Learning relies on teachers, innovation

Tuesday, May 21, 2002

There were two reports recently in the Southeast Missourian. Both were related to education in America. One was a tale of poor test scores among history students. The other was a tribute to one university professor's ability to make physics fun.

Both stories are instructive.

Since 1994, the U.S. Department of Education has attempted to gauge teaching effectiveness and learning comprehension in three key areas: mathematics, reading and history. To accomplish this, students around the country are selected at random to take National Assessment of Education Progress tests, sometimes called "the Nation's Report Card."

The most recent history test was given last year. Results have just been released by the Department of Education. More than 29,000 fourth-graders, eighth-graders and high school seniors took the test. Of the total, 87 percent of the test-taking students attend public schools.

Only 43 percent of the high school seniors had a "basic" understanding of U.S. history, unchanged from test results in 1994. Among fourth-graders, 67 percent had a basic understanding, up 3 percentage points. And 64 percent of eighth-graders had a basic understanding, also up 3 percentage points from 1994.

The results have prompted Department of Education officials to question both the way history is being taught and whether history teachers have been adequately trained. Sample questions on the NAEP tests: Explain the Monroe Doctrine, and tell why the invention of the steel plow was important in U.S. history.

If Department of Education officials want to find an example of a teacher who goes out of his way to make his subject interesting, they should visit the University of Minnesota, where Jim Kakalios, a physics professor, hooks freshmen by using comic books as his textbook.

In his course, Science in Comic Books, Kakalios challenges students to use physics to test some of the superhuman abilities of various superheroes.

For example, one student tried to figure out how much caloric energy the Flash would need to circle the globe in 80 seconds -- as he did in a comic-book episode. Her conclusion: It couldn't be done.

Other problems were taken from Spider-man comics, tapping into the current popularity of the "Spider-man" movie currently attracting large audiences at theaters.

Kakalios' teaching methods may sound unusual to parents of some school-age children, but successful teachers have always looked for ways to put some fun into their classrooms, often turning to pop culture for inspiration.

The nation's schools need more teachers willing to try new ways to teach. But teachers must know their subject well before they try to be innovative. History, math and reading can be just as much fun as freshman physics at the University of Minnesota.

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