An empty pail lights no fires

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire,” the saying goes. Robert Pondiscio hates it. Without a bucket full of knowledge, kids can’t think critically (or uncritically) or solve problems, he writes on Core Knowledge Blog.

On the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” blog, educator Carol Corbett Burris cites the homily to attack the Relay Graduate School of Education, which trains teachers primarily for “no excuses” charter schools. In a Relay video on “Rigorous Classroom Discussion,” the teacher “barks commands and questions, often with the affect and speed of a drill sergeant,” Burris complains.  This “better prepares students for the dutiful obedience of the military than for the intellectual challenges they will encounter in college.” She writes:

I worry that the pail fillers are determining the fate of our schools. The ‘filling of the pail’ is the philosophy of those who see students as vessels into which facts and knowledge are poured. The better the teacher, the more stuff in the pail. How do we measure what is in the pail? With a standardized test, of course. Not enough in the pail? No excuses. We must identify the teachers who best fill the pail, and dismiss the rest.

The “high-energy, tightly structured teaching techniques” used in no-excuses charters can seem militaristic, Pondiscio concedes. But the would-be arsonists need tinder.

(Burris) badly and broadly misstates the critical role of knowledge (the stuff in the pail) to every meaningful cognitive process prized by fire-lighters: reading comprehension, critical thinking, problem solving, etc. Dichotomies don’t get more false than between knowledge and thinking.

The damage done by those who denigrate the importance of a knowledge-rich classroom—especially for our most disadvantaged learners—can scarcely be overstated.

“You can’t light a fire in an empty bucket,” he concludes.

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Comments

  1. SuperSub says:

    “better prepares students for the dutiful obedience of the military than for the intellectual challenges they will encounter in college.”

    Given dutiful obedience I could teach a rock…and the two college professors I know feel the same way. I hate the narcissistic self esteem movement that was gifted to our culture by the hippies. Students need to know when to sit down and shut up.

    People need to learn to obey before they can learn to lead.

    • You only know two professors? And for you, that’s a broad enough basis to generalize to the entire sphere of higher education?

      Platitudes and assumptions don’t tell us much of anything about education.

      If somebody wants to tell me that “”, I want to see his evidence – proof that the approach in fact leads to the thinking skills, love of learning, or whatever the metaphorical “fire” is supposed to represent in any given child.

      The original British grammar school model was built on an authoritarian “no excuses” model, with lots of structure, rote memorization, and the like, but it was also devoted to giving high ability working class students the opportunity for an education that was on par with that available at elite private schools. The teachers didn’t confuse discipline and rote memorization with academic achievement.

      • Cranberry says:

        I’d assume that discipline and rote memorization were regarded as necessary, but not sufficient, for academic achievement.

      • SuperSub says:

        ” Platitudes and assumptions don’t tell us much of anything about education”

        Neither does presumptuous outrage. Yes, I know two professors personally and have discussed the issue before with them. Its an anecdote, and barring any valid study otherwise regarding the subject, I’m more than comfortable basing my opinions on them.

        As Cranberry already noted, you included memorization and discipline as significant components to the British grammar school model. I doubt they made such a fuss over them if they weren’t necessary prerequisites to lighting the metaphorical fire.

        So, actually, if you want to see evidence, look at your own cited example.

  2. This “better prepares students for the dutiful obedience of the military than for the intellectual challenges they will encounter in college.”

    I love the sneering sense of superiority underlying this particular quote. I’d be willing to bet that the intellectual challenges in the modern military easily exceed those which 80% of undergrads will ever face. Moreover, undergrads face those challenges in the safety of the classroom, not in a combat zone.

  3. Deirdre Mundy says:

    These days, it’s harder to get into the military than into college– and the military has better benefits, job prospects, and no debt attached…..

  4. John Cunningham says:

    Military training courses probably teach ten times as much in half the time
    as what students learn in the Academies of Marxism that litter the landscape
    of the USA. the Progressive theory of education has been tested in this
    country for 70 years, and it has failed utterly.

  5. This is why E.D. Hirsch says that so many educators are anti-intellectual — they disparage the very idea of knowledge. And knowing stuff– background knowledge– is exactly what kids need if they are to be successful.

    Also —I’m willing to bet that people who dismiss the military in this way, have never been in the military and do not know anyone in the military. Besides teaching leadership, decision-making and so much else, the U.S. military is the largest educational institution in the country. And the most successful.

  6. The fire gets lit when there is fuel in the pail.

  7. > Without a bucket full of knowledge, kids can’t think critically (or uncritically) or solve problems, he writes on Core Knowledge Blog.

    Actually, with a bucket full of knowledge (or any other kindling) you simply snuff out any flame that could possibly light. Anyone who have ever actually lit a fire knows that.

    What you need is just enough knowledge to get the fire going. That turns out to be not a lot of knowledge, and most of it is of the pretty basic sort – basic reading, critical thinking, numeracy and social skills.

    Piling on more and more ‘knowledge’ simply knocks out the flame, and renders the bucket a useless inert lump of coal.

  8. lightly seasoned says:

    Quick! Stop that metaphor before it kills again! I wonder what it is about people that prohibits them from seeing where the sensible middle ground is. I’m serious about that, BTW. Of course students need to know stuff. But knowing stuff is only half the task. These are complementary, not antithetical.

    • Amen.

    • J.D. Salinger says:

      Of course students need to know stuff. But knowing stuff is only half the task. These are complementary, not antithetical

      Which is what Pondiscio is saying. “Dichotomies don’t get more false than between knowledge and thinking. The damage done by those who denigrate the importance of a knowledge-rich classroom—especially for our most disadvantaged learners—can scarcely be overstated.”

  9. Cranberry says:

    Burris defines the Relay Graduate School of Education as: In order to enroll in their program, one must teach, uncertified, in an affiliated school. Traditional public school teachers need not apply. Degrees are earned by online video and reading modules, attending discussion groups and by the uncertified teacher’s students’ test scores. If the test scores are not up to snuff, the teacher does not earn her degree. There are no classes in educational theory or history, nor any indication that the candidate must complete a masters thesis requiring research and reflection. It is cookie-cutter training grounded in one vision of instruction — the charter school vision. Each candidate’s pail is filled with the same techniques.

    So, practicing teachers learn a common vocabulary for and approach to teaching. If the students’ performance doesn’t reflect well on the teacher, she doesn’t get her degree.

    Works for me. How, precisely, does “education theory or history,” and a “masters thesis requiring research and reflection” improve (in a measurable way) the education of the students entrusted to a new teacher’s care? The requirements improve the bottom line of the ed schools, and thus the ed schools’ universities. But how do they improve the students’ students’ performance?

  10. They must be setting those test score goals pretty low, or else coming up with their own simple tests like TFA. Because Relay Teachers aren’t closing the achievement gap. They aren’t routinely getting low ability kids to proficient in algebra, for example. But boy, it sure sounds impressive to people who don’t know any better.

    Meanwhile, the real point of the school, as I said, is that it’s North Korea. Give that boy a buzzcut.

  11. Richard Aubrey says:

    Cal. Is anybody getting low ability kids proficient in algebra? I went through it in HS, in a school which was 7-12,so I knew a lot of kids for a lot of years. I knew who was bright, who was not, who was average. I was pretty quick, at least didn’t have much trouble in college prep curriculum. And there were people in what might be my cohort who had trouble with algebra. As I say, that wasn’t the low ability kids.
    Like to see some evidence of low ability kids routinely getting algebra. And not just a feel-good story about Jaime Escalante.