‘We are building the Japanese garden’

Sol Stern recalls his sons’ progressive education at a highly regarded Manhattan elementary school in The Redemption of E. D. Hirsch in City Journal.

Many PS 87 teachers were trained at “citadels of progressive education” such as Columbia University’s Teachers College and the Bank Street College of Education, Stern writes. They learned that all children are “natural learners.”

PS 87 had no coherent, grade-by-grade curriculum. Thus, my son’s third-grade teacher decided on his own to devote months of classroom time to a project on Japanese culture, which included building a Japanese garden. Each day, when my son came home from school, I asked him what he had learned in math. Each day, he happily said the same thing: “We are building the Japanese garden.” My wife and I expressed our concern to the teacher about the lack of direct instruction of mathematical procedures, but he reassured us that constructing the Japanese garden required “real-life” math skills and that there was nothing to worry about.

In fourth grade, a new teacher assigned more “real-life” math problems. For example: How many Arawaks did Christopher Columbus kill in his conquest of Hispaniola?

Children were taught little about the American Revolution, the framing of the Constitution and the Civil War, Stern writes.

“It’s important to learn about the Civil War,” the principal said, “but it’s more important to learn how to learn about the Civil War. The state of knowledge is constantly changing, so we have to give children the tools to be able to research these things and, of course, to think critically.”

In Cultural Literacy (1987) and The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them (1996), E.D. Hirsch “convinced me that my sons’ teachers had abandoned common sense in favor of progressive education fads, backed by no evidence, which did more harm than good,” writes Stern

Hirsch also showed that the most devastating consequence of these doctrines was that they widened, rather than reduced, the gap in intellectual capital between middle-class children and those from disadvantaged families. “Learning builds cumulatively on learning,” he wrote. “By encouraging an early education that is free of ‘unnatural’ bookish knowledge and of ‘inappropriate’ pressure to exert hard effort, [progressive education] virtually ensures that children from well-educated homes who happen to be primed with academically relevant background knowledge which they bring with them to school, will learn faster than disadvantaged children who do not bring such knowledge with them and do not receive it at school.” Background knowledge can only be provided by a planned, coherent curriculum. Without it, disadvantaged children fall even further behind, particularly in reading.

Hirsch is the “most important education reformer” of the last 50 years, concludes Stern.

Uncommon curriculum

Closing the vocabulary gap would help close the opportunity gap, argues Fordham’s Mike Petrilli, a guest on the Bridging Differences blog. Children from low-income families start kindergarten with an enormous vocabulary deficit, he writes. Preschools and elementary schools can build children’s vocabulary by teaching them history, science, art, music, literature and geography.

Yes, to little kids. (You know, the ones who are curious about EVERYTHING. Who can learn a TON just by listening to a good read-aloud story.)

E.D. Hirsch has argued for 30 years that the key to building students’ vocabularies, and thus their ability to read and learn, is content knowledge. Once a child learns to decode, her “comprehension” ability mainly comes down to the store of knowledge she’s got in her head. If she can sound out words but can’t read a passage about dinosaurs, it’s not because she hasn’t been taught “comprehension skills”—it’s probably because she’s never been taught anything about dinosaurs.

Yet our preschools and elementary schools systematically reject this obvious approach because they deem it not “developmentally appropriate.” Furthermore, they say, why teach all those “facts” when kids can just Google them?

High-poverty schools make it worse if they delay teaching social studies and science — usually untested — until fourth or fifth grade to spend more time teaching reading in the early grades. This is “nuts,” writes Petrilli. “Teaching content is teaching reading.”

Building vocabulary doesn’t require a common curriculum, responds Deborah Meier. She’s all for teaching “stuff.” But there are many ways to do that, she writes.

As with our first language we need to rely on building vocabulary by: (1) having a more diverse student body (racial and class integration); (2) having a lot of adults around to interact with and smaller class sizes (like good private schools do); (3) engaging in studies that require collaboration between students and students, and students and adults—including adult-written texts; (4) encouraging reading in settings that are designed to naturally arouse interest—motivate—or that answer questions youngsters really want to know; and (5) remembering that vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and spelling are most efficiently learned the same way we learn everything else that matters.

We learn to drive by driving and to cook by cooking, which means allowing 6- to 12-year-olds to read (and listen to) repetitive and engaging books which do not present too much of a “cognitive” or empathy challenge.

Progressive preschools don’t think knowing facts is “developmentally inappropriate,” Meier writes. But they believe direct instruction isn’t needed to ”

kick in this love of reading, of hobbies, of facts, of curiosity, of indefatigable and repetitive practice in subjects and skills” kids are fascinated by. “Our job is to extend” kids’ curiosity, she concludes. Too often, schools kill it.

The myth about traditional math education

“The traditional method of teaching math has failed thousands of students,” claim new math proponents. That’s a myth, writes Barry Garelick in Education News.

Garelick looked at math books and methods used in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.

Mathematical algorithms and procedures were not taught in isolation in a rote manner as is frequently alleged. Concepts and understanding were an important part of the texts.

Then and now, nobody argues for memorization without understanding, he adds.

Traditional math education was working reasonably well, Garelick argues. In Iowa, test scores rose steadily until about 1965, and then declined dramatically for a decade.  This pattern was repeated in Minnesota and Indiana.

 

Source: Congressional Budget Office (1986)

Some researchers blame increased drug use and the rise in divorce and single-parent families for the decline. Garelick blames progressive education which called for student-centered, needs-based courses.

After taking not-so-early retirement, Garelick is now a student math teacher at a California junior high school.

 

 

Alfred North Whitehead on “inert ideas”

One of the most remarkable essays I have read on education is “The Aims of Education” by Alfred North Whitehead. First published in 1917, it calls some of our current “wars” into question, particularly the apparent battles between progressives and traditionalists. When Whitehead argues against the danger of “inert ideas,” he seems both progressive and traditional at once.

Whitehead (1861-1947) was a mathematician and philosopher. He co-authored the Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell. He is the founder (to some degree) of “process philosophy,” which he explains in Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology.

Already, I am bristling, because the very idea of “process philosophy” sounds like so much nonsense. But when Whitehead says something, he makes you think–in a way that differs from what you might expect. His points don’t fall in the usual classifications.

The second paragraph of “The Aims of Education” reads:

In training a child to activity of thought, above all things we must beware of what I will call “inert ideas”–that is to say, ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilised, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations.

Now, this is interesting, because such “inert ideas” could consist of disjointed facts and big, vague concepts. In other words, schools that emphasize isolated bits of information and schools that emphasize ungrounded “critical thinking and problem-solving” are committing a similar error. They are giving students material out of context. As commenters on Michael’s most recent post have suggested, it is the motion of a topic that makes it interesting and memorable. Daniel T. Willingham has made similar points in his book, Why Don’t Students Like School?

But am I reading things into Whitehead? Not at all; here’s more:

Furthermore, we should not endeavour to use propositions in isolation. Emphatically I do not mean, a neat little set of experiments to illustrate Proposition I and then the proof of Proposition I, a neat little set of experiments to illustrate Proposition II and then the proof of Proposition II, and so on to the end of the book. Nothing could be more boring. Interrelated truths are utilised en bloc, and the various propositions are employed in any order, and with any reiteration. Choose some important applications of your theoretical subject; and study them concurrently with the systematic theoretical exposition. … Also the theory should not be muddled up with the practice. The child should have no doubt when it is proving and when it is utilising. My point is that what is proved should be utilised, and that what is utilised should–so far, as is practicable–be proved. I am far from asserting that proof and utilisation are the same thing.

Very interesting. So there should be “theoretical exposition,” short and thorough, alongside (and clearly distinct from) practical application. The theory should be presented in a systematic manner, but “interrelated truths” should be utilized “en bloc.”

In none of this can the details of the subject or the hard work of practice be avoided:

All practical teachers know that education is a patient process of the mastery of details, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. There is no royal road to learning through an airy path of brilliant generalisations. There is a proverb about the difficulty of seeing the wood because of the trees. That difficulty is exactly the point which I am enforcing. The problem of education is to make the pupil see the wood by means of the trees.

But what of the aims of education? What are they? Whitehead writes:

What education has to impart is an intimate sense for the power of ideas, for the beauty of ideas, and for the structure of ideas, together with a particular body of knowledge which has peculiar reference to the life of the being possessing it.

Here’s where things get a little shaky for me. What does he mean by “peculiar reference”? Does he mean that studies should be of personal relevance to each student? Or does he mean that a subject taught in motion is a subject made relevant–that the very motion, the procession from one idea to another, consitutes the relevance, as it helps us see where a particular idea comes from and where it is going? I believe he means the latter. He continues:

The appreciation of the structure of ideas is that side of a cultured mind which can only grow under the influence of a special study. I mean that eye for the whole chess-board, for the bearing of one set of ideas on another. Nothing but a special study can give any appreciation for the exact formulation of general ideas, for their relations when formulated, for their service in the comprehension of life. A mind so disciplined should be
both more abstract and more concrete. It has been trained in the comprehension of abstract thought and in the analysis of facts.

There is much more to the essay than I am conveying here. What’s tantalizing is that some of his ideas are so good and can be misunderstood so easily. They resemble, at first glance, some of the education jargon out there (regarding the “joy of discovery,” for instance) but mean something quite different. One need not agree with all of his points, but they raise the possibility that there is something beyond the oppositions familiar to us today.

I bring up Whitehead in my forthcoming book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture. I am grateful to the mathematician who brought Whitehead’s essay to my attention.

The struggle for P.S. 84

The struggle for P.S. 84 will determine whether Latino immigrant parents can share a Brooklyn school with middle-class whites who are gentrifying the Williamsburg neighborhood.

The first round of integration went badly, reports Capital New York. In fall of 2006, P.S. 84 was “83 percent Latino, but the 8 percent of white students comprised nearly half of the Pre-K and Kindergarten classes.” The “newcomer” parents were eager to volunteer in classrooms, contribute their fund-raising skills and lead the PTA.

. . . during elections for the School Leadership Team, a council that comprises parents and staff. (Brooke) Parker, the Pre-K parent, stood up to give her stump speech. Depending on whom you ask, the speech was either a galvanizing call to improve the school or an affront to its teachers and pre-existing parents. Also depending on whom you ask, Parker was rudely heckled or duly called out for her own rudeness.

“I was heckled by the faculty, in front of my kids,” Parker complains. “The faculty was like, ‘Who are you to come in here?’ The insinuation was that I couldn’t be accountable to anyone except my constituency, which was perceived to be middle-class.”

Jaime Estades, who later became PTA president, put it another way: “A parent stood up and talked about how bad the teaching in the school was and that changes had to be made. You can’t just say that to a bunch of teachers.”

Newcomer parents objected to the school’s annual Three Kings Day parade, a cultural tradition for Latino parents. Newcomers objected to selling ice cream in Pre-K classes to help fund the PTA.  Newcomers, many of them involved in the arts, wanted progressive education, while immigrant parents favored traditional methods.

The reception they received shocked the newcomer parents. As they saw it, they were working hard to turn a bad school into a good one only to run into opponents who kept making it about race.

Few white students went on to first grade at P.S. 84, which went through several principals before hiring a Latina raised in Williamsburg.

Sereida Rodriguez-Guerra is trying to lure new students. She’s introduced progressive educational programs, such as “the Renzulli method, which matches curriculum to students’ learning styles and interests, as well as the Visual Thinking Strategies program, which aims to improve critical thinking and descriptive language skills through discussion of visual images.”

Test scores remain low — the school has an “F” rating — which advocates blame on previous administrations. The principal says the school doesn’t “teach to the test.”

The atmosphere is calmer, though tensions remain between parent groups. “Last year, a group of mostly newcomer parents volunteered their time, money and artisanal skills to renovate the long-defunct library.” Other newcomers are redesigning the school’s web site.

White enrollment is back up to 7.6 percent, mostly in pre-K and kindergarten. But middle-class white families won’t stick with P.S. 84 without signs of academic progress.

If the school remains half-empty, the unused space is likely to be given to a charter school. P.S. 84 loyalists say that will destroy their school.

Meanwhile, Williamsburg continues to gentrify.

Via HechingerEd.

From Sweden to NY: Self-paced school

In a Kunskapsskolan Education (KED) school, middle-class Swedish children set their own curriculum and learn at their own pace. It’s the anti-KIPP, says Take Part. And it’s coming to the U.S.  A group of New Yorkers have applied to open a Manhattan charter middle school on the KED model, reports Insideschools.org, which notes, “The KED model aligns with the progressive educational practices used in many District 2 schools serving middle-class neighborhoods.”

KED promises personalized learning:

The steps and courses offer different kinds of lesson formats, such as lectures, workshops, seminars, laboratory experiments etc, which you and your personal tutor will put together in your weekly schedule. If you feel that any subject is particularly difficult, you can choose to devote more time in your personal schedule to teacher-led learning or independent studies in this subject.

New students set academic goals with the help of a tutor and their parents, KED says. The goals are used to create an educational plan with goals for each week and each term. The tutor monitors progress; parents follow online through a web portal that shows the student’s results and teachers’ comments.

KED is highly structured, says Claudia Hindo, who’s on the KED Manhattan board.

“Students, their parents, and their teachers set high achievement goals, measured by proficiency goals, and all students will be expected and supported in reaching and/or exceeding all NYC proficiency standards . . . Rather than ‘laissez-faire’ then, students are actually far better known to their teachers and it is impossible to fly beneath the radar. As proof of the system, Kunskapsskolan students consistently outperform their peer schools, year after year.”

The Manhattan charter will serve students with special needs, those who aren’t fluent in English and students from low-income families, Hindo asserts. “We are excited that data proves Kunskapsskolan’s educational model has been successful across a wide range of abilities and groups.”

It’s likely KED Manhattan will appeal to affluent, educated parents who see learn at your own pace as learn faster. But setting personal learning goals could work for a range of students, if they’re followed closely to ensure they’re meeting targets. I’d like to see a KED option.

Update: Here’s a link to a 2008 Economist story that compares KED schools to IKEA.

Waldorf public schools face lawsuit

Sacramento public schools include a Waldorf-inspired K-8 school and a high school. Both schools are popular with parents, but not with People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools, which has filed a lawsuit charging that the Waldorf system is based on founder Rudolf Steiner’s religious philosophy, anthroposophy, and therefore can’t receive tax dollars.

There are 43 Waldorf-inspired public schools in the U.S., including 24 in California, according to the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education. More are in the works.

John Morse Waldorf-Inspired K-8 School, a district-run school, is moving to a new campus with room for more students. The school integrates “activities of the heart, hands and head” throughout the curriculum, including “handwork, gardening, cooking, and woodworking.”  Teachers stay with the same students throughout their education, if possible. Reading isn’t taught till students are considered ready, which may be as late as third grade. Here’s an Edutopia article on the school.

George Washington Carver School of Arts and Science, a charter high school, offers project-based and hands-on learning and stresses drama, art, gardening and poetry. However, all students take the A-G courses that will qualify them for state universities.

PLANS sees Waldorf as “a cult-like religious sect following the occult teachings of Rudolf Steiner.”

Waldorf educators say, simply put, Waldorf is a holistic approach that focuses on a child’s development and has art infused into the curriculum.

Waldorf-trained teachers learn Steiner’s philosophy but don’t teach it in the public schools, says Betty Staley, who trains teachers at Rudolf Steiner College near Sacramento.

Waldorf education is progressive education with delayed reading instruction and a lot of art and nature study. It may work well for some children. Despite some of Steiner’s beliefs about the spirit world, I don’t see Waldorf as new-age religion.

Of course, some see Apple as a religion.