Sunday, October 30, 2005


Educational reformers had reason to take heart earlier this year when Arthur Levine, the president of Columbia University's Teachers College, issued a report blasting the nation's schools of education. You can't go wrong attacking ed schools, even if you're the head of a famous one yourself. Mr. Levine singled out the "inadequate to appalling" graduate programs in educational leadership and called for the abolition of the Ed.D. degree. These programs, he asserted, suffer under the weight of lax admissions standards, weak faculties and inappropriate degree requirements and are often cynically used by their host universities as "cash cows." A rather bold bit of truth-telling on his part; and apparently there are three more such scathing reports coming from Mr. Levine, as part of a project underwritten by the Annenberg, Ford, Kauffman and Wallace Foundations.

Now, one shouldn't get too excited and expect such daring words to generate perestroika in the closed and self-perpetuating universe of ed schools. Mr. Levine deliberately refrains in his report from naming any specific institutions that are failing. Moreover, his enthusiasm for reform has somehow not extended to any effort to get his own institution to eliminate the Ed.D. In fact, Mr. Levine has played his reformist cards so close to the vest that his own faculty and students appear to have been shocked, and bitterly upset, to find out that he believed such things. So real change is going to be glacial at best. But still, it's encouraging to see such a notable figure in the education world begin to acknowledge how much is amiss in the way this country teaches teachers.

In keeping with this candor, we should acknowledge that there are similar deficiencies in graduate education in nearly all academic fields, across the board. Those professors who like to look down their noses at the ed schools and call for their elimination would do well to look in the mirror first. For one of the most striking deficiencies in American graduate training, in fields ranging from history and literary studies to physics and psychology, is the appalling inattention given to teaching--that is, to precisely the work that newly minted Ph.D.s will be expected to engage in for the rest of their careers. If, that is, they're lucky enough to get an academic job at all.

In fact, the problem goes beyond inattention. In the best graduate institutions, students are socialized into the view that teaching is a lowly activity. This view is everywhere reinforced by the willingness of universities to use graduate teaching assistants and untenured adjunct faculty to carry more and more of the instructional load.

It's a wonder that there are as many outstanding college teachers as there are. In my own graduate years, I saw eager-beaver teaching assistants subtly encouraged by their advisers to cool it and spend as little time as possible on their teaching, lest they be taken for unserious and unscholarly lightweights. They were there to do research and eventually to get jobs like. . .well, like those of their advisers, in which the teaching responsibilities are dumped on lowly graduate students.

In effect, most American graduate schools prepare students for jobs that they will never have and fail to prepare them--even conveying disdain--for the jobs that they will most likely have. No area of American higher education is more in need of reform, and none is less likely to receive it. As our chief means of forming college teachers, graduate education could hardly be more dysfunctional if we had set out to make it that way.

The result can be seen in every American college and university, where good teaching is rarely recognized and even more rarely rewarded. But this state of affairs may not continue indefinitely, as a new force for reform could come from the outside, from the consumer. William Strauss and Neil Howe have recently argued in the Chronicle of Higher Education that with tuition and the resulting debt reaching surreal levels, and colleges and universities failing to reverse the post-1960s collapse of academic standards, parents and students are increasingly skeptical about the value of a college education.

Parents born after 1961, Messrs. Strauss and Howe have found, experienced that collapse of standards in their own college educations and are determined not to tolerate another overpriced and underperforming disappointment for their own children. This is the generation that "propelled school choice, vouchers, charter schools, home-schooling and the standards-and-accountability movement." These parents will be more likely to treat higher education as a market, in which smart buyers exercise discretion.

Academics tend to be contemptuous of markets, which is why the for-profit University of Phoenix is their bete noire. But markets will do a better job of sorting these things out, at least in some aspects, than the accredited professionals who, after all, merely respond to a system that rewards time spent on research and scoffs at time spent on teaching. Such incentives need to change.

It will be a good thing if parents and students become more demanding, and it will be a very good thing if more sources of information are made available to them about what constitutes good teaching and where it is taking place--and not taking place. There is a huge and completely unanswered need for college guides that are as frank, intelligent and unsparingly honest about the quality of undergraduate instruction as consumer guides are about, say, cars and stereo equipment. Unless, that is, we think of higher education as nothing more than a credential and a badge, a source of social prestige that we buy for ourselves and our kids. In that case, we will continue to get what we pay for.



Contemporary educational thinking is obsessed with the question of method. Hardly a month goes by without weary teachers being exhorted to adopt another brain-based, evidence-informed or student-sensitive technique. At the same time, the once privileged position of knowledge, and by extension the teacher, is being questioned. To raise standards in the future, it is said that the student and his learning must take centre stage.

One proposal that neatly encapsulates the elevation of method and diminution of content is the idea that schools should teach pupils how to learn. Advocates of the 'learning to learn' agenda have been warmly received within policy circles. Schools minister David Miliband has referenced the idea in a number of key speeches, and reports commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) (3) have addressed the notion. Techniques associated with learning to learn have also been piloted in schools.

The learning to learn agenda can be broken down into two core propositions and one proposal. Proposition one states that the world in which we live is changing with such rapidity as to render traditional canons of knowledge redundant. Following from this, proposition two asserts that teaching that aims to transmit knowledge will fail to equip pupils for the world in which we live. Finally, the supporters of learning to learn propose that schools should adopt teaching techniques that encourage students to focus on their own learning. By doing so, they will develop the skills and attitudes required to adapt to an uncertain future.

If we address these points in reverse order, we will see that there are a number of reasons why educationalists might want to question this agenda.

A vast array of teaching techniques has been included under the banner of learning to learn. These include generic approaches to marking student work and providing them with structured feedback, as well as teaching methods which claim to be based on neuroscience. Strategies that attempt to modify directly students' attitudes towards learning, as well as methods of organising classroom activities using real-life problems and extended projects, have also featured.

Some of the approaches are quite sensible. In terms of assessment it is right, for example, that teachers should explain their grading and provide pupils with a sense of how their work might be improved. Equally, practitioners must take care that the messages they transmit, both formally and informally, do not encourage the less able to reach the conclusion that they are incapable of development.

But while some of these approaches have been tested with impressive results, a recent report produced for the DfES makes it clear that there is nothing close to a unified, commonly accepted definition of learning to learn. Rather, there exists a miscellaneous set of attributes and approaches that have been grouped together on the arguably tenuous basis that they all encourage pupils to consider the how, as opposed to the what, of learning. A concept this baggy is unlikely to make for clear curriculum development.

While the overall coherence of the notion of learning to learn might be questioned, it is possible that it could become more focused and refined through the process of implementation and evaluation. This project would have a sound footing if the rest of the learning to learn agenda were valid. So is it true that existing forms of teaching ill-equip pupils for the future? And is the world in which we live changing so fast as to call into question the position of received knowledge?

The advocates of learning to learn evidently take a rather dim view of forms of schooling in which the teacher and their subject-knowledge have been the organising principle. The suggestion that teachers should address how students learn implies that this has not been a concern in the past. Some advocates of learning to learn seem to believe that many teachers exhibit a rather self-indulgent preoccupation with their own knowledge. Others argue that the dialogue between teachers and students has been frustrated by the lack of a commonly held educational vocabulary.

Certainly, there is some truth to the claim that our ability to make explicit the process of learning has been encumbered by the collective ignorance of educational ideas. But the suggestion that teachers have been so fixated with their knowledge as to have shown little regard for their pupils' learning is little more than a stereotype. This might describe ineffective teachers, but the effective delivery of subjects necessarily draws teachers into a discussion of the means of education, be that study skills, revision techniques, or the procedures that are specific to their discipline. In doing so, teachers involve their pupils in a discourse about their learning, even if they haven't dubbed it learning to learn.

This leaves us with the final component of the learning to learn agenda: the notion that rapid change is making received knowledge redundant. Advocates of learning to learn concede that some rudimentary areas of knowledge should still be taught, such as the practical elements of maths and English. And they acknowledge that most students only learn about their learning in response to significant content, even if it's of little practical or lasting value. But no purpose is served, they conclude, by compelling students to engage with more challenging areas of the curriculum, such as Shakespeare, if this results in them developing negative attitudes towards learning in general.

I would suggest that advocates of learning to learn have got it wrong on both counts. If we accept the growing rapidity of social change - which is unlikely given the parlous state of contemporary politics - then knowledge in fact becomes more, not less, important. In a period of flux it may be true that past ideas provide no easy solutions to the problems of the present, but they enable one to frame these problems in their specificity. In contrast, ignorance leaves one lacking the perspective required to differentiate between problems that are old and resolved and those that are really new and require innovative thinking.

And while the proponents of learning to learn are right to suggest that many students find the more advanced areas of the curriculum remote and unforgiving, they are wrong to argue that we should organise on this basis. The fact that many students experience aspects of the curriculum in this way is a sad testimony to their diminished conception of themselves and the failure of the schooling they have experienced. Our response should be to make a more compelling case for knowledge and general education. And to make this case convincing, we need to do more than appeal to the past or to the notion of eternal truths.

(From Spiked)


For greatest efficiency, lowest cost and maximum choice, ALL schools should be privately owned and run -- with government-paid vouchers for the poor and minimal regulation.

The NEA and similar unions worldwide believe that children should be thoroughly indoctrinated with Green/Left, feminist/homosexual ideology but the "3 R's" are something that kids should just be allowed to "discover"

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