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Fluff and Nonsense

By Nancy Flanagan — February 07, 2010 3 min read
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Over at the Core Knowledge Blog, they’re having a fine old time skewering Susan Engel, whose Playing to Learn appeared in the New York Times last week. Engel took an informed stand for a constructivist approach to learning--teaching kids to read, write and compute by letting them do lots of reading, writing and computing. She paints an appealing picture of a friendly, bean-bag kind of classroom where kids pursue engaging, collaborative and productive activities that seamlessly lead to skilled, well-rounded citizens.

When I first read Engel’s idealistic description (and it’s been linked all over Teacher World--with lots of teachers endorsing every word), I thought it was a bit too glowing for prime time policy discussion. It isn’t that I’ve never been in elementary classrooms like the one Engels describes; I have--and am well aware of the enormous complexity of building the knowledge -skills base needed before students can spend hours each day journaling, editing, conferencing, creating games, analyzing data or having in-depth discussions about their favorite books. Not to mention the difficulty of fostering an environment where students expect to make their own decisions around learning, and can do that without going seriously off-track after about four minutes.

But--as with many things in life, just because these models are tough to do well doesn’t mean we should never encourage discovery, inquiry or project-based learning. After all, lots of direct instruction (teacher explains/kids listen/tests measure recall) doesn’t stick to student brains, after the all-important quiz. Genuine content mastery depends on use--the things we’re good at, and understand deeply as adults, comes from “content” we’ve applied and practiced, in a variety of ways. To paraphrase Paul Simon--when I think back on all the disconnected stuff I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all...

Why should we be working toward incorporating more real-life tasks, carefully structured group work and multidisciplinary projects in our classrooms? For one thing, the countries that are eating our lunch in those international tests use them--and their assessments reflect the higher-level thinking skills involved, too. And because well-done inquiry learning is centered on, reinforces and integrates the acquisition of useful knowledge. Ironically, many homeschoolers take their children out of public schools so they can adopt wholesale progressivism: long-term projects, lots of field trips, passionate pursuit of individual interests.

So why do some people insist--obstinately persevere in asserting--that project-based learning is fluff? That inquiry is an “ed school orthodoxy?” That discovery learning has nothing in common with a rich, planned curriculum? Some possibilities:

• They are confusing disciplinary content with instructional methods.
• They don’t believe other people’s children are able to construct viable knowledge through interaction with materials or texts; since public schools have become the place “those kids” attend, it’s best to stick to narrow, rudimentary and unidirectional teaching.
• They miss tracking, where the brightest and most motivated students learn no matter how excruciatingly dull the lessons.
• They fear a loss of teacher “control” over learning.
• They can’t resist the urge to beat up on ed schools--believing good teaching is really about being gritty, smart and with-it, rather than developing instructional tools and competencies.
• They have never seen it done well, and prefer the devil they know--direct instruction--to the devil that sounds like Dewey.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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