Learning the old-fashioned way

Barbara Kay, National Post · Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010

Back to school! To mark the occasion, I recommend a little book for parents of school-age children. The no-nonsense title of this no-nonsense book is What's Wrong with our Schools And How We Can Fix Them, by longtime educational professionals Michael C. Zwaagstra, Rodney A. Clifton and John C. Long.

This book is short, fewer than 200 pages. It is easy to read -- like a school primer, no coincidence. Even at the end of a long day, parents can manage the necessary 20 minutes it takes to read a chapter.

The writers are conservative. They argue that students are best educated by traditional, pragmatic methods. The "what's wrong" of their title is the reigning, anti-traditional educational approach to teaching that has for decades monopolized the public system.

The authors define this approach as "romantic progressivism." Romantic progressivists feel education is a holistic endeavour. They worry more about children's self-esteem and social inclusion than how much objective knowledge they acquire. Romantic progressivists are contemptuous of the kind of education my generation received -- Direct Instruction: children seated in front-facing rows, a teacher dispensing information, phoneme-based reading ( "Run, Spot. Run, run, run."), a good deal of rote arithmetic drills, frequent, standardized testing, and so forth. Romantic progressivists also are given to touchy-feely edu-speak, like "learning to learn" and "higher order thinking" and "meaning-making in a context-rich environment," imprecise terms representing theories supported by very weak--or no--scientific evidence.

This book debunks the progressivists in a pleasingly non-combative, chipper, mild-mannered way, one of its charms. The chapter headings speak for themselves: "Tests are good for students"; "Students need discipline"; "Direct instruction is good teaching"; "Grades should reflect achievement"; "Teachers' unions don't always put students first."

Every chapter is similarly plotted. It begins with an anecdotal prologue contrived to animate the presenting issue, followed by an introduction to the debate amongst educators, then by the for and against arguments, and ends with

recommendations capped by a relevant bibliography of evidence-based support for the authors' arguments.

For example, in the prologue to the chapter on Direct Instruction, a Grade 11 student, Wilma, compares two of her teachers. One is old Mr. Reynolds, a didactic teacher of the traditional school. He is teacher-centred, i.e. he offers objective knowledge to students seated in rows facing him. He gives systematic explanations and topical lectures, asks specific historical questions and demands that research papers be written with correct grammar and spelling. Mr. Reynolds challenges students with demanding individual research, including the use of primary sources, and grades according to achievement.

Then there is Mrs. Merrifield, a romantic progressivist, who explains that she doesn't believe in "passive" learning, encouraging Wilma to sit with her friends in one of several circles, where students "discover" knowledge with each other. She tells the students that she sees herself more as "a guide by the side" rather than a "sage on the stage," and that everyone should feel "included as members of a learning community, of which I, too, am a member." Mrs. Merrifield doesn't believe in textbooks or choosing topics for the students. The students are to form their own "expert groups" on topics they find interesting, discovering their own resources and research tools by themselves.

Imagine learning a sport or any skill by amateur group "discovery" rather than through instruction and drills. In their gentle demolition of the "guide by the side" paradigm, the authors note the salient fact that when proponents of the romantic progressive approach to education wish to convey information to their peers or apprentices, they do not seat them in circles and give them free rein, hoping they will arrive at the data they consider important.

The authors cite guru Alfie Kohn, for instance, a severe critic of Direct Instruction, who himself directly instructs teachers. His progressivist followers sit in rows listening to him lecture about how they shouldn't lecture their students sitting in rows. Why isn't he himself a "guide by the side"? Because "Kohn only has a short time to convey his ideas and he realizes that the most effective way of doing it is in a formal presentation that he has composed and organized." Q.E.D.

Read this terrific little book, parents (Read, parents. Read, read, read.) and don't be put off by the "for-dummies" simplicity of the format and language. About 100 aggregate years of these authors' research, hands-on teaching and good old common sense have been poured into a hopper to produce the crystalline distilled wisdom you'll find here. You have two weeks to complete this assignment. There will be a test. I wish.