Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Pupils should play a role in education

Diane Ravitch reviews an important new scholarly book that blames behaviorism and progressive education for letting pupils off the hook. Students need to learn that they need to make an effort and not blame someone else for their lack of success.

I think the sensible approach would be to recognize that both teachers and students have an important role to play in the educational enterprise. Blaming only one side is ... well ... one-sided.

The current philosophy that dominates American education, Zoch demonstrates, is a strange concoction that has produced our current woeful situation. Behaviorists (James B. Watson, Edward L. Thorndike, and B. F. Skinner) encouraged the view that students were simple, passive, and easily manipulated. According to behaviorist principles, it is no longer “incumbent upon the student to do what is necessary to succeed,” for it is the responsibility of the teacher “to find the right stimulus that will cause a student to respond as desired.” In the behaviorist worldview, the environment is all, and the student is passive and as helpless as an infant.

Along come John Dewey, William Heard Kilpatrick, Colonel Francis Parker, G. Stanley Hall, and other progressives, whose philosophies relieved students of responsibility to make the necessary effort to learn unless they wanted to. Like the behaviorists, Dewey saw the classroom environment (created by the teacher) as ultimately determinative of whether students learn. Kilpatrick and other leading progressives thought that if teachers could discover children’s natural interests, then learning would be easy and fun. Hall worried that studying hard was actually dangerous to children’s health. The possibility that a student might “struggle and strain” to learn something not of his own choosing was foreign to progressive theorists. Indeed, they emphasized the importance of joy, not effort. Zoch shows that progressive dogmas about natural learning are clearly in conflict with the Jamesian philosophy of effort and insists that parents and teachers teach “the will to succeed” by setting clear expectations and demanding effort, not accepting laziness.

Zoch argues that the progressive philosophy, like behaviorism, puts the onus on the teacher to be perfect, imaginative, ingenious, and all-powerful. Both philosophies assume that the teacher can and must create exactly the right environment or the student will not learn. Furthermore, if the teacher follows progressivist dictates, she will never exercise authority in the classroom but will appeal instead to the children’s needs and interests. The teacher must be not only entertaining but also able to individualize instruction for each child, who is expected to learn at his or her own pace and in accordance with his or her individual learning style. The problem, Zoch says, is that teachers are expected to work hard to motivate kids, but kids aren’t expected to do anything other than wait for the teacher to motivate them.


tc said...

Progresive ed I can see, but behaviorism? It's been dead in psych departments for decades, and ed schools think it's pure evil (just look at Alfie Kohn's _Punished by Rewards_).

Instructivist said...

I took graduate courses in ed psychology in ed school. One of the texts we used was by Anita Woolfolk, a pretty standard textbook in ed schools. There was quite a lot of behaviorism in it.

These courses were some of the few that had substance and I enjoyed them a lot.

carolynj said...

Behaviorism in itself is a very useful skill set. The idea that students (or anything else being trained behaviorally) are passive vessels waiting to be acted upon is an unfortunate misconception.

Good behaviorism is a sort of 'dance' between student and teacher, with the student constantly 'telling' the teacher, through his responses, what is working for him and what isn't. (BTW, behaviorism is quite alive and working well as a guiding principle in the education of the vast numbers of autistic spectrum kids that are being born these days).

It's a stretch to think that behaviorism might be part of our current educational problem, but misconceptions about it might be in the mix in a subtle way.

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Sarah said...

I agree carolynj. Behavior is alive and progressing. I like your explanation that it is a sort of "dance." One point behaviorists make is that a teacher is not teaching unless the kid is learning. There are some misconceptions out there and I beleive good people are helping to squash these. Many universities now have graduate special ed/behavioral ed programs. Check for more information. Thank you all for your comments. I love learning all I can :)