Thursday, February 12, 2009

Why Are We So Stuck on Progressive Education?

Here is an interesting indictment of progressive education from a parental point of view. Written in 2005. the article is written by an education consultant who happened to be a parent of children attedning a public school steeped in many progressive ideas about education.

What were these "progressive" ideas with which this parent disapproved? Ideas like "whole language educaiton," dislike of worksheets and anything that smacked of "instruct and drill" - all of these things start from a common premise of "progressive ed:" learning by listening to the teacher instruct is synthetic and "inauthentic," while learning by self-discovery of the student is natural and "authentic." The best example of this idea that learning shold be self-discovery, rather than knowledge acquisition from an external souce, is best seen in the author's discription of whole language educaiton.

Whole language is progressive education’s belief system applied to reading. Its theorists believe learning to read is as natural as learning to speak, and therefore it isn’t necessary (and indeed it could be harmful) to directly and systematically teach and drill children on the sound-letter relationships, called phonemes.

They believe learning to read is primarily an exercise in recognizing whole words..


The same trend of replacing "instruct and drill" educaiton with more natural "self-discovery" method can be seen in the author's discription of the way his children's school taught math.

The NCTM standards document openly disdains “paper and pencil practice” of basic arithmetic computational skills, and it demands that calculators be used even in kindergarten. It emphasizes how math should be taught (through hands-on activities and problem solving rather than teacher-led instruction and practice)...


Teaching language by ignoring instruction in phonics and expecting students to start with reading sentences, and teaching math by ignoring instruction on basic mathematical operations and expecting students to engage in conceptual problem solving. Both of these techniques make the mistake of seeing operations like reading and math as something basic that children can figure out themselves if just "guided" the right way. Of course, it is quite absurd to believe that children will discover on their own how to sound out new words - "gauche" or "bivouac" - if they do not learn basic and more complex phonics, and equally as absurd to think that a child will discover how to divide 25.86 by 7 unless taught division FACTS.

As predicted, whole langauge education went bust about a decade ago, as did the idea that students can learn math without learning math FACTS. The problem, though, is that progressive ideas never really seem to die, but rather simply change shape and tact. As a high school special educator, I can certainly attest that progressivism is alive and well at my high school. While we (grudgingly) accept the fact that lecture must occur, we still have not lost our progressive disdain for worksheets, drills, fact learning, and textbook work. In my graudate courses, we still talk of Dewey (and Vygotsky!!) as if they rule the day, constructivism as the only way to properly educate, and the tyranny of testing students recall of facts (in favor of "holistic" and "authentic" assessment.)

But here is the killer question. Why has progressivism stuck around for so long, even though it has failed, time after time, to produce the results it claimed it could? Our author paints the situaiton well:

But the overwhelming body of empirical research is basically an indictment of the progressive education model. And it’s not just recent research—educators have had experimental research evidence for decades that unequivocally conclude that current progressive theories don’t work—evidence that large numbers of educators have chosen to ignore


That such evidence exists against progressive education may be denied by some, but any read-through of Project Follow Through, Maureen Sout's "Feel Good Curriculum," or any work by ED Hirsch should suffice to demonstrate that it does.

Thus, the question remains: if the desired results continue not to be produced, then why has progressive pedagogy (in various incarnations from "progressivism" to "constructivism" to today's "brain based learning,") continue to flourish?

I suspect that the primary reason progressivism's approach remains en vogue despite its failures is because educators like children and we dislike to disappoint or upset them. Progressive education feeds off of this desire by giving us a way to "toss" the "instruct and drill" method that students dislike, in favor of more friendly activities, like playing math games with blocks, and letting kids design their own project specifications.

That educators have an emotional connection to progressivism (the softer approach) can be seen by their constant caricature of the "old way" of education as draconian, authoritarian, and dry. Progressive education, by contrast, is often accompanied by pretty phrases like "educating the whole child" (as opposed to educating only part of the child?!), "authentic education" (rather than fraudulent education?!), and "child-centered education (was there ever an education that did not have the child as its aim?!). If the old education is the authoritarian father, then progressivism is the nurturing mother (this, in a field with far more mothers than fathers in its employ).

This emotional pull is, I feel, the force that keeps progressivism kicking after all of these failed years. As the author says, the fact that we keep going back to "more of the same" (first progressivism, then constructivism, now "brain-based ways of learning" - the same ideas dressed differently), despite repeated failures to make gains defies logic. And I am not sure logic was involved. My guess is that the stubborn persistence of progresivism in education has more to do with the emotional sway it has over educators lost in its nurturing language.

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