2000-09-23 / Columnists

School Scope by Howard Schwach

The magazine "American Educator" is the journal of the American Federation of Teachers. As such, it is suspect as a "house organ" by some and as one of the nation’s premier educational journals by others.

In the magazine’s summer, 2000 edition it asked a question that many teachers are asking as well.

That question is: "Are time consuming, trivializing activities displacing the cultivation of active minds?"

Not only is that question important, it is critical and it lies at the foundation of what schools are really doing to prepare students for real life activities.

Put more simply, the question is: "Are we dumbing down education so that we can say that all children are meeting standards?"

The article points out that "traditional learning" has given way in a growing number of classrooms to projects and activities that neither teach nor engage students in any real thinking or learning.

For example: In a seventh grade suburban classroom a cooperative learning team of four students build a shoebox-sized replica of the items in their school lockers for Spanish class. They then label each of the items in Spanish. The project takes about 20 hours and the teacher counts it as a semester project. Aside from learning the Spanish words for a few items, what did the students learn?

Another example: "A third grade class in California builds an ‘endangered species’ portfolio for the entire year. This portfolio details the demise of the toucan and the Galapagos tortoise. The portfolio is brightly colored, laminated and spiral bound. Containing lots of glossy photographs clipped from magazines. Each page is thick with adhesive stick-ons and glitter. The portfolio contains many, many misspelled words and exhibits almost no understanding of the South American continent’s natural history."

One more: "An ‘authentic assessment’ in ‘integrated science’ designed to replace ordinary text tasks asks students to write a poem about mitosis."

What do these projects have in common? They have moved away from the traditional "chalk and talk" lessons that you and I remember when we went to school and have moved to the "project or activity based" lessons of today.

Talk and chalk = bad.

Interdisciplinary cooperative learning projects = good.

The article goes on, "no one contests some legitimate place for projects and activities in classrooms. But lost in the whirlwind, this doing and doing, is a sense where the real action should be – in the minds of students. Activities enthusiasts are right not to want passive students. But they have made a dangerous error. They have substituted ersatz activity and shallow content for the hard and serious work of the mind."

The kind of thinking that brings us these projects brought us the "voyager" program that was used by this district in both the middle schools and elementary schools the summer before last and in the elementary schools again this year.

Voyager sets up ‘theme-based" paradigm that posits that the students are in a hospital emergency room (or like activity). All learning is theme based, team based and activity based. It was the biggest waste of time for middle school students (particularly those who were there for intensive remediation) that I have ever seen, and I have seen many educational wastes of time in my 28 years in the system.

"Activities-based learning often suspends valid educational premises: that the ability to communicate derives from verbal training; that the ability to absorb, filter and process information requires facility with words and numbers; that general knowledge leads to project mastery; that getting there requires hard work and even then is not universally conferred," the article continues.

Why has project-based education taken the scene from more valid educational processes?

I believe that there are a number of reasons.

We are teaching kids who are in the middle of the TV age. They demand to be entertained and they turn off when they are not.

I had a student last year who told me that out study of slavery and the events leading up to the Civil War were "boring" and that I should not teach about that time unless I could make it more interesting. He wanted "Roots." He wanted "Amistad," and I wanted him to have the facts.

"Experts" in our universities then picked up the cry. "Do not bore the kids." Teach them in the mode in which they are most familiar. Don’t worry about content. Just get the kids to feel good about themselves and about their educations and they will be fine.

That led to the "self-esteem movement," which dictates that everybody’s work is as good as everybody else’s even if it is not.

A staff developer in this district once told a packed audience of teachers that we should accept as important any event or idea that the child says is important. "Any idea is as important as any other," she pointed out. That is not true.

She also pointed out that "peer editing" groups were an important concept while teaching "the writing process." Kids edit each other and grammar is "not important until the kids think that it is important."

That is why kids today cannot write.

Secondly, we use project-based groups in an attempt to insure that everybody feels good about himself or herself and nobody fails. The group gets the grade and even those members of the group who do not produce still pass if the group does.

The article perhaps puts it best. "In the upper grades, social promotion and detracked classrooms contribute to the hands-on practices. Teachers are rightly eager that all students succeed and that all students are at least marginally ‘engaged’ in learning. Faced with a daunting task of teaching to a wide range of achievement, teachers feel they have no choice but to offer an array of activities accessible even the most unprepared students."

The school system has recently turned to the schools of education to bail it out of some tight spots, but it is those very schools that have contributed to the tight spots by pushing "new age" learning philosophies such as project-based learning and writing process on unsuspecting teachers.

"Teachers are on the receiving end of much bad information about learning. Not only do the endure pressure from gurus and guides (not to mention administrators – ed.). Complicit are schools of education that encourage teachers ‘not to be hung up on facts,’ but to concentrate on nurturing self-esteem and individuality. Methods classes uncritically praise activity-based learning. They subscribe to a set of principles at odds with classical education that go back 75 or 80 years."

The article ends, and I agree with it, "Education is not a game. The only valid architecture for projects and activities is core knowledge. How to handle words, express yourself fluently and listen are not educational electives. No substitute exists for the foundations of Mathematics history and science."

"Facts and academic mastery are what too many activities artfully dodge. What civilizations have considered the keys to and the superstructure of knowledge, contemporary progressives label lower order skills."

What can be done? Unfortunately, not much. The yahoos have taken over and most of the schools in the city function under the mandate to do away with "chalk and talk." Those old line teachers who will not change are often punished for holding on to the old ideas.

School halls in this district are filled with project-based work. Some of it is illiterate. Much of it is plain wrong.

One of the projects utilized by the city to teach what the "New Standards" mean had a student critique the Turner Thesis, which posited a reason for the closing of the Old West. His essay was used as a "Standards Setting Piece of Work." The only problem was, he was wrong in what he said.

Oh, well, facts are no longer important. Feelings are.

How did we get into this fine mess, Ollie? Ask the universities. They know.

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