Education Homilies and Other Empty Buckets

by Robert Pondiscio
July 5th, 2012

Teaching, more than any other profession, loves its homilies.  “Be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage.”  “Teach the child, not the lesson.”  We unthinkingly repeat these phrases not because they are correct, but because they are inspiring and ennobling.  Of all the homilies in education, none rankles more than this one: “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”  The quote is typically (and apparently mistakenly) attributed to the poet William Butler Yeats.

Writing at the Washington Post’s “Answer Sheet” blog, Carol Corbett Burris, a high school principal and former “New York State Outstanding Educator,” cites this homily to drive a takedown of the Relay Graduate School of Education (RGSE), an independent graduate school of education, which trains teachers for KIPP, Uncommon Schools, Achievement First and other so-called “no excuses” charter schools.   At Relay, “teacher education that balances research, theory and practice has been replaced by ‘filling the pail’ training,” Burris writes.  (Full disclosure: Relay started as “Teacher U” and was incubated by former Core Knowledge board member David Steiner at New York’s Hunter College, where Steiner heads the School of Education).

Burris watches a RGSE video on “Rigorous Classroom Discussion” and is not impressed.  “The teacher barks commands and questions, often with the affect and speed of a drill sergeant,” she writes.  “She is performing as taught by a system that, in my opinion, better prepares students for the dutiful obedience of the military than for the intellectual challenges they will encounter in college,” she observes. In Burris’s view RGSE and its methods portend something dark.

“I worry that the pail fillers are determining the fate of our schools. The ‘filling of the pail’ is the philosophy of those who see students as vessels into which facts and knowledge are poured. The better the teacher, the more stuff in the pail. How do we measure what is in the pail? With a standardized test, of course. Not enough in the pail? No excuses. We must identify the teachers who best fill the pail, and dismiss the rest.”

Having spent a fair amount of time in “no excuses” charter schools that use the techniques that Burris finds objectionable, I understand her criticism.  Such high-energy, tightly structured teaching techniques can seem militaristic, and in the hands of less skillful practitioners a bewildering blur.   But Burris misses badly when she dismisses what she sees as mere “pail filling.”  This badly and broadly misstates the critical role of knowledge (the stuff in the pail) to every meaningful cognitive process prized by fire-lighters: reading comprehension, critical thinking, problem solving, etc.   Dichotomies don’t get more false than between knowledge and thinking.

Few recent authors have been more pointed in decrying instructional practices that kill students’ love of reading than Kelly Gallagher, the author of Readicide.  He has been outspoken in criticizing “the development of test-takers over the development of lifelong readers.”  Yet I strongly suspect he too would dimiss pitting “bucket-filling” versus “fire-lighting” as wrong-headed.  In his 2011 book, Write Like This: Teaching Real-World Writing Through Modeling & Mentor Texts, Gallagher writes:

“I don’t want my students to read in only one particular genre.  I want my students, of course, to develop a wide spectrum of reading tastes.  To become eclectic readers, they need to broaden and deepen their background knowledge.  Likewise, one of my goals is to broaden my students’ writing spectrum, and if I have any chance of accomplishing this, again, I have to work on building their background knowledge.  whether we are talking about reading or writing, background knowledge is critical.  You have to know stuff to write about stuff.”

The damage done by those who denigrate the importance of a knowledge-rich classroom—especially for our most disadvantaged learners—can scarcely be overstated.   Education is neither the filling of a bucket or the lighting of a fire.  It’s both.

You can’t light a fire in an empty bucket.


  1. Said another way:
    Before you launch a rocket, you’ve got to fill the fuel tank.

    Comment by Peter Ford — July 5, 2012 @ 12:20 pm

  2. My favorite of these metaphors seeking to limit facts is the NEA referring to a content rich curriculum as the stuffed sausage approach.

    This reflects hostility to the transmission of knowledge itself. The focus is supposed to instead be on changing the child’s values, emotions, beliefs, and thus ultimately his behavior. This is the vision UNESCO, OECD, and the accreditation agencies are all pushing. In the case of the accreditors it is what is being mandated.

    In the US the template is Ted Sizer’s Coalition of Essential Schools that I mentioned on the previous thread. I wrote this about a month ago but this really is the vision the US is moving towards.

    I know so much about it because I have tracked it through the UK and Australia where it is much further along. It also builds on Gardner, Comer and Sizer’s ATLAS Project work if any of the educators remember that. Authentic Teaching and Learning For All Students IIRC.

    Burriss is not wanting there to be any beacons of light. Not private schools which I am seeing in Australia. Not charters as I have seen in some of the charters I have read recently that should horrify parents.

    Ultimately under this model the accreditors will be coming after CK schools. Their Quality Standards are quite specific in rejecting knowledge transmission. As is the Universal Design for Learning that is also now applicable to all students. As in you cannot do what would be inaccessible to any student. Cute trick when you read the small print.

    Robert-the only way I know to protect the CK model and knowledge in general is to talk about who is spreading the poison and what the weapons of choice look like.

    Comment by StudentofHistory — July 5, 2012 @ 1:48 pm

  3. Robert, what you are saying — that students need to be taught actual stuff, in a coherent and sequential way, because knowledge matters and is the foundation of higher order thinking –is of course right. But I think you’re misreading Burris. I read her as objecting to the same think you are against: teaching as prep for standardized testing, which fails to do anything more.

    There used to be a debate between more “progressive” educators and more “conservative” ones over the role of knowledge. Think Howard Gardner v. E.D. Hirsch. No more. Today, both are on the same side — against teaching to the test, and for far more. They all want our students taught something. They all are aghast at the endless prep for standardized testing. They recoil at the idea that worksheets reign and writing doesn’t count. They cannot stand the random short reading passages that bore students to tears.

    This is what Burris, as I read her, is complaining about. We don’t have the luxury of arguing about finer points right now. Do high standardized test scores equal a complete, successful education? Or is something else required? If your answer is something else, you’re in the minority, pushing against what now prevails. Any differences within this dissident group are trivial by comparison.

    Comment by David — July 5, 2012 @ 5:09 pm

  4. @David Fair enough. Clearly, I agree with you broadly about coherent knowledge and the deleterious effect of relentless test prep. I know of few greater ill-effects in contemporary education. But I guess we’d need a clearer understanding (or more accurately we’d need Burris to be clearer) on what is objectionable about RSGE’s approach to teaching. I’m fairly familiar with the ideas about teaching espoused by Doug Lemov, David Steiner et al. I simply don’t see their work as being about merely preparing kids for standardized tests. But more broadly, the frame she chooses — filling the bucket vs. lighting a fire — is clearly off-base. The “no excuses” approach might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it does it a disservice to dismiss it as mere bucket filling.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 5, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

  5. Robert,

    Good post.

    Two other thoughts:

    1. Burris: “….better prepares students for the dutiful obedience of the military than for the intellectual challenges they will encounter in college.”

    She’s principal of a suburban NY school. Quick Google – South Side is perhaps 10% African-American. About 1,000 kids. And most are presumably from middle-class families. Total free/reduced lunch is 15% or so.

    So, maybe 15 to 50 low-income black kids enrolled in her school at any given time?

    What’s the college graduation rate of those kids? What gives her confidence that her grads are well-prepared?

    2. Burris writes: “How do we measure what is in the pail? With a standardized test, of course.”

    Why does she denigrate standardized tests, yet use them aggressively to tout her own work in de-tracking?

    I.e., her whole argument has been, at least in her book and articles, that black kids did well on tests in her school after de-tracking.

    Comment by MG — July 8, 2012 @ 4:52 pm

  6. Robert,

    I am a recent college graduate and a new teacher. Your article brought me back to my Education 101 class in which we analyzed the theories of Dewey, Piaget, Skinner, Gardner, etc. During one of these class periods we were asked what we all believed was an odd question, “Are you a sculpture or a gardener?” After much discussion, abstract thought, and varying opinions, many classmates and I believed wholeheartedly that we are gardeners. And six years later, that characteristic holds true. As a teacher, I approach each day and each student with the intent of watering, weeding, hoeing, loving, caring, and nurturing each “flower” while realizing that each individual is different and unique. My job is not to mold or sculpt them into the person or learner that I believe they should be; my duty is to facilitate their own personal development.

    Thank you for sharing and for bringing me back to my “roots”!

    Comment by Bergen — July 11, 2012 @ 1:32 pm

  7. [...] of Robert Pondiscio, who writes wisely and edits the Core Knowledge blog. But I disagree with Robert’s takedown of Carol Burris’s post on this blog. Carol criticized the militaristic style taught to [...]

    Pingback by Can You Teach a Great Curriculum by Command? « Diane Ravitch's blog — July 14, 2012 @ 9:41 am

  8. Of course content matters…but how you teach determines what content is retained and transferred. The techniques used in the video do not support retention or the creation of connections that results in deep learning. Tell me what students learned in that clip…. That is not an example of rigorous discussion. To answer the question….regarding race and my school. There are 110 Black students in my school and nearly all receive Free or reduced priced lunch 100% , yes 100% graduated with a Regents diploma in June.vAll but one Latino student graduated with a Regents diploma. There are about 150 Latino students. Nearly all are on FRPL.

    Comment by Carol Burris — July 14, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

  9. I share Burris’s dislike of the practices displayed and championed in the “Rigorous Classroom Discussion” video. Yet I agree with you that she frames the problem incorrectly.

    The problem isn’t that the teacher is filling the students with information. To the contrary: there’s very little information in this video, nor is the emphasis on information. (Incidentally, the video appears to have been removed from the website.)

    Why not start with a basic definition of ambition (even provided by the teacher) and then see how it plays out in the story? That seems far more informative (and interesting) than this insistence on a bizarre process where a student must try again and again to achieve a fairly humdrum task, on the teacher’s exact terms, while the other students wiggle their fingers.

    Was the story itself (the one they were discussing) any good? I got the sense that it was yet another predictable tale about someone who set goals, worked hard, and succeeded. That isn’t literature, that’s dogma. Much literature shows the pitfalls of ambition; in fact, in its earlier uses, “ambition” had a pejorative connotation. Why is it important to see ambition’s various sides? Because when we get caught up in a state of mind, we are especially susceptible to its pitfalls. We do not see outside ourselves. Literature does many things, but part of its work is to enlarge our view, to change our perceptions, to take us beyond our short-term judgments and emotions.

    The boy may well have been on the right track when he suggested that an ambitious person feels excited and scared. The teacher assumed that he was thinking of “anxious” and reminded him quickly that they were looking for a character trait, not an emotion. But the two are frequently intertwined. Even ambition can be an emotion; a person who is not normally ambitious can be seized with a desire to attain a specific thing.

    In other words, I fault this lesson (or portion of it) for emphasizing process over content (and for diminishing the latter). A truly informative lesson would have helped students see something in the story that they didn’t see before. If the story had merit, there would have been lots to find in it. There would have been a focus on the story itself (and accompanying information), without those noisy procedures.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — July 14, 2012 @ 4:00 pm

  10. Actually, the video is still there–but it was renamed “A Culture of Support” (formerly “Rigorous Classroom Discussion.”

    My hope is that someone figured out that it was neither “classroom discussion” nor “rigorous.”

    Now, this finger-wiggling doesn’t suggest a culture of support to me. A better title might be, “Finger-Wiggling and Insistent Stares.”

    Comment by Diana Senechal — July 14, 2012 @ 4:04 pm

  11. “The techniques used in the video do not support retention or the creation of connections that results in deep learning.”

    Says who? We can all have a two-minute hate of what this classroom looked like, but who says your preferred classroom techniques actually result in any more real learning or engagement?

    Comment by JB — July 14, 2012 @ 4:44 pm

  12. ‘Says who’ is a great question to ask!
    to understand why the teaching in the video does not promote transfer and retention I suggest the work and research of Madeline Hunter, the revised Bloom Taxonomy of Anderson and Krathwohl and others. They do an excellent job of explaining the differences between complexity and difficulty as well as teaching for transfer, Mary Bud Rowe is the classic source for the research on think time for high quality answers and Harvards Project Zero for teaching for understanding.
    There is a world for great research and literature on teaching and learning. That is what is missed in a program like Relay.

    Comment by Carol Burris — July 15, 2012 @ 3:09 am

  13. David, Hirsch is not with Gardner on the side of constructivism now. They may both be against a shallow curriculum and teaching to the test, but Hirsch stands firm in support of drilling:

    Comment by TeacherEd — July 15, 2012 @ 5:37 am

  14. @TeacherEd Glad you posted that link with your comment. And I hope anyone who is tempted to conclude that “Hirsch stands firm in support of drilling” will click through to it before coming to that conclusion.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 15, 2012 @ 10:02 am

  15. One can learn a lot about teaching through pondering and playing with the subject. That’s what’s missing from many ed school curricula. If ed schools taught literary works, mathematical topics, and historical topics, then prospective teachers could learn this material at a new level and think about how they might teach it.

    One thing I love about the CK sequence is that it gets the mind playing. Wouldn’t it be great if an ed school drew from it or from a curriculum of similar caliber? Nothing would be lost; even if the teachers ended up teaching different topics at their schools, they would carry something from this immersion and work.

    I dream of an ed school that focuses on liberal arts (at a high level).How interesting it would be, and how well it would prepare teachers. Of course, you need more than subject matter; you need some courses in pedagogy, education history, education philosophy, and more. But a liberal arts emphasis would be grounding and invigorating. I’m not talking about courses in ELA “teaching strategies.” I’m talking about courses in literature, history, mathematics, physics, music, philosophy, and so forth.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — July 15, 2012 @ 10:56 am

  16. [...] Corbett Burris posted a critique of the Relay Graduate School of Education here. Robert Pondiscio questioned Burris’ metaphor about “lighting a fire” rather than “filling a pail,” on the assumption [...]

    Pingback by Lighting a Fire or Filling a Pail? « Diane Ravitch's blog — July 15, 2012 @ 11:15 am

  17. Diana — sounds like you’re actually talking about abolishing education schools and making teacher candidates get a general liberal arts degree instead. Not a bad idea, now that you mention it.

    Comment by JB — July 15, 2012 @ 7:49 pm

  18. Well, no. This would presume a liberal arts degree (and in “liberal arts” I include math and sciences).

    Even a major in a subject is really just initial exposure. When preparing to teach a subject, one ends up learning it all over again. Yes, one can undertake that while teaching, but there is rarely time for the delving that is possible in graduate school. That’s why I dream of an ed school with a liberal arts focus but also an eye to lesson planning and delivery.

    The Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute does something like this (but it isn’t an ed school). New Haven public school teachers take courses in subject matter from Yale professors and take part in seminars. Then they take what they’ve learned and write (or enhance) curriculum for their classrooms and schools.

    The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture’s Sue Rose Summer Institute for Teachers (where I am now a faculty member) has a fascinating approach. Teachers from the Dallas area (who teach a range of subjects and grade levels) come to the Summer Institute to immerse themselves in literature for three weeks. In the even-numbered years, they study epic; in the odd-numbered years, tragedy and comedy. The Summer Institute follows a special (and unencumbered) format every day: breakfast, opening remarks, a lecture, a two-hour seminar discussion, lunch, and various afternoon events and activities.

    Both of these institutes have something in common with the education school I envision. I don’t see this as an idea of my own; rather, it already exists in different contexts and forms. For all I know, there may already be an education school like that.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — July 15, 2012 @ 8:22 pm

  19. @Diana,

    I wish I knew of such an education school. I would pick up and move there tomorrow to enroll.

    Because of the low demand for music teachers in CA, I have gone back to school for an elementary teaching license. There has been no mention (not even in passing) of content! Reams upon reams of pedagogy and psychology and emotional manipulation. But no knowledge anywhere. To quote Gertrude Stein, “There is no there there.” (Did she really write that?) It is so frustrating for someone who loves knowledge in all its forms.

    Comment by Miss Friday — July 15, 2012 @ 11:44 pm

  20. Another homily that was said one year by our district’s superintendent was, “Teach the stuff, not the fluff.” Fluff was art, social studies, and for the most part, science. It was a running joke in my school that if and when you taught someone teaching “fluff” as you walked past their open classroom door, you would stick your head in and holler, “Hey! Stop it! You’re teaching fluff!”

    Education is about balance. Not every child is going to grow up, go to college, and have a high-paying white-collar job. Some may grow up to be singers, dancers, artists. If we don’t foster “fluff,” we are doing those students who have other strengths and talents a disservice.

    In the same vein, I agree with the notion that there needs to be both a bucket and a fire. Provide students what they need, but at the same time foster their individuality and strengths that come in other forms.

    Comment by Roni — July 16, 2012 @ 12:20 am

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