Books: Teaching In Harmony

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THE EDUCATED MIND: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding, by Kieran Egan. (University of Chicago, $24.95.) Generations of good teachers have been haunted by the fear that, despite their best efforts, they are somehow leading their students astray. Egan, a professor of education at Simon Fraser University in Canada, argues that teachers feel this way because they are working under the influence of three long-dominant ideas that are hopelessly in conflict. The first is the belief that schools should socialize students, that they have an obligation to get kids to "fit in," to bring them into alignment with cultural norms. The second is that schools should cultivate the intellect, that they should transmit specified knowledge and skills that will enable students to pursue "the truth." The final idea, first developed by Rousseau and long espoused by progressives, is that schools should nurture the unfolding individual interests of eager students. So how does the teacher stay afloat in this stream of educational cross-currents? Not very well, Egan suggests. Progressive teachers, for all the fun students may have in their project-oriented classrooms, worry about not exposing students to certain kinds of basic knowledge. And while traditional teachers may see themselves as keepers of civilization, they privately worry that their lessons are boring students to death. What we should do, Egan argues, is replace these old contradictory ideas about education with an altogether different approach to teaching--one that harmonizes instruction with the ways children at various ages understand the world. Teachers of students in the very early grades, for example, should emphasize what Egan calls "mythic understanding," engaging children in tales that draw on their capacity for metaphoric and imaginative thinking. Teachers of 9- and 10-year-olds should promote "romantic understanding" because children at this age tend to be captivated by the exotic and sensational; Egan suggests that they teach history by focusing on the great deeds of men and women and that they teach geography by focusing on the adventures of early explorers. As students enter adolescence, Egan argues, teachers should bring them into the more philosophic mode of understanding, encouraging them to examine the general principles that guide the lives of, say, scientists, politicians, and artists. Egan's admittedly heady scheme will strike some as a bit out there. But the essence of Egan's ideas have long been put into practice at Waldorf schools worldwide--a fact he curiously ignores. At these schools, education begins in the elementary grades with a focus on mythic storytelling and ends in high school with philosophical reflection. Rich and sensible as Egan's ideas may be, the limited success of Waldorf schools in America suggests that it will be a long time before they win even grudging acceptance.

MADE IN AMERICA: Immigrant Students in Our Public Schools, by Laurie Olsen. (The New Press, $25.) Once virtually all-white, "Madison High," a pseudonym for a prototypical California high school, is now a mixture of white, black, Asian, and Hispanic students, some 20 percent of them immigrants. Olsen, who is the director of a California advocacy organization that helps schools be more responsive to diversity, spent more than two years at Madison, observing and interviewing just about everyone. The administration and faculty, she writes, talk a lot about "celebrating diversity" and insist that all students at Madison are respected and treated equally. But their claims ring hollow in light of the evidence Olsen presents. Students rarely mingle with those of other races. Newcomers with limited English are placed into mainstream classes in which they are hopelessly lost. And older teachers tend to approach their young, more liberal colleagues with latent hostility. Even more insidious is the fact that students tracked into remedial classes have virtually no chance of escaping. Olsen's message is clear: Celebrating diversity is fine, but it's no substitute for giving all students a real chance at school success.

ACTION RESEARCH ON BLOCK SCHEDULING, By David Marshak. (Eye on Education, $39.95.) Over the past decade, a number of high schools have done away with the traditional seven-course-a-day timetable, turning instead to a schedule in which classes meet only two or three times a week but for up to 100 minutes a session. Although this so-called block scheduling has become increasingly popular, there is little research to date on its effectiveness. In this volume, teachers from seven high schools in Washington state report on block scheduling in their own schools. Their observations, while far from comprehensive, offer a clear picture of how the schedule works and what's good and bad about it. Most of the teachers prefer the longer classes, believing that the additional time enables students to explore subjects in depth. Teachers are able to provide a greater variety of classroom activities, which also keeps students more engaged. In fact, block scheduling, the teachers here suggest, almost compels teachers to try new approaches; those who stick with chalk-and-talk over a two-hour period are dead in the water. The volume does, however, raise several possible deterrents to the widespread implementation of block scheduling. Many math, music, and foreign language teachers believe students need daily contact with their subjects; two or three times a week just isn't enough. And teachers of "at risk" students worry about not being able to keep tabs on their charges from one day to the next. Copies of this book are available from Eye on Education, 6 Depot Way W., Suite 106, Larchmont, NY 10538; (914) 833-0551.

--David Ruenzel

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