Thursday, September 17, 2009

Critical thinking? You need knowledge

THE LATEST fad to sweep K-12 education is called “21st-Century Skills.’’ States - including Massachusetts - are adding them to their learning standards, with the expectation that students will master skills such as cooperative learning and critical thinking and therefore be better able to compete for jobs in the global economy. Inevitably, putting a priority on skills pushes other subjects, including history, literature, and the arts, to the margins. But skill-centered, knowledge-free education has never worked.

The same ideas proposed today by the 21st-Century Skills movement were iterated and reiterated by pedagogues across the 20th century. In 1911, the dean of the education school at Stanford called on his fellow educators to abandon their antiquated academic ideals and adapt education to the real life and real needs of students.

In 1916, a federal government report scoffed at academic education as lacking relevance. The report’s author said black children should “learn to do by doing,’’ which he considered to be the modern, scientific approach to education.

Just a couple of years later, “the project method’’ took the education world by storm. Instead of a sequential curriculum laid out in advance, the program urged that boys and girls engage in hands-on projects of their own choosing, ideally working cooperatively in a group. It required activity, not docility, and awakened student motivation. It’s remarkably similar to the model advocated by 21st-century skills enthusiasts.

The list goes on: students built, measured, and figured things out while solving real-life problems, like how to build a playhouse, pet park, or a puppet theater, as part of the 1920s and 1930s “Activity Movement.’’ From the “Life Adjustment Movement’’ of the 1950s to “Outcome-Based Education’’ in the 1980s, one “innovation’’ after another devalued academic subject matter while making schooling relevant, hands-on, and attuned to the real interests and needs of young people.

To be sure, there has been resistance. In Roslyn, Long Island, in the 1930s, parents were incensed because their children couldn’t read but spent an entire day baking nut bread. The Roslyn superintendent assured them that baking was an excellent way to learn mathematics.

None of these initiatives survived. They did have impact, however: They inserted into American education a deeply ingrained suspicion of academic studies and subject matter. For the past century, our schools of education have obsessed over critical-thinking skills, projects, cooperative learning, experiential learning, and so on. But they have paid precious little attention to the disciplinary knowledge that young people need to make sense of the world.

For over a century we have numbed the brains of teachers with endless blather about process and abstract thinking skills. We have taught them about graphic organizers and Venn diagrams and accountable talk, data-based decision-making, rubrics, and leveled libraries.

But we have ignored what matters most. We have neglected to teach them that one cannot think critically without quite a lot of knowledge to think about. Thinking critically involves comparing and contrasting and synthesizing what one has learned. And a great deal of knowledge is necessary before one can begin to reflect on its meaning and look for alternative explanations.

Proponents of 21st-Century Skills might wish it was otherwise, but we do not restart the world anew with each generation. We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. What matters most in the use of our brains is our capacity to make generalizations, to see beyond our own immediate experience. The intelligent person, the one who truly is a practitioner of critical thinking, has the capacity to understand the lessons of history, to grasp the inner logic of science and mathematics, and to realize the meaning of philosophical debates by studying them.

Through literature, for example, we have the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of another person, to walk in his shoes, to experience life as it was lived in another century and another culture, to live vicariously beyond the bounds of our own time and family and place.

Until we teach both teachers and students to value knowledge and to love learning, we cannot expect them to use their minds well.


British education unions don't like incentive pay

It offends against their Leftist obsession with equality

The bonus culture is creeping into state schools as a result of market values being imported into the public sector, unions warned today. Education union representatives told the TUC that the public sector risked a rise in the very culture of the finance sector that had contributed to the economic crash.

Unions want current measures that allow school leaders to receive unlimited additional pay on top of their salary to be switched in favour of clearly defined limits, with criteria set down for any additional payments made.

Hank Roberts, from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, warned of the perils and told delegates how he was temporarily suspended for whistleblowing after he discovered the headteacher at his school was receiving thousands in bonuses on top of his salary of more than £100,000, backed by the chair of governors, who said he was "worth every penny".

In one year alone, the head had been paid more than £400,000 – more than twice what the prime minister earns. He also said other payments to a tiny handful of staff brought the total to almost £1m.

Roberts said the root of the problem was that state schools are responsible for their own budget. "If you set up a system that multiplies the opportunities for graft and corruption, you will get more graft and more corruption," he said.

The proliferation of rising pay differentials was part of the privatisation agenda infecting state education, he added. "There have to be limits on the pay of public servants or they will no longer have it as their priority to serve the public interest, but will substitute it for the serving of their own."

Ed Balls, the schools secretary, has previously backed bonuses for headteachers if linked to their performance.

Brian Cookson, from the NASUWT, said there was "no place" for the bonus culture in the public sector. "It allows individuals to abuse the system and put self interest at the expense of children," he said. "We need to learn the lessons from the behaviour which contributed to the global financial crash. We need to be clear the bonus culture has no place in the state education system."

Unions also backed calls of a government review of the financial accountability for schools, including academies [charter schools].


Australia: Dumb official attempt to stop school bullying

They are "developing a plan" Big deal!

An autistic boy being bullied at his Ipswich primary school was given a "stop" sign which he waved at his tormentors, sparking outrage from his mother. The eight-year-old boy was armed with the sign by staff at Ipswich West State School after he said he had been pushed down a staircase by bullies and even dangled over a second-storey veranda.

Far from deterring the attacks, his mother said the sign only made him a target for more bullying. “My son is terrified of going to school and no-one is helping him. He’s totally on his own,” she told The Queensland Times. “The situation is atrocious and I think that giving my son a card to wave at these bullies is completely inappropriate."

An Education Queensland spokesman said: “Ipswich West State School implements a range of programs, including one that uses alternative communication methods, to help children – in particular to support students with a disability.”

But the department denied the boy was given the card to show bullies. A spokeswoman said he had been given the card as a prompt for himself, not others. "This student was taking part in a specialist support program called `Stop, Think, Do' which encourages students to stop and think about their own actions before they act or make decisions,'' she said. "This card serves as a prompt for the student to think about his own actions. "This was implemented as part of the student's individual support plan in consultation with specialist staff. The student's parent was aware of the plan. "The school is in the process of developing a new support plan for this student, in consultation with his parents and the specialist staff.''

The spokeswoman also didn't deny that the boy had used the card incorrectly as a defence against bullies.


1 comment:

Robert said...

I notice how all the union officials quoted presuppose that the incentives for the teachers who could earn bonuses would be at cross-purposes with the public interest (which I assume they mean the interest of parents and students). Did they ever consider that the incentives for the teacher's personal interest can be aligned with those of the student and parents so that the teacher is rewarded if and only if their students learn the material and gain knowledge? Somehow I doubt it. But we would still want to know exactly what the incentives for the bonuses are, it's true.