Recently, a parent whose child attends a public elementary school in Round Rock, Texas, shared with me her frustration with the school curriculum. Her son is mathematically inclined and has always excelled in that subject. But at this school his 4th-grade homework often consists of a single word-problem. ‘Johnny’ reads the problem, quickly identifies and writes the mathematical procedure, and computes the correct answer. At this school, however, the right answer to 7 times 9 is not sufficient. Johnny must write a paragraph explaining the procedure and create a chart to categorize 4-6 data items from the 2-sentence word problem. Like most 9-year-old boys, Johnny is more geared toward facts rather than interpretation, and so he is barely passing math.
Part of the problem for Johnny and his teachers is the constant cycle of education fads that sweep through public schools every few years. The cycle begins with education pundits bashing the previously used method as “outdated” and “ineffective.” Convinced that they are ‘behind the times,’ school boards and administrators lap up the splashy sales presentation from the curriculum company, and commit hundreds of thousands of dollars to purchase the ‘new’ programs. Teachers are sent to re-training seminars so that they can finally learn how to teach the children properly, and parents proudly boast about the wonderfully progressive school their children attend. That is until the test scores remain unchanged or have fallen, and then the cycle begins again.
Consequently much of what public schools teach is a mish-mash of various fads that promised to ‘transform’ education. The result is often alarmingly absurd. In Johnny’s case his capacity for quick mathematical computation is being slowed down, and the child who loved math now hates math class.
The latest education fad is 21st Century Learning Skills, in which advocates argue that the new education model will prepare students for modern life with ever-changing technology. They accurately note that today’s technology will most likely be obsolete in just a few years, and that the world is constantly generating new information. Therefore, 21st century education should prepare students to function in such a world. 21st Century Skills promotional materials claim to emphasize the 4 C’s: Critical Thinking, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity. All worthy goals, and what parent would not want them?
A closer examination of some of the 21st Century material, however, gives cause for concern. For example, one promotional video states that in this “New paradigm for a new age,” we must “shift from knowing the right answer, to asking the right questions.” They claim that today’s children are ‘wired’ differently and must be taught in a radically different way. Because of technology and the constant generation of new ‘content,’ 21st century children just need to know how to find the latest information. Teachers in the brave new world will not be authorities, but only facilitators to these new radically creative and innovative children. As the 21st Century folks put it, the “sage on the stage must become the guide on the side.”
While there are some valid concepts in the 21st Century Skills approach, there is nothing new here: this approach to education is merely a re-packaging of the teachings of socialist philosopher John Dewey-from the turn of the 19th century. Likewise, Dewey ridiculed traditional education and wanted to ‘free’ children* from boring facts that might interfere with creativity and ‘critical thinking.’ The only new element in 21st Century Skills is the emphasis on technology, which means lots of sales for computer manufacturers. “A laptop on every desk” means these companies will have millions more dollars in sales. And of course they will benefit in the long-term from an increasingly technology-addicted society.
The greatest concern with the old-new education fads is the consistent denigration of solid knowledge. Like those who’ve gone before them, the 21st Century Skills gang ridicules teaching rote knowledge, but the truth is that one cannot engage in the kind of critical thinking they claim to value if one does not have a grasp of basic facts. Yes, in some areas knowledge changes, but 7 times 9 will still equal 63 regardless of what version of Windows we use.
Traditional ‘Classical’ education, used since Plato, recognized that foundational knowledge is essential and that children are not ready to engage in rhetorical exercises until they’ve reached a certain maturity level. Without the ‘right answers’ students will not be able to ask the ‘right questions,’ and we’ll have a nation full of technology-addicted adults asking insipid, uninformed questions.
But don’t bring up Plato and his ideas to the 21st century folks; he’s just a boring dead guy and how could he possibly engage in critical thinking without an iPad?
For further reading on the deteriorating public school math curriculum: “Mathematics Education: Being Outwitted by Stupidity” by Barry Garelick.
*While I cannot agree with all of her conclusions, Educator Lisa VanDamme’s indictment of John Dewey and his impact on education is spot-on:
…Dewey attacked traditional, intellectual education—education in which facts are taught and learned—as forced, artificial, and irrelevant to the child’s true needs. He urged an approach to education that is “child-centered,” allowing for his instinctive and spontaneous development—as well as one that eventually provides for the “socialization” of the child. In School of Tomorrow, Dewey praised Rousseau for seeing that a proper education allows the child’s mental development to be as natural and spontaneous as physical growth. He said, “If we want, then, to find out how education takes place most successfully, let us go to the experiences of children where learning is a necessity, and not to the practices of schools where it is largely an adornment, a superfluity, and even an unwelcome imposition.”7
If formal, reality-oriented, intellectual education is an “imposition” on childhood, it is an imposition that has long since been removed. Dewey’s “progressive” method, founded on the rejection of reason, knowledge, and intellectual training—and on the enshrinement of emotional impulse, “experience,” and “social adjustment”—has dominated American schools for the past century. The “remote,” “musty” subject of history has been replaced by the disintegrated mash of allegedly “relevant” data known as social studies. The “futile,” “lofty” attempt to systematically teach abstract principles of science has been replaced by the fun, child-focused “learning-by-doing” method of making collages and finding moths on a wall. The “distant,” “antiquated” works of world literature have been replaced with contemporary, hip “boy-makes-good tearjerkers” that appeal to the immediate concerns of the most childish children. Rigorous training of the intellect has been replaced with, in the words of the “progressive” educators, a more “practical,” “child-centered,” “humane” approach to education.
The practical result of all of this has been legions of ignorant children, unequipped for a successful human life.