'Different Drummers' and Teacher Training: Who Is Out of Step With Whom?

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Public Agenda's survey found that there is a disconnection between the views of those education professors and the concerns expressed by parents, teachers, and students.

In October, the influential, nonpartisan opinion-research group Public Agenda released a report entitled "Different Drummers: How Teachers of Teachers View Public Education," recounting the results of a survey of the professional opinions of a sampling of this country's "professors of education." ("Professors' Attitudes Out of Sync, Study Finds," Oct. 29, 1997.)

The survey found, according to Public Agenda, that there is an "often staggering" disconnection between the views of those education professors and the concerns expressed by parents, teachers, and students in previous Public Agenda surveys. In those surveys, the public at large said it wants a "time-honored approach: Teach students how to read and write; help them master grammar and spelling; teach them to calculate; give them the story of their country's history; and help them develop diligence and self-discipline. And while they're at it, passing on a few manners wouldn't hurt."

The professors, on the other hand and according to the survey, advocate "new strategies better suited to a rapidly changing world," including "emphasizing problem-solving exercises; critical-thinking skills; the use of the Internet and other tools to find and process information; teaching students to work in groups; and, perhaps most important, teaching children to 'learn how to learn.'"

The report goes on to conclude that "this idealism" on the part of the professors exhibits "a kind of rarefied blindness" to the concerns of the public, parents, classroom teachers, business leaders, education reformers, and even students themselves. It is a blindness, the report says, "that glorifies the ideal, quite ignoring the possible or the useful."

While giving all due credit to the sincerity of Public Agenda's aim here and to its twin statements that almost everyone, most obviously including the professors, would be in favor of an approach to teaching that will "nurture inquiring, curious minds that are open to new information, capable of solving problems, and respectful of different points of view" and that the "love of learning" is a worthy goal, the only possible reaction to the group's interpretation of the survey's "findings," I'm afraid, is one of grim outrage.

A rarefied blindness? On whose part? And who precisely is out of step with whom here?

Rather than simply a blindness on the part of professors of education, what we have here is clear evidence of massive and lamentable failure of communication between the general public and the scholars in our colleges and universities and professors in schools of education. It is a failure that results in an equally massive and lamentable ignorance on the part of large segments (but by no means all) of that great American public about the considerable amount of evidence accumulated by many cognitive and developmental researchers and many field practitioners over the past 75 or so years about how children and young people go about learning anything at all and therefore how we might best go about the task of educating those children and young people for life in the 21st century.

The evidence assembled by these researchers and practitioners, including such people as Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, Lev Vygotsky, Howard Gardner, Seymour Sarason, Roger Schank, Seymour Papert, James Comer, Robert Sternberg, Robert Slavin, John Dewey, Nel Noddings, Jane Roland Martin, Maxine Greene, the four authors of Women's Ways of Knowing, Theodore Sizer, Linda Darling-Hammond, Deborah Meier, Jonathan Kozol, and occasionally Lauren Resnick, strongly supports the idea that our present system of public education--indeed, our Western system of education throughout most of its history--has been based on a quite incorrect view of human development and learning.

That obsolete view treats children as empty vessels into which teachers and schools must pour some predetermined amount of knowledge and into which they should instill a particular set of mental skills, basic or otherwise. But research now clearly shows that children and young people from birth onwards are not empty vessels, but complex biological organisms engaged in an intricate process of intellectual and emotional development, an elaborate interaction between the child's unfolding mental abilities and the child's surrounding environment.

What our traditional, information-transmission mode of schooling has studiously ignored is the fact that while we in the schools think we are "teaching" our students all that wonderful subject matter and those fundamental skills in our orderly and disciplined classrooms, it is the student, with his or her developing intellectual apparatus, that is doing or failing to do the learning. No matter how hard we may try, if what we are trying to teach is not appropriate to any child's particular stage of development or if it is presented in a way that fails to connect with the student's present state of curiosity and interest, the student is not going to learn it, any more than the patient with cancer is going to get well by being given a purgative or by the application of leeches.

Children, from birth onwards are not empty vessels, but complex biological organisms engaged in an intricate process of intellectual and emotional development.

As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Kevin Rathunde, and Samuel Walen put it in their book, Talented Teenagers: "The problem with our technologically inspired view of education is that we have come to expect learning to be a function of the rationality of the information provided. In other words, we assume that if the material is well organized and logically presented, students will learn it. Nothing is further from the fact. Students will learn only if they are motivated. The motivation could be extrinsic--the desire to get a well-paying job after graduation--but learning essential to a person's self must be intrinsically rewarding. Unless a person enjoys the pursuit of knowledge, learning will remain a tool to be set aside as soon as it is no longer needed. Therefore we cannot expect our children to become truly educated until we ensure that teachers know not only how to provide information but how to spark the joy of learning."

The broad educational paradigm that has resulted from our 75 years of scientific research, one that is precisely in line with what Western society needs as we move into the mysterious next century, is probably best set forth by Piaget himself:

"The principal goal of education is to create men [and women] who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done--[people] who are creative, inventive, discoverers.

"The second goal of education is to form minds which can be critical, can verify and not accept everything they are offered. The great danger today is of slogans, collective opinions, ready-made trends of thought. We have to be able to resist individually, to criticize, to distinguish between what is proven and what is not. So we need pupils who are active, who learn early to find out by themselves, partly by their own spontaneous activity and partly through materials we set up for them, who learn early to tell what is verifiable and what is simply the first idea to come to them."

Indeed, it is possible to say here that our reigning idea that students must be taught a well-ordered series of grade-by-grade pieces of "a core body of knowledge" and a grade-by-grade set of reading, writing, and mathematical skills, all determined by us adults without reference to what is or is not going on in the heads of our students--without reference, for instance, to what might be of greatest concern to them and what they would be most ready to learn and be interested in learning--is an enterprise that is doomed to only minimal success. Which, of course, is precisely what has been the case throughout this century and throughout most of Western history.

As the Harvard University cognitive scientist Howard Gardner has put it: "The single most important contribution education can make to a child's development is to help him toward a field where his talents best suit him, where he will be satisfied and competent. We've completely lost sight of that. Instead, we subject everyone to an education where, if you succeed, you will be best suited to be a college professor. And we evaluate everyone according to whether they meet that narrow standard of success.

"We should spend less time ranking children and more time helping them identify their natural competencies and gifts and cultivate those," Mr. Gardner continues. "There are hundreds and hundreds of ways to succeed and many different abilities that will help you get there."

So yes, there is a profound disconnection here between what professors of education and our cognitive and developmental scientists believe they know and what not only the public at large but most politicians and educational policymakers think we should have as a system of public schooling. And the clearest evidence of that disastrous disconnection is the current national "standards based"/Goals 2000 reform juggernaut that was launched in 1983 with the publication of A Nation at Risk.

Since then, we have seen three national education summits, the creation of eight national education goals, the creation of "voluntary" national academic standards in all of the conventional subject-matter disciplines spelling out "what all students should know and be able to do at each grade level" (thus constituting a de facto national curriculum), and all across the country the setting of mandatory state curricula and high-stakes tests based on those standards. The tyrannical hand of traditional authoritarianism has descended on our schools with a vengeance.

The one note of hope in this otherwise bleak picture is the contrary movement presently abroad in the land, the thoroughly democratic and therefore anti-authoritarian, bottom-up movement toward the radical decentralization of our school systems down to the level of the individual public school.

It is important to remember that in any truly democratic society that it cannot be the job of the federal or state govenments or even local school boards to impose a single way of educating children.

This powerful idea of decentralization, of individual school autonomy accompanied by public school choice on the part of both parents and professional staff, has over the past several years created a national groundswell in favor of either breaking up or in some cases simply end-running our inflexible and therefore immobilized authoritarian, centralized school systems. It is a groundswell that is supported by a growing proportion of that general public of "parents, classroom teachers, business leaders, education reformers, and even students themselves."

It is also a groundswell that has created three national movements, two of them specifically designed as end runs. One of these is the push for vouchers that would allow parents to send their children to either the public or private schools of their choice. The other is the movement to create charter schools, public schools responsible not to a local school district but to the state.

The third movement, however, is directly aimed at creating a radically different organizational structure for our local school systems. This is the movement to create what are often called "in-district charter" or "pilot schools," in most cases new, small schools that are created by or in collaboration with the local district authorities and blessed with the same kind of genuine philosophical, curricular, staffing, and fiscal autonomy presumably enjoyed by the state-chartered schools.

It is important here to remember that in any truly democratic society, and therefore any truly democratic system of public education, it cannot be the job of the federal or state governments or even local school boards to impose, as we have done in the past, a single, one and only way of educating children on all teachers, all parents, and all students. The racial, ethnic, and sexual diversity of our student population and the enormous range of talents and interests of those students render any such arrangement manifestly counterproductive educationally. In addition, and contrary to Public Agenda's belief that the public at large wants only traditional schools, when parents are asked to spell out the kinds of schools they want for their children and teachers are asked to spell out the kinds of schooling they wish to practice, both groups come up not with a single kind of schooling but a wide diversity of different kinds of schools, ranging from traditional to quite innovative and progressive--that is, precisely those schools favored by the professors of education.

So what we need in our local school systems is a similar diversity of schools, with the in-district pilots being a good example of how to get such a diversity started. Some of these pilot schools are (or will be) traditional, highly academic schools. Others--and perhaps the great majority of them--will or certainly could be creative explorations into new and better ways to educate children and young people, with some of these being solidly and permanently in the "progressive" camp. But all of them--or so the theory goes--are or will be relatively small, autonomous schools with high intellectual standards and accountability processes set by the schools themselves, schools desired by, created by, and then freely chosen by teachers, parents, and students.

Once that diversity is in place, we can then call upon Darwinian cultural selection to work its magic, with those schools that are successfully preparing children and young people for life in the coming century allowed naturally to reproduce by being cloned, and unsuccessful schools allowed naturally to die out through not being chosen by parents and professional staff. I have a strong hunch that those that will prove to be the fittest and will therefore survive this process of cultural selection will be those progressive schools favored by the professors and scholars.

Two school systems, those of New York City and Boston, are currently in the vanguard of this movement. In New York, the movement has been spearheaded over the past two decades in East Harlem's Community School District 4 by, among others, Anthony Alvarado, Seymour Fliegel, and Deborah Meier, the founder of the famed Central Park East Schools and most recently of the independent Center for Collaborative Education, designed to spread the creation of such schools systemwide. With the active collaboration of the center, the system's central bureaucracy, the United Federation of Teachers, and outside agencies such as New Visions for Public Schools, some 100 new, small, theoretically autonomous "alternative" schools are now scattered throughout the city. These are schools that serve the full range of students and have high standards of intellectual attainment and strict codes of student behavior. (The state of New York has no charter school legislation, so there are no charter schools in New York City.)

In Boston, there are now 11 small, theoretically autonomous "pilot" schools either in operation or being planned, one of them being a new K-8 school created and run by Ms. Meier herself that opened last September. As in New York, these are schools created by the collaborative efforts of energetic teachers and principals within the system, in collaboration with central-office administrators, the Boston Teachers Union, and various outside agencies.

But in both the New York and Boston cases, there are still serious questions as to whether these schools are now receiving, and/or in the future will actually receive, the freedom and the nurturance they need in order to survive and grow to maturity. And perhaps most importantly, whether they will be allowed to propagate--that is, whether there will be a true devolution of decisionmaking power in these systems down to the level of the individual schools--and include not just these pilot or alternative schools but eventually all schools. Or whether, in the final analysis, the concept of small, autonomous schools will be extended throughout these systems so that every public school in the system--and by extension every school in the country--will in the future be a truly autonomous school created and freely chosen by both parents and every system's professional staff.

If such a system of educational diversity and parent and professional choice could someday become the new national norm, the accepted organizational structure for our public school systems, every American student would then be in a school because his or her parents wanted him or her to receive the distinctive kind and quality of education offered in that school. And each of those students would be taught by teachers who were in that school because they wished to practice that school's particular educational approach.

Given such conditions in our school systems and the philosophical, curricular, staffing, and fiscal autonomy to make it all possible, such a broad diversity of optional schools would constitute that new, truly democratic, and much more successful system of American public schooling many of us are seeking.

Vol. 17, Issue 21, Pages 48-49, 72

Published in Print: February 4, 1998, as 'Different Drummers' and Teacher Training: Who Is Out of Step With Whom?
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