Sunday, April 15, 2018

On Progressive Education - Seven Questions

I recently watched a film, Most Likely to Succeed, which has inspired a lengthy post about educational reform.


(If educational theory isn't your bag, then just scroll down to the next bit.)

Is it true that, "If we teach today's students as we taught yesterday's, we rob them of tomorrow"? It's highly probable that John Dewey never said it despite the misattribution making the rounds online. If you read just one or two of his essays, it's clearly not his typical wording and syntax (and now we can easily "command-F" our way through his books). Regardless the source, I believe we also do a disservice to education by tossing what we did yesterday in favour of the newest idea. New isn't always better.

Here's what Dewey does say, though,

"Rejection of the philosophy and practice of traditional education sets a new type of difficult educational problem for those who believe in the new type of education. We shall operate blindly and in confusion until we recognize this fact; until we thoroughly appreciate that departure from the old solves no problems. . . . I assume that amid all uncertainties there is one permanent frame of reference: namely, the organic connection between education and personal experience; or, that the new philosophy of education is committed to some kind of empirical and experimental philosophy. . . .    
Experience and education cannot be directly equated to each other. For some experiences are miseducative. . . . An experience may be immediately enjoyable and yet promote the formation of a slack and careless attitude . . . experiences may be so disconnected from one another that, while each is agreeable or even exciting in itself, they are not linked cumulatively to one another. Energy is then dissipated and a person becomes scatter-brained. . . . 
Traditional education offers a plethora of examples of experiences of the kinds just mentioned. It is a great mistake to suppose, even tacitly, that the traditional schoolroom was not a place in which pupils had experiences. Yet this is tacitly assumed when progressive education as a plan of learning by experience is placed in sharp opposition to the old. The proper line of attack is that the experiences, which were had, by pupils and teachers alike, were largely of a wrong kind. How many students, for example, were rendered callous to ideas, and how many lost the impetus to learn because of the Way in which learning was experienced by them? How many acquired special skills by means of automatic drill so that their power of judgment and capacity to act intelligently in new situations was limited? . . . How many came to associate books with dull drudgery, so that they were 'conditioned' to all but flashy reading matter?" (chap. 2). 
Keep in mind, however, that Dewey was writing about traditional schools of the 1930s. His entire argument he forwards here is that we should use the scientific method in the development of experiences of students and these experiences should have some continuity; i.e. they should be connected to prior learning and have a connection to their future. He wants to make sure that, instead of just learning facts, that students are given the groundwork to understand the facts. I think we've gotten pretty good at that.

It's not necessarily that case that the traditional model needs to be abandoned, but that, if our classes lead to that experience of drudgery, then they must be tweaked. It's not just the lessons that matter, but the oratory skills and enthusiasm of the teacher and the ability to find that line of connection to the students. Whether a speaker is weak or strong (and well rested and not stressed) might have as much to do with the education of the students than whether or not the lesson was project-based or chalk-and-talk. If we're using Dewey as the person to follow, then let's read his entire books, and we'll come to find that he doesn't object to traditional models that work.

But we might want to temper some of his concerns with rote learning with certain subjects. A few decades later,  B.F. Skinner wrote on educational reform as well and rejected the idea that drills are necessarily the problem. Without some drills, will anyone learn foundations of a field well enough to get further in depth with the material? Will anyone learn to compose music without first understanding and committing to memory the scales? How well can we grasp algebra if we haven't mastered the times tables enough to see the direction we should try to solve a problem at a glance because we thoroughly understand the relationship of numbers to one another. And what better way to master scales and times tables and grammar basics and the periodic table than having them drilled into our heads!

Responding to Dewey and to the older exceptional example of a fictitious student of Rousseau's, Skinner said,
"There are teachers who would be successful in dealing with people anywhere . . . and there are students who scarcely need to be taught, and together they sometimes seem to bring Emile to life. . . . The Emile we know doesn't learn very much. His "interests" are evidently of limited scope. Subjects that do not appeal to him he calls irrelevant. . . . Knowledge is always in flux, so why bother to acquire any particular stage of it?  . . . He has had little or no chance to learn to think logically or scientifically and is easily taken in by the mystical and the superstitious. . . . And, alas, the Emile we know doesn't seem particularly happy. He doesn't like his education any more than his predecessors like theirs. . . .  
The teacher who understands his assignment and is familiar with the behavioral processes needed to fulfill it can have students who not only feel free and happy while they are being taught but who will continue to feel free and happy when their formal education comes to an end. They will do so because they will be successful in their work (having acquired useful productive repertoires), because they will get on well with their fellows (having learned to understand themselves and others), because they will enjoy what they do (having acquired the necessary knowledge and skills), and because they will from time to time make an occasional creative contribution toward an even more effective and enjoyable way of life. Possibly the most important consequence is that the teacher will then feel free and happy too."
But, to be clear, Dewey also rejects the idea that rote memorization should be entirely avoided. It shouldn't be done to the point that people hate the subject matter and avoid school, and it shouldn't be done blindly and out of context, but he doesn't deny that there is a time and place for it.

Dewey argues that education isn't like any occupation where there are specific goals that must be met in order to create the expected end product. In Democracy and Education he says,
"And it is well to remind ourselves that education as such has no aims. Only persons, parents, and teachers, etc., have aims, not an abstract idea like education. And consequently their purposes are indefinitely varied, differing with different children, changing as children grow and with the growth of experience on the part of the one who teaches. Even the most valid aims which can be put in words will, as words, do more harm than good unless one recognizes that they are not aims, but rather suggestions to educators as to how to observe, how to look ahead, and how to choose in liberating and directing the energies of the concrete situations in which they find themselves. As a recent writer has said: "To lead this boy to read Scott's novels instead of old Sleuth's stories; to teach this girl to sew; to root out the habit of bullying from John's make-up; to prepare this class to study medicine,—these are samples of the millions of aims we have actually before us in the concrete work of education." Bearing these qualifications in mind, we shall proceed to state some of the characteristics found in all good educational aims."
Aims can't be externally imposed from above: "Educators have to be on their guard against ends that are alleged to be general and ultimate." The current focus on the curriculum, of students demonstrating the essential learnings of the course, mean I don't waver from curriculum like I used to. This is a good thing if our priority is to ensure that everyone who takes this course across the province will have learned the exact same thing. But, in the humanities and social sciences, where my courses are not a necessary pre-requisite to anything specific, it seems far more useful to allow the class to determine the direction of my lessons. I used to shift my units entirely based on the interests of the students in front of me. I don't feel I have that freedom any longer. If I have a group of students fascinated with one aspect of the course, they have to be rushed through that in order to fit in all the rest. We're aiming for a breadth of education at the expense of significant depth. And we have to have common exams regardless our very different groups of students. We're following some bits and pieces from Dewey, but ignoring his overarching ideas.

Furthermore, because different groups have different interests and aims, it's imperative that we continue to divide students by ability and interest. There is once again talk of destreaming grade 9, even though lumping all students together obliterates the ability of teachers to have more focused goals for particular types of students. If anything, according to Dewey, we need to have more focused groups of students who can learn what is necessary for them in a much more streamlined manner. Destreaming is an effort to address the rare students who are misplaced; however, allowing teachers to exercise their professional judgment and grant a different credit to that one student within their class, can much more easily solve the problem without creating new issues to solve.


So, about that movie...

It's a three-year old film about a progressive charter school in the states that aims to show how much better it is than regular schools with evidence that their scores are better on standardized tests, even though they denigrate the entire idea of standardized testing. Success on standardized tests is so often a matter of demographics rather than optimal teaching methods, that I agree with them that we should give the test little credibility, but that includes when it works in our favour. I work in a school with a significant workplace-geared population, so our scores are always lower than the provincial median, and that's okay. We can continue to always do our best for our students without the pressure of reaching the provincial medians on our plate. We should be up-to-date on current research and always aiming to be a little better with our courses than last year, trying new ideas and redesigning old ones. Tracking our ranking, or even giving credence to the standardized tests, does nothing to goad us into working harder. We work hard because we care about doing the very best for the people sitting in front of us each day. That being said, the fact that the school does well on the tests gives me no confidence that the teaching methods are necessarily better.

The documentary was written and created by Greg Whitely, but the executive producer, and author of the book the film is based on, is venture capitalist Ted Dintersmith, who made his fortune at Charles River Ventures, a company that invests in tech startups like Udacity and cloud-based computing, and who has no background in teaching. See this take down of his connections to online educational models and his desire to offer instruction through internships and outsourcing education to corporations. So, we might be wary of any ulterior motives inherent to the educational design of someone who so obviously profits from a shift to full tech classrooms. And, of course, Ken Robinson was featured along with every buzzword on the scene.

In a Washington Post interview, Dintersmith said,
"Deeply innovative charter schools have an important contribution to make to U.S. education. Many are doing amazing things, and the film immerses itself in one inspiring example. The issue for U.S. education policy, though, is to figure out how to introduce innovation into our mainstream public schools. . . . The over-arching message of the film is that students and teachers should be given the latitude and trust to define their own approach to learning. So I hope other schools don’t just copy what they see in the film, but are inspired to come up with bold and innovative learning experiences that leverage the talents and passions of the students and teachers involved. That said, there are a few key principles you see in the film that are applicable to all schools and classrooms. Students have a large role in defining and managing their learning. Classrooms center around peer-interaction, not on a lecture model with the teacher doing most/all of the talking. Students are encouraged to make decisions, try bold approaches, experience failure, and given a chance to rebound. Students are assessed on the basis of a public display of achievement. Students provide feedback and constructive criticism of each other, and play a big role in the assessment process. These are the things I hope find their way into other schools."
In another interview, he made his intentions clear: "the focus should really be on funding schools that produce future entrepreneurial adults, instead of entrepreneurial adults today funding obsolete schools.”

So, let's unpack this...

It's curious to me that we're prompted to watch these films and learn about these ideas when, as teachers, we're not given latitude and trust enough to determine what we do with our professional development time. Curriculum documents are entirely top-down and specific, with minimal say from the varied teachers who actually use them. But I have some more specific questions about these quotations and about the basic premises of the film:

1. Is it better for a committee of educated people to decide the focus of each course, or should it be up to each individual teacher?

Leaving it up to each teacher opens up problems with the lowest common denominator. The worst teachers will have full control of what they teach and how, and that can be detrimental to student learning. Decision by committee is, similarly, only as good as the individuals on the committee, but, by contrast, it typically doesn't lean towards one individual's worst decisions when a group is involved. If anything changes from this at all, I'd propose looser documents - or allowing looser adherence to the documents, thus enabling some teacher latitude without tossing the most pivotal essential learnings from the courses.

The school in the film solves the problem of weak teaching by offering zero job security. You show results or we show you the door. I have another whole post's worth of problems with that type of employment model, but suffice it to say that teachers learn to teach on the job, and it takes time and practice to hone the craft. That's not possible in a system that fires teachers for weak student products. And, um... demographics. What if you're the teacher in charge of the types of students we don't see in the film: the ones who struggle with basic reading, who don't own any clothes that aren't ripped or stained, who are naturally oppositional...? Or are the low producing students fired too?

2. Is it better for the curriculum guidelines and an educated teacher to lead the way, or should peer-to-peer interactions take precedence?

Students learning from students can be a disastrous case of the blind leading the blind. We have paid experts in the room, people who have spent many years pouring over this field, and that should never take a backseat to student directed learning. However, students learn well by teaching others, for sure. Once they have information thoroughly digested, with the help of the expert in the field, then they can absolutely further enhance their own learning by instructing others. We learn best by interacting with the material, but that doesn't necessarily mean learning foundational ideas from one another.

In my philosophy classes, students write focused essays on specific philosophers, independently, with significant guidance throughout the process, and then they debate issues from the perspective of those theories in order to teach others. After three days of dialectics, we switch name tags and students have to argue from each other's philosopher's stance. But it makes absolutely no sense to start them out unaided with some Hume or Kant and expect them to understand it better with the help of another novice. Peer-to-peer learning is only as good as the peers involved. There is always a place for a lecture to develop understanding of a topic, and, for optimal learning, we also need a forum for student demonstration of learning. That's really nothing new.

3. Do students have a greater opportunity to try bold approaches or develop soft skills of confidence, critical thinking, and collaboration with student-directed project-based learning? 

What we see in the film, and what often happens with group work models, is one student dominates each group and the others follow their lead. In that classroom, a handful of students are making bold approaches, are innovative and creative, and the rest are able to latch on to them. This is precisely my experience in future forums classrooms. A handful of students really benefit from having all doors open to unleash their creativity, and the rest just look for someone to follow. Why would the microcosm of our classroom be any different from the rest of our lives when students are left to their own natural devises?

But education systems should be different than merely abiding by natural inclination. We have to have systems in place to ensure that each student is reaching their potential. This is the downfall of group work project-based models. Another educator noticed this same issue with the group process shown in the film:
"I found the film dangerous, dishonest and emblematic of the culture of entitlement as well as the intellectual collapse of this country. . . . A common scenario in group projects is that one kid winds up shouldering the bulk of the responsibility and work and the others hitch a ride. That appears to be what happened with this play. . . . Leadership, innovation and creativity are all valuable aptitudes, but they are not independent of content knowledge, nor are they necessarily skills that can be taught rather than nurtured, nor are they absent in traditional high school settings. . . . It’s an easy workday for a teacher who doesn’t have to provide remedial instruction nor be accountable for helping kids with extreme academic deficiencies in writing a complete sentence. But, dang it, those projects were so pretty. . . . It is a lie to say that our nation’s public schools are sinking in the muck and mire of a dead curriculum, and it is a slap in the face to all of the amazing teachers who create engaging learning environments . . . All this begs the question: What does have value when it comes to learning? Is it the process or the product? . . . If the product doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter whether it is wood with gears, a play, the SAT, a vocabulary quiz, winning the state football championship, outmaneuvering a multiple-choice test or balancing on your hands with your knees touching your elbows. What does matter is cracking the process to achieve any goal after learning the necessary informational content and then executing those steps, evaluating and strategizing all along the way."
When I worked with the Futures Forum Project, I found student direction to be of far lower quality than what I would provide for students. For the most part, my expectations for students are higher than their expectations for themselves, as I wrote five years ago about my own experiences as a high school student:
"Left to my own devises, I would have picked the shortest reads or tried to read the same books repeatedly and never known what it is to fall in love with a book. I would never have challenged myself to read any higher level than necessary. This is where I'm on my own in the FFP group. I want to dictate content rather than let students discover it for themselves. I want to cram the greatest variety of ideas and events into their heads then let them have freedom to choose how to show they've learned something. . . . tell them stuff; let them work with the material on their own, and then have them show you what they've learned. It's old-school (literally) and "factory" model, but it's very effective with most kids."
Students can still take risks and develop soft skills within our regular, traditional classrooms, provided "traditional" doesn't mean something from the 1930s, as the filmmakers suggest. There's a false dichotomy suggested between traditional and progressive, when, really, what teachers today just stand at the front droning on and on without ever having students create anything of their own??

4. Is it the case that changing the education system will affect the number of jobs available?

One significant premise in the film is that there are fewer jobs out there, a more competitive field to enter, so teaching with more technology will help students' success. Except, it won't make more jobs available. It might, possibly, help some students compete better, but that does nothing to solve the larger issue of job insecurity (nor do yearly contracts in education). There are fewer jobs because tech is taking the place of brawn and brains. At our current trajectory of outsourcing factory work and increasing the use of machines in place of people, we will have an untenable unemployment rate. We can either advise corporations to keep jobs local and powered by people (as Robert Reich suggests in his excellent documentary), or we must develop a guaranteed basic income mixed with community programs to ensure people feel vital in their lives. Otherwise, we should expect a growing population who are unemployed, destitute, and depressed no matter what we do in the educational system.

We all know the employment fields have changed, but it's not as clear how to prepare students for what's out there. Of course we need them to learn critical thinking and the scientific method, and they need to understand current resilience studies, but reading literature and poetry and learning calculus, even if they never use it in a specific job, is educational in its own right. We never truly know what we need to learn for future use. Some of the things I learned from working in insurance have been very valuable in teaching. Who knew!?! Because we can't really know what the future holds, we have to offer a wide variety of teaching subject, content, and skills, like we've been doing all along.

But if we really want to prepare students for the likely future of job insecurity, we have to change the types of goals we encourage:
Most students have to give up on the idea of the standard trajectory of higher education to work to home-ownership; maybe they need to consider a different path of sharing a home and job with friends or family members. Maybe everyone who can swing it should be considering part-time employment. I question some of the goal-setting we do in schools today since many goals students are working towards don't exist in the same way as they once did.

5. Is it the case that we've been teaching the same way for the last century, and should we be?

The fact that my parents, born in the 1920s and educated in Dewey's version of the traditional school model, could both recite significant famous passages in the original Greek and Latin, because rote memorization was key to their success, is enough to convince me we definitely don't teach the way we did 100 years ago. We have changed our methods dramatically over the decades for better or worse. Because the system started when we lived somewhat differently isn't necessarily reason to change the system. Knowing ancient languages wasn't necessary to the job market in the 30s either, but it is useful for developing our brain's ability to form complex memories.

The film director's focus on rejecting the content learning is a straw man argument. One expert in the film says, a bit dramatically, "We're taught not to learn; we're taught to memorize. There's nothing worse for your future, or your soul." They suggest that marks go down on tests taken three months after learning, but that's not what we do with good content-driven courses (like this example). The content is reinforced repeatedly in a variety of ways and new connections built until the understanding is thorough.

One focus the film has, however, is on having separate levels and subjects. Luckily we can see what's happened in schools that have tried to change this. Finland was mandated to reduce subject teaching in favour of topic learning back in 2016, which decreased its top PISA ranking and raised further concerns as related in this article:
"Some, like physics teacher Jussi Tanhuanpaa, fear it does not provide children with a strong enough grounding in a subject to enable them to study it at a higher level. . . . of one cohort of children he knew who took advanced-level maths post-16, some 30% of them had to drop down a level. He also worries it is widening the gap between the most and least able students - a gap that has been historically small in Finland. 'This way of teaching is great for the brightest children who understand what knowledge they need to take away from an experiment. It allows them the freedom to learn at their own pace and take the next steps when they are ready to,' he says. 'But this is not the case for children who are less able to figure it out for themselves and need more guidance.' . . .  
'Many international visitors are asking me, why are you changing this system when you get such good results? And it's a mystery to me, because we don't have any data from school level that phenomenon-based learning is improving results,' Mr. Salminen says. . . . The Educational Endowment Foundation funded a trial of PBL that involved mixed-ability Year 7 children in 24 UK schools between 2014 and 2016. The findings were skewed because a large number of schools dropped out of the study, largely because of the high level of management support and organisational change needed. The trial found no evidence that PBL had a positive impact on pupils' literacy or their engagement with school" 
ETA: Further evidence that we haven't been teaching the same way for the past century can be seen in educational criticism over the years. In 1963, Flannery O'Connor wrote "Total Effect and the Eighth Grade," in which he had the following concern, not dissimilar to my own:
"Ours is the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning, but that is a part of the problem with which I am not equipped to deal. The devil of Educationism that possess us is the kind that can be 'cast out only by prayer and fasting.' No one has yet come along strong enough to do it. In other ages the attention of children was held by Homer and Virgil, among others, but, by the reverse evolutionary process, that is no longer possible; our children are too stupid now to enter the past imaginatively. No one asks the student if algebra pleases him or if he finds it satisfactory that some French verbs are irregular, but if he prefers Hersey to Hawthorne, his taste must prevail. . . . Unless the child has had some literary experience before, he is not going to be able to resolve the immediate passions the book arouses into any true, total picture. . . . All this is another reason why the high schools would do well to return to their proper business of preparing foundations.. . . The high-school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, through the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present. . . . And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed."
If it were the case that we've been teaching the way the filmmakers suggest all this time, then opposition to the film's new fangled student-centred curriculum wouldn't have been a concern of the 1960s.

6. Are bold approaches necessary to optimal learning for every learner; is the entrepreneurial model of success the best model for our many varied students?

An article in the New York Times discusses this concern:
"Less convincing is the assumption that undergirds this whole tract: that every person can — or should — be molded into an entrepreneur. . . . Is an entrepreneurial mind-set really the key to success? Will a culture that hyperventilates over self-made innovators who march, individually, to their own drums really fare any better than one that obsesses over test scores? Is it possible that the authors are just swapping one American dream fantasy for another, with version 2.0 represented not by the immigrant who works hard and stays in school and saves to send his kids to college but by Bill Gates and other Harvard dropouts who have found conventional education too constraining for their own freewheeling brilliance? . . . The problem the authors identify is a real one, but no system works for everyone, and the value system underlying this manifesto presumes that Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Rebecca (or Wagner or Dintersmith, for that matter) are the ultimate exemplars of success. Which leaves whole classrooms full of gifted memorizers, not to mention regular humans who never aspired to be or ever will be a Bill Gates — which is to say, most of us — without a path to follow."
Instead of the current model that allows a variety of paths for the many different kids in our care, this model promotes only the students who can create and innovate. Like the teachers in the Finland program suggested, there are many more who just aren't of the type to innovate than who are. We're not all creative, and that's okay. As I wrote when I was first introduced to the similar future forum teaching system,
It seems to me that it's not the case that open-ended teaching methods that allow students to discover their passions will necessarily take students anywhere they wouldn't go otherwise. And it IS the case that students still need teachers to develop engaging lessons and give them marks for every little thing they do, or they just won't do anything. Some people love learning for its own sake, but some people like jogging at five a.m. every day, too. The rest of us look at them strangely, then get back to watching YouTube videos (and not the educational ones).

7. And the big question: Does technology actually improve learning?

Lots of studies indicate that we remember information better if we write out notes by hand instead of typing them, and reading comprehension increases if it's a hardcopy over a screen, but we can't deny the benefits of online editing and collaborating. The fact that one student's absence has no bearing on the other group members having access to their work is really useful. There are lots of conveniences now that students have regular access to chromebooks. But they aren't the end all and be all of education. They're just a tool. Tech can be as distracting to student learning as it is an enhancement.

And how many websites and apps do we need students to make? One downfall of the number of students creating online resources, is the number of students using student-made resources as primary source documents! They really need to learn how to distinguish a website made from a professional in the field, and one made by a grade 7 student. It's one reason I insist they cite websites themselves without a citation machine in order to force them to search for the author and information about the source.

Technological schools, particularly chartered school, might do better than our public system, but that will largely be a feature of the types of parents sold on the belief that high tech leads to higher profitability. Research doesn't support the constructivist ideas. The demographics might make it true even if all other evidence says otherwise, but that's not to suggest we should follow their lead.

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