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New Ways of Learning

Educators learn new ways to make old mistakes

Illinois Times

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. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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