Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Should schools just get back to basics?

I've heard a lot of people complain about school. I've worked with unhappy parents and angry students who have shared with me how they have been wounded by school. I've listened to politicians and policy-makers describe why schools need to improve. In fact, I spend a good chunk of my time on my blog writing about how school should look a little less like school.

I even participated in Alberta Education's Inspring Action that engages Albertans in a dialogue about transforming our education system, but I have never, and I mean never, heard anyone ever suggest that what school needs is more lectures, more direct instruction, more worksheets, more textbook drills and more rote learning.

When I hear someone say that we need to get back to basics, my immediate response is "when did we leave?" In his book The Schools Our Children Deserve, Alfie Kohn writes:
Proponents of traditional education often complain that the model they favor is on the wane. They're apt to describe themselves as a brave minority under siege, fighting an uphill battle for old-fashioned methods that have been driven out of the schools by an educational establishment united in its desire for radical change. 
Such claims are understandable as a political strategy; it's always rhetorically advantageous to position yourself as outside the establishment and to describe whatever you oppose as "fashionable." To those of us who spend time in real schools, though, claims about the dominance of progressive teaching represent an inversion of the truth so audacious as to be downright comical. As we slip into a new century, traditional education is alive and well - as I see it - damaging a whole new generation of students. If this isn't always obvious, it may be because we rarely think about how many aspects of education could be different but aren't. What we take for granted as being necessary features of the school experiences are actually reflections of one kind of schooling - the traditional kind. 
Consider: Just as we did, our kids spend most of their time in school with children their own age. Most of high school instruction is still divided into 45-50 minute periods. Students still have very little to say about what they will do and how they will learn. Good behaviour or meritorious academic performance, as determined unilaterally by adults, is still rewarded; deviations are still punished. Grades are still handed out; awards assemblies are still held. Students are still "tracked," particularly in the older grades, so that some take honors and advanced placement courses while others get "basic" this and "remedial" that. Kids may be permitted to learn in groups periodically, but at the end of the day eyes must still be kept on one's own paper. Even from a purely physical standpoint, schools today look much as they did decades ago.
While it's true that traditional education can be found in rich and poor communities, the truth is that poor children are often subjected to poor teaching more often than their affluent peers.

In his article The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching, Martin Haberman writes about a typical form of teaching that has become accepted as basic. Children living in poverty are often provided a wealth of ritualistic routines that have teachers lecture, test and punish non-compliance while the students play a passive, seated role of regurgitating factual information. In this environment, Haberman explains, students can 'succeed' without ever becoming engaged or thoughtful.

Like Haberman, author Jonathan Kozol adds: "The children of the suburbs learn to think and to interrogate reality," while inner-city kids "are trained for non-reflective acquiescence." Paulo Freire's book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed further outlines the oppressive nature of an education that is simply done to us by someone else.

Debra Stipek, dean of School Education at Stanford University puts it this way: "Drill-and-skill is not how middle class children got their edge, so why use a strategy to help poor kids catch up that didn't help middle class kids in the first place?"

In his article Poor Teaching for Poor Children... in the name of Reform, Alfie Kohn outlines a stinging indictment of the sit-and-get, spew-and-forget characteristics of a traditional education. Kohn writes:
The pedagogy of poverty is not what’s best for the poor. There’s plenty of precedent. A three-year study (published by the U.S. Department of Education) of 140 elementary classrooms with high concentrations of poor children found that students whose teachers emphasized “meaning and understanding” were far more successful than those who received basic-skills instruction. The researchers concluded by decisively rejecting “schooling for the children of poverty . . . [that] emphasizes basic skills, sequential curricula, and tight control of instruction by the teacher.
Learning is not like instant mashed potatoes; kids have not been through an industrial process of cooking, mashing and dehydrating to yield packaged convenience learning that can be reconstituted in the classroom in seconds by simply adding direct instruction and testing.

To suggest that school for any student, regardless of their socio-economic status, needs to be less actively child-centered and more passive not only ignores 60 years of research, but it also borders somewhere between ridiculous and asinine.


  1. I have had the opportunity to teach in four different towns. Each with varying demographics and socio-economics. What did they have in common? Kill & drill. Test prep. Worksheets. Anti-progressive teaching methods.

    The differed in their reasoning. In the lower middle & poverty stricken towns I worked in; the reason for doing so was to increase test scores. In the middle & upper middle class towns I worked in the reason for doing so was to maintain their high test score status.

    One would like to think that ternative schools such as charter and magnet schools engaged in different teaching methods. Sadly, I have observed in a number of these schools while earning my MA, and it's just not so. Often times I saw even more lecture, worksheets, and test prep.

    The more things change, the more they stay the same. I am sad for the children in our schools. I am concerned that they will be inadequately prepared for the world upon their graduation.

  2. "What Is Wrong with Aiming for Basic"?