Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Education that Time Forgot: Get ready for the newest round of permissivist education

The newest thing in education, circa 1930s rural Alabama.

In Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, a largely autobiographical account of her own childhood in small town Alabama in the early 20th century, she writes about going to school at about the time the the so-called "progressive education" had reached the rural south.

Scout is upbraided in class by her teacher when she discovers that Scout already knows how to read. A "faint line appeared between her eyebrows" as she "discovered that I was literate and looked at me with more than faint distaste." Her teacher was part of the vanguard of the progressivism of the 1920s that was working to replace, among other things, phonics instruction with what later came to be called the "look/say" method of reading and is now called "whole language."

"It's best to begin reading with a fresh mind," she says, and goes on "waving cards at us on which were printed 'the,' 'cat,' 'rat,' 'man' and 'you.' No comment seemed to be expected of us, and the class received these impressionistic revelations in silence." The teacher, it turns out, was also scandalized by the fact that Scout writes in cursive. "We don't write in the first grade, we print. You won't learn to write until you're in the third grade."

And of course there was the teacher's admonition that Scout's father was no longer to read to her: "You tell him I'll take over from here and try to undo the damage--"

Scout's brother Jem, conflating the progressivism of John Dewey with the popular library cataloging technique, calls this new teaching methodology, the "Dewey Decimal System":
The remainder of my schooldays were no more auspicious than the first. Indeed, they were an endless Project that slowly evolved into a Unit, in which miles of construction paper and way crayon were expended by the State of Alabama in its well-meaning but fruitless efforts to teach me Group Dynamics. What Jem called the Dewey Decimal System was school-wide by the end of my first year, so I had no chance to compare it with other teaching techniques. I could only look around me: Atticus and my uncle, who went to school at home, knew everything--at least, what one didn't know the other did. Furthermore, I couldn't help noticing that my father had served for years in the state legislature, elected each time without opposition, innocent of the adjustments my teachers thought essential to the development of Good Citizenship. Jem, educated on a half-Decimal half Duncecap basis, seemed to function effectively alone or in a group, but Jem was a poor example: no tutorial system devised by man could have stopped him from getting at books.
Books. Pesky things. Get in the way of education.

Obscured somewhat by the haze of time and seen through the eyes of a six year-old girl, this is Lee's description of the rise of "unit studies," "cooperative" education, and "project-oriented" learning. Gussy it up a little, add a few technological bells and whistles, and you have the so-called "21st century learning" now being marketed by the educational establishment at the newest thing.

Ever since the 1920s, schools have had to suffer through cyclical attacks of educational nonsense. There was the newest thing in education in the late 1920's. And the new newest thing in education in the late 1940s. And the newer new newest thing in education in the late 1960s. And then the newest newer new new thing in education in the late 1980s. We're overdue for the newer newest newer new new thing in education right about ...


Here is just one example, in last Sunday's Lexington Herald-Leader, about what is being called "21st century learning":
"I never know what I'm going to see when I walk by a classroom," she said.
This teaching model is a far cry from the traditional "sit and get," said Madison County Schools superintendent Tommy Floyd.  
 "(Today's students') learning looks a lot different than what (older generations) experienced in school," Floyd said. "We sat in a row, we listen to somebody do all the talking, we took some kind of a written test and then we went out the door. Why does learning have to stop at 3 o' clock? Why does it have to stop at the door?"
Floyd has apparently been caught in some kind of time warp. Did he fall asleep up in the mountains after playing ninepins with a bunch of grizzled men in Dutch clothes?

For a public educator to say we need to "get away from the traditional classroom" is like saying that we need to work to stamp out smallpox; that we need to move beyond the Commodore 64 computer; or that the army needs to replace the cavalry with a more modern, mechanized fighting force. I wonder what the reaction would be if someone tried to start a movement to convince people to replace their black and white televisions with color sets?

But then, these were actual advancements, whereas the fads and gimmicks constantly being generated by the education establishment are anything but that.

The most notable characteristic of the newest thing in education is how old it is. It's really the old new thing repackaged. So-called "child-centered" learning gets trotted out in this 20-30 year cycle, goes into hybernation in teachers colleges, then gets trotted out again when everyone forgot how badly it worked the last time--and the time before that, and the time before that.

In fact, it never really goes away. After its third mutation in the late 1960s, the traditional classroom had been  eliminated in most public schools--and we see the results today. You wonder exactly what people like Floyd are referring to when they refer to these legendary traditional classrooms from which they are seeking a change.

Where, in the public system, are these "sit and get" classrooms that we must eliminate?

Although many private schools still have them (and work quite nicely, thank you), they are now mostly a phantom in the minds of permissivist propagandists from the education establishment. Virtually every teachers college in existence has been doing nothing but training teachers in permissivist techniques since about the 1970s (maybe even earlier).

Try to go out and find any teachers college that offers a class in how to teach intensive systematic phonics anymore--or in traditional, drill-based math instruction, or how to run an ordered classroom.

Happy hunting.

In fact it's kind of humorous how little the rhetoric changes. It always involves an emphasis on:
  • "child-centeredness" (which manifests itself practically as a neglect of skills and subject matter) 
  • the importance of "fun" in the classroom (which manifests in the outright ridicule of memorization, drill, and practice)
  • "cooperative" learning (which ends up meaning the shunning of order of any kind, whether in subject matter or classroom management)
  • teachers who "facilitate" rather than, say, teach (the ideal progressive classroom is one run by students instead of the teacher)
  • "hands-on" student activities (as opposed to books. Remember them?)
You can go back to the 20s and the 40s and the terms are almost identical. This chart, on the University of Chicago's website, is typical. But if you go back and look at textbooks from teachers colleges from the 1940s, you'll find charts that are identical to this.

The only thing that ever seems to change is the name of the newest thing. There was "progressive" education, then the "life adjustment" movement, then "open classrooms," and then "outcomes-based education." And now, "21st Century Education."

I'm sure rural 1930s Alabama is known for many things. But as a model for education in the 21st century?


Lee said...


> Her teacher was part of the vanguard of the progressivism of the 1920s that was working to replace, among other things, phonics instruction with what later came to be called the "look/say" method of reading and is now called "whole language."

In 1960 I was in first grade and it went the other direction... but otherwise it was the same experience.

My mom read to my brother and me (he's a year older) from the time we were toddlers, always sitting between us and following the words with her index finger. By the time I was five I was already a good reader. I don't know if that's "look/say" or not, but it definitely wasn't phonics. I remember my third grade teacher was big on phonics, but by then it was already too late, I was reading at the sixth-grade level. But the school librarian still wouldn't let me check out books at the fourth-grade level.

But my first-grade teacher was livid that I (and several others) could already read by the time we were in her classroom. Same attitude. She felt like there was damage she had to undo.

She was the damage.

I remember asking my second-grade teacher how to spell "python" (I had seen one on a Tarzan movie.) She said she didn't know. So I played around with the letters and figured out the correct spelling on my own. But she told me I'd never amount to anything because I had bad handwriting.

I guess she never got a doctor's prescription.

Bottom line, I think we're all told a bunch of nonsense in school, but somehow we learn enough good and useful stuff anyway.

Lots of people I know and respect tout phonics as the tool for teaching kids how to read. Maybe it's as good as everyone says. But I never needed them. Just needed a mom who loved me enough to read to me.

momuvfour76 said...

"Hands on activities instead of books"... And then the schools and committees on education wonder WHY our Kids can't read, think or write.

momuvfour76 said...

Oh, and by the way, we don't have to worry about when is the right time to "learn" or "teach" cursive because they don't even bother to do that in school anymore. So, the burden of teaching this "lost art" is mine now. I've taken to looking for the most economical and effective writing workbooks to introduce to my child in the Summer.