K–12: Reality Fades to Zero

David Copperfield is famous for making a whole airplane disappear.  In the video, a Learjet encircled by 30 people, vanishes.  Very impressive.

Our Education Establishment wants to surpass Copperfield.  These people hope to make everything disappear.

Starting a hundred years, our Progressive educators became increasingly fond of discarding knowledge, facts, geography, history, science, grammar, and traditional content in general.

If a teacher does mention facts, students are not encouraged to actually know them.  Memorization is nearly a taboo.  Serious testing is demonized.

Everything must go, one way or another.  Schools and teachers are urged to accommodate pedagogical innovations intended to justify turning away from the academic side of life.  One question is, why do we want to do that?  A second question is, what are we getting instead?

About 20 years ago, a great number of videos sprouted on YouTube, all preaching the glories of 21st-Century Learning.  The recipe was emphatic: everything has changed, so get rid of old-fashioned categories such as information and knowledge.  Instead, let's emphasize Critical Thinking, Cooperation, Creativity, Global Literacy, Health Literacy, Financial Literacy, Communication, Civic Literacy, Global Awareness, Digital Literacy, Collaboration, et al.  These novelties are often capitalized, as if to suggest the utmost solidity.

In the last several years, another alibi opened up as social justice warriors found more reasons for anger and resentment.  Once students are made to open their eyes, history is nothing but a parade of politically incorrect affronts that need to be erased.  History was dominated by men, therefore it can be ignored.  Most science was invented by males; no good.  Battles and other military events often illustrate aggression and competition.  We should not celebrate antiquated, capitalist values.

Recently, a new approach surged to the forefront.  It's called Social and Emotional Learning (SEL).  Forget reading and writing; forget even the occasional fact.  The real agenda that schools should cover are "attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions."  Our professors of education promote alternatives for everything once considered the reason for education. 

Meanwhile, as newfound Literacies emerge, the Education Establishment seems to know that the illusion of education must be maintained.  The public should not think the changes have been overwhelming, even as schools become different creatures.  Students should seem to be engaged in what almost resembles traditional activities.

An old blueprint has been put on steroids.  Projects (as in Project-Based Learning) are more ambitious, more all-consuming.  For example, one team of students spent weeks designing a river's new shape — every detail of it.  Of course, the real river was done by engineers and architects with sophisticated skills.  Can high school kids understand the dangers in their proposals?  But that's not the main problem.  In focusing on a huge but imaginary project, students may be kept from mastering the practical knowledge needed to work on real-world problems.

In the future, we'll see constant references to games, as if these will become the main means of instruction.  The idea is to make education fun like the videogames that kids play. 

Nathaniel Bott, a TED lecturer, wants students to use Minecraft to create elaborate new realities.  The umbrella term is gamification; millions of people have spent weeks and probably months building cities, businesses, whatever they can imagine.  The projects are often ambitious but self-referential.  Possibly it might be more valuable and even more entertaining to learn about Caesar Crossing the Rubicon or the Great Edison-Tesla War.

Can you remember a science project you made?  It may have been rough, even amateurish, like the clay model I made of the human eye.  But I never forgot the real lessons taught by that eye.  I was trying, as best as I could, to connect to the real world, not drift off into an imaginary world.

On the other hand, when you play games all year, what do you actually learn?  There seems to be a great deal of overselling, as in this claim: "people who experience these types of authentic learning experiences retain information for months and years after."  Authentic learning experiences?  The one thing the students undoubtedly learn is how to continue doing the same sort of authentic activity.  In playing baseball, you surely do learn to play baseball.  But you don't learn much history, science, geography, etc.

The paradigm seems to be out with reality, in with quasi-reality.

What we see in all of these developments is a fascination with things that are not real and a slide away from what is undeniably real.

What exactly, we might ask, is reality's big sin?  Why do our professors of education want so desperately to avoid it?  The problem, apparently, is that it's real.  How crass.  Traditional education was intended to take you closer to reality and deeper into reality.  Now it seems that education's aim, however possible, is to minimize contact with reality.

Finally, when you go out into the world, no matter what your job is, you will be dealing with the nitty-gritty, as they used to say.  If you're not prepared to grapple with reality, you'll probably be ground up and spit out.

Our school are harming students when those students are wrapped in a bubble.  Isn't this a dereliction of duty?  Isn't it like coddling soldiers in basic training so they go to the front lines not knowing how to clean a rifle?

For the past century, Progressive education has been soft on facts and established realities.  Now might be a good time to reconsider this abandonment of the actual.  Instead, let's contemplate the very real subjects and the very real knowledge that every citizen needs to be effective in a complex modern world.

Bruce Deitrick Price's new book is Saving K-12: What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them?  (A good gift for smart friends.)  Price deconstructs educational methods on Improve-Education.org.

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