Monday, May 23, 2005

Institutrice clandestine

France and England are not immune to the progressive/constructivist education plague. Also see Sauver les lettres for books by teachers in France being reviewed.

Child-centred education is based on the constructivist theory of learning, according to which learners construct their own knowledge by analysing experience. For Marc Le Bris, this is a false theory, because the whole of humanity, not the individual child, constructs knowledge. The dominance of constructivism means that pupils will be, at best, autodidacts lacking the solidity of systematic learning.

In Britain there is also a strong aversion to the transmission of knowledge. The idea that pupils must be 'active' and become 'independent learners', rather than depend on the teacher, is seldom questioned. An independent school head teacher recently asked me: 'We are often accused of spoon-feeding our pupils. How can we help them become independent learners?'
Educationists wrap their creed in positive adjectives. One of those adjectives is "active" and alternatives to their prescriptions must therefore be "passive" and bad. But they overlook that listening attentively and trying to understand is being active.

Rachel Boutonnet could have answered that question. A French primary school teacher with a master in philosophy, she kept a diary throughout her teacher training and her first year as a teacher, which she published in 2003. She rejects the idea that traditional teaching methods make pupils passive: 'I think it is impossible to learn in a passive way. If you have learnt something, you must have been active; order to listen, you must concentrate. What the speaker is saying, you must make your own. This often requires effort and will power.'

She also questions the belief that so-called active methods lead to pupils' autonomy: 'the fact that pupils are "in research mode" doesn't mean that they are active. Often...they just ape an activity. They go through the motions that the teacher has scripted for them. Intellectually speaking, they are passive.'

The constructivist method is not so much an alternative to previous teaching methods as an anti-method. Boutonnet captures well the destructive impulse behind it: 'by refusing to transmit knowledge, the teacher trainers nevertheless transmitted something. They could not avoid this, since they were in the position of teachers.... This something was the rejection of knowledge. In this, they were the experts.'


Jonathan Kallay said...

Another great post.

One thing that troubles me is the use of Whole Language as the poster-child of child-centered teaching strategies. The author of the article uses this argument: child centered = Whole Language. Whole Language = students not being able to read. Students not being able to read = students not being able to learn. Therefore, child centered = students don't learn.

It would be entirely possible to teach reading using phonics and teach other subjects with more child-centered approaches (in fact, I'm sure this is probably quite common). The author assumes an 'all-or-nothing' approach with inquiry based vs. direct instruction, so therefore an attack on any particular implementation of child-centered approaches is sufficient to damn the whole lot. This is rhetorically convenient but logically fallacious.

Catherine Johnson said...

I've posted a rough translation of the first paragraphs of 'Diary of an Illegal Teacher' at Kitchen Table Math.