Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Poles Apart?

At its worst, the education debate becomes a clash between two extreme camps, which are often represented as follows:

To the right, we have the traditionalist camp, which is all about memorizable factoids, constant compliance, and standardized tests.

To the left, we have fuzzy progressives, who at their most mind-boggling urge us to reject "the deadly notion that the schools’ first priority should be intellectual development". These folks are all about the "guide on the side" rather than the "sage on the stage", against authoritarian classrooms, and in favor of giving students control over what, when and how they learn.

I reject both of these extremes. I would prefer to carve out a spot in the middle.

With the progressives, I care about my kids' experience at school. I've already had one child fall into profound depression because of school, and we don't need to go through that again. But I stand with the traditionalists with their interest in content and intellectual seriousness. I want my kids to be fluent in a foreign language, competent with math, conversant with history, able to write a coherent essay, and able to touch-type. With the progressives, I want them to be interested in learning more. Can't we cherry-pick the best of both worlds?

At our public school, I feel that they cherry-picked the worst of both worlds: that is, they had the top-down authority, and the constant threat of punishment, of the worst of the traditionalists, combined with the fuzzy content and silliness of the worst of the progressives. The result is dumb assignments like "write a list of healthy snack foods, one for each letter of the alphabet. First write it out as a rough draft, then make a neat copy with colorful illustrations, some clipped from magazines." This was a 5th-grade science (!) assignment. We had to fight with the teacher to get our daughter excused from it.

Readers, where are you on the traditionalist - to - progressive spectrum?


  1. Well, the middle is a difficult place to define. At first thought, I would lean more toward the progressives. However, I agree with your assertion that learning content matters. With a discipline such as math, it seems pretty straight forward. Where I disagree with the right is the rigid time table that is laid out for mastery (you must know multiplication by third grade or your doomed). Another aspect of this debate is how much math do you need to know? I don't know Trig and it hasn't hindered me in my personal or professional life.

    As for history, it would be useful if a grand theme could be laid out and understood. I.E. as a culture we seem to cycle through the same fearful collective conciousness periods again and again (such as a fear of poverty which lead to the depression and is happpening again today).

    Writing a coherent essay is certainly important. One thing I've noticed; most of the teachers who post here (and on stop homework) are terrible writers. Conversely, Fed Up Mom, Homework Blues and Psych Mom are great writers. I'm assuming most of you didn't learn to write well at school (my guess is you're all voracious readers).

  2. Anonymous, thanks for the compliment! I agree that it is shocking how badly teachers write. You assume correctly that I did not learn to write in school, I learned to write by reading.

    This is something I've noticed in many fields; good writing comes from reading, good music-making comes from listening, good art-making comes from looking. But I digress.

    I agree with you that strict time tables are not a wonderful idea. An ongoing, negative trend is that the time tables keep being pushed younger. We expect kindergarteners to read at the level that used to be taught in 1st or even 2nd grade, we expect middle schoolers to organize their homework as if they were college students, etc. This is just frustrating and stressful for the many kids who are not ready for the work.

    For me, I'd like the timetable to be extremely loose for younger kids, and tighten up a bit as the kids get older. I don't think it's too much to ask that all high-school graduates should be able to do basic arithmetic, for instance.

  3. PsychMom adds..thanks also for the positive comments, Anonymous....I think I learned a certain amount about writing in school, because I received a lot of marks for it. But I don't think I found my own voice in my writing until I was much older. Reading does add so much to one's inner world though, I must say.

    As for FedUpMom's dicotomy.......I used to think I understood what education meant but the deeper I delve into this world of unschooling, whole brains and illiterate teachers, the less sure I become. The paragraph that FedUpMom wrote about what she wants her children to know threw me off too because, in the end, her children are not going to say..."I know how to speak French because my Mom wanted me to". Why do we want these particular things for our children? I used to want things like that too for my child...but they seem so ...20th century. I agree with the typing, and basic arithmetic...but how on earth will kids learn to write an essay if their teachers can't do it?

    I also suspect she will need skills that I don't even know about that are a part of our near future. Should every kid know how to set up and write a blog now? I'd like to see a couple of weeks in high school math devoted to the concept of credit and credit cards and debt. And religion? How do we conquer this world's problems if we don't figure out how to deal with the topic of religion?

    I know I fall on the progressive side of FedUpMom's question because I just don't think we've shown ourselves capable of preparing young children for the life they will be facing. School should not be about fact organization. Childhood should be about figuring out what you like and what you have a knack for and having some wise adult say, "Well, if you like that, you're gonna love this.............."

  4. I'm of two minds on this topic. On the one hand, I would much prefer the school that FedUpMom describes to the ones we have now. I think that if teachers were given more autonomy in their classrooms, instead of having to follow some "program" -- whether it's conservative or progressive -- that's handed down from above, we'd come a lot closer to FedUpMom's vision. I doubt I ever would have started blogging about school if my kids went to a school like that.

    But I lean even more toward PsychMom's view. If we could "make" kids learn all the knowledge and skills that we think are important, maybe that would be a desirable goal. But the more I see, the less I think it works that way. Even in a very compulsory system, I think that ultimately people learn what they want to learn and what they find interesting or useful, and the rest fades away pretty quickly. If my kids were unschooled a la PsychMom's last paragraph, my guess is that they would probably emerge with roughly the same amount of desirable knowledge and skills as they would get under FedUpMom's approach, though maybe not the exact set that I would have chosen for them, and might have a better sense of themselves, to boot.

    Of course, the great advantage of any kind of homeschooling is the opportunity it provides for meaningful one-on-one attention. Once you decide to put thirty kids in a room with one adult, it's impossible to reproduce that feature. If you resign yourself to the idea that large numbers of kids need be collected into institutional care every day, it's hard to know what to do, and I can see why FedUpMom is skeptical of allowing schools to attempt unrealistically "progressive" approaches. Giving kids all the freedom of unschooling, but without enough of the nurturing adult presence, could just turn into a form of abandonment. It's a puzzle with no great answer.

    I'm a hunt-and-peck typist, by the way. Only a little slower (you should see me go), and less carpal-tunnel risk!

    P.S. PsychMom, do you have a blog?

  5. PsychMom, if you don't have a blog, would you like to post here? Pretty please with sugar on top?

    As I read this discussion, I realize I'm hampered by the fact that I've never seen progressive education done well. As I say, I want to like it, I just don't understand how it would play out.

    PsychMom, you're right that my daughter will never say "I know French because Mom wanted me to." But at her private school she studies Spanish, and in 6th grade traveled with her school to a Spanish-speaking country. Now she's really interested in the language. To me, that's the best of what a school can do.

    True confession: I considered homeschooling my older daughter, but over time concluded that it would just make me crazy. It would start to feel like a burden to me. I need to own the space inside my head, if you know what I mean.

  6. I suppose I'm pro-progressive. Thing is, the "traditional" schoolin' I had in the seventies looks much more progressive than what my kids get today in 2010.
    Right now, our school concentrates on test prep way too much. Reading test strategies rather than going into the content itself; continual testing and ranking.
    Sage on the Stage or Guide on the Side? My son would say his teacher is the "Bitch on my Back." (Seems teacher's main strategy for effective learning is being constantly disappointed and consistently punitive. Yeah, I know, it's a problem. I'm working on it, I'm working on it.)

    Oh man, I'll post my son's list of "Comprehension Strategies" when he comes home with it today. Here's a teaser- on a list of about nine or ten steps- actually reading the text is number six!

    My ten year old has recently begun referring to school as "prison."

    Am I for a progressive prison or a traditional prison?

  7. P.S. Some day, when I am ready to be expelled from all polite society, I will post my rant against foreign language requirements. (Not against foreign-language learning, mind you, but against requiring it.)

  8. Interesting discussion everyone. I have to go to a friend's book launch soon, so I'll keep this brief and try to comment at greater length later.

    When I started looking for a school for my kids after they finished kindergarten--we'd sent them to a private pre-school/kindergarten because they were shy, and we felt they would benefit from the smaller class sizes--I was looking for the type of school FedUpMom outlines as ideal. I wanted progressive pedagogy with a more traditionalist curriculum. It was a combination that proved almost impossible to find, as most schools practicing progressive pedagogy also believed in progressive, content-weak curricula. At the time, my desire for content was fueled by my sense that kids I knew who were graduating from high school (e.g., some of my nieces and nephews) seemed to have huge gaps in their education, especially in the areas that I deemed important, such as world history and geography.

    In the end, we chose the highly-rated neighbourhood school because a lot of the girls' friends were already attending, and I couldn't find an alternative that was worth the effort of getting there, etc. Like all schools in our school board, this school professes to be progressive, both pedagogically and in terms of the curriculum (e.g., it uses a spiral, constructivist math program, and the latest reading/writing programs). Notwithstanding my occasional rants on StopHomework, on my own blog and here, our experience with this school has not been entirely negative. My daughters have had some good teachers and some mediocre teachers. The school has a fairly strong arts and music program, which the girls have benefited from. And socially, it has been mainly a positive experience for them.

    But...what I have found is, despite the rhetoric coming from the board and the school's administration, it is not a progressive school. Constructivist math and reading programs do not a progressive school make. (And I can't stand them anyway!) The school is just as authoritarian as the schools I attended as a child, or possibly more so, as I argued in a recent post.

    So, like FedUpMom, I don't feel I've had the opportunity to witness a truly progressive school in action. But, for various reasons, I'm starting to wish I'd searched a little harder for one in the first place. (One reason is the negative effect the competitive atmosphere of my daughters' current school is having on them, rendering one cynical, and the other highly anxious.) As for content, I've come to the conclusion that there will always be gaps in kids' knowledge, and that they can be filled over time, through gentle encouragement by parents, or through the child's own initiative. I guess that makes me more of a progressive than traditionalist, which makes sense given where I stand on most other issues.

    So much for brief! (By the way, for anyone who's interested, I've posted a piece on my blog about the progressive Finnish educational system.)

  9. PS. Don't worry, I won't be commenting "at greater length later."

  10. Not that schools haven't always focused on memorizing facts, but it really seems to have gone to an extreme now with all the standardized testing.

    Unfortunately, this is come at the worst possible time. With the prevalence of Internet access, our kids don't need to memorize at all (most things anyway), but need to learn how to find information, validate it and use it to create new things. I would gladly pay out of my own pocket to send my kids to school with computers or iPads and wireless Internet access, but that is verboten.

    We had one teacher this year send home in her rules and regulations contract that it was against her policy for students to get "ideas" from the Internet. Um, shouldn't that be one of the core tenets of education (and science)...to be inspired by and build upon the ideas of others?

    And a +1 vote for teachers being some of the worst writers I've encountered.

  11. I wrote a post on Stophomework about an assignment that was supposed to be internet-free. What a dumb idea.

  12. On the other hand, when all the teacher says is "Google it," it's kind of a cop-out too, isn't it?

    (By the way FedUpMom, I did respond to your request on my blog, but for some reason the recent comments are not updating properly.)

  13. Suburban Chicken Farmer says:

    Thing is, the "traditional" schoolin' I had in the seventies looks much more progressive than what my kids get today in 2010.

    I agree. It's like politics -- the whole scene has shifted to the right.

    Oh man, I'll post my son's list of "Comprehension Strategies"

    Send it in! I'm curious to see it --

  14. PsychMom:

    What an interesting discussion....I love this place.
    No, I don't have a blog...I have dreams of having a blog. I find I'm better at contributing to conversations rather than coming up with topics to write about, so I can't promise to write something for you FedUpMom, but if I get an idea, I'll let you know and maybe I can send contribute something.

    Now this idea of using the internet is an interesting one. I want the teachers to teach the kids how to use it, but I don't want to see an assignment for 8 and 9 year olds come home that says, "The student should find some information for their research on the computer." A) it assumes that we have a computer, B) assumes a parent will be supervising (i.e. doing homework again), C) assumes a child knows what the heck they're looking for, which they don't.

    Googling a topic is not where I think a young child should begin to learn how to do research. The word "research" is tossed around so casually, but actually teaching the process of inquiry is missing.

    I would love it if all the kids had IPads and I think that day is not that far behind, but the schools are nowhere near ready for them....

  15. I should add that my kids are older than some of the others here so my comments tend to be in terms of middle and high school. I understand the point Anonymous has of the problem of assigning Internet-based research to an 8 year old.

  16. PsychMom said:
    That was me writing Matthew...There was a news piece one night on our Canadian news about a school in Ontario where some parents were concerned about WiFi being installed in the school, claiming that it was making their children sick. The debate is on about whether WiFi has any implications for human health, but regardless, the school did not remove it's system. Is installing WiFi in schools a common practice in American schools yet?

    I believe there are some schools now that encourage kids to use their "devices" in school, be it blackberrys, ipads, what have you...rather than banning them. I'm all for it, as long as the teacher is competent... But I'm just not certain that doing research by the light of Google is teaching good habits to youngsters on how to find information on the web.
    Finding pictures of bunnies to colour is one thing. Doing research on cherry trees, which was what my kid was supposed to do last spring, was a totally different thing. Way, way too broad.

  17. We were told our high school is getting wifi next year when its renovation is complete, but I assume it will be for staff use only. I've never seen it anywhere else in a school.

    Schools, unfortunately, had a knee-jerk reaction to electronic devices. Yes, they can be disruptive, but there are already rules on the books to handle disruption (whether it is phone calls and texts or passing notes and whispering). It was also perceived as an avenue to cheating which is true if you don't realize that memorization of facts (which seems to be the entire basis of the educational system) becomes much less important in an always-connected society.