Our days are growing noticeably shorter.
I’m not just talking about the sky.
Too much in thrall to narcissism, beguiled by too many scoundrels, we’re too divided by trifles, too tolerant of corruption and hypocrisy, and too intolerant of our individual differences. We’re also too unfamiliar with the knowledge and the reasoning that undergird a republic and equip its citizens to govern themselves.
This last national flaw is largely the creature of 70 years of misguided public education.
Consider this. You’d probably be surprised to hear Poor Elijah has developed a mathematical model that predicts the behavior of subatomic particles based on his observations of middle school students in the cafeteria. You’d doubtless be even more surprised to hear he’s been invited to present his findings to a convention of physicists.
Naturally, nothing remotely like that has or will ever happen. Poor Elijah isn’t that presumptuous, and most physicists have better things to do than listen to people who don’t know anything about physics.
Sadly, that’s not how things work in the education world.
For example, one prominent, typical, non-teacher expert preaches “since time immemorial, the purpose of education has been to transmit knowledge from one generation to the other,” but all that changed when the “speed and the amount of knowledge increased so dramatically” in the 21st century. That’s when “the experts (the shamans, the high priests) were no longer able to maintain their dominance.”
I don’t know if by shamans she means teachers like me, but it’s pretty clear she doesn’t count herself one of the outmoded experts.
Along the way, she indicts the usual reform bogey-men — the uncreative, regimented “Industrial Age,” “memorization,” “competition,” and “summative testing,” which she likens to “autopsies.” Instead, she promotes “competency-based learning,” “strong academic standards,” and “short online assessments” to “monitor, in real time” students’ “progress” and whether they’ve “mastered content.”
Every generation thinks it’s living at the dawn of a new age. I suspect my great-grandfather was pretty impressed with developments at the turn of his industrial 20th century. In 1768, the first Encyclopedia Britannica already contained more information than most of us could hope to know today, and I never made it anywhere close to halfway through the first volume of my 1960s gilt-edged World Book.
America’s founders were genuine revolutionary thinkers even though they wore short pants and periwigs.
The nature of knowledge and learning hasn’t changed. There was always too much to know.
Today’s memorization problem isn’t that students memorize too much. The problem is they’re expected to memorize too little. Fluency and automaticity, two of reformers’ favorite outcomes, depend on information that’s ready in a learner’s mind at a moment’s notice.
Competition isn’t bad just because too much can impede learning, any more than contentedness is a vice just because too much can lead to complacency.
“Short” assessments, online or on paper, are called quizzes.
Find me a competent teacher, in any century, who doesn’t support “strong academic standards,” who doesn’t want his students to “master content.” Yet I can show you battalions of well-intentioned 21st-century reformers whose rhetoric endorses both while their actions foster neither.
Technology’s increasingly “outsized role,” despite our expert’s cautions and assurances, does inhibit “face-to-face” student interactions with teachers and each other. Despite her glowing claims, it doesn’t “allow every student to learn at their own pace.” It doesn’t “free teachers” from “designing their own lesson plans,” unless we reduce education to programmed computer screen transactions.
The point of education is to teach and learn knowledge and skills. Renaming the specifics “competencies” or “standards” or “learning objectives” or “proficiencies” doesn’t make teaching more effective or learning more successful. All it does is distract us and foster the illusion we’re addressing our real problems.
By the way, Vermont discontinued its 1970s competency-based system in the 1980s. We tried portfolios after that until we abandoned them, too. Now both are back as if they were brand-new.
Experts don’t restrict themselves to recycling bad and irrelevant ideas. Sometimes instead, they temporarily rediscover practices they never should have discarded.
Reading groups based on readiness and ability, for example, were a familiar feature of 20th-century elementary classrooms. By the 1980s, however, in the name of self-esteem and egalitarianism, ability grouping in general and reading groups in particular were banished from most schools. Policymakers and workshop leaders routinely railed against teachers who taught reading in ability groups, accusing them of labeling students, prizing the most talented readers as “eagles,” tolerating the “bluebirds, and disparaging the “turkeys.”
The decline of literacy in the closing decades of the 20th century can be traced to the eradication of reading groups and the simultaneous zealous adoption of whole language, a novel approach to reading instruction that rests on precepts as outlandish as “accuracy is not an essential goal of reading.”
That’s a quote from whole language’s creator and longtime guru.
Eventually, it was whole language’s turn to fall from fashion. Education experts were compelled by reality to acknowledge it doesn’t do much good to immerse students in quality literature if they can’t read it, or anything else.
Meanwhile, the bias against ability-based reading groups has persisted in many schools and classrooms. Except now, substantial research, including a recent three-year study, has found students receiving “targeted” reading instruction in ability-based groups “performed significantly higher” than students taught in “standard reading classes” without ability-based groups.
Of course, like every education movement, whole language boosters claimed they had “the research” on their side, too. Maybe we should stop placing our faith in what passes for education research and rely more on common sense. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised it’s more effective to teach students with similar academic needs in groups based on their similar academic needs.
There’s more to good teaching than efficiency, like knowledge, compassion and flexibility. Humor definitely helps.
More vain rhetoric, however, definitely won’t help. The solution to our problem is far more practical.
There’s more to self-government than what you learn in school. But if we hope to prepare our children to govern themselves, we need to restore decent behavior, effort and academic focus in our classrooms. Students, and adults, need to learn from the past, judge justly, and walk humbly.
Republics don’t automatically survive another century.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.