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.