Design for ignorance, part II

Last week, I raised questions about Chesterfield’s proposed “Design for Excellence 2020”, a multi-year plan to change the way our teachers teach and our students learn.

In that first piece, I attempted to sketch the long history of educational initiatives, devised - as they inevitably are - to promote the agendas of upwardly mobile superintendents, ed school professors, and elected politicians.

Everyone, in short, but the overworked, underpaid teachers and principals who constitute education’s front line - and the students in their charge.  

This week, I’ll focus more directly on two principal objections to “Design for Excellence 2020”.  The plan is enormous, with a good many details - most of them wrong-headed - but the entire structure rests  on two central ideas, which suffice to demonstrate the folly of the rest.

The first idea is that all teachers will be retrained to use “blended learning” - a new classroom method in which old-fashioned direct instruction is replaced by a combination of techniques and technologies.

Essentially, in blended learning, students will be expected to do much more learning on their own - working independently or in small groups, and doing research at computer stations.  The teacher will work with small groups, or move about the classroom, serving as a sort of educational cheerleader.

The second idea is that students will no longer study course material as content.  Instead, they will do “projects” which “bring the material alive” by putting it to immediate use in schemes of community service.  

All of which sounds lovely in theory - but presents enormous practical problems.

First, expecting students to learn on their own - through “self-directed” study - normally works only with the most motivated kids.  Indeed, even with top students, “self-directed” study often turns into gossip time.

It’s entirely a matter of motivation.  Consider this metaphor:  If your teenage daughter were in training for the Olympics, and stood a realistic chance of qualifying, it would be relatively easy to get her to eat a healthy diet.  

It would be easy with any teen if green vegetables tasted like french fries.

But persuading a normal kid to eat a healthy diet requires a good deal of effort - and careful supervision.  

Similarly, in school, getting kids to study material which doesn’t interest them is always an uphill battle, demanding active, direct instruction.  

Moreover, we already have decades of experience with “self-directed learning”.  Homework  is “self-directed”.  So are research papers.

In my experience, much homework is done, hastily, sloppily, and at the last minute.  Often, it is quickly copied from another student’s work during homeroom.

Likewise, high school research assignments result, far too often, in  superficially-researched “BS” papers which are painful to read.  

Of course, there are exceptions.  Motivated students and academic superstars eagerly eat their educational “spinach”.  But basing our educational methods on a norm of “self-directed learning” presupposes levels of curiosity and academic dedication rare among public school students.

As for “project-based learning”, I would offer one example presented at the school board’s work session:

A high school biology teacher notices that some students seem bored with the study of viruses - while others are absent owing to a flu outbreak.  He decides to scrap direct instruction and encourage his students to research how flu viruses spread - and then to develop educational materials to persuade elementary school students to adopt preventive measures like  washing their  hands.  

In this pleasant fantasy, the students are wildly excited about the teacher’s novel approach.  (One wonders, of course,  how long their excitement would last if the entire school year consisted of one project after another.)

Admittedly, this project approach would be a reasonable way to involve students in learning about how viruses spread.  But it doesn’t really teach them what viruses are; how they reproduce; how they infect their hosts; how they can be destroyed, etc.

Students doing this project would learn a good deal about washing their hands, but it’s unlikely any of them would ever contribute to, say, curing cancer.

“Project-based learning” - like SOLs - represents yet another step in “dumbing down” the curriculum.  It turns Biology into Health class.

The bottom line?  Every excellent teacher discovers and evolves unique methods over years of experience.  And every excellent teacher is happy to try new techniques - if presented as options, not mandates.

But initiatives like “Design for Excellence 2020” rest, finally, on the assumptions that teachers are neither competent nor dedicated - and that they must be told how to do their jobs by people who no longer teach.

Like  most “reforms” are harmless because they soon go away.  Some, like SOLs, become cancers gnawing at the vitals of the educational process.

And, as we shall see next week, they are also based on the unspoken agendas of school bureaucrats and school professors - agendas which have nothing much to do with teaching our children.

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