Education Enters the Twilight Zone

Disingenuous. Paradox. Counterintuitive. Sophistry. Counterproductive. These five words always fascinated me.  They suggest unexpected warps in a common-sense grasp of the world. Something is out of kilter, weird, defective, or whacko.

American public education in the 20th century -- which has been characterized as "deliberate dumbing down" -- is impossible to discuss without constant recourse to these quirky words. They point to deception, but done with art and flair.

Rod Sterling captured the resulting sense of disorientation: "You unlock this door... Beyond it is another dimension.... You're moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas. You've just crossed over into the Twilight Zone."

"Disingenuous" is when you know the truth about something but you stare blandly into space, pretending not to know the truth. For example, one of the big fads now is called Constructivism. It dictates that teachers should not teach; they should be rebranded as facilitators. Students, meanwhile, are supposed to discover everything for themselves. Sometimes you may get magical results. On average, however, children will need a lot more time to learn any given subject. Meanwhile, the Education Establishment retreats behind a fog of jargon and misdirection, disingenuously pretending not to know why children know so little.

As for "paradox," how about spending twice as much money on education, but twenty years later all stats remain the same? To pull this off, you need true believers pushing empty ideas. Exhibit A is education's supreme paradox. For 100 years, the Education Establishment demonized rote memorization as the worst thing you can do to a child. Then the experts built their entire reading program on an especially brutal and tedious form of rote memorization. Whole Word, you see, requires that children memorize the English language one word at a time as graphic designs (or "sight-words"). Universally demonized, rote memorization has a place of high honor in reading. What a paradox, and a sure tell that the Education Establishment is oblivious or subversive.

"Counterintuitive" can be a delightful notion. Many big scientific breakthroughs, which at first seemed fanciful -- or counterintuitive, turned out to be the exact truth. After all, the Earth does go around the sun. However, just because some idea seems nutty does not mean it will automatically enter the pantheon of counterintuitive breakthroughs. In education, we find a peculiar pattern. Ideas which seem strange and unworkable turn out, after many years, to be strange and unworkable. A trendy example revolves about the question of creativity and how do you teach it. Ken Robinson has become a famous Pied Piper by denouncing contemporary education as dry, dull, and based on "the factory method." Robinson says this approach kills creativity. Using Robinson's broad brush, educators will now try to sweep away the last remnants of traditional education, all because of a counterintuitive idea that is in fact counterintuitive. We are indebted to Professor Robert W. Weisberg, a psychologist who wrote a book called Creativity: Genius and other myths. He has conducted a lot of research on creativity and concludes, "There is evidence that deep immersion is required in a discipline before you produce anything of great novelty." Creativity consists of rearranging all the things you know into new configurations. Leaving a kid empty-headed and expecting that kid to be creative seems counterintuitive and is, cruelly so. (Robinson simply postulates that creativity is all that matters in schools. Since when is that the case? He then uses this fake postulate to discredit everything else, which takes us to sophistry.)

"Sophistry" means winning an argument in any way possible, usually with a peripheral assertion that supposedly proves a central assertion. Most famously: "But everyone's doing it." The Menendez brothers demanded clemency from the court on the grounds that they were orphans -- which they were. If you look at any innovation in public schools, you typically find a lame idea pushed along to victory by irrelevant claims. When Reform Math appeared in the 1980s, one central sophistry was that simple math should be taught by mixing in complex math. In practice, this confuses most kids. The Education Establishment chatters about statistics, trigonometry, coordinates, rational numbers, matrices, and base eight. Most parents don't know how to do trigonometry, never mind base-eight. Such words dazzle and disarm. School officials pretend to believe that if you say "trigonometry" ten times, and call every textbook "pre-algebra," kids will magically learn the skills. The skills, however, are just as difficult to acquire as they were a century ago; meanwhile, today's teaching methods seem deliberately inefficient, and are widely reviled for it. Another beautiful sophistry is called Reading Readiness. The schools would, as noted, use inferior methods; when parents showed up to complain that their kids couldn't read, the schools would say, "Not our fault! Your child lacks reading readiness." See how self-fulfilling these things are?

That's the mark of a beautiful sophistry. You cannot refute it on its own terms. Zeno, a famous sophist, proved that a rabbit can never catch a turtle.

"Counterproductive" is when you boldly advance one step but somehow end up two steps back. That first step was obviously counterproductive. Progressive education, since John Dewey, has rarely taken a step that didn't turn out to be counterproductive. Progressives became obsessed with transforming the U.S. They did not like differences; they worked against the idea of achievement. They had no special regard for knowledge. Most of the schools that ever existed were dedicated precisely to the opposite values. So all of Dewey's ideas were, by intent, counterproductive of traditional American norms but productive of socialism. Of course, they couldn't tell you that. To outsiders it seemed that education had been taken over by lunatics and incompetents. Their grasp of the basics of education appeared to slip away entirely. Welcome to the Twilight Zone.

Some machines, it's said, are lean, mean, and built for speed. Our public schools, in contrast, seem to be built to stay in second gear. Life in the Twilight Zone feels adrift, addled, aimless. There are many shadows. Strange unseen obstacles block all progress. Children wander forlornly in place for years.

Conversely, if you want better schools, first kill all the sophists.

If everyone in the field of education had to tell the truth for a few months, the Twilight Zone would fade away.

Bruce Deitrick Price explains theories and methods on his site

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