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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

‘Doing it wrong’

In We’re Doing It Wrong, David Michael Slater goes after 25 bad education ideas and provides his alternatives.

A middle-school English teacher, he’s taught mostly low-income students in Oregon and gifted students in Nevada. He’s also written more than 20 fiction books for children, teens and adults.

The book criticizes grouping students by age, rather than performance, then asking teachers to “differentiate.” Instead, he suggests letting students win badges for mastering skills.

“In addition, courses should be broken down into nine-week blocks so they can frequently be offered and repeated much more easily if failed,” he writes.

Students would be allowed to leave school at 16 for college or the workforce, if they wished. Those who hadn’t earned the badges to qualify for either would be allowed to leave too. “Students not ready to learn don’t learn,” writes Slater.

If the vocational leavers or the dropouts wanted to return, they could do so at any age at no cost.

Slater also takes on the “religion” of student-centered instruction.

We’ve reached the point where a teacher who wants to share a lecture for even fifteen minutes (and—gasp!—require their students to take notes) might be well-advised to lock the door and close the blinds. We’ve reached the point where twelve-year-olds are expected to run their own literary discussions so they can make their personal meaning from texts without “interference” from the “sage” (who can only stand by wishing one of them somehow had the background knowledge to unpack that complicated symbolism they’ve never been exposed to before). We are now in thrall to the notion that “passively” received knowledge is useless, if not some sort of affront.

In college, students will have to learn from lectures, he writes.

As philosophy professor Keith Parsons wrote in his Message to My Freshman Students: “Lecture, we are told, is an ineffective strategy for reaching today’s young people, whose attention span is measured in nanoseconds . . . Hogwash. You need to learn to listen. The kind of listening you need to learn is not passive absorption, like watching TV; it is critical listening. Critical listening means that you are not just hearing but thinking about what you are hearing. Critical listening questions and evaluates what is being said and seeks key concepts and unifying themes.”

Slater’s blog has a March Madness commentary dating from 2014 by Robert O. Davies, president of Murray State University. Basketball champions start early, writes Davies. In middle school, or sooner, they set their goals, focus their energies and work hard to hone their skills. They commit.

If we expect students to succeed in college, we need them to commit in middle school, he writes. To be a champion student, “you must practice day in a day out, chart your course out, set high goals and expectations, hold yourself accountable, prepare and do the work. . . . It starts in the 6th grade with the mindset, it continues in the 8th grade with the plan, and it is implemented each day, week, month and semester all through high school.” 

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