After working 28 days as a substitute teacher, novelist Nicholson Baker wrote a book on education excerpted in Fortress of Tedium in the New York Times Magazine. Running the story was “a terrible, terrible decision,” cognitive scientist Dan Willingham tells the Times‘ editors.
The first “terrible” is for ignoring “conflicting priorities in setting goals for public good, policy constraints in achieving these goals, the science of learning, distribution of wealth” and other complexities, writes Willingham, who’s a University of Virginia psychologist professor.
The second “terrible” is for the content.
The author commits the common education newcomer blunder: “The school that would have been perfect for me, would be perfect for everyone.” He cannot understand why high school must be so stifling and soulless. Part of the blame goes to curriculum, where otherwise interesting topics are made dull, but there’s no mistaking that the teachers who inflict this boring stuff on students deserve blame as well. Baker reminisces fondly about his own experience at an alternative high school, where students studied what they wished.
Willingham lists some of the problems in Baker’s argument:
1. There is actually evidence regarding classroom instructional quality in this country (e.g., here). He might have made use of it. (It shows, by the way, that the emotional tone is, on average, much more positive than he lets on. Instructional quality, however, is not much better.)
2. Baker is not the first to suppose that much greater freedom for students would lead to greater motivation and better outcomes. The lesson over the last hundred years seems to be that such schools are wonderful when they work, but reproducing the successes has proven more difficult than most observers would guess.
3. Some parents prefer a lot of structure. The private schools in my town do not all follow the lots-of-choice model, a la Waldorf, Montessori, or Regio Emilia. More parents pay to send their children to highly structured, traditional schools.
4. There are good arguments in favor of a common curriculum.
He finishes with a list of topics for wise editors to avoid:
1) Technology is poised to revolutionize learning and schools.
2) Competition would solve all problems in American education.
3) American education is the best in the world and all challenges in educational outcomes are due to poverty.
4) Teachers are fools, and the teacher’s unions are organized crime syndicates dedicated to protecting them.
5) All of America’s problems in education can be traced to standardized tests and if teachers were simply allowed to teach as they wished, all would be well.
You may nominate your own topics.