Teaching the Teachers: About as Fair and Balanced as Fox News
I've been interested in some posts lately that dealt with progressive vs. traditional education philosophies. California Livewire featured an article by Jeff Lantos, and then KDeRosa and Rory at Parentalcation had responses on their blogs. The debate over these two philosophies have been going on since long before I was born--and that's a long time!
For those who don't know, progressives in education promote things like cooperative learning (kids working on tasks in groups), teaching methods designed to work for varous learning styles, multiple intelligences, learning by doing projects, assessing students by observation and other ways that don't involve pencil and paper tests, and they emphasize the processes of learning, higher order thinking, and self-esteem. They favor throwing out the textbook and using other resources for students. In social studies, they are very big on having kids seek out primary sources. They encourage setting up a classroom with desks in groups or circles or anything other than straight rows. And finally, they favor multiculturalism.
Traditionalists, on the other hand, promote teaching methods that are, well, traditional. The teacher is in front of the class instructing the students. There is lecture, reading assignments, and pencil and paper tests. They believe that learning facts is crucial for students, and memorization is often necessary, because without those facts, higher order thinking is impossible. Direct Instruction, which KDeRosa so strongly promotes, would fall into the traditional mode, and so would cultural literacy (or core knowledge), which is advocated by E. D. Hirsch.
I have always been a traditionalist at heart, but I have tried to be open-minded about progressive ideas. That's a good thing, because otherwise I'd have probably gone crazy. Almost all of the classes I've taken and workshops I've attended since I became a teacher have been in the progressive mode. In fact, if a teacher isn't a true believer in the progressive philosophy, teacher education programs are designed to make him feel like an educational Neanderthal. I don't think that I have been well served by this, I don't think other teachers have been well served by this, and most important, I don't think our students have been well served by this.
Some time before I started pursuing a Masters degree, I had heard of E. D. Hirsch's book, Cultural Literacy. The little I knew about it I found interesting, and I assumed I would learn more about it when I started taking classes. But I never even heard his name, and I never even heard the term. I had classes like Conflict Resolution, Learning is Inquiry, Teaching in the Diverse Classroom, and Seminar on Reflective Practice. Some of my textbooks were Making Choices for Multicultural Education, How Schools Shortchange Girls, Beyond the Textbook, Handbook of Individual Differences, Mind Matters: Teaching for Thinking, Cognition and Curriculum Reconsidered, and Envisioning Process as Content: Toward a Renaissance Curriculum. These classes and books are representative of the classes I took, and I would guess that they are representative of Masters programs around the nation. My question is this: Why does every class and every text have to push progressive educational ideas? Wouldn't it be reasonable to include a couple of classes and textbooks that advocate traditional ideas and methods? Why won't colleges, which are supposed to be the epitome of open-mindedness and inquiry, allow teachers to see both sides, and let them choose the philosophy and methods that make the most sense to them?
I'm glad I got my Masters. I was fortunate because a number of the professors I had were public school teachers who were working toward Ph. Ds, and they were sympathetic when I argued against some of the things the textbooks were promoting. And even though I disagreed with the true believers, I was able to put things that I learned to use. I use cooperative learning in my classes once or twice a week, but I'm not about to use it exclusively and throw out all lecture and reading assignments. I think the theory of multiple intelligences make sense, so I try to incorporate that in exta credit projects I allow my students to do. But when I read in a textbook that a chemistry teacher can make her class come alive by having one student dress up like a potato who is worshiping another student who is dressed up like the sun, I could only roll my eyes and sigh. I am all for fair treatment of women and minorities in schools, but when I read that anorexia is the result of a plot by males to slow down the gains being made by women, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.
Maybe it's because I teach at the high school level, but I've found very few teachers who are true believers in the progressive philosophy. Those wonderful theories from the ivory towers just don't fit with our experience. Nevertheless, that is what we continue to have thrust upon us. Why can't we ever hear a little bit about core knowledge and cultural literacy? Why can't we ever hear about Direct Instruction? If the results for Direct Instruction in Project Follow Through were so impressive, why would colleges and the presenters who are responsible for teacher education never tell us about it? The only justification I can think of for this is if they know for a fact that progressive methods are superior, and traditional methods don't work. For some reason, I don't think that's the case.