K–12: the Clutter is the Message

Traditionally, education was focused on facts, information, details, content, learning, and knowledge, all of these hopefully leading to wisdom.  Now we've gone to the other extreme.

The students learn little, and they cannot connect one fragment of information to another.  Classrooms are filled with chatter.  The brains of students are overflowing with nothing much.

This shift is bizarre.  Wasn't it always assumed we were searching for the truth, for higher understanding, for the inner workings of reality, for the nitty-gritty, as slang had it? 

If you mentioned any of that to today's students, they would wonder what you're babbling about.

By weird accident, or more probably a century-long plot, our Education Establishment embraced every method guaranteed to kick facts to the curb.  There are so many examples: 

Our professors of education agree that students should never have to memorize anything.  What most of us call facts, these professors call factoids so they can more easily be dismissed as trivial. 

If students are made to memorize anything, it's the wrong things, as in the cases of sight-words and cumbersome math gimmicks — e.g., the lattice method.

Direct instruction from teachers to students of any information is scorned.  Children are told to find or create their own new knowledge.  Teachers should not get in the way of this process — i.e., shut up

Children should learn everything as a group so knowledge is blurred and nobody feels in possession of anything in particular.  The big dogma nowadays is that students are encouraged to embark on complex projects which may or may not teach any essential information. 

Education experts talk continually about the importance of critical thinking, but that would require children to have lots of knowledge in their heads so they can learn to prioritize and evaluate this knowledge.  If there's no knowledge there, you cannot learn such skills.  Critical thinking is constantly exalted in our public schools but routinely rendered null and void.

There is now, we might say, a lockdown of every approach once thought constructive and normal and a celebration of every dysfunctional method sure to make the lights dimmer.

For comparison, let's consider what genuine education looks like.  An adult conveys knowledge to a young person.  Ideally, that knowledge is reduced to its simplest form for easy understanding.  If your children are playing in the dirt, you might tell them to be careful they don't have a wound or cut, as that's how germs enter the body.  This is a good stepping-off point for mentioning disease, infection, microbes, and what a clever thing our skin is.

In five minutes you could teach so much valuable information to a classroom of children.  As already noted, however, our schools don't allow such direct instruction.  Students must figure it out for themselves.

As a result, there is no substance in our schools, nothing solid.  At the end of the day, clutter is all that children have encountered.  Reality must seem soft and vague to these children, who know so very little for certain.

I suspect that the most urgent need in our school system is returning to simple statements of facts.  If something is worth knowing, tell the kids about it.  Never mind what mad scientists say.  Share your knowledge with the next generation.

Traditionally, education meant in practice that if somebody mentioned pyramids, you knew that the Egyptians built them along the Nile several thousand years ago.  Basic cultural literacy contains this sort of foundational information, which everyone should know, but almost nobody does nowadays.

I don't think students today become acquainted with the nitty-gritty because they spend the whole time wrestling with content that has been hidden or presented in disjointed ways.  Finally, the world seems soft and muddled.  Students can't have a sense of their culture or their place in it.  Intellectually and academically speaking, they are anorexic.  The early grades are supposed to be a foundation for further advancement.  But this foundation is too often neglected.  And now lots of time must be spent explaining to students why they might feel aggrieved because of social and historical factors.

More than fifty years ago, Marshall McLuhan theorized that "the medium is the message."  One common example is that seeing someone on TV is different from experiencing him in person.  Nobody talks about these distinctions anymore, perhaps because there are so many media now or the differences never were very great.  Now the avalanche of data, the blur of new information, is discussed a lot.  But our schools don't help children deal with this tsunami; rather, they leave children at its mercy.  Now the clutter is the medium.  The big shift is that children became part of the chatter.

Probably the teachers themselves do not know that chatter and clutter are unusual.  Maybe they went to the same sort of school.  In any case, when they got to ed school, they were told to cater to each child's learning style, thereby introducing weird divisions in the class.  Teachers were told to create a lively class by jumping from one topic to another, a gimmick called "spiraling."  Children reach the end of the school year having hardly learned anything.  Ask them simple questions, and you will confirm this.  Education, instead of being a way of connecting to reality, is now a flight from reality.  The schools are fact-averse; they are challenge-averse.  Empty clutter is the norm.  The media are much like scribbling.

QED: Direct instruction is the most efficient way to teach.  You hold up an apple and tell the class, "This is an apple."  A lot more can be taught quickly at each level.  This is not a burden on students.  Teaching them nothing is the burden.

Bruce Deitrick Price is the author of Saving K-12 (a book) and Let's Fix Education (a podcast).

Image via Pxhere.

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