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A Personal Indictment of Ed School
Brian D. Rude 2007
I have been a critic of schools of education all my life. I feel I have good reason. But only in recent years have I begun to feel more strongly about it. There are several reasons for this. One reason is a growing awareness that progressive education has not died the natural death we thought it had. It is apparently alive and well, and, unfortunately, making inroads into American educational practice. 1 Another reason I feel more strongly about ed school is a book I have recently read, The Trouble With Ed School, by David Labaree. 2
Labaree calls himself both a friend and critic of teacher education. I consider myself also as both a friend and critic of teacher education. However I think he is much more a friend and I am much more, very much more, a critic. Labaree brings up some ideas that has prompted some thinking, and rethinking, about the state of teacher education.
I am using "ed school" as a generic term for any institution that either claims to train teachers or that claims to do research on teaching and learning. I believe in some circles, including the world Labaree inhabits, sharp divisions are made between those two. A "teacher's college" trains teachers, but does not claim to do much research into teaching and learning. A "school of education" claims a higher status. It claims to do research, and may train a few teachers as a sideline. Perhaps there are other distinctions to be made that I am not aware of. In this article the terms "ed school", "college of education", and "teacher's college" are synonymous. I lump them all together. I indict them all together. If they got their teacher training right then I think their research would be directed at appropriate targets. Or, if they got their research right, their teacher training would follow. In this article I will try to explain as best I can, and from my personal perspective, how they fail, and fail badly.
In one sense at least I am a product of an education school, and therefore a part of the educational “establishment”. I graduated from the College of Education of the University of Missouri in Columbia in 1964 with a "B. S. in Ed." degree. That makes me an insider. I can rake ed school over the coals all I want, for that’s my school.
In another way I am very much an outsider. My allegiance to ed school (the College of Education in this case) hardly survived my freshman or sophomore year at Mizzou. I did begin college with a allegiance to the field of education. I remember occasionally arguing with my friends on the subject and vigorously defending the idea that teachers need to learn how to teach and that’s why I’m in education. Motives are always complex, of course. I did have youthful ideals of wanting to teach to serve humanity. And I did look forward to the education courses I would take. I was also aware that in the college of education you didn’t have to take a foreign language. I was not against learning a language, but it was not high in my priorities at that time. So for practical reasons as well as a commitment to teaching I felt I was in the right place.
But after the first or second year of college I did not want to argue the case for ed school any more. I no longer believed in its value. I had taken enough education courses to have my own personal basis on which to accept the conventional wisdom about such things, and the conventional wisdom was very plain. Take the education courses to get your certificate, but don’t expect to learn how to teach there. You’ll learn how to teach when you get a job. Actually that last part was not stressed too much. I think I, like most other prospective teachers, figured I knew how to teach. What became quite clear in my mind, after a semester or two, was that there was probably not going to be anything in any education course of substance, nothing to “sink your teeth into”, nothing to get intellectually excited about.
I do get intellectually excited - about a lot of subjects - and I always have. I realized that early in my life, probably by the time I was in the seventh or eighth grade. I enjoyed learning. I enjoyed figuring things out. I had a passion for astronomy in my childhood, and I learned a lot about it. I liked science in general, and physical science in particular. I remember in the fifth grade when everyone else would run out to recess everyday it was my time to get an encyclopedia off the shelf and learn about atoms and molecules. That pleasant time came to an end one day when the teacher informed me that I had to go out to the playground during recess too. She was probably concerned about developing the “whole child” in me or something like that. At some age I asked for a chemistry set for Christmas, and I got it. I remember being excited with it for a while, but then being disappointed when it seemed to be mostly a matter of mixing different chemicals and getting different colored solutions. I didn’t understand much. I didn’t seem to be learning much. Learning, I slowly came to realize, can have its ups and downs. Sometimes it is very rewarding and remains so for a long time. Other times it might be very rewarding for a while and then turn stale. Sometimes it can be boring, sometimes frustrating. Learning has its ups and downs, but in general learning was a positive and important part of my life.
This is not to say that school was always a positive experience for me. At any given time in my childhood I would be very interested in some subject, and learning about it, but that subject was not being taught to me at school at that particular time. What I was getting at school and any particular time were the standard school subjects. But I think even at this early age, by seventh grade say, I realized that learning is work, and it always will be. My homework assignments were work that had to be done. That’s the way of the world. Everyone works, and school is children’s work. I didn’t analyze such things deeply at the time, but I think I also recognized that work, whether it’s school homework, or delivering newspapers, or cleaning my room, or weeding the garden, brings some satisfaction, some sense of accomplishment, and sometimes the simple enjoyment of doing it. But no one is going to enjoy every minute of their work everyday. That is not the way of the world, and never will be. So I did my homework, I studied for tests, and I did okay in school. When school was over for the day I could turn my attention to things that interested me.
When I entered college my major was math. That seemed a safe subject, and I could teach it after I graduated, which I very much wanted to do. I also had a more important subject, music. I did not take any music in school other than what was required in elementary school. I didn’t take band or chorus. I knew why I didn’t take chorus, I couldn’t sing, and didn't want to try. But by my senior year in high school I was very aware that music was important to me and I should have started band in the fifth grade when I had the chance. I don’t know why I didn’t. However we did have a piano at home. My mother taught my brother, sister, and me some basics. My brother and sister thereafter lost interest, but I didn’t. I continued playing piano on my own throughout my school years. I learned quite a bit - for being self taught. Of course I realize now that I would have learned a whole lot more with lessons. But that didn’t enter my mind at the time. I just enjoyed music and I enjoyed learning. So when I approached the end of high school I determined that I would take at least some music in college, which I did, and ended up with a minor in music.
The point of these last few paragraphs is that I knew something about learning. I did a lot of it. I won't claim I had well thought out ideas about teaching and learning. I was always analytic, but I did not apply my analytic propensities to teaching and learning until much later. But at that time I think I had a "feel" for learning. I knew learning could be very satisfying and enjoyable. I knew when I was making progress and when I wasn’t. I knew when it felt right and when it didn’t. I knew that learning took time and effort, but in most cases it was time and effort well spent.
I think I knew at this time, though I would not put it into words until much later, when a subject matter is respectable and when it is not - when it has genuine content and when it does not, when it forms a foundation to build on and when it does not. But I did not think much in these terms. Perhaps it is more accurate to say I had a basis for knowing when a subject matter has little substance. Later I realized that most every subject I was interested in as a youngster had substance - why else would it be interesting? Astronomy, music, physics, auto mechanics, electricity, all had substance. There was a lot known about these subjects. That information was available if one would work to find it, to understand it, to apply it, even to appreciate it. Subjects with little substance were at best on the periphery of my attention.
However some things of little substance were closer to the center of my attention in high school. I was aware that things are not always what they seem. I knew that people could be frauds, claiming a status they didn't really deserve on merit. I was aware that there were plenty of popular fads and trends that seemed to have little substance. I think the language of label and substance were used in my world. So it would certainly make some sense in my world to discover that any particular body of knowledge is lacking in substance.
I did have one course in high school that I felt had little substance, psychology. I took it as a senior. By that time I had done considerable reading on the subject. The psychology section of both our local town library and the high school library were very familiar to me. I had read every book available to me on the subject that seemed worth reading. I had formed the opinion (as best I remember, and memory is not my strong point) that psychology was lacking in something. The books were mostly disappointing. They didn’t seem to present ideas that formed a foundation for anything. I looked forward to taking the high school psychology course and getting something better. That something better did not materialize, of course, and it did not materialize in two college psychology courses I took years later either. I formed the opinion even later that one reason education courses have little substance is that education is a child of psychology, and psychology has little substance. However I have known many people who do not see it this way, people who are glad to indict education courses, but think psychology courses are okay. Some of Labaree’s arguments and ideas about relative status seem relevant to this situation. But that is another story.
I liked learning, even if I didn’t always like school, so I began college in a positive frame of mind. I was going to continue in math. That was not too new and exciting, but I was comfortable with it. I was going to take some required general courses, of course. English composition I expected to be just a two semester chore to get out of the way. In those two semesters of composition I had one bad teacher and then one good teacher, but that is another story. I very much looked forward to taking astronomy to fulfill the physical science requirement. That turned out to be a very good course, and with what I already knew, was just plain easy. I thought I would take botany for the life science requirement. That sounded interesting, and indeed it was. I didn't care for the government courses I would have to take, but I figured they would be okay, and they were. I was going to find out about music, and that was very exciting. And I was going to take education courses. I would be in classes where others were interested in teaching and learning, where we would actually learn about teaching and learning. That was appealing. I expect by that time I had heard plenty of negatives about education courses, but I was going to keep an open mind. Perhaps those negatives were overblown.
I don't remember too much about the ed courses I took. I don't remember what grades I made. I do remember that my initial enthusiasm did not last too long. When my enthusiasm left it was replaced by apathy. Most of time my attitude was pretty much the same as everyone else's. You have to take the ed courses to get the certificate, so you do. It's not the only area in life where you have to "jump through hoops" to get what you want. It was no big deal.
I graduated. I got a teaching job. I learned to teach. Actually that is an overstatement. I have been learning to teach in one way or another all my life. That first year on the job I learned a lot, but there was a lot I didn't learn. At this point one must distinguish between learning the mundane details of a particular teaching job, and learning more enduring concepts and principles of teaching. I did both, of course, as everyone does, as best I could. It is the more enduring concepts and principles of teaching that I am concerned with. It is reasonable to expect any job to have a lot of particulars that must be learned on site. But it is also reasonable to believe that there are general concepts and principles of any occupation that are the proper subject of a school or college, that need to be learned in advance of starting a job because they take considerable effort, concentration, and guidance to learn and understand. What were these concepts and principles of teaching and learning, and why didn't I learn them in ed school?
I had a lot of trouble during that first year of teaching. I probably am not cut out to be a teacher, at least not high school or junior high. I was not very good at discipline, and that is a very important part of teaching. Why didn't the teach us about discipline in ed school? Surely it could have saved me a lot of grief.
Of course some might argue that they did teach me about discipline in ed school. They did a little, but very little. They told us "Be fair, but firm". That was all. Maybe it took them a few more words than that, but not many. I think their ideology was that good teachers don't have discipline problems, therefore we don't need to talk about it. This ideology was good cover for them, of course, but the ugly truth, I believe, was simply that they didn't know anything about discipline. Any particular education professor may or may not have extensive and successful experience in the classroom. Many, I presume, do not. They got out of the classroom and got an advanced degree at ed school. I imagine that for many of them, that ended their connection to the real world of teaching.
I was not naturally very good with discipline problems. Therefore I thought hard about every incident that came up. I realized that teachers have limited ability on their own to enforce their dictates. The school has to provide some tools of discipline. My job as a teacher is to make effective use of these tools. By and large I succeeded, but admittedly at a rather high cost in anxiety and frustration. But what I learned, I figured, needed to be put into words, so I did. The eventual result, some years later, is Tactics and Strategies Of Classroom Discipline, a short book on the subject. It is on my web site in its entirety. 3
In ed school they didn't teach us anything about tactics and strategies of classroom discipline. They didn't talk about games in the classroom, aggressiveness, deescalating competition, classroom crimes and punishments, chains of authority, face and ritual offenses, schools of discipline, etc. Why didn't they? I must conclude, as I have already said, that they don't know much about teaching and learning, or classroom management. If they did know something, surely they would teach it.
Or maybe it is not quite that simple.
Good teachers know a lot about teaching, do they not? They must know important and basic concepts and principles of teaching and learning. How else could they be good teachers? This may seem reasonable, but over the years I have concluded that it is not really the case. There are many good teachers in the world. I have had some of them. They know how to present a subject, how to develop the subject in the students' minds. They know when and how to concentrate on appropriate details, and when and how to relate the subject to other subjects, to get the big picture. They know what to assign as homework, what to put on a test and how to help students study for the test. And, also very importantly, they know how to keep order in class. Unfortunately, I have concluded, these good teachers have never put much of their knowledge into words. They do a good job in teaching, but they cannot explain what they do very well. In fact I think there are many important concepts and ideas that these teachers have only "operationally". They know what to do intuitively, but what they know and do has never been put into words. Their knowledge is operational, but not definitional, to use terminology that I have developed elsewhere. 4 It's never really been analyzed. Therefore they cannot get past a very superficial level of explanation.
Such teachers, I presume would make good mentors. If you're lucky you do your student teaching under such a person. Unfortunately that did not happen to me. I did my student teaching in geometry in summer school at the University of Missouri Laboratory School. I, and two or three fellow student teachers, were pretty much on our own. Our supervisor had us make some lesson plans I suppose, though my memory is pretty vague on this, but mostly he would sit in the back of the room and try to catch us making mistakes in geometry. I saw no evidence that he was either a good teacher or knew much of anything about teaching and learning. Since that time I have heard a few people mention a supervising teacher who was really a help. Such supervising teachers, I imagine, are good teachers themselves, as I discussed back a few paragraphs. I imagine they are good at helping a student teacher in a particular time and place with a particular problem. Probably they are good at putting into words what to do next in a specific context. But, and this is very important, that does not mean they are any good at all in a more general context. They have never tried to put into words, either verbal or written, the general ideas and principles that they apply in order to be good teachers. They never wrote a textbook, or tried.
So I will certainly entertain the notion that some education professors were good in the classroom. But that is not of much relevance. They did not, in my experience at least, ever talk about the nitty gritty of actual classroom practice, other than in the idealistic and unrealistic mind set of progressivism, which I will discuss shortly.
As a teacher I thought a lot about teaching and learning. I always felt I did a good job at conveying subject matter. I learned how to explain things carefully, how to work up appropriate assignments and tests, how to find students' learning problems and overcome them, how to make the experience rewarding for students. Of course I can't do magic, but in the basic aspects of getting knowledge and understanding into students' heads I felt I was pretty successful. Over the years I analyzed and verbalized, and put a lot of what I know on paper. The result, much of it anyway, is on my web site. 5
In ed school they didn't teach us anything about structures of knowledge, about diagnosing and correcting learning problems, about chunk theory, or levels of fluency, or "brain packing" versus "structure building", or levels and varieties of prompts and responses, or definitional and operational processes of concept formation, or "isolate and concentrate" versus "spread and relate" modes, and on and on and on. Of course these are my terms. They are terms for concepts and ideas that I believe are important in teaching. But did the professors of my education courses have any ideas like these, perhaps variants of the same ideas in different terms, or relevant ideas that I have not discovered? I don't even recall any mention of practice as a necessary part of learning, and what could be more basic than that? 6 As far as I can tell, they had nothing to say along these lines.
Then what did they have? In one word I would answer, they had "progressivism". Actually I don't think they used the term, at least not often. "Progressive education" was a popular term in the early part of the twentieth century, but when I was in college in the early sixties I think it had gone out of favor. However the ideas of progressivism had not. It is an important point in David Labaree's book, The Trouble With Ed School, that progressivism lost the battle for control of the schools, but they won the ideological battle (if it may be called that) for the minds of ed school professors. That makes sense to me, but I'm not sure "battle" is the right word. There was no strong competitor on the other side. What I think was on the other side of this "battle" was simply common sense and some knowledge of conventional practices.
The professors of the education courses I took did not, as well as I remember, use the term "progressivism" or "progressive education". Nor did they give us, again as I remember, a comprehensive explanation of progressivism, by that or any other name. They did not advocate or even explain progressivism. They just assumed it. They spoke from the perspective of progressivism, but they never taught about progressivism. Did they think they didn't need to? Did they think the whole world knew and accepted it? Was progressivism clear in their own minds? Or, perhaps, did they reject the term as being dated, while embracing the ideas?
I learned about progressivism only in the last few years. Left Back, by Diane Ravitch 7 is a wonderful book on the history of American education in the twentieth century. I found that book a few years back, and now some of the mysteries of ed school, what they did and didn't teach us there, are at least partially explained.
Perhaps my professors didn't want to teach us progressivism. Perhaps they practiced progressivism by expecting us to discover progressivism on our own. Of course it didn't work, if that were the case, and I don't believe it is the case. Advocates of progressivism don't use it themselves. They lecture. 8 So I am not sure if my professors knew all that much about progressivism, its history and concepts, or not. I think it is possible that they simply responded to some general sentiments and ideas, sentiments and ideas that are appealing, at least on the surface, and are never examined critically. Those sentiments, of course, are the same sentiments that went under the name of "progressivism", but perhaps were sometimes morphed to a slightly different form and given new names. These sentiments and ideas were not well developed under progressivism, and were certainly not well developed when I took education courses, which leads me to wonder what in the world my professors did during all those years in graduate school?
Labaree, in his book previously mentioned, does the best job I have seen in defining and explaining progressivism. Actually he subdivides it into pedagogical progressivism and administrative progressivism. It is an important point in his book that the pedagogical progressives lost the battle for influence and control in actual practice in the schools, but won the ideological battle in ed school, while administrative progressivists largely prevailed in administrative control of schools and some of what they advocate has simply now become accepted practice. Labaree argues that pedagogical progressivism and administrative progressivism conflict in some ways, but do have some points in common. The interplay between these two forms of progressivism, according to Labaree, has been important in shaping the current character of schools of education.
In a chapter titled "The Ed school's Romance With Progressivism" Labaree describes the basic tenets of progressivism. However he does this by putting progressivism in contrast to what he calls "traditionalism", or "traditional pedagogy". He is not alone in doing this, and that has irked me for many, many years. I wonder if progressivism can be described or defined without this opposition.
I strenuously object to the word "traditional" used indiscriminately for any practice that is cannot be labeled progressive. I think it is incredibly sloppy thinking. I think it is a mistake for Labaree to use "traditional" in opposition to progressivism. "Nonprogressive" would perhaps be a much better term. "Traditional" has two connotations that I find objectionable. First it implies a uniformity in nonprogressive practices which I expect is not there. Secondly it suggests a motivation, a blind allegiance to past practices whether they are good practices or not. Progressives, to my knowledge, have always used that implication, and I think it has stunted their progress drastically. All my lifetime progressives have thought that until they came along teachers taught by "rote memorization". But they have never offered any basis for that thinking.
If one does not adopt a new idea, does that mean that one does things like everyone else who does not adopt the new idea? This would be a foolish thing to assume, but it is often done, and it is done ad infinitum by educators who insist that until recently teachers taught by "rote memorization". Progressives passively assume that all teachers who do not accept progressivism are identical in their teaching. What is the evidence of that?
Consider this example. In the first century Christianity was a new idea, and many people adopted it. Can we therefore assert that all those people who didn't adopt Christianity are all alike? Should we think that in the first century a Roman soldier, a peasant in what is now France, and a Jew in Palestine are all the same because they are all "nonchristians"? Here is another example. During the early part of the twentieth century electricity was new, and it took a while for homeowners to decide to invest time and money in wiring their houses. Can we therefore divide all homeowners as "electrified" and "non-electrified", and expect that all "non-electrified" are the same. Could we argue that in 1930 a poor factory worker in Boston, a black cowboy in Texas, and a Norwegian bachelor farmer in Minnesota were all the same, because they all were “non-electrified“? Many more examples could be brought up.
How did teachers teach in 1930, or in 1910, or in 1850? Did they all teach alike? Did they all use nothing but "rote memorization" as the progressivists like to believe? How would we know? This brings up the idea of description, and its lack, in the field of education. In another article I have developed this idea. 9 My argument in that article is that the field of education suffers greatly from the lack of simple accurate description of what goes on in the classroom. My argument at the moment here is that we don't have much information about how "nonprogressivists" teach, or have taught, but I think it is foolish to assume that they all taught the same.
Here is another question that is relevant here. Does uniformity of action mean that blind adherence to tradition is the only motivation for this action? Let us suppose that all teachers in 1890 or so did all teach alike, an unlikely supposition it seems to me. Would that establish that they are acting alike out of blind adherence to tradition?
Why would people do the same thing in the same way every time they do it? In many situations of everyday life there are good reasons for always doing the same thing in the same way, or for doing something the same way everyone else is doing it.
One reason is practicality. I drive the same route to work each day, not because of blind obedience to an unquestioned tradition, but because there does exist one best route, and I take it. It is entirely a matter of practicality.
Values is another reason people do the same thing in the same way each time. I buy the same cheap soft drinks from the same discount store every time, year after year. I value thrift. Other people will buy the same product time after time because they value that particular product. Yet other people will buy the same product time after time because they value the status they think they get from using that product.
A third reason for doing something the same way each time, or for everyone doing something the same way, is the value of standardization. No one claims that driving on the right side of the road is ordained by natural law, or is intrinsically superior. Either side could have been chosen. In England for some reason they chose the left side. But everyone understands the value of standardization in driving on the appropriate side of the road. It is not blind adherence to tradition that motivates us to drive on the right side of the road. It is the self-evident value of standardization.
I think I would delete the term "traditional" in Labaree's discussion and put in "conventional". It can be argued that this means about the same as "traditional". Indeed it could be argued that one meaning of "traditional" is "conventional". And "traditional" or "tradition" can refer to values, rather than practices, such as when we say that "America has a strong tradition of free expression". But among its many varieties of meaning "traditional" has connotations of blind adherence to established ways, whereas "conventional" is a simply descriptive term for how things are at a particular time and place. If a practice is described as "traditional" we expect it will continue whether it is a good practice or not. If a practice is described as "conventional" it simply means it is common today, but may not be common tomorrow. It will not be clung to blindly. It will be replaced whenever a better way of doing things appears. "Conventional" also does not imply uniformity of action. Travel by automobile is conventional means of transportation, but so is travel by bus or plane. Sending a personal letter is a conventional means of communication, but calling on the telephone is also a conventional means of communication, as is sending an email. "Conventional" is not limiting, as "traditional" tends to be.
The average teacher in 1890, I would think, would not have done a lot of deep thinking about methods of teaching, and probably would not be under the sway of any strong educational ideology. But they would be aware of the expectations of their community. And they would be aware of how their teachers taught them. And they would have common sense and practicality. Common sense, it seems to me, added on to their social and language abilities, would be an important resource for them. Common sense would lead them sometimes to try something new. Common sense would also sometimes prompt them to keep the old tried and true practices. I would expect that by the turn of the twentieth century expectations of teaching would be fairly well formed. I would expect that indeed there would be a considerable degree of uniformity in teaching practices, but that does not imply blind adherence to past practices. But, again, how would we know? Where are the descriptions of everyday classroom practice at the turn of the twentieth century. They may exist. I hope they exist. But I don't expect to learn about them from ed school. Ed school has decided that teachers used to teach by "rote memorization", and, so far as I know, has never advanced from that primitive claim.
Labaree talks of "two visions of teaching and learning", the traditional and the progressive. I agree that progressivism is a vision. My complaint is that that is all it is. It is not a description of what actually happens in a classroom. And it is certainly not an analysis of what actually happens in most classrooms. Rather it is a description of what progressivists think should happen in a classroom. It is not grounded on reality. It is grounded on good intentions and wishful thinking. And does tradition qualify as a "vision of teaching and learning"? Conventional practice is not a "vision", nor should it be. Conventional practice should be what seems to work best in the current situation. Certainly past practices can be a valuable guide to what works best now. But to describe "traditional pedagogy" as a vision seems to ascribe an ideological basis to it. I don't think it has much of an ideological basis. If it does where can I find a history and analysis of this ideological basis?
A "vision" can be a good thing, but only if it leads to some genuine benefit. A vision that is not realistic is not beneficial. And certainly a vision is no substitute for extensive observation and description, critical analysis, hypotheses, experimentation, and theory.
I expect it is true that teachers before progressivism did not analyze teaching and learning to any great depth. It surely was as natural then as it is now to think that one automatically knows how to teach. But I would vigorously argue that after the rise of progressivism teachers did not, and still do not, analyze teaching and learning to any great depth. Progressivism, to my knowledge, never has analyzed teaching and learning in any but the most shallow ways. Progressivism, I will argue in the next section of this article, is much more an ideology than a body of knowledge
Another pair of terms that Labaree uses to explain progressivism is "child centered" versus "teacher centered". When talking about the education of older students the term "child centered" is switched to "learner centered". And "teacher centered" is often switched to "subject centered", which may seem to make a little more sense. For about a century now progressive education has said that our instruction can either be centered on the subject or centered on the child. I feel this idea is logically flawed, and has done a great disservice to education. "To teach" is a verb that requires both a direct and indirect object. You cannot teach without teaching something, an idea, a topic, a subject, a skill, or whatever. And you cannot teach without teaching to someone, a student, a class, a reader, a listener, or an audience. To say “I teach history” is meaningful in many contexts, but only if the indirect object is already obvious, or can be inferred, or can be established in some way. The full meaning might be “I teach history to high school juniors”. There has to be some recipient of the teaching. Similarly the statement, “I teach high school freshman” is often meaningful, but not complete. Does the person teach English to high school freshmen, or history, or what?
Consider a parallel with language. Would it be meaningful to say, “I use subject centered sentences”, or “Modern people use verb centered sentences.”? A sentence must have both a subject and a verb. This is not to say that there could be no meaning to a “subject centered sentence” or a “verb centered sentence”. One might say that the sentence “It’s raining.” is verb centered, because the subject is very indefinite and unimportant. Or one might say that the sentence, “Me too, me too!” is subject centered, for the subject is very clear and very important but the verb is indefinite and unimportant. But outside of special cases like this the concept of a “subject centered sentence” or a “verb centered sentence” is not very useful.
One might argue that the terms “child centered” and “subject centered” have some meaning in some contexts. I would not disagree, just as in the paragraph above I gave two sentences for which it makes some sense to call them “subject centered" or "verb centered”. One might then go on and argue that these terms are definitive and important. On this I would strongly disagree. I don't think the term "child centered pedagogy" is any more valuable or important than the term "verb centered sentence". It is a false dichotomy. Every instance of teaching involves both a structure of knowledge to be taught and a person to whom it is taught. To understand the teaching-learning process one must look at both. In every case the nature of the subject matter determines something about how it is best taught. This is an important idea that I have developed elsewhere. 10 And similarly in every case the nature of the learner determines something about how it is best taught.
There are other parallels that one might construct. Is a particular factory "worker centered" or "product centered"? Is this a meaningful distinction? Perhaps it could be in some contexts, or for some rhetorical purposes, but in general I think it is a distinction that is meaningless. The cynic in me suspects that if a factory claims to be "worker centered" it probably means that their human resources department is desperately trying to take attention away from its mediocrity, or perhaps they are trying to stave off the formation of a union. Similarly a business might be called "product centered" or "customer centered", but I don't think these terms would be helpful. Is an automobile engine "ignition centered" or "fuel injection centered"? Again these terms might have some meaning in some contexts or for some purposes, but surely those would be very rare. If I say, "I'm going to paint that wall blue", then you might ask if I would describe my artistic concerns as "color centered" or "room centered", but I certainly hope not. And we could go on and on.
If I am asked if I am a “learner centered” teacher I can reply in many ways. I can explain my perspective, as I have tried to do in the previous paragraphs, and thereby argue that the question is meaningless. Or I can give a shorter reply. “Absolutely”, I can say. “I am indeed a learner centered educator. There's no question about it.” A person who asks me this would probably not have the sense to ask me the parallel question, “Are you a subject centered teacher”, to which I would reply identically. If I were in a mood to tease a little, and that second question were not forthcoming, I might prompt, “Now ask me if I am a subject centered teacher”. Then I could give the identical reply, which would probably confuse or irritate the questioner. And if one were to ask me “Are you learner centered or subject centered?” I could reply very simply, “Yes.”
But my interest is not in rhetorical jousts. My interest is that teaching and learning be accurately and exhaustively analyzed and that a genuine science of teaching emerge. This goal is not aided by the false dichotomy of learner centered versus subject centered, just as knowledge of grammar or language is not aided by the terms “verb centered sentence” or “subject centered sentence”, and the management of a factory is not aided by the terms "worker centered" and "product centered".
Another important part of progressive education, though I don't think Labaree discusses it, is the idea that education should "remake" society in some way, or reform it. 11 This apparently was an important idea to John Dewey. This has always been hard for me to understand. It would seem to be just the opposite. Education should support society, not seek to change it. Society doesn't want to be changed. Society expects schools to educate their young, not radicalize them. And how should society be changed? The answers are always vague. We should work for a more just and humane society. But how is this to be done. Perhaps the reasoning is that progressive education makes for a more just and humane society within the confines of the school, and therefore will spread out to the larger society when the students leave school. This is indeed an appealing argument, but it doesn't go very far. Enlightened people are always trying to live so as to promote a more just and humane world, but that does not constitute a theory of teaching and learning.
But I don't think that's what John Dewey and others in the 1930's had in mind when they talk about the schools being used to reform society.. I think this idea of reforming society has to be seen in the context of the historical development of Marxism, and similar ideological movements. In a very real sense Marxism has been tried and proven a failure. But the spirit that moves it persists. It is a part of human nature. 12 Humans are idealists. Marxism is idealistic. Communism was going to reform society. It was going to usher in a brave new world, a "workers' paradise", an egalitarian ideal society in which all are taken care of and no one can be a dictator. And before there was Marxism and Communism there was Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and probably many other romantics. Progressive education, it seems to me, fits right in with this tradition. It appeals to people, but this tradition has never been a good blueprint for society. These ideals, at least in some sense, are laudable. But we should be careful about our ideals. The world wide death toll of attempts to install various forms Marxism run into tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of innocent lives. The progressive educators of the 1930s who spoke fervently of schools being the agent of societal change may not exactly have had communism in mind, but some variety of socialism must have been part of their dream. One would think that the way to advocate for socialism would be through an open political approach, not through the schools. Parents can be very sensitive when they suspect their children's schools are being hijacked for some group's ideological purposes.
Labaree has a chart in which progressive instruction is compared to "traditional instruction" for a number of characteristics, a chart he borrows from another source. 13 I will discuss some of the content of this chart. My point in doing this is to establish a basis on which to argue that progressivism fails badly as a basis for developing an art or science, or theory, of teaching and learning.
The first characteristic in Labaree's chart is curriculum. In traditional teaching, presumably, curriculum standards are set and rigid, though of course progressivists do not bother to tell us how they know this to be so. In progressive teaching the curriculum presumably is variable and follows the interests of the child. I would argue that at least a part of the curriculum must be set. Every child must learn to read and write. Every child must learn the history of the world and his or her particular part of it. Every child must learn math and science in order to be a contributing member to his or her world. Every child deserves to be exposed to art and music to a degree which will "open doors" to those worlds. The term "every child" must be modified somewhat by the limitations of reality, of course. There are special children with special needs. But for the vast majority of children who are capable, there is a non-negotiable core of learning that is not only absolutely necessary to maintain civilization, but is also necessary for each person to realize his or her individual potential.
The variability of curriculum called for by progressivism can be very desirable, but only outside the essential core curriculum. Individual interests should be recognized as much as possible. Individual interests can be important, and societal support and encouragement of those individual interests is highly desirable. How that support and encouragement can best be given is indeed a legitimate part of pedagogy, and ought to be addressed in any teacher training curriculum. But more important is the issue of how best to teach the required curriculum. Downplaying, or even eliminating this concern is an inexcusable failure on the part of progressive education. If the professors in ed schools have nothing to say about how best to teach the core curriculum then they have failed in what ought to be their essential mission.
Progressive education has always stressed group work, and in Labaree’s chart this is a characteristic that sets it apart from “traditional”. There are group projects, collaborative learning, and so on. However the nature of group work is never explored. There always seems to be the assumption of a smoothly working egalitarian group. But there are many types of groups, and many types of group dynamics, and they are not all good. The egalitarian group, in which each member has a say, no one has unchecked authority, and the group actually has the ability to come to a consensus, is one possibility of group action, but certainly not the only one. There can be authoritarian groups. A platoon of soldiers is indeed a group working together toward a common end, but it is not egalitarian. It is authoritarian. Division of labor is another form group work can take, either authoritarian or egalitarian. When one member of a team pulls weeds in a garden while another member of the group prunes the plants they are dividing labor. Division of labor is not explicitly envisioned by progressives, at least judging from what I hear and read. But division of labor is a very basic part of human interaction. Progressivists should give some thought to such things. Combining of forces is another form that group effort can take. When a group of people pull together on a rope they are combining their forces. They are not dividing labor. Everyone is doing the same thing. Could this type of team work be either authoritarian or egalitarian? There are perhaps other basic types of groups. But, so far as I know, the progressivists have not described and analyzed them. They should. What kind of group work do they want, and why, and how can it be controlled.
Group work can go wrong. There are groups that are supposed to be egalitarian but fail in some ways. They can't come to a consensus on anything. Or they are dominated by a petty tyrant. Or they split into arguing factions. Or they muddle along vetoing and frustrating each other. What about the group working at cross purposes without realizing it? What about the group desperately trying to figure out what the teacher wants them to do, while the teacher keeps insinuating that they should figure it out for themselves, but blocks every effort they make that does not fit her preconceived plans? If progressivists want us to take group work seriously then they must seriously address all these concerns.
Sometimes we hear something to the effect that a group can combine the assets and individual talents of each of its members. This could be called an "additive group" and such groups certainly exist in many areas of life. But there is also what we might call "subtractive groups". These groups also exist. I have been a part of many of them. In a subtractive group weakness are combined, not strengths. Collaboration can easily dilute individual effort and accomplishment, and often does. I have been a part of many groups where I could not do my best because details that I know to be important are passed over by the others. Indeed I think dilution and blocking of individual effort is the primary reason many people, including myself certainly, have a negative response to the rhetoric of teamwork.
But they didn't teach us any of this in ed school. I have no reason to believe they know any of it. But they should. If group effort really is valuable, as progressivism insists, then surely we need to analyze it. Just saying that group effort is good, or that people like to work in groups, is not enough, not by a long shot. Both of these statements have some truth in them, but they are not always true. Group effort is not always good. It is often frustrating to many of the participants. And not all people like to work in groups. All of this needs to be extensively investigated, analyzed, and explained.
Labaree’s chart says that in progressive pedagogy a variety of materials are used, including manipulatives. Of course! That is true in both progressive pedagogy and common sense pedagogy. But I believe there is an important difference. In common sense pedagogy different materials are used to serve the purpose of instruction. In progressive pedagogy, it seems, using different materials becomes an end in itself. I remember teaching in the seventies when filmstrips (among other things) were considered modern technology. I never used them. They seem a poor way of presenting subject matter. The images were of poor quality in many cases, and the pace is too slow. And a film strip cannot give a careful explanation of anything. But I did know about them. I looked to see what was available. I just never found anything that was useful to me. I probably didn't look too hard. I had formed the opinion at that time that some of my colleagues used them just for the sake of using them. Some of them, I think, had taken education courses in "audio-visual" and felt that being a good teacher obligated them to use such materials. I thought it was wasteful of teaching time. And I thought such teachers couldn't distinguish between label and substance, but that was nothing new in my world.
In today's world "technology" is a buzzword in education. We are supposed to use computers. In math we are supposed to use graphing calculators. Graphing calculators have some value of course, but I think they are much overhyped. Learning algebra and calculus requires giving careful and extensive attention to a limited number of very important and basic mathematical ideas of those subjects. This is the way it always has been, and will be in the foreseeable future. Graphing calculators can be valuable in certain limited contexts. Yet it is almost an article of faith in some circles of math teaching that math courses should be centered on the graphing calculator. I have written much more extensively on this matter in another article. 14
I do not find it in Labaree's chart, but progressive educators like to say that learning should be active, not passive. My first response is "Well, duh!!!" But to explain more analytically, I would argue that there is no such thing as passive learning. The first several chapters in my book develop the idea of building structures of knowledge. 15 That is an active process. If progressivists have some meaning in mind for "passive learning" I would like to hear it. But I expect all they have is what I have heard many times. They say that listening to a teacher is a passive process. That doesn't make any sense to me. 16 They say, or at least imply, that worksheets and drill are passive processes. Again, that makes no sense to me. What they seem to have in mind as "active" processes seem superficial and often irrelevant to me. A "project" is supposed to be an active process. Working in a group is supposed to be an active process. Certainly these things can be described as active processes, but sometimes they are irrelevant to learning, or can actually work against learning. And they are not always active processes.
Working in a group can be a passive process. Indeed, to judge by the complaints I have heard from students, it often is. My experience with group projects is that usually they are simply routine assignments that are done by students simply because they are required for the course. However things do not always run smoothly. Students sometimes come to the teacher with problems, and one rather common problem expressed by students is that the work is not being carried evenly. One or two members of the group do most of the work and one or two members of the group get a free ride. I have argued that there is no such thing as “passive learning”, but it is very possible for a person to be passive in a collaborative learning situation. One can sit back and let the other members of the group carry the load, and still get the same credit as the other members of the group get. 17
It might seem that individual projects could not be engaged in passively, but even here it can be a consideration. In another context I compared three term papers I did in high school. 18 A term paper for physics about the science of music was interesting and productive. A term paper for psychology about perception was less interesting and productive. A term paper for world history on the country of Austria was not very interesting or productive, and that is the paper of interest here. I found information from encyclopedias and perhaps a book or two and assembled it in written form. I didn’t analyze much. I didn’t synthesize much, other than making a few categories of information. I didn’t think critically because I didn’t have to. What counted was that I met the deadline for getting a number of neatly typewritten pages ready to hand in, completely with a cover page, table of contents perhaps, and maybe even a professional looking clear plastic binder.
It could certainly be argued that this term paper had to be an active process or it could not have been completed. There is some truth to that, of course. I couldn’t do it in my sleep. But it was much less active than the imaginations of idealists would envision. In my imagination I have something to compare it to. My imagination can conjure up a classroom situation in which a skilled teacher leads a class through a few days of learning about Austria, a teacher who knows how to focus students’ attention, how to relate different bits of information to make a structure of knowledge, how to shore up fragile structures of knowledge in students minds with appropriate homework assignments, how to make a subject interesting. In comparison to this scenario my writing of the term paper seemed a very passive process. Granted, this is only a mental exercise and cannot prove anything, but to me it shows the progressivist ideas of active and passive learning as very shallow. My personal experience as a student leads me to believe that “active learning” is much more often a result of being led by a skillful teacher than being a result of doing projects of the sort usually favored by idealists. Indeed the “skillful teacher” I am talking about here could also be called a “worksheet teacher”, a term of derision when used by idealistic progressivists, but a term I apply to myself at times.
Sometimes it is asserted that active learning is learning by doing, or something to that effect. It's true that we "learn by doing", but that can be misleading. If a student makes a model of a volcano, he or she must learn about volcanoes before making the model, or at least before finishing the model. The learning about the volcano is related to "doing" all right, but the "doing" that produces the learning is not making the model. The "doing" that results in learning involves reading and thinking. This reading and thinking is most efficient if everything is laid out for the student. It is considerably less efficient if the student must go look for his own sources, and struggle to learn with little guidance Once the learning is complete, or at least well underway, another kind of "doing" may enter the picture, the actual making of the model of the volcano. This may be useful and worthwhile "doing", but it is not the "doing" that actually produces the learning. That learning must be done with one's mind, not with one's hands. The mind must assemble structures of knowledge. This is not to say that such projects have no value, only that they apply knowledge, not produce it. The benefit of such a project must be weighed against the cost in time, effort, and opportunity. Such projects may be valuable as a form of practice, but again the cost in time, effort, and opportunity must be considered. For most learning goals a worksheet, or the questions at the end of the section, or a set of problems, is more efficient for learning and more satisfying to the student.
What makes some teachers think that any project is automatically motivating? Most projects are simply assignments, and are treated as such by students. The original idea of projects, as described by Kilpatrick in 1918, 19 is that the child chooses his own project. He does not accept a project assigned by a teacher. And in Kilpatrick's vision the learning can go wherever the learner wants it to go, not where the teacher has predetermined that it should go. In Kilpatrick's vision it makes no sense that the project be graded, or that a test be given on the learning presumably accomplished by the project.
One might ask if I have nothing good to say about progressivism. I'm sure I could say something good about progressivism, if I thought long enough. I would not ask anyone to reject progressivism it its totality. To do so would demand a precise definition of progressivism, which seems not a worthwhile thing to spend brain power on. If I could watch a self-identifying progressivist for a full typical day in the classroom there would probably be some practices that I could identify as suboptimal, even wasteful and frustrating. But there would be a lot of practices that would make sense to me, that I would describe as appropriate, effective, and beneficial. My interest in attacking progressivism is to root out the bad parts, and only the bad parts.
I think it is the wrong question. To ask me if I have nothing good to say about progressivism would be like asking a policeman chasing a kid who just shot out a street lamp if he has nothing good to say about the miscreant. It's an academic question. The pressing need of the moment for the policeman is to catch the vandal. The pressing need of the moment for me in writing this article is to indict progressivism, not to praise it.
Ed School Thinking
Education professors know that many of their students have a low opinion of their courses. That has to be a burden to them. No one likes being thought badly of. Yet they persist. They keep teaching their courses, apparently the same way as they always have, year after year. What are they thinking? What is their mindset? Do they believe in what they teach? Do they believe it is true? Do they believe it is useful? Do they think their students actually apply what they teach? Are education professors thoughtful people? Are they intelligent people? Are they phonies? Do they consider that others may think they are phonies? What do they think of their critics? Do they rationalize extensively? Do they think they could do a good job teaching regular K-12 students? These are not easy questions. If one were to actually ask these questions of education professors the answers could be expected to be quite predictable. Of course they will claim to believe in what they are teaching. But how can this be, when the whole world says they are wrong?
Of course the whole world does not think they are wrong. People believe in a wide variety of things. We tolerate a great deal of disagreement in our society. Some teachers have education degrees because they believe in what is taught in education courses, but apparently not many.
Labaree's book has several chapters that give some clues about ed school thinking, though I certainly can’t claim to have a full understanding of it. He makes many statements that to me qualify as "jaw droppers" - statements so bizarre that it makes your jaw drop in astonishment. I will discuss some of these, on the idea that they can tell us something of how ed school professors think.
Here is one of these jaw droppers. He is talking about the low status of teaching and ed schools.
Rather than being a natural consequence of failure, this status is a primary cause of the kinds of failure that teacher education has experienced over the years. 20
What in the world can he be thinking here? Low status causes them to fail? I thought it was the other way around. I thought their many failures were the cause of their low status. Much of the chapter from which this quote is taken is a history of the development of education schools. A major point in this chapter is that market forces have been important in the development of ed schools. More specifically there was "an insatiable demand for teachers from a burgeoning public school system". That certainly makes sense. American society in the decades around the turn of the twentieth century was rapidly expanding its expectations about education for the masses. I think it is fair to say that at the end of the civil war a few years elementary education was the normal expectation for all people but the rich. High school or college was only for a very small minority. In the ensuing decades, say by 1930, that expectation changed drastically. High school became the norm for most and college began to come into reach for many. So there was an ever increasing demand for teachers. Colleges responded by trying in various ways to supply teachers. The general public didn't want to be left behind. They wanted education, or at least credentials. An education degree became more and more valuable, simply because it was a degree. Furthermore it lead to a job.
Labaree's point, I think, is that this intense market pressure caused standards to slip. Without this intense market pressure, apparently in Labaree's view, if the rapid expansion of educational opportunities and expectations had occurred much more slowly, standards would have been higher. Therefore ed schools were the victim of historical and market forces. Perhaps something along this line explains why psychology has a much higher status than education, but I'm not sure just how.
I admit I had not previously thought about ed school, or education in general, as being the product of market forces. But obviously they are, to one extent or another. I'm not quite sure I understand too much of Labaree's view of the market forces involved, but I have no doubt that market forces are involved, and that they are important. But it does not seem reasonable to attribute the whole problem of ed school quality to unfortunate market forces. It seems much more reasonable to me to blame low quality on the unfortunate decision of ed school professors to adopt an ideology, progressivism, rather than developing an art and science of teaching. The resulting lack of substance is the primary cause of their low status, not market forces. I will return to this idea of progressivism as an ideology again in this article and try to develop it more fully.
Here's another jaw dropper. This is in the introductory chapter of the book.
In part these institutions may have acquired - and earned - their universal disrepute by successfully adapting themselves to all of the demands that we have placed on them. 21
It doesn't look that way to me. The foremost demand we place on ed school is that they know about teaching and learning, that they have solid knowledge, not wishful thinking and good intentions. The point of this whole article is that they have not developed this. I think what Labaree is talking about here is the idea that ed schools did respond to market forces and produced teachers. But to my mind, simply "producing teachers" is not all we expect of ed school.
And another jaw dropper:
. . . . . teacher education programs struggle mightily and often in vain to prepare teacher candidates for the challenges they will face in the classroom . . . . 22
No, they don’t! In my experience no education professor ever appeared to be struggling mightily for anything. They were decent people, I have no doubt, trying to do a good job, I suppose, but “struggling mightily” does not fit. And the conventional wisdom, that they don’t address real issues we will face in the classroom, seems well borne out by my experience, and everything I have ever heard others say.
Here's a very interesting quote:
"Since education schools have no control over instructional content, they concentrate their energies on the domain that is left to them, instructional process. And progressivism is the educational vision that focuses on process - that, in fact, elevates process into a high art and the essence of good teaching." 23
When I first read that it didn't make much of an impression. I did not think of it as a jaw dropper at all. But it stuck in my mind. Progressivists focus on process, do they? What might that mean? Later, after simmering in my mind for a few days, I thought perhaps it qualified as the biggest jaw dropper it the book. Progressivists don't focus on process. They never got around to noticing any educational processes. That would require observation and description, which I have argued is woefully lacking in education.
But the seeming paradox is easily solved. Progressivists focus on process all right, but only the processes their imaginations concoct. The talk about "discovery learning". That is process. They like "group consensus building", and similar ideas about teamwork. That is process. They like the idea of the teacher being a "facilitator", which again is process. Actually I am taking these ideas from the educational literature, not from my memory of education courses I took. I don’t remember much of what they did talk about in my ed courses. But all of these processes are mostly imaginary. They don't focus on reality as it is. That would require observation and description. That would require connecting with actual students in actual classrooms.
Here, I believe, is the biggest jaw dropper of the book.
Educational knowledge is distinctive in being particularly soft (rather than hard) and applied (rather than pure), and in providing considerably more use value than exchange value. 24
Tell me the earth is flat and the moon is made of green cheese. Tell me that two and two are five. Tell me anything you want, but don't tell me that what we learned in ed school has more use value than exchange value. It has no use value - none, nada, zip, zilch, zero!.
Okay, maybe I exaggerate a bit, but not much. I cannot think of anything useful from an education courses, but I do remember the conclusions I formed from taking them. The basic conclusion, which I formed by personal first hand experience in the early sixties, was that there is very little in the education courses I took that is actually useful to a teacher in the classroom. This was conventional wisdom at the time, and I presume still is, but it is not a judgment accepted uncritically, at least not by me.
But what we learn in ed school does have exchange value. It has only exchange value. The ed courses get you the certificate, and that gets you a job. That is exchange value. So why does Labaree say it has use value? What is his perspective that he comes up with all these jaw droppers?
Of course I hope I'm wrong in at least some cases. I hope things have changed since I was young, but I have no evidence of that. I hope there is an ed school somewhere that tackles the real concerns of teacher education, that observes actual practice carefully, that describes, and forms hypothesis, and theories and explanations, and then sets up real experiments to check out those hypothesis and theories and explanations. I would like to be an education professor. I realized that some years ago. If a good ed school like I described actually exists I would try to get a degree there, even though I'm old now and too poor to even think about returning to school. But I have never found any evidence that such an ed school does exist.
So what is the ed school thinking that accounts for these jaw droppers? Actually some of these can be explained easily enough by carefully reading what Labaree says. The idea that education courses have use value rather than exchange value is at least partially explained by consideration of status. If "exchange value" is deleted and "status value" substituted then Labaree's argument makes more sense. To get a degree from a high status university is to get some of that high status, and high status certainly has exchange value. In that sense an education degree doesn't have too much exchange value. But status value is not the only kind of exchange value. In a more practical way ed schools have cornered the market. They have a monopoly, or at least a very near monopoly, on teacher training. Every state has certification laws, and the usual way to comply with these laws is through ed school. That has to count as exchange value, and it is very substantial exchange value. It makes the difference between a career in education or not. There is nothing trivial about that.
But Labaree's claim of use value still needs explaining. I find no other explanation than seller's puff, spin, rationalization. People tend to believe in what they do. Most people who are doing things that we don't like, teaching ed courses in this case, believe in the worth and legitimacy of their actions. So they defend what they do. They spin. They rationalize.
I have said that Labaree's book is good material for analyzing how ed school professors think, but I can't say that I understand his last chapter. He says in that chapter that ed schools, and the practices they advocate, could do a lot of damage to education if indeed they were implemented. However, he says, ed schools are too weak to do any real damage. I happen to agree with him to a considerable extent, though I think he underestimates the damage done.
In support of his argument about the weakness of ed schools Labaree describes some interesting research:
John Goodlad, while dean of the Graduate School of Education at University of California, Los Angeles, conducted a massive study of schools in the early 1980s that included observations in more than one thousand classrooms in thirty-eight elementary and secondary schools in all regions of the United States. Published as A Place Called School in 1983, the book presents a portrait of teaching that fits the traditional model much better than the progressive mode. Here are his conclusions about what goes on inside classrooms:
First, the dominant pattern of classroom organization is a group to which the teacher most frequently relates as a whole . . . . .
Second, each student essentially works and achieves alone within a group setting . . . .
Third, the teacher is the central figure in determining the activities, as well as the tone, of the classroom . . . . . . . 25
Labaree describes this as "quite depressing, especially in light of the long-standing rhetorical commitment of education schools to child-centered pedagogy."
Here is another very interesting bit of research. I quote from Labaree's book:
Consider another example, turning this time to a case study of a single classroom. David Cohen examined the practice of a California second grade teacher, dubbed Mrs. Oublier, who "eagerly embraced change" in her teaching practice by adopting a reform framework for math education. This framework arose from progressive principles that were spelled out by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics and that gained strong support from state education officials. The aim of the reform was to move from a traditional approach to math, which relies on doing worksheets and "memorizing facts and procedures," to a progressive approach that focused on student engagement connecting concepts to students' own ideas and experience, and enlisting them in active participation in mathematical thinking. The results of this "Revolution in One Classroom" (the title of the paper) were mixed at best. As Cohen puts it, "the mixture of new mathematical ideas and materials with old mathematical knowledge and pedagogy permeated Mrs. O's teaching." She bought into the reform ideas, "but it is one thing to embrace a doctrine of instruction and quite another to weave it into one's practice." For example, she reorganized the class into groups of four in order to facilitate the kind of cooperative learning that was central to the reform approach, "but the instructional discourse that she established cut across the grain of this organization. The class was conducted in a highly structured and classically teacher-centered fashion." Cohen concludes: "As Mrs. O revolutionized her math teaching, then, she worked with quite conventional materials: A teacher-centered conception of instructional discourse; a rigid approach to classroom management; and a traditional conception of mathematical knowledge." This, therefore is a case that shows how progressive rhetoric can thrive while traditional practice persists. 26
Why, Labaree seems to ask, didn't Mrs. Oublier go all the way with progressive ideas? Why did she retain so much that was traditional? To me the answer is painfully obvious. What is called "traditional" is really functional and pragmatic. It works. The progressive practices Mrs. Oublier was claiming to implement were compromised and cut short simply because they don't work, at least not very well. To work at all they have to be forced, and that is hard to do. Mrs. Oublier, apparently responds to an emotional, idealistic, or ideological appeal of the progressive ideas, but she also responds to the pragmatic appeal of conventional methods. But Labaree does not entertain this answer.
Ed schools are weak, Labaree says, and educational practice has largely ignored what ed schools preach for a full century now. Ed schools could do a lot more damage, Labaree says, if teachers really tried to implement what ed schools advocate. I agree. But why does he say this? He has previously said in his book, many times, that he does believe in progressive education. Why does he now say that it could do a lot of damage? All I can think of is that he is being sarcastic. I really don't know if that is the case or not.
I have already mentioned the idea of progressivism as an ideology. Education professors have somehow fallen for the idea that an ideology is okay for their foundational basis. If that is taken for a premise, then perhaps every thing else falls into line.
From everything I have said so far one may fairly conclude that I disagree in the strongest possible way. An ideology is not okay for a foundational basis. One may say that teaching is a science, and take that as a foundational basis. I'm not sure whether that's best or not. Or one might say that teaching is an art. Is that a better foundational basis? Or one might say teaching is both an art and a science. Or there might be other perspectives that I have not thought of.
But I am sure that taking an ideology as a foundational basis is a terrible mistake. I am sure of that by looking at the result. And the result, to reiterate all that I have been saying so far, is that the study of education as it stands today has a tragic lack of substance. Instead of being a vital field of study, it is a dead fish of charade and mediocrity.
I will give some evidence from Labaree's book for my claim that the basis of ed school thinking is ideology, starting with this quote:
"Most of us are convinced that we know what is wrong with education and how to fix it, and we are eager to make our case to all of the parties who shape the schools: teachers, administrators, parents, policymakers, lawmakers, curriculum developers, textbook writers, test designers, and the media. The vision of education we propose has been around for the last hundred hears; it's usually call "progressive education." 27
As I mentioned before Labaree speaks of "two visions of teaching and learning". One, of course, is progressivism, which I agree is a vision. The other Labaree calls "traditional" and I call "conventional". But why should either "traditional" or "conventional" be called a vision? I don't think it should be. And is a vision important? Must one have a "vision" for plumbing or carpentry if that is one's occupation? Of course politicians are supposed to have a vision, and that makes some sense when we vote for or against them. But should a used car salesman have a "vision"? Should doctors and lawyers have a "vision".
A vision can be good, but it is not enough. I would hope plumbers and carpenters would have a vision of their occupation that includes fair dealing and quality work. But a vision cannot be a foundation for an occupation, or a field of study. A plumber has to know plumbing, and that is not a vision. A carpenter must know carpentry, and that is not a vision. In ed school a "vision" seems to substitute for knowledge. That is not a good thing. The "vision" of progressivism is much more of an ideology than a body of knowledge.
When educators say that in the past teachers taught by "rote memorization", and offer no grounds for that statement whatsoever, their apparent motive is to charge that those who disagree with them are driven and guided by an ideology. This does not seem at all realistic to me. I think they have it backwards. It is ed school thinking to loyally and blindly adhere to an ideology - the ideology of progressivism. Non-progressive teachers, whether we call them traditional or conventional, are much more guided by common sense and pragmatism, and that is not ideology.
Progressivism is going on a hundred years old now, but in the eyes of its adherents it is as new and fresh as tomorrow. It has never worked particularly well. It has never been accepted by most teachers. Yet to its adherents it is always the promise of tomorrow. The parallel to Communism in Cuba, as imposed by Castro, seems inescapable.
As more evidence that progressivism is an ideology, here is a quote from Labaree's book that I find disturbing:
For American education schools during the twentieth century and continuing into the present, the progressive vision has become canonical, serving as the definition of good teaching. In these institutions, the purpose of teacher education programs (for prospective practitioners) and teacher professional-development programs (for existing practitioners) is framed as an effort to dissuade teachers from adopting the traditional approach and to enlist them firmly within the progressive cause. 28
I did not perceive this as a jaw dropper when I first read it, but I do more and more as I think about it. He uses the terms "canonical" and "cause". The purpose of teacher education programs, he says, is to convert teachers to a point of view. He seems to be saying that having an ideology as a foundation for teacher education is not only acceptable, but admirable.
Why in the world would one make a vision or an ideology "the definition of good teaching"? Logically, of course, one may define something anyway one wants to, just so it is internally consistent. We could define "good teaching" as having an animal sacrifice in every classroom at least once every month. Would that be a good idea? By defining good teaching as progressive teaching, one totally avoids the question of whether it really is good teaching.
This is not to say that thinking about what constitutes good teaching, or a good education, is not worthwhile. Indeed that is the point. Progressivists, apparently, do not invite you to consider what good teaching might be. They tell you. They proselytize. They want to convert you to their ideology. They define good teaching as progressivism and then close the book on that question.
There was a phase in the history of American education, in the 1920's or 30's I believe, in which it seemed that the definition of good teaching was preparing each student for his or her place in society, but only in a very practical or vocational sense. In this milieu it is considered foolish to teach history or literature, or mathematics beyond arithmetic, to a child who was not college bound. This is not to say that very many practicing teachers accepted this definition, but it was apparently promoted by many educational leaders. 29 There was also a phase in the history of American education, mid 1800's I believe, in which the definition of good teaching would be to expose the student to the classical languages and mathematics. Certainly definitions of good teaching may vary in different times, places, and circumstances. It is quite appropriate for teacher training courses to consider these various perspectives. But it is not okay to dictate a vision or an ideology and reject all others.
Here is a quote that leads to another interesting idea that I want to consider: "At the heart of this belief is a dedication to the notion that the child has a natural interest in learning." 30 Labaree is talking about "pedagogical naturalism" here, but my interest in this quote is primarily one word "dedication", or the phrase "dedication to the notion". Why should this notion require dedication? It needs investigation, not dedication. Is it true that every child "has a real interest in learning"? Will our dedication make it true? Suppose it is not true. Then is not our dedication misplaced? My point has been that an ideology is not suitable as a foundational basis for a study of education. By the ideological perspective it makes sense to be dedicated to something we believe important. But suppose that something is not true. Then we are dedicated to something false. Is that not a recipe for disaster?
So I want to go a little deeper into this idea of interest, primarily to make the point that interest, like most anything else about actual teaching and learning, has never been seriously observed, much less analyzed or researched. Ideology has prevented that deeper look, that observation, that analysis, that research, and will continue to prevent it until we get away from ideology.
I will not say that there is, or that there is not, a "natural interest in learning" in children. But if there is, or even might be, then should we not investigate the nature of this natural interest? Does every child have it? Does it apply to all subjects? If not, what determines the target of interest? Does concrete versus abstract affect interest? Obviously experience affects interest, but how? How malleable is the interest? Can the teacher turn interest away from trivial, or inappropriate, or even unhealthy subjects, and direct it to subjects that really matter? If so, how? Can a teacher really make spelling words or multiplication problems interesting? How transient is interest? Will it last long enough in a particular subject for students to actually learn much? Can a healthy interest be derailed by a momentary distraction?
I have always favored the term "interest first" to refer to the idea, basic to progressivism, that we teach by first arousing interest in a subject matter, and then effort and learning follow. This is an appealing idea, but there are problems.
First, it is a mistake to assume that an interest in a subject is the same as an interest in learning that subject. There many activities in life that we enjoy doing, but do not involve learning. Many games are like this.
I have discussed else where the idea that a child is interested first in doing, then in knowing, and last in understanding. I am not saying that children have no interest in understanding, just that doing usually comes first, and understanding last. It is true that a child can incessantly ask "why?" at times, but "why?" is many circumstances is best interpreted as "tell me more", which is something short of what we usually think of as understanding. Indeed, "why?" at times simply means "tell me again", which may be important psychological to a child, but may not advance either knowledge or understanding.
Second, even when interest does include an interest in learning, it is a mistake to expect too much of that interest. My childhood interest in astronomy endured a number of years, and it certainly included a lot of learning. My interest in music has lasted a lifetime. Other interests were very transient. But were my interests the basis of my education? When I was in elementary school I don't think it ever occurred to me to be interested in spelling, history, geography, or cursive writing. But I always did what the teacher told me to do, so I became educated. I think it is very important that it would not be correct to say that I had no interest in these subjects, just as it would not be correct to say that I did my assignments in these subjects because of my interests. My motivations were complex, as motivations always are. I was in a system of coercion, so I did what I was told. I have talked about the school as a system of coercion elsewhere, and it is very important. Indeed Labaree occasionally mentions the idea that school has a basis in coercion, and I think he deserves credit for that. That is important. But it is equally true that I very seldom thought about this coercion, and that is important too, and merits careful analysis. We move through school year by year, and we learn, imperfect though that learning may be at times. Whatever our motivation is, it is important. Interest is a part of that motivation, but only a part. I am inclined to think it is a small part.
Third, it is a mistake to think we can manipulate interests as we would like. There are the problems of changeability of interests, and appropriateness, and manageability. No teacher every tried to take my interest in astronomy and use it as a basis for an interest in history. That would have been foolish, and futile. My fifth grade teacher who told me I had to go out and play, that I could no longer read about atoms and molecules in the encyclopedia during recess, never tried to use that interest to get me to do my grammar assignment. One might say she missed an opportunity there, and maybe there is something to that idea. But I'm not sure I would have reacted positively. Indeed I think any such attempt like that on the part of the teacher would have struck me as phony, and would elicit a negative response in me. I think my attitude would have been that I do my work, so leave me alone.
The "interest first" idea seems to imply that a teacher can say a few words to a class about a new topic and enthusiasm can be elicited, an enthusiasm that is deep, lasting, appropriate, and manipulable by the teacher when it's time to move on to another subject or topic. This entire scenario does not square at all with my experience, either as a student or as a teacher.
So I have major problems with the "interest first" perspective, but that does not mean that interest is unimportant, not by a long shot.
What is really important, in my opinion, is that my interest in spelling, history, geography, cursive writing, and many other subjects in elementary school was the result of satisfaction of accomplishment which was in turn the result of good teaching. My interest in these subjects was not strong, but it was not zero either. What interest I did have, I would argue, was simply the result of good teaching. Good teachers in my experience set up a situation in which paying attention and doing assignments leads to learning, which leads to satisfaction of accomplishment, which leads to at least some interest. I have no doubt that a good teacher could have even elicited in me at least some interest in Austria. It would not have been a passionate interest, such as my interest in astronomy or music, but it could easily exceed the interest elicited by doing the assigned term paper I described.
I didn't always like school, but most subjects were of some interest to me. Most subjects were of some interest because most subjects were reasonably well taught. I didn't have a passion for grammar, but it was interesting enough. I didn't have a passion for history, but it was interesting enough. I developed some interest in every subject that was taught well.
Physical education and health were not taught well, but that is another story. Seventh and eighth grade history was taught well enough, but the teacher was mean. She was the talk of the town for making kids cry every day. Eleventh grade American history was taught poorly, but I didn't know it at the time. It was years later that I compared my eighth grade, tenth grade, eleventh grade, and college history teachers, and concluded that of course history was not very interesting to me. I didn't have a good teacher in all those years. I discovered in mid life that history can be very interesting. I discovered that by happening on a well written book about the Spanish Armada. History is interesting. Good teaching should have made that apparent to me earlier, much, much earlier. History is interesting if it is presented well. So it should be presented well. Why was it not by so many teachers in my experience? I have some ideas on this, but that is another story.
The most important question about interest is this? Can interest be made a basis for a child's education? My answer, already given, is a resounding “no”, and it is based mostly on my own experience. Yes, children do naturally have many interests. My interests as a child were substantial and important. But they were not the basis of my education. The basis for my education was the conventional curriculum, as imposed by society and culture, delivered in conventional ways. One may certainly call that “traditional” I suppose, but I think it is much more important that it is functional. The content of the curriculum evolved more by the common sense, values, and pragmatism of individual teachers than by the direction of educational leaders. Similarly methods and practice evolved mostly by the common sense, values, and pragmatism of individual teachers, not just apart from the wishes and ideals of progressivism, but to quite an extent in actual opposition to it.
From all my experience, as a child, as a student, and as a teacher, I conclude that interest is normally the result of learning, not the cause. The "interest first" idea doesn't work. The progressivists have it backwards. They always have had it backwards. And they will continue to have it backwards, in my humble opinion, as long as they think it is okay for an ideology to be the basis of the study of education.
Good Teachers And What They Know
Labaree repeatedly makes the point that teaching is a very difficult job, but that to outsiders it looks easy. I agree that it looks easy to outsiders, but is teaching really a difficult job? I think this is part of the general ed school mind set. It serves their purpose. It provides support for their spin. But it is an idea worth some serious thought. One hesitates to argue with this in general, but I do not totally agree with it. I would like to believe that good teaching requires specialized knowledge. I would like to believe that even if ed school does not have this specialized knowledge, I do, at least a significant amount of it. On my web site I have numerous articles discussing concepts and ideas that I think are very worthwhile, concepts and ideas that require careful study to learn and understand. So in some sense I would certainly agree that teaching is difficult.
But common sense and experience tell me that a good many teachers do very well without this specialized knowledge. So maybe teaching is not so difficult after all.
Everyone thinks they can teach, based on their knowledge of the subject, their competencies in communication, and their knowledge and skills in human relations. I happen to think they are basically right. Of course experience helps. Indeed it helps a lot. Teachers learn a lot on the job, by their own experience and from their colleagues. But I would argue that practically all of this learning is intuitive, not analytical, it is operational, not definitional. That means the individual teacher can apply it, often to very good effect, but cannot analyze it, and therefore is not able to pass it on to others effectively. Such teachers can pass it on only in the way they acquired it and use it. Such teachers, as I have previously mentioned, can be very good mentors. But put such teachers in the classroom of an education course teaching pre-service teachers, and I think they would be out of their element. Take them out of the context in which they can apply their knowledge and skills, and put them in a context in which they must try to explain their knowledge and skills, and they would likely do poorly - no better, and probably no worse - than the education professors who currently are in charge.
So Joe Blow and Jane Doe can do a pretty good job of teaching if they are reasonably intelligent and dedicated, and get some teaching experience. But this does not mean there is no benefit in acquiring and understanding all that I have written about. I think there is a great benefit. But the benefit is not the difference between incompetent and competent teaching. The benefit is in what we might call the "solidity" of that competence. A good teacher's competence is often not very solid, indeed can often prove to be very fragile, when the right situation comes along. Good teachers teaching intuitively, as I claim they do, are not necessarily well prepared to analyze and adapt to new situations. A new situation can make it plain that their knowledge and skills are not as solid as they might at first appear.
A new situation that many good teachers are not well prepared to analyze and respond to is often a new teaching fad that is being pushed very hard by true believers. Good teachers, teaching intuitively, do not have good defenses against inroads of ed school thinking. It does happen at times that a small group of teachers from some school go to a workshop and come back enthusiastic about some new educational fad. More jaded teachers, who had little interest in going to such workshops in the first place, respond with a groan. They go along with the new fad as much as they are required to do and then wait it out. In a year or so the fad has passed and life goes on as usual. Wouldn't it be a lot better if these situations were avoided entirely? if good teachers could repel the fads immediately, rather than tolerating them for a year or so?
My experience in teaching is limited, but I have heard other experienced teachers complain of these fads. I do have one example that is at least on the edge of my experience. I think it was in the 1980's that the popular educational fad was to tear down walls between classrooms in the school building. At a parent teacher conference for one of our children, in the tenth grade, as I recall, I observed that we were in the midst of about four classrooms with no walls, only curtains that could be drawn when needed to give some isolation to a classroom. It certainly looked maladaptive to me. It looked like the four classes would disturb each other. At the end of the conference I asked the teacher about it. The response, if not a literal groan, was certainly a figurative one. The response was diplomatic, to be sure. It is not being loyal to one's school to tell a parent that their school has done something really stupid, but that was the message I got. I think the teacher said something about some inconveniences, like students in the back of the room listening to the other teacher, or listening to a friend at the back of the next class who was not listening to his teacher. But I felt the "metamessage" was clear. Removing classroom walls was a counterproductive fad that must be put up with. I wonder if this teacher might have been thinking to himself, "What was the board of education smoking when they authorized this?"
I have another example, again as a parent. When our youngest was in the eighth grade her school bought into a current educational fad - student led parent teacher conferences. It was no big deal to us. Our daughter was doing well in school and we knew it. But it was a charade. Everyone involved recognized that, my wife and I, the teachers involved, and certainly my daughter. A charade is not good. There needs to be genuine, honest, and open communication between teachers and parents. A rehearsed charade does not qualify. Parent teacher conferences are non-crucial probably 95% of the time. But that other 5% of the time they are a crucial part of parent teacher communication. To sabotage that communication, to replace it with a rehearsed charade, is incomprehensible to me.
Would a real understanding of teaching and learning prevent the propagation of foolish fads such as these? I believe so, at least to some extent.
I have long thought that much of what we learn about human behavior is like learning about the weather. We can’t change the weather, no matter how much we know. But I think there is still a great advantage in understanding the weather. Similarly I think there is a great advantage in understanding teaching and learning, even if it seems sometimes that we can’t do much with that knowledge. And I do not think we are quite as helpless with teaching as we are with the weather. A good understanding of teaching and learning will make for better teaching. It may not be much better than good teaching based on intuition and experience, for intuition and experience can go a long way. But a good knowledge of teaching and learning, an explicit and verbalized knowledge, could go a long way toward avoiding and neutralizing the educational fads that keep coming along.
Is teaching really an extremely difficult and complex job, as Labaree claims? Yes and no, but mostly no. It is difficult in ways. It is tedious in ways. Doing a good job at teaching, like just about everything else, requires careful attention to details. That, in my experience, means grading a lot of papers, and that is usually tedious and sometimes difficult. Doing a good job at teaching also means giving careful thought to what to do next in a course. "Lesson plans" as taught in education courses are not really a part of teaching for most teachers, but giving careful thought to the next day's lesson is. Good teachers plan carefully, but not in any way that is taught in ed school. 31 Good teachers do a lot of things with very little help from ed school.
How should we deal with the ed school believers? This is not an idle question. They are among us. They have teaching jobs at all levels. Many of us deal with them everyday. What should be our response to them? More specifically, should we remain silent and let it be assumed that we give full faith and credit to their education degrees? Or should we let it be known, at least at times when the occasion arises, that we do not give full faith and credit to their education degrees?
This is not an idle question, as I have stated, but it is also not an everyday problem. Most of us do not go around looking for people with education degrees to harass. We can work with ed school people everyday for years and never discuss degrees and their relative status, just as we can coexist with people with whom we strongly disagree politically or religiously and never discuss politics or religion. But their are times when events or circumstances force the issue.
I remember a math department meeting a few years back where there was friction between the "math people" and the "math ed people". I can't describe the issue in detail, but I believe the basic situation was that the budget was being discussed. The math ed people were not quite getting the funding to staff their math ed lab for the hours they had planned on. There was a bit of a budget crunch at that particular time, as I recall, but this sort of thing can probably come up at any time. The discussion was civil, but a bit tense.
Perhaps others would have a different take on this meeting, but my interpretation was that clearly it was a status struggle. The math ed people were on the defensive. Ostensibly they were simply disappointed about expected funding. But I felt they were more than disappointed in the funding. I felt they were taking it as a blow to math ed, that math ed was not being given proper respect.
So the question is this: What is proper respect for math ed, or for education degrees in general? I'm not sure, but I do feel strongly that a masters degree in math education should not have the same status as a masters degree in math. This is personal to me. In the mid 1990's, when I was in my mid fifties, I decided to try to get my career going again by going back to graduate school for a masters degree in math, which I managed to do, graduating in 2001. I felt teaching college math would be something I would be good at, and something I would very much enjoy. It didn't take too much thought for me to decide I definitely did not want a math ed degree. There were two rather strong reasons for this.
First I wanted the full status of a masters degree, not diluted in any way. Call me a shallow thinking status seeker if you will, but that's what I wanted. Status is important.
The second reason is perhaps even more important. I did not want to take any education courses. I did not want to sit in a class and listen to a professor drone on about ideas that I thought were shallow fads, unrealistic and unworkable. What would I do, sit in silence and pretend I agree, or risk disagreeing explicitly? The professor might or might not respect my disagreements, but he or she would not let me hijack the class. Expression of my disagreements would be limited, even under the most tolerant professor, for that professor would feel a plain professional duty to teach his or her ideas, not mine. Expression of my disagreements would also be limited because it takes a great deal of time and thought to put my disagreements into words. It would be a frustrating experience.
I'm no genius in math. When I started graduate school I put my chances of getting the masters degree at about 50%. I know some people will pursue a math ed degree because they feel it would be easier than a straight math degree. But there is no doubt that for me a math ed degree would be hard and painful. It would take a miracle for the experience to be anything less than a frustrating ordeal to me. And under the worst of conditions I would not pass the ed courses and that would derail my degree plans.
I also felt, at this stage of my life, that my chances of getting a job after graduation would be increased by having a pure math degree, rather than a math ed degree. I assumed not only that a education degree should have lesser status, but that indeed it would have lesser status. All my life I have assumed that education courses are put out of the mind after the final examination, as common sense always indicated they should be. That had always been the conventional wisdom. Common sense had always won out over ideology in the past, so I assumed that would continue to be the case, and therefore a pure math degree is the obvious choice for me.
But it appears that things have changed while I was growing older and away from schools and math. The typical position announcement by a college seeking a math teacher with a masters degree will say something like "masters in mathematics or math ed with at least 24 hours in math". Doesn't this mean that the basic idea of a masters degree is getting diluted? Is that good? I don't want to be a snob. Indeed, I would be glad if colleges would just hire the person who knows the subject and can do the job, whether he or she has a doctorate or an eighth grade diploma. And I would certainly be glad if teacher certification requirements were abolished. But it bothers me that a masters degree consisting of only 18, or maybe 24, semester hours math is deemed equivalent to a degree of 30 or 35 hours of math. I'm no genius in math, and I know it. There are plenty of smart people with math education degrees who know more math and know it better than I do, even though I might have a few more hours of math. But I do consider it obvious that on average a math ed degree is a considerably weaker degree that just a math degree.
And I also know that a lot of math professors bite their tongue trying to be polite and thereby give silent assent to the equal value of a math ed degree. I am certainly not alone in not wanting to equate a math degree and a math ed degree.
There is an issue more important than which degree is personally best for me. There are "math wars" going on in America, and there are very good reasons for them. The national Council Of Teachers Of Mathematics published their "Standards" in 1989, and revised them in 2000. They call for math teaching that is very much in the tradition of progressivism. But there has been a rather massive rebellion. There are parent groups in many localities that were formed in response to frustration caused by the math instruction their children are receiving. California has had an interesting math war history in recent years. 32
When discussions of the math wars are civil the question of respect for education degrees can be avoided, but perhaps not completely. I can say that "Everyday Math" is not a series of textbooks that ought to be used, for the simple reason that there are better ones available. An opponent can disagree, and say that Everyday Math is good, it ought to be used. But the deeper the discussion gets the more we are likely to meet up with the issue of the lack of substance in education courses, and my resulting lack of respect for education degrees. My opponent at some point might want to say something to the effect of "Well, I have a degree in math education, so I'm the expert, Everyday Math is the best!". Then what am I to say? My opponent, in my view, has no claim at all to being an expert in math education. Can I say that? Is that failing to show respect for her? It's true that I do not really respect her degree. But there is such a thing as "ritual fiction". Many people feel their religion is the only true one, but everyday many, many people avoid saying so, and with very good reason. It really seems to me the same thing when I talk with a math teacher on the other side of the math wars. She thinks she is right. I think her ideas on math teaching are more religious than intellectual. But there is a difference between a disagreement on religion and a disagreement on math education. If I show a polite respect for my opponent's math ed degree, then I tend to lose the argument. That is not true when to subject is religion. No one interprets restraint as acquiescence when the topic is religion. But in discussion of almost any other topic that is not the case. Of course no one wins the argument in a discussion, but I'm thinking in a larger sense than just a discussion between two people. How can we stand up for good math instruction if we are always polite and let education degrees be given status that we do not believe they deserve?
Education professors are not bad people. I can't say that I have ever known any very well, but I've had a bit of contact with "math ed" people. I don't want to put down their ideas or their religion. But they will put down mine, and they have on a few occasions. They very quickly jump to the old claim that until recently teachers taught by "rote memorization". If we are always polite, where does all this lead?
What strategy is best for the long term interests of society? In writing this article I am obviously saying that an attack on ed school is a good thing to do. I have tried my best to make it an thoughtful and reasonable attack. I have tried to present ideas, ideas that will stand on their own. And my website is full of ideas about teaching and learning, ideas which I consider are worthy of careful attention. But they are ideas tested only by my personal experience, and logic.
So as for the dilemma, what should we say about and to ed school graduates, or ed school believers, I have no final answers.
What should be done about ed schools? Should they be abolished? I don’t think there would be much lost if they were, but that is not realistic. I do believe, and have always believed, that the abolition of all certification requirements would be a good thing, but the effect would not be dramatic. If principals and superintendents were free to hire anyone who they thought could do the job, not a whole lot would change. Education courses, if not legally required, would still be seen by school administrators as desirable, if only as evidence of a commitment to teaching. But there are many educated people who would consider teaching if they didn’t have to take education courses. Some of these people would be good teachers and some would be poor teachers. Some of the good ones, and some of the bad ones, would decide after a year or so to leave the classroom to move on. I think the net result would definitely be positive for schools and society in general, but the difference would not be great. As I have mentioned before, I believe most people become good teachers, or not, based on their subject matter knowledge, their communication skills, and their social skills. I don’t think the presence or absence of education courses has ever changed this much.
But I don’t want education schools to disappear. I want them to change. I want them to throw out progressivism as an ideological basis. Progressivism should be kept only as a philosophical and historical experiment, an experiment that has largely failed. There is much to be learned from the failures of the past, and this includes progressivism.
What should take the place of progressivism? In one word I would answer research - but with reservations. I’m not sure that teaching should be thought of as a science. But there definitely is an important place for a scientific perspective. In developing a science researchers must first look at what is, not what should be. Throw out the ideology, and replace it with inquiry.
I admit to not knowing much about educational research. Of course I never had much time to devote to looking for educational research, but I have tried to learn a little. Off and on throughout my life I have decided to dig in and find out what it’s all about. I never got very far. Of course most of these efforts were before the time of the internet. I would go to a college library and browse the shelves of educational works. With enough browsing, I thought, something would be interesting enough to stick with for a while, and that would lead to something else. Surely I would make some progress. But that never seemed to happen.
I think it was at least fifteen years ago, perhaps twenty, that I decided subscribing to an educational journal or two might give me something to build on. I subscribed to the Education Digest for several years. It was with some eagerness that I welcomed its arrival every month. But after perhaps a year or so I realized that there would be one thing, and only one, in each issue that I could count on to be interesting. That was Dudley Barlow’s column, which he titled “The Teacher’s Lounge”. All the rest I might scan out of a sense of duty, or I might not. There was not much of interest to me.
Why should I draw a complete blank on educational research? I do have a degree in education after all, a B. S. in Ed. from the College of Education at the University of Missouri in 1964. I took the regular sequence of education courses in both math and music. I should know something about education. And I should know something about educational research.
Things should be a lot easier now. I can just browse on the internet and find things of interest, which will lead to things of consequence. I’ve made a half hearted effort or two, but nothing came of it.
My days of browsing the shelves in the education section of college libraries did produce one very important book, Left Back, by Diane Ravitch, that I have mentioned many times already. But that is history, not theory. My browsing on the internet produced some websites of interest, some of which have been valuable resource on the math wars. But I’ve never gotten so much as a toe hold on educational research.
Here's an interesting quote. The author is talking about Jeanne Chall, a very respected name in the field of teaching reading.
I was 24, a new Harvard Graduate School of Education student, and fortunate enough to be in Dr. Chall's class during her final year of full-time teaching. I'll never forget that first day of her Reading, Schools, and Social Policy class. She began the class by listing the topics we would discuss throughout the semester. After a few topics, a young woman sitting next to me nodded her head knowingly in response to one of the topics. "What do you think about this?" Dr. Chall inquired, pointing to the now stunned redhead. The student squirmed slightly as she muttered her feelings about the topic and what she thought should be done in schools based on these feelings. Annoyed or amused, I'm not sure which, Dr. Chall quickly interrupted her, "What research do you have to base that on?" she firmly asked. "None," the girl answered slightly embarrassed. The girl began to backpedal like a tourist in a rowboat approaching the Niagara Falls. Dr. Chall's message was received. Whatever we said in (or out of) class had to be supported by solid research. We were never to make statements or decisions based on feelings, unsubstantiated beliefs, or gut reactions to situations. It was a lesson I never forgot. 33
My reaction to this quote was negative. I've never found educational research of any substance, 34 so the idea that one could speak only on the basis of research doesn't make much sense. When the author of this quote calls himself a "new Harvard Graduate School of Education student" I envision a beginning class in educational research, and would therefore consist of people without extensive knowledge of educational research, but maybe I have the wrong context in mind. Perhaps you are supposed to know all about educational research as a prerequisite to being in that class. If that is the case then it makes a lot more sense.
But I still have my reservations. If we are to base every opinion on research then we must have good research. I don’t think we do, as I will try to explain.
In my book I talk about "chunk theory" 35 This is my own term. It refers to the idea that a subject can be delivered to students in big chunks or little chunks. So a "chunk" must be defined in some way, such as the amount of information delivered before feedback from the learners is elicited. Then one may ask what the optimum size of a chunk would be. Big chunks have some advantages and some disadvantages. What are they? Little chunks have some advantages and some disadvantages. What are they? What are ways to make chunks bigger or smaller? How can you tell if chunks are too big or too little? I use the term "texture" to indicate the size of chunks. Small chunks of knowledge make a fine texture. Big chunks of knowledge make a coarse texture. What is the ideal texture? What do we look for in the learners to tell us? How does ideal texture relate to the age of the students, or their abilities?
A closely related term and idea, which I consider very important, is "intensity of mental effort". I develop that idea in my book. 36 Superficially at least, I argue that when the intensity of mental effort required of a certain activity is high, then chunks should be small in compensation.
I think it is true that most everything I have said in the last two paragraphs is not much more than a matter of vocabulary, or of language. The ideas are not difficult, but I think they are very worthwhile, and they need the verbal equipment to express and analyze them. Previously I said that good teachers are no good at explaining what they do. They lack the vocabulary, and that is illustrated here. One thing that good teachers do is get texture right. They are intuitively aware of intensity of mental effort, though for some reason it does not occur to them to conceptualize and analyze it. They teach in accordance to this awareness. But without the vocabulary to conceptualize these things, or to discuss them, they are very limited in passing on this awareness to the rest of us.
Now where does research fit into all this? I presume there is no research on chunk theory, texture, or intensity of mental effort. I presume there is no research on these ideas because these ideas are not in teachers' minds. They were not introduced to me in any education course. If people are not explicitly aware of these things, and have a vocabulary to discuss them, they will not do research on them. How could they?
One can argue that these ideas are addressed in the educational literature. If one digs through the NCTM's "Standards" closely enough one can come up with some quote that relates to these ideas, and thereby claim that the writers of the Standards knew these things. But I think that is exaggeration. A good teacher may be aware when the class is on the edge of frustration because of sustained high intensity of mental effort, perhaps from drilling just a bit too long on multiplication, and may react accordingly. That would mean the concepts are in the teacher's mind operationally, or intuitively. But that does not at all mean the concepts are in his or her mind definitionally, or expressly. Without knowing these concepts well that teacher does not have the vocabulary to explain his or her teaching. No ideas like these were used in any education course that I ever took. It is not just vocabulary that was missing, the ideas were missing. The ideas were missing because we never, in any education course I took, got very close to the reality of classroom teaching. Ideals, apparently, were enough.
Once ideas such as these are conceptualized and verbalized, then they can be the subject of research, but not until. Therefore the ideal that we should base our pedagogical thinking, and limit our thinking, to what is already in the research does not sit well with me. My sympathies are with the redhead in the above quote, not with Dr. Chall.
But I do not wish to downplay Chall's accomplishments in any way. I am not familiar with her writings, other than that she investigated the teaching of reading and concluded that phonics are important. I do intend to read her books. In fact I think that is next on my list. From what I do know I would argue that Chall's research on reading confirmed common sense. She gave the support of careful research to the common sense conclusion that phonics is needed in learning to read, and that is very important. Good teachers, I would argue, have always known intuitively that phonics, in one form or another, must be taught as a part of teaching reading. And I have argued 37 that good teachers have always done so. Only in ed school, I suspect, would this come as a surprise.
I would argue that in most teaching situations a medium texture is the ideal. Common sense would indicate that if the texture is too coarse or too fine, then the learners suffer. But I have no research to back this up. And there never will be any research until the ideas about chunks and texture enter the minds of teachers and researchers. But does that make the ideas of chunk theory and texture, and especially intensity of mental effort, unimportant? I think these ideas are important, and need research to validate them. There might be some surprises in such research. There might be conclusions that I have made on the basis of common sense that are wrong. But we'll never know until the research comes in. And the research won't come in until the ideas are commonly known and given careful consideration.
As another example, the terms "operational" versus "definitional" are very important. I used them in the previous paragraphs, and I hope they had some meaning. I consider them important enough to devote a whole chapter to them in my book. 38 But what does the research say? I presume it says nothing, absolutely nothing. The concepts these terms refer to are not complicated, but they do take some explaining and thinking about. The ideas referred to by these terms certainly should lead to research, But the research won’t be done until the terms are meaningful to teachers and researchers.
We teach the "scientific method" early and often in American education. Or at least that has been my experience. But, as I have argued in my article “Rules And Methods Of Science”, 39 this usually means contrived experimentation. This is very important, and the basis of most physical and biological sciences, but contrived experimentation is only one method of science. Contrived experimentation in education will be meaningful and useful only after there is a solid basis in simple and accurate and complete description, followed by analysis and the formulation of hypotheses which can be tested. Only then will contrived experimentation be productive. Education, in my humble opinion, has not even gotten to the description stage, so how can there be analysis and hypotheses, or experiments? If we have to back up everything we say about education with research, we are seriously limiting ourselves. Educational research will never be good until we have some good thinking to base it on.
Here is an issue that is often on my mind as a math teacher, and which may or may not be susceptible to research. Every math test is, to one degree or another, an intelligence test. This would have to be true to some extent in any field, but it seems to me it is more important in math than in any other field. When I make out a math test I often wonder, "Does this problem test knowledge, or does it test intelligence? Sometimes the answer is obvious. Often it is not. I want the students who study diligently and are of average ability to be able to do the problems. I don't want any "trick questions" on the test. I want math to yield to effort. I do not want to give an intelligence test and award grades on that basis. But this is nearly always a subjective judgment. So what does research say about this? Indeed, what can research say about it? If it will always be a subjective judgment whether or not a particular problem depends too heavily on intelligence and too lightly on knowledge, then I'm not sure research can say anything. If it's more of a philosophical question than a concrete question, research, in the usual sense of a contrived study, may not of much help. But it is still a question that merits careful thought, philosophical if not scientific.
But, perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps the question can be made into a proper subject for research. But if that is the case we still have to think about it first. But I have never heard or read anything about the proper balance of intelligence versus knowledge in math testing.
So it is in this frame of mind that I find the above quote by Wiley Blevins jarring. And it is in this frame of mind that I have reservations in saying that research should take the place of the ideology of progressivism in ed school. Ideology should certainly be dumped. Inquiry, analysis, and research should take its place. But the research of the past, whatever it is, may not be up to the task.
So what is the fix for ed school? Here is my answer: First, abolish certification requirements. Then education courses will have to stand alone in a free market of ideas. Their exchange value will go to zero, and they will have to develop some actual use value. And second, read everything I have written about education, and take it from there.
1. I feel I am a victim of this. I will not go into this situation here, as it is a long story that cannot be made short, but I have written about it elsewhere. See NDSU Math, on my website, brianrude.com http://www.brianrude.com/nds-mth.htm back to text
2. Labaree, David F., The Trouble With Ed Schools, Yale University Press, 2004, ISBN030011978x back to text
3. Tactics And Strategies Of Classroom Discipline was published in 1979 by Exposition press, which is a subsidy publisher, which means I paid for it. It sold poorly, probably less then a hundred copies in total. The entire book is on my web site, brianrude.com. http://www.brianrude.com/Dconten.htm Also on my website is an article I wrote on the experience, My Encounter With Subsidy Publishing. http://www.brianrude.com/encou.htm back to text
4. Operational Versus Definitional Processes Of Concept Formation, Chapter 13 in my book on my website. http://www.brianrude.com/Tchap13.htm back to text
5. Much of it as a book, the table of contents, with links to chapters is at http://www.brianrude.com/Conten.htm back to text
6. What could be more basic to teaching and learning than practice? Surely teachers know all about it. But does ed school know about practice? The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in 1989 and again in 2000 published their "Standards", which discusses a number of principles of teaching mathematics. However they do not have a principle of practice. I regard this as a serious omission, and I made this omision an important point in my article "Some Disagreements With The Standards", which I wrote in 2003. http://www.brianrude.com/disagr.htmI naively thought the Mathematics Teacher, published by the National Council Of Teachers Of Mathematics, would be interested in this, but of course they rejected it. I wrote another article discussing this rejection. http://www.brianrude.com/disdis.htm back to text
7. Left Back, Diane Ravitch 2000, ISBN 0-7432-0326-7 back to text
8. “Despite Dewey’s gospel of learning by doing, the great philosopher taught by standing in front of his class and lecturing.” Ravitch, Left Back, page 178 back to text
9. The Lack Of Description In The Study Of Education http://www.brianrude.com/lackdes.htm back to text
10. Chapters Two and Five in my book develop the idea of a structure of knowledge. http://www.brianrude.com/Tchap02.htm and http://www.brianrude.com/Tchap05.htm, Chapter six considers what it takes to “dismantle” the structure of knowledge in the teacher’s brain, translate it into a string of words for transport into the students’ brains, and then reassemble it there. http://www.brianrude.com/Tchap06.htm back to text
11. Left Back, page 203 back to text
12. I address the idea in “Let's Do It Together”, http://www.brianrude.com/let's-do.htm, that the appeal of working together is innate in all humans, but to widely differing degrees. “Groupers” have a strong urge to do things together, and this urge has a strong component of designing and reforming society. “Non-groupers” do not have this urge. It is a central thesis in this article that groupers and non-groupers do not understand each other, and that makes for lots of frustrations for all concerned. back to text
13. Jeanne Chall, The Academic Achievement Challenge, 2000. I have not read this book yet, but I certainly plan to, based on its reputation. back to text
14. NDSU Math, previously mentioned, http://www.brianrude.com/nds-mth.htm back to text
15. See chapter two in my book http://www.brianrude.com/Tchap02.htm back to text
16. I discuss attention, and its control and limits, rather extensively in chapters ten and eleven in my book, http://www.brianrude.com/Tchap10.htm, and http://www.brianrude.com/Tchap11.htm back to text
17. I encountered this a few times in the group projects we had in North Dakota State U. In two semesters, four courses each semester, averaging two group projects per course per semester, and averaging perhaps twelve groups per class, would mean that I have supervised, and graded the results of, about 200 group projects. Out of those in only a handfull of cases were there complaints of members not carrying their weight, and I remember only one instance where several members of the group were upset about it. However I think that is a bit misleading. I was also impressed early on by the usual pattern when a group would come to my office for help on a project, and this happened many times. In almost every instance after a few minutes I would find that the conversation was almost entirely between me and an informal group leader, the student in the group who was most competent mathematically. The other group members would listen, either attentively or politely, but would talk very little. When the “leader” had figured out what to do, they left. The passivity of most group members impressed me. I cannot say that they were equally passive when the group met among themselves. I would guess it varies quite a bit. The groups were self selected. Friends selected friends. I would guess that when they were approximately equally talented there may have been roughly equal contributions to the project. But I also expect there was much of the opposite. Friends in a math class are usually not equally talented mathematically. I suspect that the work in most groups was very unequal. Friendship, and the desire to get a good grade, which benefited everyone, probably dictated that the capable students did a sharply disproportionate share of the work. This does not prove passivity to be common in group projects, but it lends credence to it, in my opinion. back to text
18. In Chapter 8, The Project Method, of my book on my website, http://www.brianrude.com/Tchap08.htm, I discuss three term papers I wrote in high school. When I wrote this I was not thinking about passivity versus activity, but I think it applies. back to text
19. The Project Method, by William Heard Kilpatrick is available on the web at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/4954/ back to text
20. Labaree, page 17 back to text
21. Labaree page 8 back to text
22. Labaree, page 39 back to text
23. Labaree, page 162 back to text
24. Labaree, page 12 back to text
25. Labaree, page 178 back to text
26. Labaree, page 179 back to text
27. Labaree, page 129 back to text
28. Labaree, page 131 back to text
29. Left Back, discussion of Bobbitt and Charters in chapter 5 back to text
30. Labaree, page 138 back to text
31. I elaborated on this in Chapter One of my book on my website, http://www.brianrude.com/Tchap01.htm back to text
32. . Klein, David, A Quarter Century of US 'Math Wars' And Political Partisanship, California State University, Northridge, CA, on the web at http://www.csun.edu/~vcmth00m/bshm.html back to text
33. AFT Publications American Educator Spring 2001, "Jeanne Chall, A Memory", Wiley Blevins http://www.aft.org/pubs-reports/american_educator/spring2001/chall.html back to text
34. The studies by Goodlad and Cohen that I quoted earlier perhaps are an exception. I certainly hope so. back to text
35. chunk theory is in Chapter Six in my book, http://www.brianrude.com/Tchap06.htm back to text
36. intensity of mental effort is in Chapter Six in my book, http://www.brianrude.com/Tchap06.htmback to text
37. teaching of reading, response levels of learning, Chapter Fourteen in my book, http://www.brianrude.com/Tchap14.htmback to text
38. Operational Versus Definitional Processes Of Concept Formation, Chapter 13 in my book on my website. http://www.brianrude.com/Tchap13.htm back to text
39. Rules and Methods of Science, on my website, http://www.brianrude.com/sci-mt.htm back to text