“Both Parties Are On the Same Side: The Wrong Side”

by Robert Pondiscio
July 16th, 2009

Neither the Republicans or the Democrats understand what it takes to produce educated Americans, writes Mike Petrilli in the latest Education Gadfly.  Commenting on the image projected by Sarah Palin, he notes there was a time when Republicans “valued candidates who could demonstrate mastery of subjects like history, geography, and political philosophy.  But splitting the country politically between wholesome Joe Sixpacks in the heartland and “the oversophisticated, overeducated, oversecularized denizens of the coasts” has driven well-educated voters away from the GOP.

So naturally, the Democrats have rushed in to fill the void, right?  Wrong, says Petrilli, who wryly observes that so far the group “Liberals for the Liberal Arts” has yet to be founded.  “Democratic reformers seem just as enamored with the utilitarian and narrow drive toward ‘college and work readiness’ as their Republican counterparts, if not more so,” he notes.  If you need proof, take a look at Ed Secretary Arne Duncan’s speeches.

Over the past six months, he’s made nine major policy addresses that have been posted on his Department’s web site. And in those speeches, he’s mentioned “history,” “literature,” and “geography” exactly zero times. Meanwhile, there were seven instances of “accountability,” and “charter schools” left his lips an astounding twenty-nine times.  Duncan and his team are pushing for structural changes in the system; they, like most reformers these days, are ignoring the “stuff” of education–what students actually need to learn in order to become good Americans.

“But these Democratic reformers had better be careful,” Petrilli concludes.  ”An obsessive focus on nothing but basic skills in reading and math, which can be chopped into little bits of data with which we can make all manner of decisions, will result in a generation of students who will make Palin sound like Socrates.”

Reading Strategies and Cargo Cult Science

by Robert Pondiscio
July 16th, 2009

The idea that it’s enough to simply ”find what works, adopt it, and spread it around,” notes scientist/blogger Allison over at Kitchen Table Math is an example of what physicist Richard Feynman called “Cargo Cult Science“:

In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

“Cargo Cult education seems to be all the rage in lots of communities,” Allison notes.  “Sure, districts could just start grabbing lessons from high performing schools but that won’t make the students suddenly read or write.  Unless they understand what’s underneath the ‘lessons of the high performing school’ then it won’t matter.”

I had never heard this Feyman anecdote but I may have to start calling our reliance on “reading strategies” instruction “Cargo Cult Reading.”  Its entire point  is to teach children “what good readers do” and the habits of mind that are reflexive to able readers.  It’s the exactly the same thing–you teach kids to mimic the behaviors that lead to comprehension–but without the background knowledge that actually makes it possible.  Indeed, a staple of strategy instruction is to teach children that good readers ”activate their prior knowledge to create mental images, ask questions, and make inferences.”  How exactly does that work in the absence of prior knowledge to activate? 

One of the things that more advantaged students typically bring to school is a lifetime of background knowledge (or “schema” as reading strategy enthusiasts prefer to call it) that makes comprehension possible.  Without it you’re sitting in the jungle waiting for the planes to land.

Teens Don’t Tweet

by Robert Pondiscio
July 16th, 2009

When 15-year-olds are writing research reports for Morgan Stanley advising executives worldwide how teens use social media, perhaps it’s an indication that we really don’t neeed to worry about teaching this stuff in school.  

By the way, according to the much-discussed report by bank intern Matthew Robson, teens don’t tweet.

“Teenagers do not use Twitter,” he wrote. “Most have signed up to the service, but then just leave it as they realise that they are not going to update it (mostly because texting Twitter uses up credit, and they would rather text friends with that credit). They realise that no one is viewing their profile, so their tweets are pointless.”

All those lesson plans with Twitter?  Have you considered 8-track tapes?  A Victrola?