Saturday, November 19, 2005

"Progressive" education impedes progress

In Why Traditional Education Is More Progressive, E.D. Hirsch makes a strong and plausible case that the dominant educational creed defeats the purported aims of its advocates:

I would label myself a political liberal and an educational conservative, or perhaps more accurately, an educational pragmatist. Political liberals really ought to oppose progressive educational ideas because they have led to practical failure and greater social inequity. The only practical way to achieve liberalism’s aim of greater social justice is to pursue conservative educational policies.
In combating the dominant ed creed, propopents of quality education must have a developed sense of how the language employed by the dominant ed creed is manipulative, charged, disparaging and stacked against them. Some of the phrases that come to mind are "sage on the stage, guide on the side," "chalk and talk," "drill and kill" "teach the whole child," "teach the child, not the subject," "less is more," "up is down," "freedom is slavery" (well, I made up the last two or, rather, stole the last one from Orwell). There is nothing comparable for those who value expository instruction and domain knowledge.

[Fortunately, not all educationist phrases are catchy. There is also some pretty dreary stuff. I culled this from a constructivist site: "This article discusses several active-learning techniques that instructors can use to help students construct knowledge, such as think-pair-share, guided reciprocal peer questioning, jigsaw, and co-op co-op."]

Other words deployed by the dominant ed creed to disparage the notion of imparting knowledge are "lecture", "active" and "passive". "Lecture" has the negative connotation of droning on without regard for the audience's (in this case the pupils') level of understanding and its capacity to follow while the captive audience sits by "passively". No teacher worth anything would teach that way. (Adherents of the dominant ed creed forget that listening attentively to explicit instruction is also being active, but the followers of the creed claim to have a monopoly on "active").

But the disparagement of any explicit instruction by labeling it "lecture" is so strong that explicit instruction is proscribed in many places. That is detrimental to achieving quality education. For example, good math instruction should consist of modeling (interactive modeling if appropriate) followed by guided practice, independent practice and review. In other words, there must be talk as required by the circumstances. And how would one teach history and other subjects without talking?

I coined the impressive, albeit cumbersome, phrase "empathetic, interactive expository instruction" as a counterpoint to the dreaded "lecture". Alas, it can't compete with the catchiness of "talk and chalk" or "drill and kill". (Now I have to put my phrase in rhyme form).

I include "empathetic" in my phrase to stress the importance of discovering and being being sensitive to Vygosky's fabled zone of proximal development (a jazzed-up way of saying that our instruction must be geared to the pupils' ability and level of comprehension).

In his article, E.D. Hirsch takes apart some of the conceits of educationists:

Unfortunately, many of today’s American educators paint traditional education as the arch-enemy of "humane" modern education. Even everyday classroom language unfairly pits the two alternatives against one another. Here are some typical descriptions used by progressives to compare old and new methods:

Traditional vs. Modern
Merely verbal vs. Hands-on
Premature vs. Developmentally appropriate
Fragmented vs. Integrated
Boring vs. Interesting
Lockstep vs. Individualized

Parents presented with such choices for their children’s education would be unlikely to prefer traditional, merely verbal, premature, fragmented, boring, and lockstep instruction to instruction that is modern, hands-on, developmentally appropriate, integrated, interesting, and individualized. But of course this is a loaded and misleading contrast. Let’s look at those simple polarities one at a time.
You can read the entire article here.

1 comment:

George said...

Great article! I have experienced this in both my classroom and the church; my students are less than capable and many don't want to hear deep, theologically rooted sermons. Did you hear about the church that gave everyone clay to sculpt during the sermon? Or how about the clown communion? Entertain me lest I die!!!!