Be Suspicious Of Methods Used In American Public Schools
Nov 1, 2010 Teaching Methodology 3019 Views
American children often perform poorly against international competition, this despite massive amounts of money spent on schools. I don’t think there’s a problem with American children. The problem is with our Education Establishment, that is, the so-called experts at the top. For the last 80 years they have been much in love with collectivism, and have tended to emphasize social engineering over intellectual engineering.
I mention all of this to an ESL audience for only one reason: beware of the innovations you embrace. For thousands of years, school has been a simple concept. You have a group of children and an adult with much more information who tries to bring the kids up to the same level. A well-informed, passionate teacher is the most wonderful thing you can have. But our Education Establishment likes to downplay the role of the teacher and to pretend that gimmicks can do the heavy lifting.
Here then is a short list of the innovations that have encumbered our public schools:
CONSTRUCTIVISM: children are supposed to create their own new knowledge, in all subjects. Children with some background information can sometimes use it to create new knowledge. But how does a child create basic facts, such as 4+6 equals 10 or Paris is the capital of France? It’s much simpler for the teacher to transmit such facts, as dramatically as possible, as quickly as possible.
SELF-ESTEEM: this is a very big fad in the US. Teachers are supposed to give lots of compliments. But why work if you get compliments for doing nothing? The best way to gain genuine self-esteem is to take on difficult projects and do them well. Furthermore, self-esteem works against all intellectual content. Why? Because the moment you try to teach something to a group of children, some of them won’t get it. They will feel bad. You’ve lowered their self-esteem, and that’s a crime. So you end up teaching less and less.
COOPERATIVE LEARNING: socialism likes to have children working in groups as if the whole point of life is that everybody works as part of a group. In fact, we often have to do things alone. We have to drive a car to work. We have to sit at our desk and solve problems. There are some jobs where we will be working on a team, and some preparation for that is probably helpful. But the picture I get of many American public schools is the children are always sitting at a table with a group. It’s their little family; and everything they do is part of this group. This approach slows down the faster students; it hides how far behind the poorer students are.
NO MEMORIZATION: all the way back to John Dewey, there has been a prejudice in American schools against asking children to memorize basic facts. In truth, it is the very essence of some subjects to learn basic facts as well as possible. Only by knowing the names of the oceans, states, rivers, etc. can you go on to learn the history that takes place on that ground. The brain is designed to like information and to want to learn more facts.
SIGHT WORDS: Probably the most devastating aspect of American public education is that many children never learn to read. As Rudolf Flesch pointed out in 1955, the culprit is usually Whole Word or Sight Words. Using a phonetic approach is crucial.
REAL MATH: another epidemic in US schools is Reform Math or Constructivist Math. Rather than try to describe all these wrong-headed programs, it’s easier to state what should be done. You teach the simplest facts in a slow systematic way so that children gain mastery and confidence. Reform Math tends to spiral children around from topic to topic; not to teach the most obvious ways of doing things; and worst of all to mix in advanced concepts with simple concepts.
Well, it’s impossible to list all the foolish ideas now popular in American public schools. But this short list covers the worst practices. I’ve written an article (you can Google) called “50: Teach One Fact Each Day,” which makes the point that if children learn just one tiny little fact each day, that would be 200+ per year. By the seventh grade they would know more than 1500 facts. What American public schools are doing now is letting children reach high school not knowing even 100 facts.
Information is not presented as something they need to have in their minds. So their whole educational process becomes like a dream from last week. It’s very hazy and quickly fades away.
My suggestion is to teach all the basic information over and over, in different entertaining ways and in different contexts, until children have it all in their heads. They will do much better at all of their subsequent studies.
Here are some relevant articles on the author’s site Improve-Education.org:
26: How To Teach History, Etc.
42: Reading Resources
36: The Assault On Math
38: Saving Public Schools
34: The Con in Constructivism