Setting clear goals for students

September 26, 1994|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Sun Staff Writer

While administrators and teachers draft the curriculum in a widening circle around them, Gregory Putman and his cohorts in the class of 2000 just go about their school days.

For example, Greg, whom The Sun has followed every year as a representative of his class, is unfamiliar with the term "outcomes-based education."

Yet that topic takes up hours of school board meetings and is the top issue in the school board race.

Greg, 12, lives in the High Ridge development in Gamber with his parents, Pamela and Richard, and his brother Grant, 14.

Whether or not he knows the term, Greg is getting an outcomes-based education in the seventh grade at Westminster West Middle School. That means his teachers are supposed to give him clear goals for what he is to learn by the end of a unit or course.

In his science class with teacher Jim Peters, the blackboard lists two objectives, or outcomes, for the day: that students will learn how to label a plant and animal cell, and how to state and analyze the cell theory.

"I've always had the objectives [listed for students]," Mr. Peters said. "This way, it makes sure all of us [in all county schools] are working toward the same outcomes."

Mr. Peters also puts the students in groups for certain activities each day. Instead of having them read the two pages on the cell theory alone at their desks, he pairs them to take turns reading paragraphs to each other, and then discuss what they read.

"I think it's essential for middle school students to interact with each other," Mr. Peters said. "They need that socialization. It's also a teaching tool to reach those objectives.

"It's a technique I use to funnel their talk into something I want them to talk about."

This kind of group learning is usually part of outcomes-based education.

Greg said group learning works for him most of the time, although it can be tempting to talk about things other than school work.

"It depends on who I'm working with," he said. "If it's one of my friends, we'll get it done, but if we get talking, we won't do what we're supposed to do."

"I still have yet to figure out outcomes-based education," said Pamela Putman, Greg's mother. "I don't know that it's any different than when I was in school and we got goals for the day."

She said that when Greg was in elementary school, he would complain about group learning, that he and others would do all the work while some students didn't do anything.

That happens less often now, he said, but neither Greg nor his mother is sure why.

Greg said that if a student in a group isn't doing his or her share, they can tell the teacher.

Some opponents feel outcomes focuses too much on values, to the detriment of academics. Ms. Putman said she has not been too concerned about it.

"I think a child has to learn values at home," she said. "But I think there are a lot of kids who don't have that opportunity."

She supports the philosophy of one of her favorite teachers, Richard Thompson, who now teaches English to Greg and two years ago taught his brother Grant.

"He really teaches them how to think," she said, saying that Mr. Thompson's goals are that by the end of the year, they will be a better person and a better student.

Science is Greg's favorite subject, although English is a close second because of Mr. Thompson.

This summer, a postcard arrived for "Mr. Grant Putman" from Mr. Thompson, wishing him well as he prepared to start high school. He sends the card to all his former students, with his home as the return address.

Ms. Putman was impressed, but long before the postcard arrived.

She did what she has never done before -- lobby to get a specific teacher for her son.

Last year, she went to Mr. Thompson and asked whether there was any way she could make sure Greg was in his class.

"He absolutely loves his work," Ms. Putman said.

Greg's other highlights this year are technology education, in which he will spend the quarter sampling different kinds of technology. He has carved a small car out of a two-by-four and will put a carbon dioxide cartridge in it for a race in a few weeks.

"I like doing things," he said. "I don't really like just writing stuff."

What he likes about science, he said, is the activity, looking at things under the microscope, learning that animals and people are made up of cells.

Ms. Putman recalls last week when he was raiding her vegetable drawer for lettuce, celery, a tomato, potato and onion, all to prepare slides for studying plant cells.

Although science is his favorite topic, it's his second choice for a career. Greg wants to be a professional lacrosse goalie.

But in case he isn't fast enough or skillful enough to do that when he's older, he wants to do well in school now, he said.

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