“Progressive education” is not the problem — it’s what’s missing that is!

In following a lively and stimulating discussion at EduChatter this past week, I noted that many parents and educators today are turned off with what they see as “progressive” education. Now, while progressive and traditional terminology was not used on that thread, its implicit assumptions were there in relation to the international test results and other related issues. In my opinion, however, any misunderstanding about current pedagogy is not with the concept of “progressive” per se, it is the way it has been distorted that is the problem. For instance, take a look at this Wikipedia site.

Progressive ideas have been around for over a hundred years and John Dewey, the father of progressive education, while opening his first laboratory school in the late 19th century, wrote his books on education in the 1940’s and 50’s. Yes, they were radical at the time, but in my view, they were never about getting rid of all traditional methods. Rather, my interpretation is that progressive and the most effective traditional methods were meant to be integrated in an eclectic way.

Yet, interestingly, it took until the late 1960’s before progressive ideas would begin to affect teacher education and what went on in the classrooms of all publicly funded North American schools. In fact, in Ontario, the Hall Dennis Report came out in 1968. But, the “awakening” as it were, happened all over North America at almost the same time.

Today, however, “liberal progressivism” has become a political ideology more than simply an educational  philosophy. On the Wikipedia site, for instance, readers will find “ideas” that have nothing to do with teaching and curriculum approaches, such as: civil liberties, ethical conservation, economic progressivism, economic interventionism, efficiency movement, environmental justice, fair trade, feminism, labor rights, anti-racism, positive liberty, social justice, social progressivism, techno-progressivism, social welfare, women’s rights, and women’s suffrage.  Nothing wrong with those concepts. The problem is just that there is an assumption that traditional or conservative views don’t encompass fair trade, anti-racism policies, social justice and women’s rights — which they certainly do.

However, the problem, according to the progressives,  was that those traditional methods didn’t encourage problem solving and creative thinking. They also didn’t teach kids how to work with other kids and how to think differently and make connections between subject disciplines. However, the baby was not supposed to have been thrown out with the bath water. Meaning, the best of traditional education was supposed to be integrated with the new progressives ideas. But, unfortunately, it wasn’t. Today, the political left ideology has taken over education from top to bottom, starting as early as the mid 1970’s when “whole language” was instituted. I had just started teaching in 1972 and was part of that wave. Yet, many of us resisted and kept on teaching phonics. I mean, how was it “whole” when so many important parts were being left out? Now, it is almost entirely discovery and language experience, which is not “whole” either.

For example, on the Wikipedia entry, at the very top of the article, is the quote: “A progressivist teacher desires to provide not just reading and drill, but also real-world experiences and activities that centre on the real life of the students. ” (My emphasis.) In other words, progressive education was supposed to be “reading and drill,” as well as the other experiences. It was not one type of learning over the other.

So, maybe, just maybe, Canada’s drop from 7th in the world to 10th on the OECD international test scores, has something to do with this issue.

Updated & shortened December 24,2010

“The Lamppost” blog by an Ontario English teacher

For some time now, I have had Brad W’s blog on my list of “education” favourites. Brad is a high school English teacher somewhere in Ontario. His site is professional, precise, thorough and technologically advanced. In other words, his students and colleagues are lucky to have him.

Anyway, for educators and English literature students everywhere, it’s called “The Lamppost” and can be found at www[dot]thelamppost[dot]ca/blog.

The challenge to define curriculum “basics”

Arguments  have been going on for a very long time now about what is or is not a curriculum “basic.” Yet, many intuitively feel (particularly parents and grandparents) that there are not enough basics going on in our schools today — no matter where we live in the Western world. But is that actually true? Or, is it just a case of teaching methods?

What I mean by teaching methods is that each and every teacher has an instructional style that determines how they will present a unit of study. So, just as we all have different personalities, there is a similar variation on precisely “how” professionals teach.

For example, some teachers like to teach in a more traditional manner and have desks in rows. Others like groups of children so they can use interactive methods like learn-by-doing activities and co-operative group work. Still others are more eclectic and like a bit of both methods — moving desks around to suit the lesson or activity.

In essence then, you can have two teachers teaching the same course of study and, while the students will end up with approximately the same knowledge and skills, they may acquire it very differently. And, frankly, there is nothing wrong with that as long as the basics are part of that process.

But, therein lies a potential problem. Who decides? The principal? Since he or she also have their own preferred methods, that wouldn’t likely be helpful — and why teacher appraisal is so subjective. So, assuming teachers are “satisfactory” or better, in today’s classroom they are the ones who decides “how” they will teach.

While the temptation might be to say: “Well, they should all be taught to teach the same,” that is simply not possible in today’s world — anymore than two dentists have the same chair side manner or two physicians have the same bed side manner. They don’t and neither can teachers.  

For example, let’s say junior level Teacher A includes not only the new words in a reading lesson, but adds related words and has the students keep a spelling journal. Teacher A also insists that a follow-up creative writing activity include correcting all spelling errors on the final draft — and has the students add those new words to the spelling journal. 

Teacher B, on the other hand, teaches the exact same reading lesson but does not keep a spelling record beyond the immediate lesson — but does have the children keep a record of their new words in their notebook. However, Teacher B does not insist that the students correct any spelling errors in their creative writing, assuming that they will learn from those mistakes as they mature — which may or may not actually happen and clearly a topic some feel should be open for debate.

Flashback:  Let’s go back to the start of what educational researchers call “curriculum theory.” Ralph Tyler started it all with his tiny book in 1949.  And, in spite of the fact that thousands of curriculum and instructional design texts have been published since then, his questions are still relevant.

1. What purposes should the school seek to attain?
2. How can learning experiences be selected to help attain these?
3. How can learning experiences be organized for effective instruction?
4. How can learning experiences be evaluated?

So, what purposes should our schools seek to attain in 2009? Sounds simple doesn’t it? Because it is those “purposes” that define curriculum “basics.” 

While we can all agree that our children and youth need to be able to read, write, spell and do basic math — without a calculator — beyond those “basics,” there is little agreement. Some will want to include Canadian history and Canadian geography and I would certainly agree with that.

But, then there is the scientific method, all aspects of the environment, such as the pros and cons of the global warming movement, astronomy, money management, how to write a budget and a resume and how to prepare for a job interview. Of course, there are also the creative subjects like visual art, drama and music — which are essential if we want to create innovative thinkers.

My point in this article is to highlight how there has been disagreement about the basics for a very long time, otherwise Tyler would not have had to articulate how to solve those disagreements. Obviously, I am not suggesting here that we all just throw up our hands and give up — although the teachers’ unions would prefer that approach.

No, I am just explaining where the real change needs to come about — assuming structural change is needed. For example, why do some parents prefer Catholic schools (including many who are not Catholic) over the secular public schools? What is different? And,when parents have a choice in where they send their children, how is that most private schools seem to include the curriculum “basics.” 

Which brings us back to the first Tyler question. What purposes should our schools seek to attain, given the business, job and political environment children and youth will soon be headed? In other words, if we could remove all the edu-babble and political correct issues, what purposes are the “basics?”

Defining our personal “back to basics”

When choosing a university major or college/retraining program, Joseph Campbell suggested we deliberately using our talents and what we enjoy doing. So, when you hear someone say that we have “to get back to our basics,” what exactly does it mean?

What it means to me, for example, as a retired educator, is the traditional basics in the school curriculum — such as the inclusion of phonics instruction at the Grade 1 level and formal spelling up to at least Grade 5. Because, in my opinion, without those specific skills, children are not getting the whole of anything, let alone “whole language.”

To me, it also means: (1) having math drills, at least in the lower grades up to Grade 6, such as the old fashioned ten tests and times tables; and (2) allowing children to learn by doing — in other words to learn from their mistakes.

Put bluntly, we all make mistakes. We all fail at some thing or at some time. That is life. And, no amount of worrying about our self-esteem or trying to protect us from that reality (e.g., social promotion) is going to teach us how to deal with it.  Because, I believe that if children are over-protected in the school system, life will be that much harder for them to deal with when they experience “mistakes” in the home and workplace.

Other people might think of the basics in an entirely different way. For example, as we have found out in the last couple of days regarding the banning of the national anthem at a N.B. school, some might say the basics should be compulsory Canadian history and geography courses in high school (which, by the way, are now compulsory for teaching training admissions) — and I would agree.

To still others, as I said at the start, getting back to the basics might mean changing our consumer driven and fast pace way of life — to living smaller and within our financial means. Yet, since the late 1950’s, and the “fly now pay later ad campaign” it takes most people until retirement age to downsize their housing and their lives.  

What, for example, would life be like without personal credit? What would our lives be like if we actually had to save and pay cash for most of what we purchased? What would our society be like if everyone had to have a minimum of 25% down when they purchased their homes?

Things to think about.

“The basics” & society’s changing expectations

If parents and educators want to stress more of “the basics” in public schools, something is going to have to give because the school day and the school curriculum are just too crowded. It’s odd, really, how people will complain that the education system does not respond to public input and pressure when, in actual fact, it has responded to the point of its detriment.

For example, in September of 1972 when I started teaching elementary school, I had a homeroom Grade 6 and taught visual art to Grades 6 to 8. My morning consisted of two main blocks of time. From 9am until 10:30 it was language arts (reading, writing and spelling) and from 10:45 until noon it was math. That was it. Then, in the afternoon, there was phys. ed/health, music or art (on alternating days) from 1 until 2:00 and social studies or science from 2:15 until 3:30pm.

In many ways it was like “the balanced school day” now with the large blocks of time — but with fewer subjects. Clearly the emphasis was on what many call “the basics” — reading, writing and arithmetic, social studies and science.

Then, along came (in no particular order) daily classes of “sustained silent reading (SSR),” phys ed, health and French. Then, we were asked to include dental education and sex education in health. Now, I understand there are also curriculum units on diversity and equity (including gender equality), family education and drug education.

Now, a key question could be: How did all that change come about? Well, in my opinion, most of these additions were not as a result of research and academic elites telling the education system what to include in the curriculum.

While it is true educational researchers (following on the heels of the Hall Dennis Report in the late 1960’s) were responsible for the start of social promotion, open concept schools and so-called “whole language,” it was parental pressures that made the biggest difference when it came to adding to the curriculum — making it very crowded indeed.

So, here we are now, some 36 years later, and when we look back we realize just how much the publicly funded “system” has responded to public pressures. The problem is, however, that in responding to those demands, nothing was thrown out.  The day was not lengthened. The year was not lengthened and, in fact, has actually been shortened because of all the professional development days.

In other words, time on the “basics” have had to be continually reduced to make way for all these other demands.  Now what? There are only so many hours in a day and something has to give.

While many love to blame teachers and the teachers’ unions for all that is wrong with the education system — and they are responsible for the professional development days and I admit that not all teachers are created equal — there also needs to be some soul searching here as well by parents, past and present.

How many times have I heard comments like: “Why are they not learning that at school? I mean, how much time can it take in a week to teach _____?” Fine, but you can’t have it both ways. And, while it may not be politically correct to ask: What is left for children and youth to learn at home?

Moira MacDonald has an excellent column in today’s Toronto Sun on the complexity of the school system and how busy it is. Well, if parents want more of the “basics,” they are either going to have to take something away, lengthen the school day or lengthen the school year. Or, all of the above.

This issue is not just about teachers and teachers’ unions. It is also about parents and society’s expectations. 

Just a thought. But, maybe that is why independent schools do so well (or even the publicly funded Catholic system who also manage to include religious classes). They do not need to be all things to all people. So, when parents are able to choose where to send their children, they decide which school provides what they feel their children need — and usually the curriculum in private schools focuses on “the basics.”

Something to think about. 

H/T to Cathy Cove for the MacDonald article URL.

End-of-the-year thank you to teachers!

At this time of year it is a good time to honour classroom teachers. As I wrote not too long ago, Prime Minister Harper recently honoured them as well. They are dumped on by the public so much of the time for the problems within the system, their accreditation bodies, their union leadership and the various provincial government’s — all situations beyond their control or influence.

What they can influence, however, are the children in their care — in loco parentis — in place of the parents. Like parents, they love children and they want only the best for them. And, yes, in spite of two months vacation every summer, teachers work very hard. For all those who complain that they work just as hard, that may be true. But, that shouldn’t take away from the dedication and commitment most teachers have for their jobs.

And, contrary to popular opinion, most teachers do not have two months off in the summer. Both my husband and I had to complete our university and graduate degrees during that period — all so we would be better teachers.

So, for today, let’s look at what teachers do in the life of our children and grandchildren. Think about it. Children spend most of their day — and young lives — with their peers and their teachers, not with their parents. As a result, the affect those teachers have on their outlook on life is tremendous.

What is nice is that at this time of year, most people put aside all their grievances with the “education system” and think of individual teachers. It is the time, as Moira MacDonald writes, when parents and their children frantically look for just the right thank you card or end-of-the-year gift — a gift that is personal enough to show that the child and his or her parents really do appreciate all the teachers have done during the year.    

One teacher I have been following this year is a high school English teacher. He has his own blog called “The Lamppost.”  Take a visit to his blog. He obviously stretches his students to the max to cover not only current affairs, but the classics — literature and philosophy both. He is an example of how dedicated teachers can be and I know there are many more out there in the blogosphere that I have missed.

To teachers everywhere, thank you. And, if you got another collection of thank you “mugs” this week, just start another shelf. Each one will remind you how important you are in the life of the children you teach.

H/T to Cathy Cove for MacDonald’s column.

Jeffreys principal proves Africentric not the issue

Not long ago I posted articles here on what makes a successful school. I also published my disagreement with the Toronto District School Board decision to fund an Africentric black-focused school. This post will deal with an excellence piece in the Toronto Star. Written by Kristen Rushowy, it is about the new principal at C.W. Jeffreys high school in Toronto.

Well, when I read the Kaplan article, I was struck how much the new principal at C.W. Jeffreys, Jim Spyropoulos, seemed to meet the criteria of what makes a school and principal excellent. A difficult situation for anyone, C.W. Jeffreys is a high school of 890 students and where young Jordan Manners was shot and killed in May of 2007. Yet Spyropoulos takes it all in stride.  Obviously, the right kind of leader in the right place at the right time.

And, what exactly does Spyropoulos do? He apparently is just himself, greeting students with “How you doing, man, you good?”  In fact, he greets all the students at the main door in the morning and says goodbye to them in the same spot at the end of the day. He continually walks the halls, directing traffic, speaking to students as he goes. On one of those walks one young girl with a Muslim head scarf shouts “Mister, will you come to our class today and see what we made?” “Definitely girls, of course I’ll be there.” And, later in the day, he IS there.
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