100 Years of Solipsism

by Robert Pondiscio
February 8th, 2010

There is a significant shortcoming in Susan Engel’s much-discussed and widely lauded vision of what children should do in school all day, writes Dan Willingham at the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog, and it’s that content is never mentioned.  “It’s all about process—reading is a skill, science is all about observing and finding patterns, and so on,” he writes.

“Skills and knowledge are actually not separable, and it’s a mistake to base a curriculum solely on skills. The response, I expect, would be that the content will come along naturally, as part of the authentic activities. But it hasn’t in the past. 

Citing Diane Ravitch’s Left Back, Willingham points out that Engel’s ideas are not fresh and new, nor are they based on “modern developmental science” as she claims.   And they’re not necessarily bad ideas.  However, they are nearly impossible to implement effectively.

Progressive curricula are characterized by “authenticity.” Authenticity means that the underlying principles that the child is supposed to learn are seldom overt. To learn about ecosystems, the child might grow tomatoes. It is simply harder to ensure that the child is thinking about ecosystems and not about tomato sandwiches, or that worms are gross, or that his shoes are muddy. It can be done, assuredly, and it’s wonderful when it is, but it presents real challenges.

“Done right, progressive methods are terrific. All the benefits — student engagement, understanding that is more closely tied to out-of-school contexts — do accrue. Done wrong, progressive methods turn in to fluff, into kids horsing around a greenhouse,” he concludes.

Over at Teacher in a Strange Land, the redoubtable Nancy Flanagan comes to Engel’s defense.  Sort of.  Flanagan shows she understands the complexity of successful project-based learning.  If Engel gets it, her piece gives no clue.  Rather she leaves the distinct impression that everything worth knowing can be arrived at by diligent inquiry, which is a tall order–especially for young children. 

Me?  I’m grateful for the Pythagorean Theorem.  And even more grateful that someone explained it to me rather than leaving it to me to discover on my own.


  1. I never quite understood how the “50 monkeys at typewriters” method of teaching math was supposed to result in a bunch of kids replicating the work of Pythagorus, Archimedes, Euler, Gauss, Newton, Reimann, Hilbert and Gödel.

    The only person in history to come close to doing that was Srinivasa Ramanujan!

    It is a tremendous misunderstanding of math to think that when taught rigorously in detail that it can even begin to “kill the mystery” or prevent people from having that “I get it!” experience.

    Comment by John Lamb — February 8, 2010 @ 11:30 am

  2. When I was about eight or nine years old I got a calculator for Christmas (it was a big deal back then) and a copy of the Baseball Encyclopedia. I remember stumbling upon the formula for batting averages and feeling somethin akin to having stolen fire from the gods. What I didn’t understand until much later was percentages. I knew from watching baseball that a .300 average was good, but I didn’t understand I was computing percentages. When I learned percents in school, that’s when I had the epiphany “Hey! It’s just like a batting average!” I had the advantage of having discovered the formula, but not really understanding what I had discovered until I was explicitly taught what it meant. In short, I discovered both the advantages and limitations of project based learning at a very early age.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 8, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

  3. There’s a quote in the Seattle inquiry learning case from a testifying expert that goes to your point perfectly.

    “It is a rare student who is able to synthesize experience into a correct and precise statement of mathematical truth” .

    Does Engel’s vision of the classroom simply accommodate children where we find them? Is the engaged child the primary focus of her vision of school?

    Does her vision have anything to do with improving the situation of students beyond the knowledge and skills they get from their home environments?

    Where will we be as a nation in the future if this becomes the dominant vision of public education? China and India certainly do not agree. As I mentioned on the New Bottle thread, we supposedly chased away this vision of education after the realities of World War II and Sputnik.

    Comment by Student of History — February 8, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

  4. If the six letters the New York Times published today in response to Susan Engel’s piece are representative, most people whole heartedly agree with her Constructivist vision. All but one letter expressed general agreement with this vision; one reader called it “one of the best opinion articles ever to appear in the New York Times, at least during the 50-plus years I’ve been reading it.” Among these enthusiasts, any disagreements were over the pragmatics of testing for “thinking skills,” Engel’s omission of social studies, and the “short shrift” she gives to math. The one general criticism focused on the importance of content. Not one person questioned whether Engel’s proposals are new and original, and/or based on science. I can only conclude that either only a tiny fraction of the letter submitted to the Times raised such concerns, or the Times simply preferred not to air them.

    Comment by Katharine Beals — February 8, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

  5. It seems to me as if Engel is becoming a strawman herself.

    Comment by Rachel — February 8, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

  6. A Seattle Times editorial today criticized constructivist math stating “The letters we receive from math tutors and Boeing engineers, in particular, are almost 100 percent against this curriculum.”


    In real life, schools have a great deal of difficulty in making constructivist theories work.

    Comment by Erin Johnson — February 8, 2010 @ 5:06 pm

  7. “…everything worth knowing can be arrived at by diligent inquiry.” Are we talking about “googling” here?

    So which group of kids would suffer most under this style of learning? It’s obvious poor/minority children would have the most difficulty accessing information online. If your parent/guardian cannot afford a laptop or PC or pay the monthly internet fee to Comcast or Verizon, these kids will (again) be left further behind under the constructivist model.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 8, 2010 @ 6:31 pm

  8. Robert, your batting averages example is a lovely illustration of the promise of project-based learning — and the role a good teacher should play in it. Even Dewey pointed out (in Experience and Education) that while kids should have space to pursue their interests, the teacher’s job is to help them connect these experiences to a more mature understanding of subject matter. In your case, that was percentages.

    I firmly disagree that projects and inquiry are “nearly impossible to implement effectively,” as you say here. I’m a third year teacher, and have already experienced glimpses of success with projects — and would be happy to share data to prove it. More importantly, I know more experienced colleagues who use these approaches successfully with high-need students. Instead of giving up because something promising is hard, we need to be smarter about how we get there. Here are 4 ideas:
    1) Study and utilize teachers who are experts in these approaches
    2) Share tools for increasing efficiency and rigor within projects and inquiry
    3) Up the rigor of teacher development
    4) Recognize (as Nancy Flanagan does) that *interest* and *content* can drive each other

    For examples from my classroom and more detail on how I think we can get there, please visit my blog: http://teachingserendipity.blogspot.com/2010/02/projects-play-and-process-push-back.html

    Comment by UseSerendipity — February 9, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

  9. I somehow seem to have created the impression I see no value in projects. That’s not true. In the post I alluded to above, Nancy Flanagan describe how she appreciates “the enormous complexity of building the knowledge -skills base needed before students can spend hours each day journaling, editing, conferencing, creating games, analyzing data or having in-depth discussions about their favorite books.” The key word in that sentence is “before.” Where I disgree with Engel and other pure constructivists is the idea that the knowledge and skills spring organically from the project. Does this mean never do projects? Of course not.

    I cited percents in my comment. Every Spring when I taught percents to my 5th graders, I started the unit by taking my kids to the gym to shoot baskets. Working with a partner, they took shots from anywhere they wished and recorded the results. When we got back to class, every kid had different scores. Jose took eight shots and made six; Maria took 15 shots and made ten. Who is the better shooter? Percents were introduced as a way of comparing disparate sets of numbers. Did I insist on the students figuring out their own algorithms to compare Jose and Maria? I certainly let them discuss and argue about how to compare the two for a short while, but ultimately I taught them the formula, then set them to work figuing out each student’s field goal percentage (there is joy in receiving and using a tool; you needn’t have invented it yourself to revel in its utilility). The project was engaging, applicable to a real life situation, and taught them some pretty good math. Is this approach direct teaching? Constructivist? I didn’t lose a minute’s sleep worrying about it.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — February 9, 2010 @ 7:39 pm

  10. UseSerendipity,

    I’m not totally opposed to projects or reports as assessment tools either. However, the problem I have with these kinds of tools is their validity/reliability.

    Specifically, I always wondered when they were passed in whether they had somehow been compromised by an outside agent. You know, did the student do the work or was it done primarily by someone else; a friend, a relative, a neighbor, another teacher, etc., etc.?

    I was never able to award these ancillary activities the same weight in grading as that of an in class assessment, one developed by me and designed to accurately test the knowledge or skill first taught.

    As far as Dewey’s “learn by doing” philosophy, I always had to question if his philosophy and methods were so promising, so superior to other pedagogies, why they never really caught on in mainstream US pedagogy and became dominant or even contributory? I realize the answer to that query is not as straightforward or simple as it appears but the bottom line being progressive education in this country died of natural causes sometime during the latter half of the last century after it had been allowed to see the light of day.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 10, 2010 @ 10:43 am

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