Talking Fast, Not Sensibly

by Robert Pondiscio
March 24th, 2010

“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Either is in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”  Henry David Thoreau, 1854

I was reminded of the above quote from Walden while reading Diana Senechal’s thrilling cover story in the new issue of the American Educator.  Diana is a familiar figure to readers of this blog, but she arrives on the broader stage of education thought with her essay, “The Most Daring Education Reform of All.”  At one level, it is a skeptical look at the “clamor for newness” that marks education reform generally and the specific focus on “21st century skills.”   

           Far too often, the 21st century skills argument carries a tone of urgency, even emergency: We no longer live in a world of books, paper, and pen. Children grow up surrounded by digital media. They can communicate with peers around the world; they can find obscure information in seconds. Yet they are unprepared for the jobs of today. We still treat them as passive recipients of knowledge; we still drill them on facts that they could just as easily Google. If we do not act now, we will lose our global competitiveness—so everyone who cares about our future should jump on board. Employers need people who can create, solve problems, work together, use technology, and think critically. We must make our students critics, innovators, and team players; we should teach them to communicate in the broad sense of the word by infusing their coursework with blogging, recording, filming, texting, collaborating, and tweeting.

But Senechal’s purpose is larger, and she’s not merely raging against the schlock of the new.  The root of generations of ed reform fads is the assumption that schools’ primary objective is “to meet the demands of the day,” she writes.  And that assumption must be questioned.   

          At its fullest and best, education prepares us to be with others and apart, to enjoy the life of the mind, to survive and prosper, to bring up new generations, to act with integrity and conscience, to pursue useful and interesting work, and to participate in civic and cultural action and thought. If schools try to be up to date all the time, then they are reduced to chasing fads and obeying the whims of the market. Part of the schools’ work is to help prepare students for their future occupations, but they do not achieve this by scurrying to meet employers’ demands.

Critics will be tempted to dismiss much of what Senechal has to say as a mere defense of traditional curriculum and teaching.  But they do so at their own peril.  Creativity and innovation, the oft-cited goals of contemporary education require knowledge and practice, she observes. “When we take them too lightly, we encourage and even celebrate shoddiness.  Mediocre creation abounds, as does false innovation,” Senechal writes.  She illustrates this with a particularly pointed anecdote:

          Once I attended a professional development session where we were told about the power of the Internet as motivator for students. The speaker cited the example of a student who, as a result of a blogging project, had become excited about poetry and started posting her own poems on the school blog. I took a look at the poems that evening, Googled a few lines, and saw that all but one were plagiarized—not from first-rate poets, but from websites that featured sentimental and inspirational verse. Why was this not caught earlier? Anyone paying close attention to the poems themselves would likely have suspected that they weren’t hers (the language was an adult’s, and hackneyed at that). The presenters were genuinely excited that the Internet had motivated a student to write; perhaps they chose not to judge the poems lest they interfere with her creative process. This is the danger: when we value creativity (and technology) above the actual quality of the things created, we lose sight of what we are doing and why.

Diana’s piece reminds me that education, and especially education reform, tends to be thick with people that – there’s no nice way to say this—simply don’t much care for education.  It is a means to an end, something to serve the “larger” goals of economic, political, or social progress.  Senechal reminds us that not only is this a dispiriting way to view education, but ultimately, it’s a self-defeating one.

                When the frenzy over 21st century skills passes—and it will—students will see that their opportunities depend largely on their knowledge. Many will graduate with blogging experience, but those who can write a strong essay on a Supreme Court case will be better prepared to enter the fields of history, law, or journalism. Many will have online science portfolios, but those who have studied calculus, read parts of Newton’s Principia, and can prove Kepler’s second law (for example) will be much better prepared to study physics at an advanced level. …The ability to make a YouTube video or podcast will mean little in the long run, if the other things are absent. Moreover, those technologies may be obsolete in another few years, but literature, science, languages, mathematics, history, music, art, and drama will stay.

Ultimately, Diana’s piece is not a rebuke, but a challenge to rise above mindless fealty to the “claims of the present” and “seek out excellence, nurture it, defend it, and live up to it.”  To make change, but to do so  thoughtfully, she concludes, “may be the most daring education reform of all.”

Brilliant stuff.  On a day when most of the education world will be examining the latest NAEP scores, and using the data — the data! — to defend or decry various policies, programs and “theories of action” it is good to be reminded why we get out of bed in the morning.  Or why we should.

15 Comments »

  1. A wonderful essay. But I’m continuously puzzled to see people who think this way (Ravitch is the most egregious example) bash charter schools for not having high enough math/reading test scores, especially when charter schools are one of the best opportunities to explore just this sort of rich and broad curriculum.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — March 24, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

  2. I read Diana’s piece several times and just did an electronic search to make sure my memory wasn’t failing me. It wasn’t: the word “charter” does not appear in the piece.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — March 24, 2010 @ 1:35 pm

  3. Diana’s anti-21st century skills expose is quite timely in relation to the book out this week by Linda Darling-Hammond.

    The book itself is quite interesting in that it’s chockablock full of data, especially related to our poor urban districts, our “Prison Nation” (a New York Times reference), and the international academic success stories of Finland and the Asian powerhouses.

    She loses me, however, with her push for the progressive philosophy of 21st century skills, especially when she trots out the ubiquitous critical thinking and problem solving skills she attempts to portray as so critical for all our students.

    I would still recommend the book. It’s packed with data.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — March 24, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

  4. Does it seem to anyone else that the most appropriate and effective innovation of all might be to simply go backward? Build a bridge to the 18th century, as Neil Postman would say, rather than look for sure-fire instructional innovations?

    In all my own learning (whether facilitated by others or myself), the things I learned best all required a few things:
    1. A genuine (and not always intrinsic in the purest sense, I should add) desire to learn the new concept
    2. An early period of struggle with the new concept, caused…well, by its newness
    3. Continued exposure to and practice with the new concept
    4. More practice
    5. Some form of confirmation that I understood the concept once I did.

    (And, when #5 didn’t arrive, my built-in #1 drove me back to repeat steps 3 and 4 as many times as necessary.)

    In my time as a teacher, as well, I noticed that my students could learn about anything if they had these five pieces. Whenever we remove one of the five above or try to substitute it with something like “the power of the Internet as a motivator for students”, it costs the overall learning process somewhere else downstream.

    I’m so happy to be able to read Diana Senechal’s ideas along these lines. Whenever I do, though, it makes me a little sad, as it just reminds me how few day-to-day decision-makers in education share her wisdom.

    Comment by Eric Kalenze — March 24, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

  5. Obviously, Robert, but I’m assuming that Diana Senechal might agree with Ravitch, on whose book she worked.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — March 24, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

  6. Let me put it this way: .3% of public schools use Core Knowledge (308 schools out of 95,000 or so), versus 5.8% of charters schools (293 out of 5,000). So charter schools are nearly TWENTY times more likely to use Core Knowledge than other public schools.

    It seems to me that anyone with any sympathy for Core Knowledge should be spitting mad that Ravitch and her ilk are out there constantly sneering at charter schools for not having high enough NAEP scores.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — March 24, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

  7. I’m not trying to be obtuse or difficult, Stuart, but I just don’t follow the logic (And I still don’t see any connection between Diana’s essay and charters). If I’m going to be spitting mad at anyone, it should be at the 99.5% of schools — public or charters — that don’t use Core Knowledge. Indeed, I should be especially mad at non-CK charters, since they have fewer barriers to implementation, right?

    I’m not a fan of ginning up pointless conflicts, but it seems to me the real difference of opinion is not between those who favor garden variety public schools vs. public charters, but those who favor structural reforms vs. those who favor instructional reforms. I’m of the school of thought that says the kind of school a child attends matters less than the quality of instruction and curriculum he or she receives.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — March 24, 2010 @ 4:26 pm

  8. Why is that a conflict? It seems to me not only that people who favor structural reform do in fact look more kindly (on average) on Core Knowledge than most people, but that structural reform in and of itself offers pretty much the only chance you have of getting Core Knowledge adopted without being blocked by the usual entrenched interests.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — March 25, 2010 @ 9:23 am

  9. Your article was very interesting.

    I teach Technology at an elementary school in Texas. I am trying to integrate technology into the curriculum, so I work closely with the subject teachers to design lessons where the technology supports the curriculum. For example, recently in 4th grade we’ve been working with the Census data to understand Population changes in time for 5 states. The students learned to obtain reliable data, use Excel and plot charts and write a report (Word).

    My point is that all of Technology is not about blogging and Twittering. There is real stuff of value to be learned if we want to.

    Comment by Sujata Krishna — March 25, 2010 @ 9:53 am

  10. Stuart,

    Your view on charters being able to do as they please is logical enough

    but two recent conversations with charter supporters/reformers left me less sanguine.

    One explained to me that since the unions would try to dominate a discussion about curriculum, curricular reform is a distraction that cannot be addressed until the (apparently more significant) issue of teacher quality/ tenure is addressed. Which left me scratching my head, as at least from what I have seen the unions sure as heck have not been wallflowers with respect to their employment rights. So they would present a harder target on curriculum?

    Another explained that s/he knew curriculum had a role to play, but that the topic was complicated. “Every time my staff tried to explain it to me I get ten opinions.”

    I tend to give reformers the benefit of the doubt. And I should not paint the whole community one color based on the comments of two people. But from what I have seen and heard, it is a stretch to say that reformers who believe in charters are naturally more open to looking at curriculum as a lever.

    Comment by Matthew — March 25, 2010 @ 5:27 pm

  11. I just love this blog. It is by far my favorite as a career changing, 50-something, teacher-to-be. This essay gives me great hope that I am on the right track, that the desire to instill true knowledge and my lifelong love of learning into my future students is the correct path; and I will find support here, if nowhere else!

    Comment by Cindy — March 26, 2010 @ 8:02 pm

  12. I wish that reformers and their detractors would take to modifying the word “charter” with “core knowledge charter” when appropriate to distinguish the use of a content-rich curriculum, and the absence of fads such as the teaching of “critical thinking.” (The output of such teachers is incomprehen-sible to me, perhaps because as a retired professor of statistics and computer science my brain is fuzzed up with logic and the like.)
    Many charter schools follow no better curricula than the schools they replace, and to lump them with CK schools is a terrible mistake of taxonomy which seems to have thrown Ravitch et al. off the track.
    Having been in on the founding of fantastically successful CK charters having high expectations, uniforms, student-enforced discipline and therefore dedicated non-union teachers, I no longer have patience with those who think that a gradual tweaking of existing failed systems is going to fix their problems. “Racing to the Top”, for instance, is just another way to line the purses of the establishment and its captors without any perceiv-able positive effect on students.

    Comment by Anonymous — March 30, 2010 @ 7:44 pm

  13. I wish that reformers and their detractors would take to modifying the word
    “charter” with “core knowledge charter” when appropriate to distinguish the use
    of a content-rich curriculum, and the absence of fads such as the teaching of
    “critical thinking.” (The output of such teachers is incomprehen-sible to me,
    perhaps because as a retired professor of statistics and computer science my
    brain is fuzzed up with logic and the like.)
    Many charter schools follow no better curricula than the schools they replace,
    and to lump them with CK schools is a terrible mistake of taxonomy which seems
    to have thrown Ravitch et al. off the track.
    Having been in on the founding of fantastically successful CK charters having
    high expectations, uniforms, student-enforced discipline and therefore dedicated
    non-union teachers, I no longer have patience with those who think that a
    gradual tweaking of existing failed systems is going to fix their problems.
    “Racing to the Top”, for instance, is just another way to line the purses of the
    establishment and its captors without any perceiv-able positive effect on
    students.

    Comment by Parker Fowler — March 30, 2010 @ 7:48 pm

  14. This is a thumbs up for Cindy, the 50 teacher to-be, and for Pondiscio’s article. Yes! background knowlede it is the “butter” on the bread of intellgence.

    A frustrated teacher.
    E.S.

    Comment by Elizabeth Sullivan — April 22, 2010 @ 10:00 am

  15. I understand the majority of children in todays time lack core knowledge making it unnerving to think of century and what will happen to majority of the next generation when they learned the skills they have acquired are useless: however, you cannot make someone do something they don’t want to do. If you force core knowledge on children who do not want to learn it, the most likely outcome is that they will not learn it. Sometimes you have to let a child know what it is like to be uneducated, before they have the desire to be educated. Children always complain about school and making the learning more difficult is not the solution. Nowadays children hate being “educated” because they do not know what it is like to be uneducated.
    Secondly, one can never guess where the future is going. Never judge before you know. Maybe youtube will be a key to a child’s future. Giving them the ability to learn more about what’s important and a way to express themselves, coming out of conforming to society and being more self-reliant. Who knows what the future holds?”
    Never judge a person by their amount of knowledge or age.

    Comment by Velia Roxie — January 31, 2012 @ 11:44 pm

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