Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Bad pedagogy

What can be done without thinking usually is done without thinking.

-Alfie Kohn

Old School traditionally confuses the importance of product with process. 

In math, we teach computation as if all that mattered was that the student bark 12 upon hearing the stimulus "4 times 3". We teach literacy as if all that really mattered was that kids can identify the silent 'e'. Science has been reduced to a glorified vocabulary exam while social studies has been defined by some as simply a series of given truths.

When the teacher's role is less about artfully guiding students to thinking and reasoning for themselves in a kind of logic gymnasium and more about dispensing right answers and disciplining wrong ones, we openly choose to ignore the roots of real learning. Sixty years of research tells us that we don't internalize knowledge by simply being told to do so. Real learning is constructed from the inside while interacting with others. 

And yet, if you look at textbooks, canned lesson plans and achievement exams, you will see that osmosis is the primary method most classrooms use to transmit knowledge.

Old School never concerns itself with engaging kids and can only condemn those who (rightfully) disengage. And when Old School doesn't work, the best it can offer is to twice the dose of a pedagogy that didn't work in the first place.


  1. I'm struggling with a long held belief these days. I have relied heavily on what was once called 'scaffolding': offering students an outline or steps to guide inquiry. When I offered such things, many students would ignore the steps and generate their own learning paths. I decided this year to restrain my impulse and give less prominence to these sorts of scaffolds. I have been watching my students happily work through the first social studies inquiry without particular guidance about what to consume, how to organize it and what the final product aught to be. Differentiation is key. Some people need more scaffolding and direction than others.

    ON the other hand, my math classes are not particularly radical. They center around three elements at the moment: Math Makes Sense textbook lessons, a collection of word problems, and a individual learning program called "SuccessMaker". This works for me because I am not a math specialist (yet). I introduced Crib to my fifth and sixth graders so there is a little more authentic math in the room.

  2. Somehow, the tone of this post makes me think you got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. It is less eloquence and more diatribe than usual. You okay?
    I think that the experienced, caring, knowledgeable teachers who think that Science should be vocabulary, social studies is a series of facts, and math is purely computation, are few and far between, at least here in Canada. Perhaps the problem is that experienced, caring, knowledgeable teachers are themselves a disappearing commodity.

  3. @Ed while I have seen pockets of progress, I have seen far more examples where the worst forms of old school pedagogy are alive and well.

    I continue to see kids' needs ignored in the name of accountability and testing. It saddens and angers me and sometimes this is reflected in my posts.

  4. I'd offer this word of caution: It's not new school versus old school. Dewey is old school and when you read "Experience and Education," you get the sense that he wants students to learn in the now, creating their own learning as they go. In fact, Rousseau seems to argue for a similar strategy.

    I think the difference comes down to some very core differences not just in the philosophy of education but on the question of what makes us human. If you believe we are more like pidgeons in a Skinner box, the solution won't be new strategies, but a better definition of humanity.

  5. Old School is not a place; it's a state of mind.

    I agree John.


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