Monday, August 25, 2014

Inquiry-led Learning

Back in school and college, I wasn't much of an in-class questioner. I benefited greatly from listening to other students ask their questions and get answers from the teacher, but I rarely asked questions myself. I'm still like that.

"Why?" I (rarely) ask myself. I love to learn new things, especially in fields of interest to me. Perhaps I think that the teacher is up there to teach that which he/she deems important and my consternation is relatively trivial and shouldn't take away from the teacher's time to give his/her prepared presentation; after all, I can usually figure out the answer on my own afterward. Perhaps I feel rude asking questions because it implies that the teacher did a poor job of teaching me. Perhaps I believe that there really is such a thing as a "dumb question," and I don't want to ask one. Perhaps I'm more interested in going to lunch.

At any rate, I don't question much, and it would appear my daughter is similar to me in that respect. When I picked up dd9 from school this afternoon, she told me that as part of their study of living systems, they did the first two parts of a "KWL" exercise, in which they asked themselves the following questions:

  • "What do I know about living systems?" 
  • "What do I want to know about them?" 
  • "What did I learn about them?"

She told me that she didn't have anything she wants to know about living systems. This from a girl who has been independently reading a book on genetics recently and is always picking up nonfiction books about animals for recreational reading. Maybe she was thrown off by the nonspecific topic label of "living systems," or maybe she just doesn't have questions about them at present. I hope her teacher doesn't confuse today's lack of questions with an absence of curiosity.

Inquiry-led learning receives a lot of praise these days, both by some advocates of unschooling and proponents of constructivist school curricula. While inquiry-led learning may work wonderfully for some children, it seems to poorly serve curious non-questioners like my daughter and me.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Snowed by Kim Jong-il

A few years ago, a visiting scholar to our city gave a lecture on North Korea. He had been to visit North Korea, and he declared that the USA wasn't doing enough to engage with North Korea.

Now, I spent two weeks working at the US Embassy in Seoul during a time when the USA was trying to have six-party talks with North Korea. But North Korea wanted only bilateral talks, in keeping with an apparent pattern of trying to extort money from the USA. It appeared to me that this visiting scholar was not presenting an accurate picture of the USA's attempts to negotiate with North Korea and that he might have been unwisely swayed by the apparent sincerity and possibility of good will from the North Koreans as well as flattered by having been granted access to North Korea.

Fast forward to the just-released memoir of a North Korean defector who had inside knowledge of what Kim Jong-il was up to. Kim Jong-il, who built up the personality cult around his father while stripping away his father's power and taking it for himself, feasted royally--the invidual courses were even specially lit with customized, colored lighting--while government propagandists told the country how he was sharing their hunger and living off mere rice balls. Foreign aid was being given to party officials to keep them loyal while the regular North Koreans starved to death, even being driven to sell their children on occasion. Fake Christian churches were set up in Pyongyang to make it look like religion was freely practiced and to receive donations from South Korean churches, but when a regular North Korean showed up to enjoy the hymns, he was turned in by a "cleric" to the police and arrested.

Diplomacy was never sincere; it was all about counterintelligence work:
The United States negotiates as a matter of diplomacy, to seek common ground on an issue; but when North Korea comes to the table, it's a counterintelligence operation. In other words, North Korea uses dialogue as a tools of deception rather than of negotiation, with the objective being the maintenance of misplaced trust in the other party. And why not? North Korea's opacity is its greatest strength. It allows things to be done on its own terms while other countries continue to take what North Korea says at face value. In fact, Kim Jong-il formally set these three principles as a basis for diplomatic engagment: 'The United States will buy any lie, as long as it is logically presented'; 'Japan is susceptible to emotional manipulation'; and 'South Korea can be ignored or blackmailed.' (p. 252)

My suspicion that the visiting scholar was unwisely influenced has now been cemented. To be blunt, I think the North Koreans snowed him.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Fifth Grade Biology

My oldest is a fifth grader, and in keeping with the curriculum ideas laid out in The Well-Trained Mind, we will be studying biology this year. I looked at several texts and curricula online and read reviews on them, but nothing seemed like a good fit for our current needs. Time 4 Learning looks like it has a great life sciences course, but I don't think dd9 is ready to do online courses yet. Maybe next year, when she's not carelessly breaking our computers (a few days ago, while crowding in next to a sister who was playing a computer game, dd9 dropped a speaker on our family PC case and broke something major inside so that it doesn't work now...sigh).

The Time 4 Learning website has been of great help in showing me what topics I should cover with dd9 this year as I set out to cobble together my own science course for her. My formal biology background is one college level course taught by an immunologist, who tended to focus on human illnesses and only briefly discuss other subjects. If I hadn't seen something saying I should teach dd9 about dichotomous keys, she would have likely had a gap there. But I'm certain she'd have learned a lot about Ebola!

I'll probably spend hours putting together dd9's biology materials with much assistance from search engines. We already subscribe to Enchanted Learning, which has some helpful biology printouts--food webs, cell structure labeling, anatomy, etc.-- at the right grade level. The local library has relevant DVDs from the BBC, Schlessinger Media, and Bill Nye. We have a new-to-us 2008 World Book Encyclopedia set. The Bioman website has some fun-looking biology games. Finally, YouTube,, and other internet sites have slide shows, videos, and informational pages on all sorts of biology topics. It should be a fun experiment to see if I can make an engaging, effective course on my own. And maybe next year, I'll find middle school books I like for astronomy and earth science.