Sacred cows shot down in flames

What is the sound of sacred cows shot down in flames? Whatever it is, that’s what I’ve been hearing in my head the last week or so, as I’ve been reading E.D. Hirsch Jr’s The Schools We Need (And Why We Don’t Have Them).

Hirsch describes the long history of the debate between the progressives and the traditionalists or conservatives in the field of education. This itself was fascinating. The idea that it is a waste of time to focus on teaching facts or knowledge because both are so quickly out of date in today’s world, did not originate with George Siemens and his Connectivism article (which is where I first came across the idea, and that tells you much about how sheltered I have been, out here in Japan, in the world of EFL, from the howling storms that plague this fascinating debate in the US and in the UK).

A key and potent argument in British journalist Melanie Phillips’ book All Must Have Prizes is that the humanistic, “student-centred”, “hands-on learning” style of teaching, while it sounds admirable, is simply not working. However, Phillips’ style is too close to the polemic rant for my taste, and her lack of scholarly objectiveness casts a doubt in my mind over much of what she says, though she raises some good points that should definitely be questioned and considered by anyone interested in education, particularly practising teachers.

Hirsch makes a similar case, but is much more convincing: first, that standards of educational achievement amongst primary and junior school children (though he only makes that clear in one sentence in the book) in the US are low compared with those of other industrialized or post-industrial nations; secondly, that a lot of rhetoric (polite for “hot air”) on both sides of the debate as to what should be done to improve education has become politicized and polarized with the result that the real issues are confused, and many people are sincerely making false claims; and thirdly, that this rhetoric blurs one issue in particular – namely, that the “new, progressive” ideas are not as new nor as progressive as many people think, that in fact these ideas have become the mainstream, have been adopted, and have been in place in many educational institutions throughout the nation for several decades, and that they therefore must take responsibility for the present low attainment levels:

When businesspeople, philanthropists, and parents turn to experts for guidance, they continue to hear the high-sounding, antiknowledge advice that has been offered for more than sixty years – the very prescriptions (now to be facilitated by “technology”) that have produced the system’s failures. These continually reformulated slogans have led to the total absence of a coherent, knowledge-based curriculum, but are nonetheless presented as novel theories based on the latest research and as remedies for the diseases they themselves have caused… The most fully studied reform of all, Head Start, has produced extremely disappointing long-term academic benefits, despite strong evidence from other countries that early-intervention programs (which, unlike Head Start, use knowledge-based curricula) lead to permanent academic improvement. (p 3, 1996).

Unlike, Phillips, Hirsch is himself a teacher. Unlike Phillips, Hirsch marshals facts, figures, graphs and numbers to support his arguments. Unlike Phillips, Hirsch avoids partisanship, and claims to espouse a pragmatic approach, and indeed he is careful to point out strengths and weaknesses in arguments made by both progressives and conservatives. Hirsch describes his own leanings thus:

My political sympathies are with those who… advocate greater funding equity. But… I would label myself as 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.

This last idea, that progressive educational practices have actually led to greater, not lesser, social and economic inequity, is a key theme in another book I read recently, Other People’s Children by Lisa Delpit (and a big thank-you to Doug at Borderland for writing about it).

Hirsch begins with a quote from Antonio Gramsci, an intellectual imprisoned by Mussolini in 1932. Il Duce’s educational minister, Giovanni Gentile, was by contrast, an ehthusiastic proponent of the new ideas coming out of Teachers College, Columbia University, US. Here’s Gramsci:

The new concept of schooling is in its romantic phase, in which the replacement of “mechanical” by “natural” methods has become unhealthily exaggerated… Previously pupils at least acquired a certain baggage of concrete facts. Now there will no longer be any baggage to put in order. … The most paradoxical aspect of it all is that this new type of school is advocated as being democratic, while in fact it is destined not merely to perpetuate social differences but crystallize them in Chinese complexities.

(Hirsch, p 6, 1996).

Lisa Delpit, a MacArthur fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, encountered many black students, parents and teachers who were opposed to the “process writing” approach. Here’s a doctoral student complaining about a white professor of writing he was assigned to:

I didn’t feel she was teaching us anything. She wanted us to correct each other’s papers and we were there to learn from her. She didn’t teach anything, absolutely nothing. Maybe they’re trying to learn what black folks knew all the time. We understand how to improvise, how to express ourselves creatively. When I’m in a classroom, I’m not looking for that, I’m looking for structure, for more formal language. Now my buddy was in [a] black teacher’s class. And that lady was very good. She went through and explained and defined each part of the structure. This [white] teacher didn’t get along with that black teacher. She said that she didn’t agree with her methods. But I don’t think that white teacher had any methods.

And here’s a teacher complaining about the same process-writing approach:

These people keep pushing this fluency thing. What do they think? Our children have no fluency? … My students… might not be writing their school assignments but they sure are writing. Our kids are fluent. What they need are the skills that will get them into college. I’ve got a kid right now – brilliant. But he can’t get a score on the SAT that will even get him considered by any halfway decent college. He needs skills, not fluency. This is just another of those racist ploys to keep our kids out. White kids learn how to write a decent sentence. Even if they don’t teach them in school, their parents make sure they get what they need. But what about our kids? They don’t get it at home and they spend all their time in school learning to be fluent. I’m sick of this liberal nonsense.

(Delpit, 1995, The New Press, New York, hardback edition, p 16)

Hirsch devotes a whole chapter (2 “Intellectual Capital: A Civil Right”) to the issue of democracy, equity and which kind of educational approaches seem to work in their favour. He also takes a stab at explaining why what works is not incorporated in the majority of US educational establishments: one reason is the American ambivalence towards academic excellence; another is the practical difficulty of deciding on and imposing a national core curriculum, despite the fact that there is strong evidence from countries which have adopted such a system, this is what works best.

Jacques Barzun also writes (scathingly) about the American ambivalence towards academic excellence or intellectualism:

Everybody keeps calling for Excellence – excellence not just in schooling, throughout society. But as soon as somebody or something stands out as Excellent, the other shout goes up: “Elitism!” And whatever produced that things, whoever praises that result, is promptly put down. “Standing out” is undemocratic. This common response is a national choice, certified by a poll: we have a self-declared “Education president.” Good. But what happened soon after he took office? His populatiry rating went up when it was discovered that he was less than articulate on his feet. One commentator said in a resigned tone, “It’s not pretty but it works.” It works only because of our real attitude toward “excellence” – we won’t have it. (Barzun, 1992, University of Chicago Press, p 3)

All in all, I found Hirsch pretty convincing. He provides strong evidence that while learning to speak may be “natural”, learning to read, write and count are not, and cannot be left to chance or to children learning it “naturally, at their own pace.” There is strong evidence to suggest that societies that introduce a core, knowledge-based curriculum with clear, year-by-year goals (and therefore accountability), especially for the early years, are able to overcome economic or social inequalities that may exist between children, at least to a greater degree than happens in the US: young children, even those from disadvantaged homes, can be taught to read in the early grades, and that this success is vital to future success, as learning builds on learning, and those that fall through the gaps early on often never catch up.

Closely related to this is the value attached to knowledge and facts over skills. Hersch suggests that there is strong support in mainstream educational establishments, particularly teaching colleges, for the idea of teaching skills or tools. While Hersch is not at all against skills and acknowledges their vital importance, he notes that

Unfortunately, for serveral decades… American educational theory has held that the child needs to be given the all-purpose tools that are needed for him or her to continue learning and adapting. The particular content used to develop those tools need not be specified. The claim that all-purpose intellectual competencies are independent of the matter out of which they have been formed, if it corresponded to reality, would indeed be an attractive educational idea. For conveniently, in that case, it wouldn’t matter greatly what particular things a child learned. The chief aims of education would simply be to ensure that children acquired “love of learning” and gained “critical-thinking” techniques for acquiring and using whatever they would need later. … But when this tool metaphor has been taken apart and examined for its literal content, its highly exaggerated claims have been powerfully contradicted by research, and after six decades, it has shown itself to be ineffective.

Ouch! How often in the last few years have I warbled on about the importance of teaching skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, the ability to work in heterogenous, temporary groups, etc, etc? When did I ever really stop to examine whether these skills were actually teachable? Did I realize that people who urge for such skills to be taught also often urge the teaching of such skills to be at the expense of factual knowledge? And that by urging for similar educational goals, I am unwittingly placing myself in a certain idealogical camp? That my views can be construed as primarily idealogical? Hersch marshals some convincing evidence that suggests children require large doses of domain-specific knowledge in order to develop higher-order skills such as the ones advocated by so many progressive educators.

“It is better to teach a child to fish than to give a child a fish.” Teaching a child how to learn is, using this analogy, better than teaching a child a lot of facts. Everyone agrees that education should provide students with an ability to learn new knowledge and even new professions. But the tool conception, which makes the fish inferior to the hook, line, and sinker, is based upon a gravely inadequate metaphor of the skill of learning. Inded, even learning how to fish requires a great dealof domain-specific knowledge – not just fishing equipment and a few techniques. As this book explains in some detail, the opposition between learning skills and factual knowledge is an almost totally misleading opposition that has had tragic economic and social consequences.

One thought on “Sacred cows shot down in flames”

  1. Marco, I don’t know what it means when I google a search term to find a reference for something, and come up with an entry from my own blog. But that’s what happened. The debate about content and process is one that has been taken up by various theorists. Rather than playing the “blame game” and holding a particular approach responsible for all our problems, I like to think about these things a bit more generally than Ed Hirsch and others who want to sell the idea of a crisis in education. Even Lisa Delpit has her shortcomings, though I took a dose of caution from her book and realize that “my” liberation pedagogy may not be something that “they” (whoever they may be) might want.

    James Paul Gee is a linguist who I have read a bit, and you might find his work helpful. He presents the process vs. content discussion as a matter of what he calls “learning” and “acquistion.” You can read my summary of it on Borderland. He argues for the need for both process-acquisition of skill in practice- and content-metaknowledge about a discourse that serves as a class marker- in his book, Social Linguistics and Literacies.

    As to Hirsch, his point of view has attracted a fair amount of criticism. Rethinking Schools, a progressive organization that is very much a grassroots effort, published a critique of Hirsch’s work about 7 years ago. I thought I’d share the link with you to muddy the water a little bit here.

    I enjoy reading your musings on the sacred cows of education. Truth be told, we all have a political agenda in the sets of beliefs we carry with us into the classroom. The thought that any of us puts into questioning our own assumptions about teaching will make us all better teachers – even as it drives us crazy.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.