David Rodeback's Blog

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Friday, February 29, 2008
A Formula for Educational Malpractice

One "educator" argues that reading, writing, and arithmetic are not the proper goals of a public school. There's too much risk of actual teaching and learning going on if they are.

The other day I went back to a December 6 opinion piece in the Deseret Morning News, to see if it still seems worth blogging about. It does.

It is about education. It is noteworthy for its fuzzy thinking and bad logic, which in turn help explain how it could be that our public schools sometimes exult in their own abundant mediocrity and celebrate their failures as successes. Author Lynn Stoddard is a retired public school teacher and administrator, now an educational activist.

I hope his current ideas did not fully inform his teaching, however long ago he taught. This is a reasonable hope, since many teachers' actual teaching is far better than their philosophies. Likewise, many parents do their job well even if their advice doesn't work for other families and they couldn't write a decent book about parenting. But if we suppose for the sake of argument that Stoddard's philosophy really did guide his teaching and administration, then -- how can I put this gently? -- it seems clear that one man's retirement can bless many lives.

His basic premise is that student achievement "in curriculum" -- that is, mastery of reading, writing, math, and other academic disciplines -- is "a false goal."

"Direct Instruction" Is a Bad Thing?

Academic achievement is a false goal, according to Stoddard, first because "it calls forth unsolicited direct instruction, a kind of teaching that is counterproductive." Apparently, children innately sense when they need to learn a thing, and they solicit instruction in that thing when they are ready. This goes a long way toward explaining why some people with high school diplomas are unable to read and comprehend the instructions on their first job application. They forgot to ask their teachers to teach them.

I was an excellent public school student, eager to learn and only intermittently mischievous. Still, much of what my teachers taught me was material or skills I didn't know I needed at the time. In some cases, I wasn't even aware before the teaching started that certain skills or knowledge existed. My teachers knew what I often did not, that I would eventually need to have mastered this or that subject, either for the subject's own sake, or for other studies' dependence on it. But according to Mr. Stoddard's philosophy, my teachers' understanding of my future needs was not enough, and their teaching was premature and ineffective. They should have waited for me to solicit the instruction I needed.

According to Stoddard, Mrs. Neville should have waited to teach me long division until I asked her to do so, even if that would have set my education back by a year or two or ten. Mrs. Brott should not have assigned me little things to write until I asked her to. And Mr. Cendali should not have taught me to do a handstand or run in place; I didn't solicit his instruction.

I wonder, would Stoddard also claim that an adult should wait to teach a child to be kind, honest, helpful, diligent, or not to play in traffic, until that child asks to be taught these things? Or does his schoolhouse version of permission marketing only apply to the academic subjects, in which the student's and the teacher's performance can be tested?

Stoddard writes, "Now what happens when a child starts school? It's time for direct instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic. This is usually done, not in response to a child's need, but in response to an adult's need for the child." I would have said it is the adult's duty to prepare the child for life, casting a teacher's or parent's role in terms that emphasize the child's needs, not the adult's. But note how useful Stoddard's attitude can be to a teacher who finds a parent disagreeing. The teacher can simply dismiss the parent, who -- obviously, if there is disagreement -- is selfishly pursuing the parent's own needs, not the child's welfare. It's a neat logical shorthand: You disagree with me, the teacher, therefore you are not just wrong, but also morally flawed. Therefore I can ignore or oppose you.

Stoddard views the fact that some children arrive in the classroom already knowing how to read as a "complication," and he supposes that these rebel children are self-taught. He writes, "They learned how to read the way everyone learns how to read -- they teach themselves -- the same way they learned how to talk and walk." Perhaps he would be alarmed to discover that some parents actually teach, coach, encourage, and otherwise help a child to learn these things, and that this helps a child to succeed in learning and in life, and to enjoy both.

"Developing Great Human Beings"

Here is Stoddard's entire paragraph explaining his second reason why actual achievement is a false goal:

The second major reason why student achievement in curriculum should not be the major goal and purpose of education is that it diverts attention away from what should be the primary purpose: developing great human beings to be contributors — not burdens — to society. With this purpose teachers focus on developing a full range of human potential, not merely on reading, writing and arithmetic. They put more emphasis on the "why" and "what" of reading than they do on "how" to read because they know that reading, like talking, is a private matter that takes place in a child's brain and is controlled by the learner himself. There are many smart crooks in our jails who are skilled in reading, writing and arithmetic. Why have they not used these skills to contribute? Is it because our school system has failed to convey the true purpose of education?

This one is seductive. I think most people would acknowledge that character education is crucial, in addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic. But "in addition to" is not what Stoddard is saying here. He is using the importance of character education as an reason to avoid, or at least reduce, direct academic instruction -- or to excuse individual and institutional failure to teach academic subjects effectively.

There are other issues here.

First, note how my ability to read is "a private matter," but my character -- or my "full human potential" -- is not. Note also how this formulation values society's welfare above the achievement of particular humans. It is a topic for a longer discussion on another day, I suppose, but if you follow those two roads far enough, you arrive at someplace tragic.

Second, what qualifies a teacher as an authority on human greatness and the welfare of society? Where is a teacher's long and specialized training in philosophy or the ministry, or sociology or economics or political thought? Though many teachers are only minimally qualified in their academic subjects -- a "teaching major" in a discipline is nearly always much lighter than an actual major -- we must admit that they have a great deal more formal training in those subjects than they have in what constitutes a productive and fulfilling human life and in how to help each individual achieve such a life.

I do not fully trust public school teachers' judgment as to what constitutes human greatness or contributing to or burdening society. I'm not saying these subjects should be avoided at school; they should be discussed frequently and at length. But more than a few of my own and my children's teachers have had highly politicized, ill-informed, poorly thought out, very one-sided views of these things -- and the more flawed their views, the more dogmatic they are with their students in the classroom.

Third, as to those well-educated Incarcerated-Americans, if I wanted to be flip I would observe that the smart ones generally don't get caught. More seriously, the people I know who have been to jail, with few exceptions, are at an educational level (in terms of reading, writing, arithmetic, critical thinking, and mental discipline) well below the public average. Maybe their character education really was deficient; maybe it was superb and they just made bad choices. Maybe, if their minds had been more occupied and disciplined by better teachers, teaching academic subjects, they would have been less likely to embark shortsightedly on paths that lead to a jail cell, and more likely to get and keep an honest job.

In his article Stoddard identifies the "seven dimensions of human greatness" as "identity, inquiry, interaction, imagination, initiative, intuition and integrity." Apart from the fact that all seven begin with the letter i, which is too cute by half, I don't have any real beef with these. But I note that all of them are more likely and more powerful when informed by disciplined knowledge and painstakingly acquired skills -- in which direct instruction plays an irreplaceable, early role. Integrity is frustrated and haphazard with fuzzy thinking. Imagination is best when informed by knowledge. Undisciplined inquiry does not lead reliably to truth. Effective interaction depends upon facility in language and math. And so forth. In short, Stoddard's version of human greatness depends on achievement "in curriculum."

The Seduction Continues

Stoddard concludes,

We found that students achieve more in reading, writing and math when they are taught as tools of inquiry than when they are taught as ends in and of themselves.

He writes this as if it supports his arguments, and as if those benighted teachers who provide direct instruction never think to teach students what reading, writing, and math are good for. Surely one must learn to be proficient if "a tool of inquiry" is to be of any real use; direct instruction of the sort Stoddard opposes seems essential to this learning. In direct instruction's absence, a pure trial-and-error process will be unnecessarily inefficient, ineffective, discouraging, and possibly dangerous.

Next Stop: Unsupervised Chemistry Experiments and the Emperor's New Math

Travel a little further down Stoddard's well-worn philosophical road, and you get to a weird place where people think you shouldn't even teach children, just let them -- maybe help them just a little -- to discover things by themselves. (Some people call this place the Alpine School District. Others have other names for it.)

By all means, let us leave students to discover calculus and chemistry by themselves. Unless we ourselves have had some of that direct instruction Stoddard decries, we probably won't have -- and will therefore be blissfully unburdened by -- the knowledge that it took the smartest humans literal millennia -- hundreds of lifetimes -- to invent these disciplines.

Our student victims won't live six thousand years, if for no other reason than that they will blow themselves up or poison or irradiate themselves with unsupervised chemistry experiments. But it they do, and if they work very hard and actually develop calculus and chemistry, perhaps by then they will also have learned to follow ideas to their conclusions and consequences, rather than simply basking in fuzzy, feel-good, pseudo-intellectual twaddle. And perhaps they will have learned to regret the misguided philosophy that thought it counterproductive to teach them a thing until they asked to be taught it.

Why Not Both?

I had a handful of very fine teachers in my 13-year student career in the public schools. Every one of them worked hard to help students achieve "in curriculum." They insisted that I master reading, writing, math, and other tools of inquiry, and I am a far more productive member of society because of it. (The educational establishment may wish to dispute my contribution to society, inasmuch as I don't belong to a labor union and I tend to vote Republican. But at least I can do math, and I recognize a run-on sentence when I write one.)

As it turns out, it is much harder to absorb physics when studying good character than it is to absorb good character when studying physics. My teachers modeled and encouraged good character in the process of teaching their academic subjects, and some of them influenced my life quite positively in that respect, too. They never once suggested, by words or actions, that being a good person could be used as an excuse not to learn to read, write, do math, and think critically. They never even hinted that merely knowing stuff absolved me of my obligation to develop good character. Somehow they understood and communicated what I now believe I see:

Good character is empowered by knowledge and sound academic skills; without them it is either largely impotent or dangerously misguided in its uninformed and unreflective zeal.

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