Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Legacy of Traditional Education

I started reading Ted Sizers book Horace's Compromise where I came across this excerpt:

And yet Americans underrate the craft of teaching. We treat it mechanistically. We expect to know how to teach fractions as though one needed only a formulaic routine to do so, a way to plug in. We talk about "delivering a service" to students by means of "instructional strategies"; our metaphors arise from the factory floor and issue from the military manual. Education, apparently, is something someone does to somebody else. Paradoxically, while we know that we don't learn very well that way, nor want very much to have someone else's definition of "service" to be "delivered" to us, we accept these metaphors for the mass of children. We thus underrate the mystery, challenge, and complexity of learning and, as a result, operate schools that are extraordinarily wasteful.
The more I think about all that is wrong with school...

...the more I recall all the things I hated when I was a kid...

...the more I read about school reform...

...whether it's Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Martin Haberman's Pedagogy of Poverty or Ted Sizer's compromises, I'm starting to see a common thread that is the undoing of traditional education.

Because school defines learning as passive, learners come to see education as something done to them. When students are stuck in the middle of a problem, they don't try and figure out what makes sense to do next; instead, they try to remember what they are suppose to do. If this is the premise for learning, is it any surprise that learners become less autonomous, more dependent and ultimately mindless?

If this is the recipe for K-12 schooling, disengagement on behalf of the students is as predictable as it is problematic.


  1. I'm starting to realise that most of the decisions we make and actions we take are based on our mental models, the conceptions we have of how things work. These models show through our language. As an example, my mental model of money is as a non-renewable resource (so I save & invest), whereas my children see it as a renewable resource (so they spend it all).

    In your example, our thinking about schools has a lot to do with factories and the military (and sports?). We need to change the way we talk about schools and education, and the way we allow others to talk about it. When we hear about "inputs" or "investments" or "competing on the world stage", these all betray a mental model that supports the "something done to them" that you refer to. Words like "exploration", "discovery", or "collaborative development" seem to better match the idea of real learning. It will be very difficult to change the actions of teachers, administrators and legislators without changing the way our society conceives of schools.

  2. But Joe, in the scene you posit, what makes sense and what students are supposed to do are *not at odds*. You are posing a false dichotomy: the teacher teaches and students are passive, or students think independently and do what makes sense.

    Those two scenarios are not in opposition. I'm not sure why you are so adamant to throw out all traditional teaching methods. A teacher can scaffold, offer structured knowledge and then give students the opportunity to apply the most applicable solution.

    I'm reading a biography about Cicero right now. Last year I read about the painter Paul Cezanne, and next on the list is Johannes Kepler. I'm intensely interested in what makes these thinkers tick. And all of them - all of them - had instructors who gave explicit and direct instruction, and then left them to practice on their own.


  3. Mr. Bower,
    I couldn't agree more. I'm a student at the University of South Alabama. This semester I enrolled for EDM310, or Microcomputing Systems in Education. For the first time, I was challenged to delve into the world of technology, teaching myself as I went along. For the first time, I was in control of what I learned or didn't learn. Over the past few months, I have come to realize many of the faults of traditional education. Children today are surrounded by the stimulation that a technologically advanced society offers them. It's no wonder that they are bored with the classroom setting in which they are scolded for showing any interest in technology or disinterest in textbook oriented, caveman-style teaching. It's past time to reform the education system. Cookie-cutter teaching just isn't cutting it. Great post!

  4. Jameson Branch,
    Where do you get the idea that kids are scolded for showing "any interest in technology?" Or that modern schools have "caveman-style teaching?" What is caveman-style, anyway? My district is actively engaged in promoting the use of technology, and you'd be hard pressed to find a district that's not doing so.

    I'm worried about this impulse to dismiss all "traditional" teaching methods. Technology is a useful tool in some circumstances, but its deep and/or lasting impact on *improved student outcomes* is still up for debate. And whatever our philosophy or desires as teachers, our primary responsibility is to ensure that students learn.

    I'll be the first in line to say I'm not happy about standardized testing or pacing guides. They make me cringe. But embracing technology as The Next Savior of Education displays the kind of faddish, pendulum-swinging thinking that, over the years, I have so come to suspect.

    I want to say that I truly enjoy this opportunity to provoke and challenge my own thinking. Thank you, Joe, for your engaging posts.


  5. I don't think we can escape some form of frontal teaching but it does not have to be , if I recall correctly ,a lecture , the most efficient way of getting the teachers notes into students notebooks by- passing kids brains. The teacher can be engaging, raising stimulating questions and getting kids to do the thinking.

    There are times where we need to know facts or who said what in order to discuss issues. In discussions we play with facts , or the views of different people - if you don't have this knowledge at your fingertips you can manipulate the facts.

    Technology can support any educational approach , it is like water - water flowers - you get bigger and more beautiful flowers , water thorns - you get bigger and uglier thorns

  6. "Because school defines learning as passive, learners come to see education as something done to them. When students are stuck in the middle of a problem, they don't try and figure out what makes sense to do next; instead, they try to remember what they are suppose to do. If this is the premise for learning, is it any surprise that learners become less autonomous, more dependent..."

    Well said. Replace 'learners' with 'educators' and this also describes many of the people that work in our school systems. We see a great lack of inquisitiveness, self-direction, etc. from many teachers and administrators too...

  7. I think a mixture of workshops (which often include explicit mini-lessons) and independent and group Project Based Learning is a way forward. This would entail a little bit of classroom redesign and rethinking, such as removing desks from some rooms, but in the scheme of things this sounds like an achievable change.

  8. Joe,

    It all goes back to the declaration - "Teachers, leave those kids alone".

    Teaching is such a valuable thing but we take it too far, we do too much - and that is worse than too little. I should know, I'm complicit in training teachers to be and making them goose step through so much drudgery.

    I see so many great teachers, caring teachers who unwittingly smother inquisitiveness of students and the spark that is learning. It's a societal tragedy given how rich and fortunate we are. The best teachers throw kids into the pond and allow them to begin to swim. They nurture success rather than breed "don't fail". They keep the spark of learning alive through success. The best thing a teacher can do is "get out of the way" but be there on the shore watching and encouraging and giving guidance....