I want to thank “Izzy,” who is a frequent commentator on the posts here on Big Jolly Politics, for his very creative comment to my last post, because it helped crystalize for me how I need to start this discussion about reforming our curriculum and our classrooms—very carefully.
You see, one reason reform efforts over the last generation have been so ineffective is that the classroom has become the “third rail” in the debate over education, which we mere mortals dare not discuss—especially if we are conservatives. When we “fools” have rushed in, we have been castigated by the “professionals” for not understanding the realities of teaching and the modern classroom, and our proposals have been dismissed as unenlightened attempts to find the answer to every issue in some bygone, Reaganesque “Golden Age” that never existed. Unfortunately, we conservatives sometimes play into this narrative by the rhetoric we use and the battles we choose to fight.
So, at the outset of this portion of our discussion, let me clarify a few things.
First, I believe teaching is one of the hardest jobs to do well in our society, and I have the utmost admiration for those who pursue teaching as a career. From the moment a teacher walks inside a school each morning to the moment he (or she) leaves at night, he is teaching—content, character, methods, and values—directly in the classroom and indirectly by observation and example. And, this process continues every day of each school year for decades. The reality is that the challenges teachers face have become more difficult over the last few decades as our student bodies have become larger and more culturally and intellectually diverse, as the mission of our public schools has become more opaque, and as the public’s willingness to underwrite the present system has been strained to the breaking point. A primary objective for starting this discussion is to establish a more intelligible system that will help teachers meet their challenges more effectively, and that will gain the public’s confidence and support.
Second, I enter this discussion with a little more than a pedestrian interest. I grew up in a family deeply devoted to education, in which my father served as member of a public school board, and worked on local education issues for many years. In college, I served on the Faculty Curriculum Committee that revised our college’s core curriculum and graduation requirements, and on the college’s Long-Range Planning Committee. Recently, I finished a four-year term as a member, officer, and Chair of the Board of Trustees of a local private school. These experiences, together with my own study over the years, have provided me with insights into the challenges faced by educators, the different missions of public and private schools, the proper boundaries between management of a school as an entity and administration of the operations and classrooms of the school, and the ongoing process of strategic planning for a school.
Third, because public schools are by their nature “public,” there is a political component to the strategic planning for our school system. Therefore, citizens, including old fools like me, have a responsibility to participate in that planning process. Given the state of our public education, and the demands on our public budgets, this strategic planning process is long overdue in Texas.
Finally, I do believe that the first step of any strategic planning process is to define the mission of the entity, and only then to determine how to fulfill that mission. My previous posts focused on offering a clarified mission, and with this post we will start to discuss how to fulfill it. I am sure that some people fear that my stated mission, and the proposals to implement it, will “turn the clock back” on education. To show that this view fundamentally misreads what I have said so far, I’ll briefly recap what I’ve said so far:
- I agree with John Stuart Mill, who defined “education” in his Inaugural Address Delivered to the University of St. Andrews in 1867, as “the culture which each generation purposely gives to those who are to be its successors, in order to qualify them for at least keeping up, and if possible for raising the level of improvement which has been attained…;”
- I agree with educators, such as John B. Conant and Allan Bloom, who argued that to provide the education that Mill described, there must be a unity of purpose underlying the curriculum of the school system;
- I believe the unity of purpose for the public school system is provided in Article 7, Section 1, of the Texas Constitutions, which states: “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools…;”
- I have proposed a modern mission for our public school system that applies “the constitutional purpose of Texas education to the 21st Century challenges that will face our children and grandchildren.as a mission”: “the incremental foundation of truths, facts, and principles they will need as adults to function as effective American citizens in a global economy, together with the experiences and tools to use such knowledge effectively and wisely;” and
- The federal government should have little or no role in implementing this new mission, because the history of its involvement over the last few decades has been one of increased bureaucracy and inefficiency without any perceptible improvement in outcomes.
I am not trying to return to an age that never existed, but I am challenging the status quo of accepted practices within the current system that fails to prepare our children for the society they are entering.
Now, with these clarifications behind us, let us “fools” proceed to discuss the curriculum and the classrooms we will need to carry-out a unified mission in the 21st Century.
To do so, let’s start with the fictional classroom that Izzy described in his comment to my last post. I am going to quote it at length (though I’ve done my best to fix the punctuation and paragraphs to enhance its readability) and then use it to discuss the problems illustrated by this story, which underlie the need for curricular reform. I will then use these problems as discussion points for my next posts.
In Izzy’s story, we are shown a class of diverse students—probably a science class of unknown grade level—to whom the teacher is trying to teach the “scientific method”:
… The room darkened. I picked up the remote control and pushed ‘play’. The overhead projector screen glowed blue then white, as the steps of the Scientific Method, listed in black letters became readable. Some students began writing in their journals. I walked back around my desk and stood before the darkened class and slightly shifted my expression.
“Ask a question,” I said, then paused.”
The first step in the Scientific method is….write this down young scientists,” then paused again. “Ask a question.”
The students wrote down step one of the Scientific Method.
“Let’s say that Antinio, has to go from his first period class All THE WAY to Biology without getting caught in ‘tardy sweep’.” I emphasized the words ALL THE WAY, because the students knew that English classes were just downstairs from our Biology classroom. I was being sarcastic. If students were tardy more than nine times, they would have to serve one day of in school suspension. Fifteen times and they would be suspended from school for a day. SWEEP was the term used by the administrators for rounding up tardy students between classes, from the halls and sending them to a common area with other tardy boys and girls.
“Ezweep ez boolcheet,” Antinio said out loud, in heavily Spanish accented english.
Christian, a Hispanic boy sitting on the other side of the classroom on the first row, half-laughed. “Hah,” he blurted out coyly, then, looked around the room for approval.
Raymond noisily wadded up a piece of paper and acted like he might try for a long shot at the garbage can. Carolina and Jasmina baited him, “chood eet, chood eet.”
“Raymond, don’t do that,” I said with a mocking pseudo plead. The projector screen glowed white with the steps of the scientific method. I stared at Raymond for one-half of a second then looked at Antonio and said, “Antinio, please don’t cuss.” Antonio stared at me and didn’t say anything. Juanito sat up and pulled the earbuds out of his ears.
I paused, just for a second, and looked above the class at a National Geographic poster of ‘A Wetland Ecosystem’ on the back wall, and said, “Ask a question.” The class was silent.
“How do I geet frong inglich tu Biologia widhow gettin’ caught by the ‘Meegra?” Antonio asked. Christian, Raymond, Desmond and several other students howled with laughter.
I paused and looked at Antonio. “RIGHT, ANTONIO,” I shouted! I said to the class, “How does Antinio get from English class to Biology without getting caught by the ‘Meegra?” The class laughed.
“Iz lak ezweep por our daddys?” Juanito asked, sincerely, yet softly.
“VERY GOOD YOUNG SCIENTIST,” I said loudly! That’s step one of the scientific method. “Let’s give THAT ‘young scientist’ two claps!” I, and most of the students clapped twice, clap, clap….
My guess is that many teachers face this same type of challenging situation many, many times a day in our public schools, and they each try to use a creative approach like the one this fictional teacher used to establish the point they are trying to teach. But, with all due respect to our fictional teacher, the point she thought she had made was probably lost on these students, regardless of their momentary applause—and that is the problem with teaching with a method-based curriculum.
I want to put my critique in context, so let’s start with a few of the relevant findings from A Nation at Risk, which I referenced in my last post:
- “Some 23 million American adults are functionally illiterate by the simplest tests of everyday reading, writing, and comprehension.”
- “About 13 percent of all 17-year-olds in the United States can be considered functionally illiterate. Functional illiteracy among the minority youth may run as high as 40 percent.”
- “Many 17-year-olds do not do not possess the ‘higher order’ intellectual skill we should expect of them. Nearly 40 percent cannot draw inferences from written material; only one-fifth can write a persuasive essay; and only one-third can solve a mathematics problem requiring several steps.”
- “The teacher preparation curriculum is weighted heavily with courses in ‘educational methods’ at the expense of courses in subjects to be taught. A survey of 1,350 institutions training teachers indicated that 41 percent of the time of elementary school teacher candidates is spent in education courses, which reduces the amount of time available for subject matter courses.”
Based on these findings, here are some of the problems with this episode:
Both the purpose of the lesson—teaching the Scientific Method—and the result—application of the first step to an unrelated, non-scientific scenario, is a waste of educational resources.
Cognitive scientists tell us that teaching a method of thinking without reference to the basic knowledge to which the methodology is to be applied, is a waste of time. However, since A Nation at Risk was issued, much of the educational establishment in this country has re-doubled their efforts to teach such methodology with the hope that it would lead to an expansion of “‘higher order’ intellectual skill” among our children.
In 2007, in the journal American Educator, Donald T. Willingham presented an analysis of the relevant cognitive science studies in “Critical Thinking: Why Is It So Hard to Teach?”. The upshot of the research that Willingham summarizes is that if critical thinking is taught as a methodology, e.g., the scientific method, the historical method, etc., without reference to the subject matter to which it applies and without repetition, it is not retained for future use by students. E.D. Hirsch, Jr., expands on and addresses similar findings in his recent book, The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools.
So, though our fictional teacher was justifiably gratified that there had been a momentary break-thru with the students, the break-thru promises to be just that—momentary. It is unlikely that anything of value from the lesson will be retained by our fictional students for future application.
The language used by the students shows their functional illiteracy, and their lack of readiness for the lesson that is being presented.
These fictional students show virtually no functional grasp of the English language; certainly not enough of a grasp of English to understand the meaning of either “scientific” or “method,” let alone to understand, retain or use anything else related to the teacher’s lesson. These students have not learned either of the necessary reading and listening skills: decoding; and comprehending. Without these skills, the long-term meaning of this lesson was lost on the students described in Izzy’s story.
The functional illiteracy displayed by these students displays a failure of the system to assimilate these students into the America they will inherit.
Why are our fictional students functionally illiterate in the language of our culture? Because our curriculum fails to require instruction in the basic knowledge these children need in order to assimilate into our society, or as Mill described in 1867: to become members of “the culture which each generation purposely gives to those who are to be its successors, in order to qualify them for at least keeping up, and if possible for raising the level of improvement which has been attained….”
Hirsch makes this point persuasively in The Making of Americans: Democracy and Our Schools:
… [E]ffective communication and intellectual competence require shared knowledge over a wide range of topics. … they connect with something less tangible: a sense of belonging to a wider community and a feeling of solidarity with other Americans. When we become full members of the American speech community, we belong to a wider group toward which we feel a sense of loyalty. …
Since language itself depends on shared knowledge and values as well as shared conventions, the aim of bringing children into the public speech community is a more than linguistic aim. All children need to be taught the general knowledge that is silently assumed in that language community. Our schools need to assimilate into the public sphere not just new immigrants but all of our children, regardless of family background. That is the fundamental aim of schooling in a democracy and one that we are not serving very effectively today.
Studies show that most parents want schools to assimilate our children (A lot to be thankful for), and the Texas Constitution requires us to provide them with the knowledge needed to assimilate.
Depending on the age of our fictional students, changing their current life trajectory will take a lot of remedial effort as we transition from the present system to a new knowledge-based curriculum, but we can’t afford to see the students in this class five or ten years from now caught in the same situation. So, in our next post, we’ll pick-up Izzy’s fictional class and discuss how to change these dynamics for future students.