K-12 Education settles for Empty Curriculum

Throughout most of the past century, the big shift in education has always been away from traditional academic subjects and toward faux-subjects and PC attitudes.

Circa 1800, Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia Academy offered: Reading, Handwriting, Writing, Bookkeeping, Arithmetic, Drawing, Rhetoric, Logic, Oratory, Morality, Natural Philosophy, History, Geometry, Algebra, Surveying, Navigation, Astronomy, Geography, Natural History, Mechanics, Gardening, English, Spanish, Latin, French, Greek, German.

In 1937 a New York City report card still listed all these subjects: Reading, Memory, Grammar, Composition, Spelling, Word Study, Penmanship, Arithmetic, Nature-Science, Geography, History-Civics, Drawing, Sewing, Cooking-Shop, Music, Physical Training, Habits (which include Honor, Speech, Cleanliness).

Note that these are subjects where you learn facts, dates, places, knowledge, information, pick any terms you want. All that is scoffed at now. Traditional subjects are déclassé, trivial, not to be bothered with in the modern public school. Now welcome: an empty suit curriculum.

Even if a school claims to teach arithmetic, for one example, it does so in a Common Core approach that virtually guarantees children don’t know how to do arithmetic.

So what will the students do all day? They will learn a variety of “skills” and “competencies” that were hardly thought of 50 years ago.

According to the website called ThoughtfulLearning, “21st century skills are a set of abilities that students need to develop in order to succeed in the information age.” These skills include Learning Skills (Critical Thinking, Creative Thinking, Collaborating, and Communicating); Literacy Skills (Information Literacy, Media Literacy, and Technology Literacy); and finally Life Skills (Flexibility, Initiative, Social Skills; Productivity; Leadership).

A large school district in Virginia recently announced “Compass to 2020, the Strategic Framework.” Buzzwords include: “critical concepts”; “globally competitive skills”;  “Responding to Students Needs (RSN) model”; “effective and innovative teaching practices that maximize rigor and meaningful engagement for all students”; “create inquiry-based and experiential-learning opportunities”; “personalized learning opportunities”; “social-emotional learning strategies”; and “interest-based, flexible, student-directed learning opportunities.”   

We don’t hear much about what facts the children will actually learn. And how do you test all this stuff? Collaborating and communicating? The feeling is that the school system prefers to discuss all these generalized methodologies rather than saying children will know the states in the union or how to do long division.

Professor Charles Fadel, for his Curriculum Redesign initiative, created a PDF presentation that said we need: “Character:  Adaptability—deeper learning; Resilience; Persistence; Ethics, etc.; Skills: Creativity/Innovation; Critical thinking; Communication; Collaboration, etc.”

Resilience and persistence? I suspect the Boy Scouts would teach all these things more effectively than our schools. Or send the kids out for a week of Wilderness Training.

Fadel wants to “Reassess Knowledge for relevance.” He wants to “harness interdisciplinarity.” These were buzzwords 40 years ago.  It seems to be difficult to come up with new and different wisps. But our so-called educators keep trying.

Visit Wikipedia and look at Life Skills, a fad from the last decade or two: “Life skills can vary from financial literacy, through substance-abuse prevention, to therapeutic techniques to deal with disabilities such as autism.” Here are some more: Coping, Defense mechanisms, Emotional intelligence, Emotional literacy, Emotional self-regulation; Empathy, Moral development, People skills, Psychological resilience, Social emotional learning, Social intelligence, Soft skills, Study skills, and Theory of multiple intelligences.

Soft skills? Yes, that’s the perfect word for all of this. It sounds a lot like satire.

Meanwhile, across the country, professors of education now agree that teachers shouldn't teach. Professors from Harvard University pontificate: teachers must be facilitators. In short, the schools won’t be teaching knowledge. They’ll be teaching “resilience" or whatever. Oh, really? 

It’s an historical fact: our public schools have waged war against academic content for a long time. All the jargon discussed so far is simply the latest marketing slogans in a never-ending campaign to make sure that children don’t learn what seven-times-eight is or why George Washington is important. This dilution of content sprang naturally from Dewey’s “progressive” education, which was always intended to lead to a socialist America.

In 1950’s there was the a fad called “Life Adjustment Education.” A professor of curriculum wrote an article in 1954 that began:

"How can secondary-school teaching be enriched and enlivened so as to provide effective education and development for all American young people? How can interest and real effort toward learning be aroused and maintained among pupils who won’t study unless they clearly see a reason for study? What does the secondary school program have do with the development of sound citizenship, with character education, with moral and spiritual values? How can every youngster in school receive individualized, personalized, and sustained guidance and attention? How can school learning be related to the practical down-to-earth concerns for growing boys and girls as they approach adult responsibilities?”

You can plainly see they’re recycling all the same rigmarole today. Here’s the Nihilism Two-Step: You denigrate anything substantial that the schools are still teaching. You announce that henceforth we will focus on cutting edge attitudes and adjustments. 

The bottom line on all of this “adjustment” is that children learn less.  These elite educators fear a fact the way women were traditionally understood to fear a mouse. Oh my God, what is that thing there? Don’t let it in the classroom!

Look back at the subjects that Benjamin Franklin’s Academy taught. Maybe we wouldn’t want big doses of all those topics, but it’s easy to imagine that most people would think this an exciting education: History, Gardening,  Oratory, Drawing, Astronomy, Natural History. This is real education, i.e., what your brain wants to take home and keep.

Instead, we see a Zero Curriculum taking shape. Like Pepsi Zero it will have no calories in it. But the ads will tell you that it’s the perfect beverage.

What we all want is education that’s like a sumptuous buffet, a memorable smorgasbord. Lots of lush facts and fascinating information. If these pretenders up at the Harvard Graduate School of Education would stop fooling around, they would focus on teaching children what children need to know and want to know.

Bruce Deitrick Price explains educational theories and methods on his site Improve-Education.org