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 At Relay, “teacher education that balances research, theory and practice has been replaced by ‘filling the pail’ training,” Burris writes.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.