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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