Wednesday, September 20, 2006

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.


Blogger Deb Sistrunk Nelson said...

Like everything else, I think education is about balance. Nontraditional (or "progressive") practices can work well when combined with more traditional methodology.

Many research-based models that have proven over time to produce higher student outcomes. That said, we have seen some ideas thrust into the classroom that were just plain silly.

9/21/2006 3:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I volunteered at my local high school for about 6 weeks, working with ESL kids. In one class, four days out of five, the teacher lectured from company-supplied Powerpoints. He didn't pre-teach vocabulary; he had a monotone delivery; his idea of a creative lesson was to pass out a crossword puzzle on vocabulary. One day a week, they did a lab. One day he showed a slide of Stephen Hawking. Someone asked "Is Stephen Hawking still alive?" He just said, "Hmm, I don't know" and went on to the next slide. His traditional "I lecture, you take notes" approach to teaching was so boring that I gave up on volunteering in his class. It was horrible.

9/21/2006 4:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

His traditional "I lecture, you take notes" approach to teaching was so boring that I gave up on volunteering in his class.

That's not traditional; it's just bad teaching.


9/21/2006 4:58 AM  
Blogger TurbineGuy said...

Its my guess, that its you High School teachers that suffer the most, due to the "progressive" philosophy of teaching.

K - 5 should be about building the basic "core knowledge" that kids need to succeed later on. I am guessing that you can recount many times that you have had a High School student who struggled because he lacked the basic reading skills or geography knowledge to succeed in your history class. I am also guessing that your Math teachers get frustrated by students that still do multiplication tables on their fingers.

p.s. Dennis, I am through one chapter of your book... I have plenty of notes.

9/21/2006 5:30 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9/21/2006 6:20 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

I highly recommend the recently published: Myths and Misconceptions about Teaching: What Really Happens in the Classroom.

See my review here.

It's written by a teacher of 35 years experience so she has street cred.

If you really want to save public education in its current government-run form, student achievement will have to improve and that's going to require reforming teaching practicies.

9/21/2006 9:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ditto to what deb said about balance. And Dennis, I feel your pain. My education professors and instructors didn't like me because I was one of a small group of my peers at university who often complained and argued the benefits and practicality of some of the theories we learned. (I had a few excellent English teaching instructors, though.) Multiple intelligences theory was crammed down my throat to the point where I had to make sure that there was an element of learning for each intelligence in every single lesson, spelled out for my profs in the excrutiatingly overcomplicated lesson plan format. While I agreed with the basics of the theory, I became a little bitter about it come practice time.

I also want to thank you and kderosa both for turning me on to practices that I may have already used in some way in my own lessons without knowing it. I'm really interested in reading Hirsch, but he's all checked out at my library at the moment. (Sorry, Dennis, you're not on the shelves in my city.)

9/21/2006 11:14 AM  
Blogger Mike in Texas said...


Is that particular teacher actually certified to teach ESL or was he just thrown into the job without training or support from the administration?

A very similar thing happened to me years ago. Our high school terminated their ESL teacher and then "forgot" to hire a new one. I was "volunteered" to teach ESL for one hour a day at the high school, even though I am elementary certified ONLY. I was not given one bit of supplies or even a number to access the copier, much less a curriculum to follow or even a text book. It was not my finest moments as a teacher. I discovered by accident that no one had even tested the language skills of these kids since they'd been in high school and absolutely zero paperwork existed on their progress through the ESL program for the last two years. For those of you who bad mouth teachers' unions, this would have been the perfect time for one of them to step in and do what was right for the students, but in here in Texas they basically don't exist since we cannot strike or collective bargain.

My first week I was called in to discuss a student who was on the verge of dropping out, and the counselors feared she was pregnant. When they all turned to me for my "expert" advice the only thing I could say was, "This never comes up in 2nd grade!"

9/24/2006 6:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In response to Mike's question above:

Actually, he is a biology teacher, but he had some lower-level English speakers (level 2s and 3s) in his class. I tried to give him some ideas for accommodation, such as having me pre-teach vocabulary, but he wasn't responsive. I told my son to try to get really good grades in 8th grade science this year so we can make sure he doesn't get that boring teacher next year.

I know what you mean about ESL, though. I'm teaching it at the local community college. I've had ESL coursework, but I've never taught it before. I was given a conversation class to teach, and told to start with the vowel sounds. That was my sole guidance. Good for you for getting them tested.

9/30/2006 7:59 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home