with your community,” he says. “It’s a big expense.”

How much do students really like tech?

Kids like technology. They like playing games, watching videos, finding music, and interacting with their peers on social media. They like exploring the endless resources of the internet.

Educators notice this and assume it’s a safe bet that computers and other devices will capture students’ interest in school. Indeed, 93 percent of principals and 86 percent of teachers say that increased student engagement is the most important benefit of using computers and tablets in classrooms, according to the latest data from the Speak Up Research Initiative, which surveyed more than 26,000 teachers and librarians and almost 2,200 administrators last year. Nearly 70 percent of district administrators said they considered engagement to be the most effective sign that a piece of educational technology is useful.

Speak Up got a very different response from the roughly 290,000 students they surveyed: Just 41 percent of middle schoolers and 35 percent of high schoolers said they strongly associated classroom technology with increased engagement.

What’s more, anecdotal interviews, along with data from YouthTruth, a national nonprofit that conducts student surveys, indicate that many students actually dislike when teachers turn over instruction to computers. They say they prefer learning directly from teachers—because they think teachers are the experts or that it’s their job—and many complain about spending too much time on screens, between their schoolwork and their use of technology at home.

Gen Z may walk through life glued to smartphones. But that doesn’t mean they want to use computers in class.

This story about new teaching methods was produced by The Hechinger Report, a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Tara Garcia Mathewson, Meredith Kolodner, Delece Smith-Barrow, and Sarah Butrymowicz contributed to this article.


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The Hechinger Report

The Hechinger Report covers inequality and innovation in education with in-depth journalism that uses research, data, and stories from classrooms and campuses to show the public how education can be improved and why it matters.