Saturday, January 31, 2009

Progressive Education: A Bridge Too Far,

On another blog, there is an intersting post questioning America's over-reliance on standardized test scores, and test scores in general. As an educator, I share the blogger's concern that American schools are cranking out students that are ill-able to think well.

The problem is that much of this criticism of the current educational approach comes from the vantege point of (what is loosely termed) progressive education. Influenced by in large by John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Edward Thorndike, etc, these educators tend to take the approach of "whole child education" where schools focus less on instilling disciplinary knowledge and more on educating students to participate in social democracy. Less about reading and math, and more about "critical thinking" and social-mindedness.

In this blogger's post, was the example of the Eight Year Study, which allegedly found that progressive schools turn out more "well rounded" and competent students than do "traditional" schools.

What bothers me about the study is not that it shows progresssive schools to turn out more self- and socially-attuned individuals (this is of little suprise considering that progressive schools offer explicit instruction in these areas). My big problem is the ASSUMPTION made in the study that the proper school is one that teachers particular social values.

Here is an example from the study of some objectives of things the study's progressive schools wish to instill in students:

The development of effective methods of thinking
The cultivation of useful work habits and study skills
The inculcation of social attitudes
The acquisition of a wide range of significant interests
The development of increased appreciation of music, art, literature, and other aesthetic experiences
The development of social sensitivity
The development of better personal-social adjustment
he acquisition of important information
The development of physical health
The development of a consistent philosophy of life

While siome of these - cultivation of work habits and study skills, acquisition of important information - are relatively uncontroversial, some cause me concern: to see schools as "inculcat[ors] of social attitudes," or facilitators in the development of "consistent philosoph[ies] of life," skirt dangerously close to the idea of schools as value-pushers and teachers as opiners.

It seems to me that schools in any kind of pluralistic society should stay as neutral towards any non-academic value as possible, and seeing teachers' role as helping students develop philosophies of life open the floodgates for value-pushing. Teaching english is not value pushing (and is necessasry for academic function). Teaching a philosophy of life is, if anything, the job of parent, pastor, community, or anyone except a public school teacher.

Second, schools have enough on their plates in teaching academic subjects, which we do not do well anyway. Why place a role onto schools which can be best achieved by private entitites like churches, clubs, families, and communities? If focusing on one job is proving to be difficult, why add the additional job of curing social ills as well?

The two foremost problems with "whole child education" is that (a) it forces schoools to play a role that are better played by families, pastors, community, and parties more interested than the school board; and (b) it opens up the potentially dangerous idea that schools become value-pushers, people-molders, and anything but academic-knowledge-conveyers.

While there are many other flaws in the progressive education vision (abolishing letter grades in favor of more "holistic" grades, lack of academic rigor) the two I mentione in the paragraph above are the most concerning to me. I do not want to see a day when schools devote a piece of each school day to "inculcat[ing] social attitudes," and helping students "develop... a philosophy of life."

If we are having enough truouble teaching facts, then why open schools up to teach values?

No comments:

Post a Comment