Sunday, February 25, 2007

Buzzword education

(Cross-posted at KTM II)

Wikipedia has an interesting entry on buzzwords. Buzzwords may sound impressive but have an unclear meaning. Wikipedia says: "Buzzwords are typically intended to impress one's audience with the pretense of knowledge. For this reason, they are often universal. They typically make sentences difficult to dispute, on account of their cloudy meaning."

Buzzwords should not be confused with jargon. For the most part, jargon has a well-defined technical meaning, at least to the initiated. On the other hand, buzzwords not only obscure meaning, but "can also function to control thought by being intentionally vague." As Wikipedia puts it: "In management, stating organizational goals by using words with unclear meanings prevents anybody from questioning the directions and intentions of these decisions..."

What is true for management is true for education to a high degree. Education presents a veritable cornucopia of buzzwords with vague meanings. They form the feeble corpus of the educationist Thoughtworld that would be a corpse in a more rational world. (Thoughtworld is a term coined by E. D. Hirsch to describe the nebulous educationist thought complex).

Ed schools are a rich generator of educationist fog, blasting prodigious quantities of fog into the air the way Mount Pinatubo might spew massive amounts of ash into the air until the sun is reduced to a faint glow.

And yet, astonishingly and improbably, we are asked to believe that the massive amounts of fog mixed with toxic fumes emitted by ed schools magically stop at the schoolhouse door.

It's been claimed by some, including Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews (see The Ed School Disease, Part Two) commenting on educational historian David F. Labaree's new book, "The Trouble With Ed Schools," that ed schools may be pitiful institutions and the butt of jokes, but there is no need to worry. They are not doing any harm: "Why worry about ed schools if they don't do any harm, or any good?" Mathews avers:

What I said in that column was that I had been in a lot of classrooms and had rarely seen much of this guide on the side stuff. I wasn't saying I was happy about it. We have never given the Deweyites a fair test of their theories, and I know of a few schools that have used child-centered learning to good effect. Labaree's insight is powerful and useful all the same: why worry about ed schools if they don't do any harm, or any good?
The blindness revealed in this statement is astonishing. Could armies of new teachers and educational leaders who go through the rigorous ed school indoctrination process really emerge unscathed? Not very likely.

When attempting to write about the harm done by ed school ideology, it is hard to know where to begin. One could start with relatively minor topics like the preachments about the unimportance of correct spelling and the alleged benefits of invented spelling. One could start with the promotion of disastrous creeds like constructivism that are reflected in curricula and teaching methods, and form the core of ed school ideology.

A perusal of mission and vision statements of schools show how deeply entrenched ed school ideology is in the thinking of educationists who run the schools. Take, for example, Chicago's so-called Renaissance schools. Classrooms need to be heterogeneous, disciplines must be integrated, collaborative groups must engage in peer teaching, math and science must be learned by inquiry and discovery without coherent textbooks and so on. Among my many favorites is the Al Raby school:

Educational Philosphy [sic]
The Al Raby School will embody a constructivist approach to learning. Learning will be an active process; our teachers will use lecture style instruction and worksheets sparingly. All teachers will stress collaborative groups as well as individual initiative, striving to make the classroom a model democratic community where students have choices and responsibilities. Based on a large body of research, we believe that for true comprehension and retention to occur the learning must be relevant, active and reflective.
Many of these new Chicago schools receive money from the Gates Foundation.

It is also wrong for Mathews to presume teacher autonomy. Teachers are not free agents. They must work under the contraints imposed from above. In many schools, this means having to work with fuzzy math textbooks like TERC, Trailblazers, Connected Math, CorePlus, all execrable fuzzy math programs. The CMP teacher manual tells teachers not to provide explicit instruction. Math teachers I've talked to either follow this dictum or are agonizing over it. Often it can mean working with no textbooks at all. Periodically, an ed school-indoctrinated leadership comes in and orders the removal of textbooks and workbooks from classrooms. These are then given away or end up in the trash.

Even if teachers manage to defy ed school indoctrination, the obstacles they face in actual practice are formidable. They face not only institutional constraints (e.g. constructivist materials and approaches mandated from above), but they are also facing a student body that has been conditioned to expect to be entertained and to be resistant to expository instruction.

One of the pernicious effects of ed school ideology is how it produces an indoctrinated cadre for top leadership positions which then has the power to impose constructivist texts and practices on schools, like Chicago's CMSI. This cadre could be anything from superintendents to board members to curriculum and instruction experts to principals and supervisory bodies.

The message from this cadre is that explicit instruction should be minimized or avoided altogether; that worksheets (one of the hands-on activities that make sense) should be avoided like the plague [one reason for the highly restricted photocopying allotment given to teachers here in Chicago]; that textbooks are evil incarnate and prevent teachers from being "creative". On top of everything, overworked and frazzled teachers are expected to reinvent the wheel every day. Since many elementary teachers are not well-educated to begin with (e.g. a pathetic knowledge of history, geography and science), the one source of knowledge (textbooks) that could be a corrective is foreclosed. So you have instances of textbook-free schools. Schools without basals (hated by educationists), history and science textbooks, except for science "inquiry" manuals.

Part of this hatred for textbooks is the belief -- a component of ed school ideology -- that "information" (this is how educationists view knowledge) is exploding like supernovae, and what is true today is hopelessly obsolete tomorrow. Another reason is plain educationist disdain for facts. It interferes with "critical thinking" and "creativity" and stunts the mind.

One can see the hand of ed school ideology everywhere in school. At least I see it everywhere. I see it when DEAR (Drop Everything and Read insipid, vacuous and vapid fiction) is the first thing on the agenda in the morning when students are most receptive for more substantial stuff. This reading then takes place silently for an hour without teacher feedback. I see it in block scheduling to provide ample opportunity for time-wasting activities. I see it in contrived interdisciplinary instruction and in coloring and more coloring. I see the hand of ed school ideology indirectly when new elementary teacher candidates are released from the citadels of anti-intellectualism with scant knowledge of math, science, history, geography, grammar and languages, and subsequently validated by laughable state "content" tests.

The list goes on and on. I haven't even adressed ed school staples like learning styles, multiple intelligences, developmentally appropriate injunctions that often slide into low expectations, project and activities mania, heterogeneous grouping, expanding horizons, the travesty form of Bloom's taxonomy, and the disdain for factual knowledge. Moreover, once out of ed school, teachers continue to be assaulted with ed school ideology in the form of professional development requirements.


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Anonymous said...

Great post. I really concur with everything that you say. We need to abnd together and fight this educationist bullshit.

Been Tecahing 11 years and now have a department head that talk about how "research shows" and how students learn better from each other. I couls go forever.

I love teaching high school history. Have an M.A. in history and greta numbers and this ed school nut hates me. Direct Intsruction!