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Don't underestimate handson learning

By GREG HAMILTON
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2002

Last weekend, I was one of several adults who showed a group of boys how a pile of lumber can be turned into two solid picnic tables. The experience reinforced to me a lesson that I've learned over 12-plus years of working with kids: You can talk all you want, but there's no substitute for handson learning.

That concept is at the center of a debate percolating at Inverness Primary School, where several parents are balking at a program that lets students put their classroom lessons to practical use.

In IPSville USA, The Job Quest, youngsters set up a micro society and take on jobs from postal workers and cops to bankers and merchants. They earn make-believe money that they must budget and use for a variety of goods and services within their artificial environment.

The idea is to show kids how the real world works and how the reading and math basic skills they have learned in class translate into life.

It's an interesting idea. IPSville is not only a chance to break up the monotony of school for youngsters but also a clever way to prepare them for life after school. At a cost of only two hours of classroom time each week, it's hardly a wholesale abandonment of traditional education.

That's not how some parents of IPS students see it. To them, it's a waste of time that would be better spent pounding the sacred Three Rs into the heads of our budding scholars.

At a time when parents are constantly being bombarded with surveys and reports showing that our students are falling way behind the rest of the world in education, it's easy to look at a program like IPSville and see fun and games instead of fundamental learning.

That view is grossly short-sighted.

While education trends nationwide may be blamed for veering too much from the basics over the past few decades, this program should not be lumped in with some of those cockamamie efforts. Sure, the kids are having fun, but they are learning, too.

It remains to be seen how well they're learning. The scores from the all-important FCATs will give a hint. But if the experience of a Hernando County school using the same micro society program is any indication, IPS parents should be pleasantly surprised.

The highest FCAT scores in Hernando County are at Chocachatti Elementary, where the waiting list of parents wanting their kids to go there is so long that a lottery decides which students get to attend.

True, there are differences between that school and IPS. Chocachatti is a magnet school where parents choose to send their children, while IPS draws from the Inverness area only. And the Hernando County school has a coordinator who ensures that the program is tied to Florida's Sunshine State Standards, while IPS is still working to establish such a position.

But if the program is so terrible, why do you think Hernando parents are falling over themselves to get their kids signed up?

The handful of IPS parents who are opposed to the program have raised interesting points, some more valid than others.

Certainly, it would have been better to let the parents know much sooner than a summer open house that the program was going to start this year. That could have pre-empted some of the expected fears of the unknown that accompany any significant change. It also would have allowed those parents strongly opposed to the program to seek a transfer of their children to another school if they wanted.

They also have raised questions about student safety that, to her credit, principal Terry Charles has moved quickly to fix.

The complaints that IPSville has little or no educational value, however, are baseless. Letting someone practice what they've learned is a proven, age-old technique. Even the Bible notes that it is better to teach a man how to fish than to simply give him food.

For two hours each week, the kids at Inverness Primary get to practice lessons they learned from a book. They'll be better prepared for life because of that experience.

Isn't that what school is supposed to be about?

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