Sages on Stages Desperately NeededBy Bruce Deitrick Price
It was the first premise of all schools throughout history: students would be educated by people who were themselves already educated. A biology teacher had to be an expert in biology; a history teacher must know history to teach history. Who would question the wisdom of these statements?
This country's Education Establishment now preaches a contrary view. Students must not be told that 2+3=5; this is not "authentic learning." Essentially, teachers should stop teaching. The theory, generally called Constructivism or Discovery, requires that students (typically working in groups) construct knowledge for themselves.
This approach gained traction in the 1980s and is now one of the central dogmas of progressive or modern education. Classrooms, we are told, should be not "teacher-centered," but "student-centered."
Traditionally, students were entitled to sages. But now the official slogan is: "We don't need sages on stages. We want guides at their sides."
In practice, teachers don't lead the class. Rather, they become part of the class and wander among the students, nodding encouragement. As this philosophy has hardened, teachers have been rebranded as "facilitators." Increasingly, they are told to move to the back of the class and stay out of the way.
There are obvious problems. First, the person in the room who knows the most is forced to remain silent. Second, Constructivism, if it happens at all, will obviously be a slow process.
There are many simple facts (Paris is the capital of France) that can be taught directly in seconds. There are many complex phenomena (the origins of the French Revolution) that need to be explained at length. Facilitators can neither teach directly nor explain at length.
The general idea is that students will go to the internet or other sources and figure out everything for themselves. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to conclude that the amount of knowledge transmitted per class will be drastically reduced.
Constructivism removes pressure from teachers to become expert in their subjects. Ed schools and administrators will ignore academic preparation even more than they did in the past, and instead focus on making sure facilitators have accepted their more passive roles. ("Ms. Jones, you were teaching again. That's the third time this week.")
In sum, Constructivism guarantees that teachers know less and children learn less.
It's as if all the dance instructors in the country had been recast as chaperones. How will anyone learn to dance? (Oh, that's right. They'll create dance for themselves.)
One result, which may still sound startling, is that students will be constantly told to explain how they will solve a problem, as opposed to actually solving it. If students have a good strategy, they can get a good grade. The Education Establishment brags that it is no longer interested in the "what" but in the "how."
Everyone in education pretends that these theories are new and exciting, but most are warmed-over John Dewey. More than a century ago, he introduced the notions that children should be engaged in meaningful activities and should learn by experience. A little of this might be helpful. But now we've reached a situation where all teachers are expected to behave like Den Mothers in the Cub Scouts. Children have their not very cerebral activities. Den Mothers preside.
Surveys show that, across the board, Americans have scant general knowledge. Cynics say that constructivist theory is one big reason we have so much dumbing down. As this policy is required, we can now properly use the phrase "deliberate dumbing down."
It looks as if Constructivism will become more draconian in Common Core.
A teacher sent me this note: "I just read a post by Sandra somebody or other in a Charter School discussion group that basically said that Common Core State Standards require constructivist education...and that any teacher who didn't like it should be forced out of the profession or leave! There you have it. And this woman works for a consulting firm which is paid by schools on how to evaluate teachers under CCSS!"
If you want to understand the folly of these methods, just consider a real school: flying school, medical school, driving school, investing school, tattoo school, mountain-climbing school, et al. Suppose that the teacher refused to teach and instead told you to explain how you will find the answers. Predictably, you would demand your money back and run.
It's noteworthy that when grown-ups attend a high-end lecture, you can be sure there will be a sage on a stage, and a rapt audience guilty throughout of inauthentic learning.
Simply put, our Education Establishment doesn't want to teach geography, history, science, and all such old-fashioned knowledge. It wants to pretend to teach newfangled stuff such as critical thinking, creativity, digital literacy, and other buzzwords.
What can the children do to protect themselves? Very little. It's up to the parents and community leaders to rescind these absurd fads. Otherwise, teach kids on the side, at home, and on weekends. By any means possible, go beyond what the school requires, because the school often requires little.
This whole slide toward nothingness is disrupted only if at any point somebody insists on teaching something, learning something, or expecting somebody to know something. This is the reason we hear so much about "assessment and alignment." They want to teach as few morsels as possible, and then design tests that give an A to anyone knowing those morsels. The main thing seems to be to level everyone to average -- and to keep the bodies moving through K-12 to college. There is a lot of money in education if the bodies are there.
The teaching of the young is a small, helpless animal in the teeth of the giant dragon called Edusaurus. Or do you prefer Holocaust imagery, where education is sent to the gas chambers? Just don't try to say later that we didn't know.
Bruce Deitrick Price explains education theories and methods on his site Improve-Education.org.
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