Learning ‘myths’ — or not

Answer Sheet’s Valerie Strauss lists Seven misconceptions about how students learn, which she links to “standardized test-based public school reform.”  The list, which came from the Independent Curriculum Group web site, is based on “21st-century science,” Strauss alleges.

First comes the “myth” that “Basic Facts Come Before Deep Learning.”

This one translates roughly as, “Students must do the boring stuff before they can do the interesting stuff.” Or, “Students must memorize before they can be allowed to think.” In truth, students are most likely to achieve long-term mastery of basic facts in the context of engaging, student-directed learning.

I don’t think anyone argues that students shouldn’t think till they’ve memorized a bunch of facts. People do argue that students think more intelligently — more deeply or critically, if you prefer — if they have a base of knowledge.

Perhaps Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist, will take it up on his new blog.

Some of the other myths are straw men, such as “Rigorous Education Means a Teacher Talking” or  “Covering It Means Teaching It”  or “A Quiet Classroom Means Good Learning.”

But it’s possible fogies think “Teaching to Student Interests Means Dumbing It Down” or “Acceleration Means Rigor.”  The devil is in the details.

“Traditional Schooling Prepares Students for Life” is her final myth/straw man.

Listening to teachers and studying for tests has little to do with life in the world of work. People in the work world create, manage, evaluate, communicate, and collaborate.

My traditional schooling in the mid-20th century  included a lot more than listening to teachers and studying for tests. I did a lot of reading, writing, discussing and even some collaborating. I learned workforce skills too, such as meeting deadlines, adapting to authority figures, dealing with boredom, typing. At more progressive schools, would I have spent more time “engaged” and less time reading under my desk?

About Joanne

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  1. Actually, Joanne, I can state quite emphatically from my work with educators all across the country that, unfortunately, the belief that students have to be well-grounded in basic facts before they should get to do any higher-order thinking is alive, well, and, dare I say it, prevalent.

    You’re right that for many of these issues ‘the devil is in the details.’

    You ask, “At more progressive schools, would I have spent more time ‘engaged’ and less time reading under my desk?” Judging from the more progressive, problem-/inquiry-/challenge-based schools that I’ve experienced, yeah, I think you might have. I would have too…

    • exactly scott. I agree 100%. i find it amazing that Joanne wrote that sentence in a non-ironic sense.

    • The devil is in the details here, for sure. There is a world of difference between “the more students know, the better their critical thinking will be” and “students can’t be allowed to think until they know the basic facts”.

      The first is an absolute truth. The second is a recipe for a bored student.

      There is a converse distortion on the progressive side of the aisle that bugs me even more: “memorization is useless (or even counterproductive) and should be discouraged in favor of critical thinking”. This is more commonly formulated as “you can always look it up”.

      Nope. That is a recipe for disaster.

      Knowledge and critical thinking go hand in hand. The brain examines new information in the context of what is already known. The “aha!” moments we experience when learning new things are usually moments of clarity brought about by the brain aligning the new things to the things we already know.

      When tasked with thinking critically about something novel, students need to first get it in a frame of reference that allows for meaningful examination. If there’s not enough knowledge between the students’ ears to do that, they won’t manage to think critically (or even meaningfully) about the new information. Instead, they’ll disengage.

      In my experience, the best way to get something to stick in the mind is to move from introduction through study to use in an intellectual product. Good old-fashioned “use it or lose it”. Others experience may vary, but both extremes of this debate are harmful, in my opinion.

    • Right, because algebra is easily done without knowing division and fractions.

  2. I agree with Scott, Joanne. As you and many of your readers know, I consider myself to be as progressive as they come. My students are not only more engaged, they don’t have to read under the desk, because I invite them to read daily, and they get to choose the books.

    As far as knowing the basics before doing “the interesting stuff,” I’d recommend the work of linguist, Stephen Krashen, to anyone who believes that this is necessary. Arguably the world’s leading expert on language acquisition, Krashen says that his 40-plus years of research tells him that breaking language acquisition into small parts, prior to reading, is wrong and potentially damaging to learners.

    I’m sure the math people will have their own argument, but I would imagine much of Krashen’s work would apply to all disciplines.

    By the way, I took typing too. One of the best classes ever. I didn’t find it boring, though. The teacher made it fun.

  3. The list starts off badly and goes downhill from there. For example, VS lives and works in the DC area, where there is a very high concentration of highly-educated, affluent families and a huge variety of cultural, governmental and historical opportunities. Kids from such families are very likely to have regular exposure to a wide variety of such educational experiences, outside of school and prior to school entrance. School is not challenging enough for many kids. The possibility that there are kids – in some schools they may be a majority – that are fully capable of BOTH increased depth and acceleration apparently hasn’t occurred to her. As a parent whose kids attended some of the top public schools in the area, I know there were lots of bright, very bored kids wasting their ES-MS time on busywork of various kinds, and that was before the push for heterogeneous grouping and full inclusion. Let no child get ahead; that’s the way to fix the achievement gap.

  4. Valerie Strauss claims the Independent Curriculum Group is “a movement of leading private college preparatory schools with teacher-generated curriculum.”

    The schools listed, while surely fine schools, would not be described as the leading private college preparatory schools. They’re better described as independent schools in the progressive, constructivist tradition, which dates back to the 19th century, as Diane Ravitch outlined in “Left Back.”

    If you believe in project-based learning, they’re fine schools to choose.

    And, er, this is a howler:

    If we could somehow see inside a student’s brain, its circuitry would correspond to its knowledge. Since new learning always builds on what is already in the brain, teachers must relate classroom teaching to what students already know. Teachers who fail to do so, whether due to ignorance or in pursuit of a false idea of rigor, are running afoul of a biological reality.

    Let’s see.. if new learning builds on existing learning, wouldn’t basic facts be useful to retain more advanced learning? I rather think it’s premature to declare that we know “biological reality” at this point in time. It seems to me to be old wine (progressivism) poured into new bottles (“brain science,” as practiced by educators.)

    I would be very leery of schools which declare that students can only understand “what (they) already know,” and schools which warn against acceleration for strong students. Somehow, it’s possible for students to understand the Hanseatic League or mercantilism. I know that because it’s been done before.

  5. I’m surprised Strauss is highlighting these stale old progressive ed platitudes. This is exactly the sort of thing that ed schools have indoctrinated American teachers with for 80 years. The real myth is that American educators hold traditionalist views. If they do, it’s a miracle given the onslaught of progressivist propaganda. Some, like me, have BECOME traditionalist because we’ve come to believe that the progressivist dogma is false. An orderly, teacher-centered classroom is a powerful vehicle for student learning, progressivist slander campaign notwithstanding.

    • Classrooms in which there was evidence of higher-order thinking: 3 percent. Classrooms in which high-yield [instructional] strategies were being used: 0.2 percent. Classrooms in which fewer than one-half of students were paying attention: 85 percent.
      – Mike Schmoker, Results Now (2006) [citing a study of 1,500+ classroom observations]

      And:

      The average fifth grader received five times as much instruction in basic skills as instruction focused on problem solving or reasoning; this ratio was 10:1 in first and third grades.
      – Robert C. Pianta, et al., Opportunities to Learn in America’s Elementary Classrooms (2007) [study of 2500+ classrooms in more than 1,000 elementary schools and 400 school districts]

      And:

      When you code classroom practice for level of cognitive demand . . . 80% of the work is at the factual and procedural level. . . . [Teachers] will do low-level work and call it high-level work.
      – Richard Elmore, excerpt from Education Leadership as the Practice of Improvement (2006)

      These are just a few of the many researchers that confirm that the vast majority of day-to-day student work in the classroom is low-level cognitive work. Don’t these disprove your assertion that there’s too much progressive education occurring in traditional schools? Have you been in traditional classrooms lately? They’re awfully heavy on lower-level Bloom’s taxonomy stuff (as, indeed, most have always been).

      • WThat’s the point of Bloom’s…you need solid lower levels to reach the top.

        • Exactly. Scott seems to have made a common misreading of Bloom’s, one that has wreaked a lot of damage on American schools. Every day, I flood my 12 year olds’ brains with well-designed lectures that include lots of hand-drawn graphics, all boldly projected in large font on to a big screen. I tell them stories like that of the conflict between Pope Gregory VII and Henry IV; I explain the medieval Church hierarchy and then go in depth on the lives of monks (“eight masses a day, including one in the middle of the night”); explain how Aristotle’s work got transmitted to Muslims, digested by Avicenna and Averroes and Maimonides, and retransmitted to Europeans in the 1100s and why all of that is interesting and important. It is facts, facts, facts. I lecture about the Crusades. Facts about humans that one NEEDS to form sound judgements about humans –their capacities, tendencies, weaknesses and strengths. Facts that handsomely furnish and MAKE a cultured, interesting, well-informed soul. Along the way they learn the English language. And guess what? Kids like these lectures and…they ask critical questions, they wonder, they synthesize the information with their own experiences and other stuff they’ve learned in school, they analyze the motives of the people involved –all without my prompting. Teachers give the matter on which kids’ native thinking skills operate; we do not give the thinking skills.

          Ditch the facts and kids remain the clever, critically-thinking barbarians they’re born. Without facts, kids are just high-quality hardware waiting for advertising and Hollywood to fill, and to be harnessed by profit-seeking employers.

          • As I’ve been teaching about the Crusades (with lecture, some History Channel video, some map work), kids have made me aware that there’s a popular computer game that simulates the Crusades. Kids have been exposed to place names like Acre and Antioch, and to terms like Knights Templar, through the games. Would those games have been designed if the designers hadn’t absorbed and mastered “lower level” facts about the Crusades? Knowledge is the mother of creativity, not its enemy. Content-lite, “higher order thinking” curricula are the true enemy of creativity.

          • Actually, I believe that you’re the one that is misreading Bloom’s:

            “Bloom et al. discussed at length their decision to apply an Aristotelian categorization method in their taxonomy. The choice was significant, because an Aristotelian method creates distinct, bounded categories ordered by complexity without the hierarchical assumption that higher-level categories always entail instantiation of those lower in the taxonomy (e.g., when evaluating, it is not always necessary to first apply and synthesize). Moreover, Aristotelian categorization emphasizes that these groupings are closely related and difficult to tease apart. . . . however, the division of the taxonomy of educational objectives into classes representing lower order … and higher order thinking … has prevailed in research.”

            - Alexander, P.A., et al. (2011). Higher-order thinking and knowledge: Domain-general and domain-specific trends and future directions. In G. Schraw & D. R. Robinson (Eds.), Assessment of higher order thinking skills (pp. 49-50). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

            Also…

            “the term ‘higher order’ skills is probably itself fundamentally misleading, for it suggests that another set of skills, presumably called ‘lower order,’ needs to come first. This assumption – that there is a sequence from lower level activities that do not require much independent thinking or judgment to higher level ones that do – colors much educational theory and practice. Implicitly, at least, it justifies long years of drill on the ‘basics’ before thinking and problem solving are demanded. Cognitive research on the nature of basic skills such as reading and mathematics provides a fundamental challenge to this assumption.”

            - National Research Council. (1987). Education and learning to think (p. 8). Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

            Expert thinking does indeed require a high degree of domain knowledge. Hopefully no one’s arguing that kids don’t need to know stuff to be high-level thinkers. But the notion that students have to be immersed in lower-level factual and procedural knowledge BEFORE they can do higher-level thinking work disregards all we know from cognitive research, including Bloom, et al.’s own conceptualization of the taxonomy.

            I’ll also add that the notion that students don’t need to be doing higher-level thinking work but instead should just be sitting and listening to adult lectures is insulting to the capabilities of our children. They can do and be so much more…

          • The argument that students need years and years of facts before they can think critically or apply higher order thinking skills is a strawman. No one is saying that.

            Ponderosa is not misreading Bloom. He is saying that accretion of facts and applying them is an interactive process, but you need the foundation of facts with which to do the critical thinking. He states that this is in fact what his students are doing: “Kids like these lectures and…they ask critical questions, they wonder, they synthesize the information with their own experiences and other stuff they’ve learned in school, they analyze the motives of the people involved –all without my prompting. Teachers give the matter on which kids’ native thinking skills operate; we do not give the thinking skills. ”

            The argument comes down to how and when are facts learned. SteveH refers to the “top down” approach, which in math manifests itself as giving students a problem for which they have little or no knowledge and “facilitating” them to make the connections and learn the facts/procedures necessary to solve it. Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe, in their book “Integrating Understanding by Design and Differentiated Instruction” advocate this approach as well and call it “contextualized grappling with ideas and processes”. There are many examples, but the prevalent pattern of instruction to emerge from the book seems to be one of giving students an assignment or problem which forces them to learn what they need to know in order to complete the task. In this way, the so-called “drill and kill” is avoided because students are motivated to learn what they need to know via the context of the problem they are faced to solve. This “just in time” learning approach is inefficient and confusing. A prime example of this approach is seen in the Connected Math Program, which was developed at Michigan State University via a grant from NSF.

            At a recent conference in Winnipeg, mathematician Stephen Wilson caused consternation among his fellow panelists when he stated that the way mathematicans learn things is to learn the procedure first and then figure out how it works later. Before the educationists could object, a cognitive scientist said that recent research bears that out. In fact, one paper to read on this is “Developing Conceptual Understanding and Procedural Skill in Mathematics: An Iterative Process”. by Rittle-Johnson, Siegler and Alibali, in Journal of Educational Psychology, 2001; Vol. 93, No. 2, 346-362.

            Top down, or “just in time” learning can be made to work with enormous effort both at school and at home as SteveH asserts. This can be seen by looking at how Connected Math Program is being implemented at a school in New Jersey. It offers a pre-math class where the student is taught directly, with examples, before they get to the actual math class where the student is expected to “discover” math for him/herself. This time and effort spent for this extra class could be used to learn so much more material much more thoroughly in one class. (See http://www.southjerseylocalnews.com/articles/2012/02/17/opinion/doc4f3c09b480bea915432455.txt )

          • Barry, although I find it difficult to argue with your assertions, one key aspect to the programs you are against is the learning spark that they provide.

            I hated math my whole life, and I blame it entirely on a traditionalist, drill-and-kill approach. It never made sense to me. “Why should I have to know what 8 X 7 is, when I can use a calculator?” I reasoned, along with “when will I ever need to solve for X or add 1/4 and 5/7 in the real world?”

            Today, my questions make even more sense, with the advent of the Smartphone — a tool that puts all math facts at my fingertips.

            My son is in an Everyday Math program, and although I detest the nightly homework, the program does make him think. He enjoys reasoning out the problems, and discovering answers on his own. Math is his favorite subject. There is a lot of real-world stuff in the program, which is what he enjoys about it. We often talk about jobs and tasks that might employ the problems he’s learning.

            Could more material be covered with drill-and-kill math? Sure, but I’m guessing that if he were being taught this way, my inquisitive kid would hate math, much as his father does.

          • Mark said: “I hated math my whole life, and I blame it entirely on a traditionalist, drill-and-kill approach. It never made sense to me. “Why should I have to know what 8 X 7 is, when I can use a calculator?” I reasoned, along with “when will I ever need to solve for X or add 1/4 and 5/7 in the real world?”

            Oh, I love that argument! Mark, perhaps you are lucky that you do not have to do what you don’t like doing, but how can you be so sure about anyone else?

            Here is the story I tell my students when I hear ” But I don’t like it! I will never use it! ” and anything else in this venue. I hated physics in school. Yes, I had my A, but it was a constant struggle:formulas had to be memorized and derived, I had no interest in physics, the teacher was very tough and, perhaps, by american standards, “mean” and condescending, “Drill-and kill”, as you say. I was absolutely sure that I will never use it. So what the heck? Take the test, and forget. And I did. In my veterinary school the only physics required was biophysics, which at least was connected to my favorite biology and had a direct and obvious application to veterinary practice.
            Now, fast forward. I moved to the US, and because of various circumstances, I became a Biology teacher. No problems here – I know and LIKE it! But in my first few years of teaching, along with Biology, I had to teach Physical and Geophysical Science. So here we go – the things I learned in school, the laws, rules, formulas, problems, experiments, explanations – all came back. I didn’t like it, but I happened to learn it cold. And had to use it teaching students. Who knew?

            I can come up with dozens of such stories from relatives and friends (now I understand my father who used to tell me, “This is the time to learn as many things as you can, you never know what may be useful!” ) We may not like many things, but if we can do them/know things when the life demands – we have an advantage!

            So I tell my students and my son: I do not care whether you like it or not (if you like it, learning is easier, of course), but you have to know it. Nobody knows what the life will bring, but you’d better be well equipped to face it.

          • Mark Barnes says:

            “My son is in an Everyday Math program, and although I detest the nightly homework, the program does make him think. He enjoys reasoning out the problems, and discovering answers on his own. Math is his favorite subject.”

            “detest nightly homework”

            That says a lot. A lot of opinion. Will your son like math when he gets to Algebra II in high school with their much longer homework assignments, or do you want to remake math into your own image? If you really want to keep the STEM career doors open for him, you better start looking at what colleges require and work backwards. You probably won’t like what you see, but that’s reality, and it’s what math is all about.

            You make claims about educational turf, but you have no idea of what math is in the real world and what it means to keep doors open. You don’t know what it means to think or understand in the STEM world. At best, you think you believe in a good educational process, but you don’t know what the goal is. How do you know if what you are doing is successful? State tests? Those don’t even come close. You need to set your standards higher than that.

            “Today, my questions make even more sense, with the advent of the Smartphone — a tool that puts all math facts at my fingertips.”

            This is astonishingly naive. I can hear all of the doors slamming shut. The top-down, integrated CMP math program was driven out of our 7th and 8th grades because it didn’t prepare kids properly for algebra in high school, let alone preparing kids for geometry. Even the high school math teachers derided the skills of the kids coming from our middle school. So now the problem has been pushed back to the major jump between Everyday Math in K-6 and the proper Glencoe Math textbooks we have in 7th and 8th grades. This is where they split students into different math tracks. If your son is not on a track for a proper algebra class in 8th grade, then the chances are slim that he will ever have a STEM career. It shouldn’t have to be that way, but there you go. The problem is that kids will never recover from the incredible lack of basic skills NOT ensured in K-6. It’s all over by 7th grade.

            English might not be so critical, but that’s the way it is for math. Then again, my son reads a lot, but it’s surprising how many words he doesn’t know. This directly affected the practice PSAT test he took. We could count the number of problems he got wrong because he didn’t know the word. How much understanding can you get when you read and don’t know all of the words? Do you stop at each word and look it up? How about grammar? How about writing?

    • I’ve been teaching for 19 years in a diverse public school system. I’ve taught grades, 7, 8 and 10 in language arts and reading. I’ve used guided reading programs, vocabulary workbooks, worksheets, homework, tests, lecture, projects, collaborative groups and more.

      For roughly 15 years of my career, I was quite traditional. Now, I see myself as progressive. For me, it’s a complete transformation. Although we sometimes work independently, my students collaborate daily. I’ve completely eliminated traditional methods. Lecture, worksheets, homework, tests and even grades no longer exist in my classroom.

      What I’ve found is that my students, by their own admission, enjoy my class far more than others, and they want to learn for learning’s sake — not for a letter on a paper. They read voraciously (even those who entered as reluctant readers will read, on average, 8-10 more books than their peers in traditional ELA and reading classes). They create remarkable projects that encompass a wide array of learning outcomes.

      Oh, and even though I couldn’t care less about it, my students will outperform the rest of the school on our state’s high stakes reading test.

      This is my experience. Although both traditional and progressive methods may help students learn. Only one makes them want to learn.

      • What is the point of school? To produce muscular thinking skills, or to endow kids with the essential facts about our life on this planet? I say the kids are BORN with the thinking skills; teachers fool themselves when they say they’ve imparted these skills. Thus it’s foolish for schools to devote themselves to imparting thinking skills. On the other hand, kids are NOT born with the essential facts. Schools CAN impart these, and these will empower their native thinking skills. Sadly progressive educators have waged a century long campaign to discredit this view of school. Slogans like “the banking model of education has been debunked” lurk in the minds of every teacher who has passed through education school. Ugly caricatures of traditional education have been etched on many Americans’ brains, including Scott’s apparently. Certainly the progressive ideal is a beautiful one. It sells. But like many ideologies that have sold well throughout history, it is largely false. Progressive ed’s failure is masked among affluent families because the parents’ teaching compensates for the schools’ failure to impart essential facts. So otherwise smart affluent parents join the crusade against traditional education. Teachers have been brainwashed; some, like me, have liberated themselves from this brainwashing and choose to do what works, even though it means being treated like a heretic. Imagine interviewing for a teaching job and saying you favor lecture -rare is the principal who will accept this answer. Groupthink reigns.

        • Ponderosa, your thoughts about teaching kids to think are spoken like someone who is not a teacher. The most important thing I do is teach kids how to think.

          I can fill them with basic facts, and they can spit them back at me on some multiple-choice test. I’d much prefer to give them something abstract and have them turn it into something clear and meaningful.

          Also, you are wrong about what is done in school. In my district, I’m one of about three teachers using progressive methods. It’s all the others who are chained to lecture, worksheets and homework.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            In one of my first years teaching, I was telling a class that I didn’t want them to memorize a lot of things that they would shortly forget; I wanted them to think. One student responded, sweetly and sincerely, “But Mr. Sweeny, high school is ABOUT memorization. Thinking is for college.”

            Unfortunately, thinking is hard work–and most of what is taught in high school or college is not what students are interested in thinking about. The most animated discussion that has occurred in a class of mine involved whether LaDanian Tomlinson or Shawn Alexander was the best running back in the NFL. It was Bloom 6.

  6. OK, so let me get this straight: all kids should be encouraged to learn on their own and in their own fashion and on their own timeline, but they need to “meet the standards” before progressing, and in the meantime teachers need to make sure they are “engaged” in whatever they are learning.

    Rhetorically, how many employers work this way? I can’t quite see insurance companies or McDonald’s or hospitals or most other employers just waiting around for employees to learn the basics, let alone the details.

    Just curious as to the noisy classroom issue: how do schools provide for those students who can’t stand to be in noisy environments? In the class where I assist, at least 3 kids of 17 can’t handle noise. How can they be part of the class and yet accommodated at the same time if the basic classroom expectation isn’t “Please be quiet”?

  7. As I say in the thread on the Strauss site, pedagogical and philosophical arguments between traditional (bottom-up) and progressive (top-down) approaches have been going on for very long time. There are successful implementations of both types, but I’ve only seen successful progressive approaches in high school academies that set very high standards. Engagement and motivation don’t magically translate into skills. When kids are in classroom groups of mixed ability (very mixed in the lower grades), only a few will ever achieve any sort of light bulb discovery experience. They will then proceed to directly teach it to the other students in the group. I fail to see how this would be better than having it done by a trained and engaging (!) teacher. Then, if you take up all of this classroom time on a very limited amount of material, the only way that individual mastery of the basics can happen is with a lot of homework. The opposite often happens except at schools that set very high standards.

    The big problem is when these methods are applied to grades K-6, where basic skill mastery is critical. A top-down approach requires more effort to make sure that mastery happens. Full-inclusion prevents that from happening. Schools then use curricula like Everyday Math that “trust the spiral”. The assumption is that each child will achieve mastery as a natural result of the spiral. It doesn’t happen. I’ve seen it in action, even with bright kids.

    How is it really possible for very educated parents to be so ignorant that they would prefer mere facts and rote skills over critical thinking and understanding; that they just want what they had when they were growing up? No, something else is going on here. These parents aren’t guessing. They are watching their kids struggle in school.

    Try taking a survey of the parents of the best 8th grade students . Ask them specifically what goes on at home. We surely don’t just turn off the TV and check to make sure homework gets done. We teach at home. It’s so annoying to get notes sent home asking us parents to work on math facts while our kids are wasting time at school in mixed ability groups working on silly problems – supposedly for engagement or motivation. Even my son knew they were a waste of time, especially when the other kids are fooling around. Then, on top of that, they are given a group grade.

    In high schools, students are often given the choice between an AP approach, an IB approach, or an integrated approach. In K-8, you have no choice and you get open houses where teachers lecture you on the wonders of critical thinking and understanding. I still remember my son’s first grade teacher going on and on about helping kids find their “voice”. This comes right after “invented spelling” and right before telling us that our son has a lot of superficial knowledge. In the end, the progressive school will point to him as a shining success case. It will be due to all of the so-called mere facts and rote skills we ensured at home. And my son has the critical thinking skills to see what really works and what doesn’t.

    These aren’t the people I want lecturing me about research and best practices in education.

    • Steve, you prattle on about a variety of methods — traditional, progressive, skills-based, etc. Your comment is articulate, but I still don’t know what your point is.

      Did your son learn basic skills and find his voice, because of his remarkably intelligent parents? Sounds to me like you should home school.

  8. Do I have to spell it out for you Mark?

    Progressive techniques fail because they require MORE effort, not less.

    Engagement and motivation do not get the job done, and there IS linkage between skills and understanding.

    Critical thinking and understanding are vapor unless they are built on a foundation of properly mastered skills. A top-down approach requires MORE homework.

    Full inclusion means that kids are tracked by age and the range of skills widens as the years go on. There are no techniques that ensure mastery of even the basics.

    My son’s first grade teacher claimed that his knowledge of geography was superficial. Then, later in the year, he had to show the student teacher where Kuwait was when they were doing a thematic unit on “Sands from around the world”.

    Why don’t K-6 schools just say that all they really care about is seeing an “active” classroom with kids in mixed ability groups and the teacher as the guide-on-the-side? Apparently, learning and discovery can’t happen individually with homework.

    “I’m sure the math people will have their own argument, but I would imagine much of Krashen’s work would apply to all disciplines.”

    You can imagine all you want, but that’s not reality.

    “Sounds to me like you should home school.”

    Is that your answer to criticism – to tell parents to go away? Do you also argue against charter schools?

    • Yes, I argue against most, not all, charters. I’ve seen some that are excellent. Many are run by people who only want to manipulate the system and make money off of parents who believe they’re buying something better.

      My criticism is of parents who are not educators, who believe that the only way to teach is to shove unnecessary information down students’ throats. For example, although you might be proud of your son for pointing to Kuwait on a map, I would agree with the teacher that it’s a useless skill.

      I’m much happier that my first grader became a voracious reader, because his teacher gave him a myriad of books to choose from and encouraged him to explore. She inspired him to learn how to learn — not how to point to a word on a map.

      • It may not be necessary to know how to find Kuwait when you’re six — although if that’s what you enjoy when you’re six, you should go for it. I enjoyed doing that at a slightly older age, and with the knowledge of where Kuwait was came knowledge of what life is like there, and a sense that it’s much farther away than Canada, and is part of an ancient Middle Eastern culture.

        But you can’t argue that it’s OK for adults not to know where the various countries of the world are, and what causes them to be seen as groups or regions, and what they produce or how they believe the world should be run.

        So when is the right time to learn all of this? PLEASE don’t try to claim that children will just absorb this knowledge from reading novels or having interesting disucssions in class. They should read the novels and have the discussions, but that won’t give them the background knowledge to get the most out of those novels and discussion.

        In the ’70′s, this knowledge was taught in the 7th grade. Pretty much all kids are capable of learning it then, along with interesting discussions about these countries’ histories and how they figure in the modern world. But along with that goes committing this information to memory.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          But you can’t argue that it’s OK for adults not to know where the various countries of the world are, and what causes them to be seen as groups or regions, and what they produce or how they believe the world should be run.

          In that case, at least ninety percent of American adults are not OK–and they never have been. Back in the 70s, a lot of them may have been taught in 7th grade where the countries are on a map. But I would be willing to make a sizable bet that most of them couldn’t fill in a map now. I would feel the same way about a bet that the majority couldn’t even have filled in a map in 8th grade.

          There is a big difference between taught and learned. There is a similar distance between “knew if for the test” and “know it now.”

          • Maybe some people forget. That’s on them. But it makes no sense to claim that it shouldn’t be taught or learned.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            It’s not that some people forget. It’s that almost all people forget. I’d be willing to put $1,000 on the following bet. Show a random sample of people a map of the world with all the countries outlined. Then, ask them to fill in as many countries as they can think of. Less than 5% will be able to correctly identify 20. There are presently 192 members of the United Nations. If you gave people a list of all 192, they would be unable to match 30 to their place on the map.

            To set as a goal something that has never been done, or even come close to being done, seems impractical to me.

            Trying to achieve the impossible seems to me a waste of time and money.

          • Roger, I agree that 100% proficiency on where the different countries are, proficiency that keeps being updated every time a country changes its name or subdivides into two, is not common. But I also assert that the more of this information you learn in the first place and retain over the years, the better you will understand the evening news, the world economy, cultural conflict, etc etc. So giving up on the task because it’s hard and many won’t retain all if it, is a bad idea. I’ve forgotten a lot of the French verbs I used to know, too, but it’s a good thing that I took 5 years of French.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            I completely agree that “the more of this information you learn in the first place and retain over the years, the better you will understand the evening news, the world economy, cultural conflict, etc etc.” Unfortunately, the vast majority of people don’t learn much of this information in the first place. Nor has there ever been a time when they did. They may have memorized lots of things for a test and then forgotten most of it in the succeeding weeks and months, but that is a totally different thing.

            You know those things because you care about them. You probably use that knowledge and think about it often. You are a small minority. I don’t think it is possible to make most people be like you.

      • “I’m much happier that my first grader became a voracious reader, because his teacher gave him a myriad of books to choose from and encouraged him to explore. She inspired him to learn how to learn — not how to point to a word on a map.”

        For a child to become a voracious reader, they have to know something first. To learn how to learn requires factual knowledge first. Often the only difference between an advanced reader and a poor reader is knowledge level. The kids who know more will understand more, so they will read more. Kids who don’t have much factual knowledge will tune out when they come across things they have never heard of. They will understandably read less if much of what they are reading doesn’t make any sense.

        So, learning about countries, states, presidents, important people, major landmarks, major events, etc. is important. Learning things that may not be hugely interesting to you is important. It’s important because it increases understanding when these show up in books. Kids who have a lot of so-called “useless knowledge” will understand far more of what they read. They will be better thinkers and problem solvers because they can know and learn more. The idea that a child will become a voracious reader without a large knowlege base is absurd.

        I want my 1st grader to have a strong basic foundation in many different subject areas. I want to expose her to things she may not be particularly interested in. I would love for her to have a teacher who would create interest in new topics rather than simply cater to pre-existing interests. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer teachers like this in the schools. More and more teachers are pushing the responsibility of learning onto the kids.

        Of course, I have already done all of this myself. I taught my child to read early. I read to her a lot. I exposed her to a lot of factual knowledge. She had fifth grade reading skills at the end of kindergarten. She spends about 1-2 hours a day reading chapter books. She can understand books the vast majority of kids her age can’t. She is able to apply her understanding of what she is learning in books. So, learning a lot of “useless” knowledge is paying off.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          GC and Mark,

          I think you may be (in the words of a wise man I once knew) violently agreeing.

          “Becoming a voracious reader” requires two things 1) a certain ability to read and to understand what is read, 2) a desire to read. The first means that the person has to have some skills and background knowledge. That almost certainly doesn’t involve forced memorization of unrelated facts. However, it does require a significant body of pre-existing knowledge. I suspect both your offspring entered school with lots of that.

          Then, there has to be a desire to get more–and to get it through the written word. That means that the kid has to expect that there are interesting things in books. The kid also has to expect that he or she will be able to get those interesting things–and that the getting won’t hurt. Kids who can’t read well find that it does hurt. So they don’t read if they can help it, and reading stays a chore, and they continue to avoid it, around and around in a vicious circle.

          The voracious reader encounters a virtuous circle. The act of reading is relatively easy, and good things come out of it. As he or she gets better and better at it, (s)he can read more complicated stories, or pursue non-fiction that interests her/him. Reading is something (s)he want to do, not a task (s)he has to do.

      • “Yes, I argue against most, not all, charters. I’ve seen some that are excellent.”

        Who gets to decide? That’s the key question?

        “My criticism is of parents who are not educators, …”

        So it’s a turf thing. Your only solution is to try to prove that your position contains no opinion.

        “For example, although you might be proud of your son for pointing to Kuwait on a map, I would agree with the teacher that it’s a useless skill.”

        Who gets to decide that? You’re just guessing, perhaps by definition, that that knowledge is not linked to other understandings. If so, you guessed wrong. My son was not just learning words. That’s what you want to believe. That points to the real issue I raise of linkage. Nobody argues that facts and skills are not necessary, but most progressives feel that the only true path is top-down, thematically, or with real world problems. OK. But is the job getting done? No, and I give clear examples of that. I also point to fundamental flaws in the implementation. I even point to how, in the lower grades, the extra work required to get the job done doesn’t happen. They allow kids to diverge in abilities and skills. Teachers can’t possibly ensure that any proper level of learning gets done. A natural learning process, for most kids, means low expectations. In the real, competitive world, I can hear the doors slamming shut. If that’s what you want for your kids, I won’t stop you, but I surely don’t want the public school system closing doors on my son. Even if you could prove the effectiveness of progressive techniques, there is still the opinion factor of where to set the bar. Parents and students get to choose this level in high school and college, but amazingly, this choice is not allowed in K-8. Even when urban parents clamor for choice, many educators deny it to them.

        “I’m much happier that my first grader became a voracious reader, because his teacher gave him a myriad of books to choose from and encouraged him to explore. She inspired him to learn how to learn — not how to point to a word on a map.”

        Do you really think it’s that simple? Not all books are the same, and “encouraged him to explore” is not inspiration. What happens if the first grader can’t read to begin with? What do teachers do when their class is filled with kids of all level of skills? In fifth grade, when my son’s teacher was trying to remediate bright kids who still didn’t know the times table “naturally”, her inspiration to my son was that there was little she could do for him. Clearly, you can’t rely on “natural”. Reality has little to do with the lofty talk of principles.

  9. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Best. Comment. Thread. Ever.

    So let me add my six pence, or perhaps my halfpenny.

    Everyone here seems to be on the same page in at least one respect: we all see education as a process, a goal-oriented process aiming toward some end or another.

    But while everyone is arguing about the particulars of process, and whether the process is “efficient” or not, no one seems to be looking at the end, which is what in any discussion of a process should justify any claims about how to go about it. (A separate sort of discussion is needed to talk about which ends one should pursue.)

    You are all making a huge mistake though: you are proceeding under the assumption that the end of education is “learning”. This is a facile truth, with no substantive content whatsoever. The end of education is learning in just the same way the end of war is victory; it is fundamental to the concept, but so fundamental that it adds very little. Your agreement that “learning” is the goal is masking, I think, some serious disagreements about what should be learned, and about what the end of the educative process really is. I suspect there are even deeper disagreements about why your chosen ends are the ones to pursue.

    Complicating this all is the fact that, often, we are talking about public education, which entails thinking about the goals under the cover of the political process (as well as the merely philosophical).

    I’m not going to argue for any particular end — any particular purpose of schooling, or model of an “educated” student. At least not here. I’m just going to point out that two reasonably intelligent, educated people, CrimsonWife and myself, have herein on this blog made explicit, through the hard process of being clear about our thoughts, that we have gross and obvious differences in what we think the purpose of publicly funded school actually is. (This is less rarefied than the purpose of “education”, mind you, and more of a political question. I don’t know whether she and I would differ on the more abstract issue.)

    I don’t know what she thinks of my views, not really. (I suspect she thinks something like, “OK, fine, but don’t ask me to pay taxes to support that view.”) But I understand her views and they strike me as perfectly reasonable views to have. They’re not my views, but something nebulous like the “aim of education” is the sort of thing that may possibly be open to many, many reasonable interpretations. Understanding that difference between us means that we don’t chase our tails arguing with each other — as I suspect most of the participants on this thread are doing.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      Of course, while I was typing, naturally Ponderosa beats me to the punch:


      What is the point of school?

      Le sigh.

      • Well, I hope the purpose of school isn’t just to socialize students to sit passively and listen to / do what they’re told ’cause if so that has pretty severe and negative implications for our democracy.

        Critical thinking and problem-solving can be taught (best if domain-specific!) and is a desirable schooling outcome for students. But that means we need to recognize their value and foster them rather than dismiss them. We need an active, engaged, thinking populace that can tackle important issues, not a submissive one.

        • No one is dismissing critical thinking. Good teachers include it all the time, and less-good teachers should be brought up to snuff. We’re just saying that criticial thinking can’t happen in a vaccuum.

          • Despite allegations otherwise, I have yet to see or hear any educator or writer advocate for ‘critical thinking in a fact-less vacuum.’ That, too, is a straw man, typically trotted out by folks who want schools to somehow focus more than they do now on ‘the basics.’ You say that ‘good teachers include critical thinking all the time’ and yet, as I noted above, the research shows quite clearly that the overwhelming majority of what we do in traditional schools IS ‘the basics’ rather than higher-level thinking work.

          • Despite allegations otherwise, I have yet to see or hear any educator or writer advocate for ‘critical thinking in a fact-less vacuum.’

            Every person who believes that specific facts need not be learned because they can be looked up is arguing for critical thinking in “critical thinking in a fact-less vacuum”. Why? Most times we look up information, it never moves beyond working memory. We don’t have the chance to integrate it into our knowledge.

            Frankly, when I see people spout off about 21st century learning, I swear it’s designed to keep the students as dumb and docile as possible. Facts are stubborn things, especially when they’re lodged in the human brain.

        • Scott,

          You come back at me with the usual tired slogans.

          “Passive listeners” –ooh, bad. How horrible that kids are sitting and listening. Soon they’ll be marching around after some new Hitler.

          Um. No. Let’s stop pretending that this is how Nazis are made. And let’s start admitting that a certain degree of docility is required for kids to learn. And start admitting that our democracy depends on having well-informed citizens (James Madison: “The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.” This diffusion is not happening efficiently in our project-based classrooms). So listening to, say, a lecture on the causes of Nazism might actually help our kids be on guard for signs of its return; and a lecture on the Constitution might help our kids be better democrats. And let’s admit that depriving our kids of essential knowledge might make them more prey to demagogues who subvert democracy. They may have talked back to and talked over their teachers, but in doing so they may have failed to gain the wherewithal to mentally resist the lures of the demagogues. So stop pretending that traditional teachers are anti-democracy. If anything, it’s your preferred methods that seem to threaten democracy.

          You also assume that the CONTENT of these lectures works to pacify the listener. Are you kidding? Are Jesus, Socrates, Martin Luther and many others anything but audacious rebels?

          Your analysis of schooling seems so shallow and simplistic. Docile students = docile citizens. Rambunctious students = feisty citizens. I was a docile student; I learned a lot; and now I’m a feisty citizen (I’ve marched with Occupy Oakland –before it went off the rails –three times, and I donated a tent to it) . I’m feisty now BECAUSE I was docile then.

          • So much simplistic thinking:

            feisty students > feisty citizens

            reading > good readers

            critical thinking > critical thinkers

            All so plausible. But wrong.

            Docile students who get a liberal arts education > feisty citizens

            basic decoding instruction + listening a lot to rich content> good readers

            learning the facts > rightly-guided critical thinkers

          • This argument is getting stupid. The original claim, from the list of 7, is that it isn’t true that “students must do the boring stuff before they can do the interesting stuff.” I hear no-one saying that students must do 8 years of boring stuff before they can do the intersting stuff. We’re just saying you have to do SOME “boring stuff” (although to many people learning background informaiton is not boring) before you can do the interesting stuff. So, you can intersperse the “boring” and the “interesting” stuff right from the start. And, yes, you can learn even more “boring stuff” in the course of doing the “interesting stuff.”

            But you can’t always depend on the interesting stuff to get students to learn and retain the boring stuff. That’s all we’re saying.

          • Ponderosa, can you support what you say with any research-based evidence or practical experience?

            Dr. Stephen Krashen, who has studied language acquisition and grammar for 40-plus years, says you are dead wrong. By his own admission, he was disappointed to learn that teaching decoding and grammar prior to reading is absolutely ineffective, but this is what decades of research tells him.

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            Mark, I don’t understand your comment, Most kids have been talking since they were about a year old. They have already learned–and are using–most of the important grammar rules before they start school.

            Anyone who reads has to know that letters arranged in a certain way stand for certain words, and that often specific letters and combinations of letters represent a specific sound (“k” is “kuh,” “d” is “duh,” “tion” is “shun,” etc.). That’s what I though “decoding” meant.

          • We’re in alternative universes. Forced docility in childhood somehow begets active citizenry later? Um, yeah.

            I’m done.

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            It’s really not crazy. The logic model, in general terms, goes like this:

            Successful activity requires well-grounded confidence.
            Well-grounded confidence requires a certain amount of competence.
            Competence requires training.
            Training requires a certain amount of receptivity and submission.
            Receptivity and submission is docility.
            Ergo, successful activity requires docility.

            To put it more poetically, you must confine yourself in the chrysalis if you are ever to be able to emerge from it transformed. It’s part of the development process.

            That’s not saying it’s a sound argument that is being advanced, just that it’s not completely unreasonable.

  10. a few people suggested i respond to this list, but i find it hard to take it seriously. the first item (basic facts are prerequisites to deep thinking) is not a myth but a fact about the mind for which there are a great deal of data, and about which i’ve written in several places. (but it’s a mistake to interpret this fact about the mind as a reason to drill kids in isolated facts, which I’ve also written about).

    The other items on the list are not facts about how kids learn, but claims about interactions between kids and teachers, or about teacher practice. Many of them are hard to interpret without more context, but most of them just sound like bad teaching practice, and someone who would advocate something *like* what they describe would roll his or her eyes because the point is being caricatured.

    Lists like this represent much of what’s wrong with education debate in the US: ill-informed, needlessly combative, and unfair to perceived opponents.

    • Sorry you got dragged into this, Dan. Some of us are trying to have at least some shred of an evidence-based discussion. And others? Well…

    • “Lists like this represent much of what’s wrong with education debate in the US: ill-informed, needlessly combative, and unfair to perceived opponents.”

      What other process is there? Are the Common Core Standards the best we can expect from those “informed”?

      What’s wrong is that parents have little choice in schools, especially K-8. We hear lots of opinion and get assumptions and low expectations foisted on our kids and we have no choice. We are told that we aren’t “informed” enough about education.

      “needlessly combative,”

      So, what’s the solution? Rather than sniffing with disdain, why don’t you help create a proper process? Better yet, work for choice and allow parents to decide. That’s if you think we can be trusted to make an informed decision. I really don’t care if some parents choose unschooling approaches. I don’t care if some choose integrated math classes in high school. There doesn’t need to be any combat. Just set the parents free and then you can go back to a support role.

  11. Deirdre Mundy says:

    So what are the aims of education? Well, we want an engaged and productive citizenry capable of participating in the economic, political and cultural spheres of the Republic, right? And so, for generations, those in power have tried to mold the public education system to produce the citizens they think they need for the future they’re trying to create—

    So, if we look at a given system of education, we should be able to figure out the aims of the people who set it up.

    And this is why we have the school choice/ private school/ home school/ charter movement—- because education leaders’ vision for what they want the America of the future to look like doesn’t match what the PARENTS want.

    It’s not about “love of learning” or “21st century skills.” It’s about using pedagogical methods as an attempt to create a certain kind of voter who will support a certain kind of future.

    And, apparently, it is ESSENTIAL to our leaders that citizens of the future be REALLY bad at Math, Geography, and other fact-based disciplines….And think of Science and Engineering as “a chance to be creative!!” But, in the land of artists, the man who can build a working kiln is king…..

    • “But, in the land of artists, the man who can build a working kiln is king…..”

      I have to admit, I laughed when I read this.

    • And, apparently, it is ESSENTIAL to our leaders that citizens of the future be REALLY bad at Math, Geography, and other fact-based disciplines…

      How else are the supposed to swallow all the “information” that emanates from Washington on a daily basis?

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      “And this is why we have the school choice/ private school/ home school/ charter movement—- because education leaders’ vision for what they want the America of the future to look like doesn’t match what the PARENTS want”

      Yeppers. Some political writer, I think it was Theodore Dalrymple, compared homeschoolers to archeologists. We’re digging up stuff long ago abandoned by our society – things our current culture is blinded too, has long forgotten, or chooses to ignore. We’re doing this because what our elites tell us is true is obviously not true. We don’t trust them. Talk about critical thinking! ;-)

  12. I’m trying to understand how students can get by without learning things that they can look up. I teach hs/college students, and we do ‘thinking things’, some by design and others following student interest. In order to discuss the ‘cool stuff’ like what happens if chromosomes segregate incorrectly, how chemo stops rapidly dividing cells, or how a genetic defect in could cause multiple symptoms, they need to learn the steps of meiosis and mitosis, the organelles of the cell, and how transcription works. They can’t have a coherent discussion if they keep looking back at the picture in the book – at some point they have to commit it to memory.

    The more things that you commit to memory, the more resources that you have to apply to problem solving. I’ve met some brilliant researchers (and a lot of average ones) in the biological sciences, and most of them have almost an encyclopedic knowledge of their fields, which helps them rapidly consider and eliminate hypotheses.

  13. Lu lu,

    You’re absolutely right. Top-notch thinking absolutely depends on a brain brimming with knowledge. Just as you can’t speak German without having memorized loads of German facts, you can’t “speak” biology (or history or anything) without having memorized a lot of knowledge in that domain. An empty brain on Google will never beat a knowledge-filled brain. The more knowledge at your mental fingertips, the better your thinking. This is what the progressivists –and many lay people –fail to understand –because it’s not intuitive. Even super-smart Silicon Valley types don’t get it. Everyone is ardent about higher-order thinking and tepid about facts. The problem is that the facts upon which smart people’s intelligence is based become invisible to them, and so they don’t see the necessity for inculcating facts in children. They’re also blind to the fact that, personal philosophies notwithstanding, they are constantly inculcating knowledge in their own children (“Suzie, this is a pomegranate; it’s a kind of fruit that’s popular in Persian culture”) and that these facts –not progressive pedagogy –will be the real basis of their kids’ high reading scores.

  14. Ignernt person says:

    a detail… i didn’t read through every response so maybe it was noticed by another.

    Monks did not go to Mass 8 times a day, They prayed the office 7 times a day and had Mass once. There is a big difference between praying the office and assisting at Mass.

    from Ignernt person, obl OSB