New Ways of Learning
Educators learn new ways to make old mistakes
June 20, 1991
I can do no better than to quote my own concluding paragraph, which reminded readers that ballyhooed “new ways of learning”—that is, kids working cooperatively rather than competitively, in groups, experimenting and self-testing—is a very old way of learning that happens naturally in large families, among children engaged in productive play, in one-room schools and college cram sessions and the better Montessori schools. It is in fact the way that most people learned before the professional educator made education a matter of teaching rather than of learning.
Cornstarch no longer holds any mysteries for some lucky young people of Chatham, and I for one applaud this as a step in the right direction. The cause of this miracle is a new science program for 8-to-11 year-olds tested last winter by the Ball-Chatham public schools. Students were reported in February to be busy investigating the solubility of cornstarch and the life cycle of black beetles—chemistry and biology, cunningly disguised—and both the kids and their teachers declared themselves enthusiastic. And why not? The kids got a chance to get out of their chairs and use their hands, to look and touch the real world, which in places like Chatham is usually kept at a safe distance.
The science course was touted as a hands-on alternative to "teaching theory," which is the form in which older kids typically are fed science—and come to hate it. Theory isn't science but something that has been learned about science, just as education isn't teaching but something about teaching. The program was decorated with buzz words like "built-in assessment tool" but what it was, was teaching.
Hypothesizing, testing, measuring, writing is the way real science is done, indeed the way real life is done. It is not, alas, the way education is usually done. In the third grade (reported the State Journal-Register) students whose initial predictions about the outcome of an experiment proved incorrect reflexively erased those predictions from their notebooks—a revealing response from kids raised to believe that learning is a matter of getting correct answers rather than of asking useful questions.
Such programs are signs of a hopeful ferment in public education. But pilot programs are typically taught by the best, most flexible teachers, people dissatisfied enough with the status quo to want to change it and fresh enough to think they can. Such programs have a way of crashing when they are scaled up to the school or district level, when they come to be run by the professional hack, the time-server, the jargonmeisters in the board offices. The SJR's reporter on the scene in Chatham wondered in print whether such seemingly unorthodox approaches might replace conventional science textbooks. From a pedagogical point of view the question is irrelevant—no well-trained teacher needs a text to teach science to third-graders in the first place—but textbooks are published for bad teachers, not the good ones, and there are a lot more bad teachers in the public schools than good ones.
Far from having the answers to why our school kids don't learn, most of our professional educators still haven't figured out what the questions are. When the state's task force on school finance set about to define "adequate" education as a preliminary to their deliberations, they assumed that learning was a function of program and class size, teacher requirements, staffing requirements, salaries for certified personnel, etc.
Let us look in on the much-ballyhooed new "futuristic classroom," an experimental sixth-grade classroom in District 186's Lincoln School on Springfield's east side. The teacher there told interviewers that she liked the computers because her kids could thus gain access to all the information she couldn't provide personally. Such computers are an improvement only if you think that teaching is about conveying information, a matter of what rather than how to think. (Our teacher heroically fed District 186's sixth-grade curriculum into her students' computers. All together now: "Garbage in, garbage . . . ")
In fact, Lincoln's futuristic classroom, with its computers and videos and flashing lights and beeps, is merely another expression of the "learning is fun" credo. I suspect that videos about physics don't teach as much about physics (although they spare teachers having to know about the subject) as they do about videos.
Our brave new teacher told Illinois Times, "With the new technology the different areas of curriculum can flow together." A good teacher shows how the different parts of the curriculum flow together too, but until all our school kids get one they'll have to make do with computers. Ordinarily one is obliged to lament the fact that we have transferred to the machine the role of the educated person, but lament is inappropriate in the case of the public schools: Computers aren't smarter than people, but they are smarter than most teachers.
Consider the latter's reaction to proposals for "gradeless" elementary schools in which kids would no longer be grouped arbitrarily by age. While it is a radical innovation in the context of modern U.S. public schools, the scheme is hardly new. I haven't space here to detail their objections to the plan, and so will note only that listening to public school administrators on the merits of mixed-age grouping is like listening to Pope John Paul II on the merits of sex. Now-departed District 186 superintendent Donald Miedema correctly averred that such a philosophy would require a change of attitude. Indeed it would, since it calls for teachers to teach the child instead of the material. Others called the idea promising but impractical—as if the system now in place were practical for anyone except the teachers and administrators who set it up. The president of the Illinois Education Association was quoted as saying the idea has possibilities but shouldn't be embraced without thorough study and careful consideration.
Translation: . . . without making any of my members actually do the job they are paid to do.
The teacher who worked so hard to set up Lincoln's School classroom of the future may be forgiven wanting to believe (as she told IT) that what goes on there is "really a new way of learning." Kids working cooperatively rather than competitively, in groups, experimenting, self-testing comprise a very old way of learning. It's the way people have always learned. It happens in large families with lots of siblings, and among children engaged in productive play. It happens in one-room schools and in college cram sessions, and in the better Montessori schools. It is in fact the way that most people learned before the blight of the professional educator descended upon the land and made education a matter of teaching rather than of learning. ●