Stopping a Bad Idea In Its Tracks

by Robert Pondiscio
December 5th, 2008

“A lie can get half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes,” said Mark Twain.

Dan Willingham does the education world a good service, stopping a bad teaching idea in its tracks.  If you saw yesterday’s ASCD Smart Brief newsletter, which goes out to hundreds of thousands of educators, you may have read the lead item, “Students can benefit from tackling hardest material first.” It concluded that, “while most teachers progress from easier topics to more advanced ones, that may not always be the best approach, according to a new study.”  A man bites dog story if ever there was one. 

There’s just one problem: That conclusion is not supported by the study, which was done by Greg Ashby, an internationally recognized expert in how people learn new categories.  On Britannica Blog Willingham calls BS on this half-baked idea:

Ashby is interested in differences between two types of categories: those for which one learns an explicit rule (e.g. tricycles have three wheels, bicycles have two) and those categories that one learns almost intuitively, and for which one cannot articulate the rule by which one makes a judgment (e.g., the difference between paintings by Klee and paintings by Kandinsky).  Ashby doesn’t use these sorts of categories, however. He uses more figures more amendable to experimental control such as those shown in the figure. The finding in the article is that for the intuitive categorization (like Klee/Kandinsky), subjects learn better if they get the more difficult-to-categorize stimuli first, and the easy stimuli later. For the explicit category (like the bicycle/tricycle) the order doesn’t matter.

Ashby didn’t make any claims about education, notes Willingham, who contacted him for “to be sure that I wasn’t missing something.” Ashby’s reply:

“I believe it is much too premature to apply our results to classroom instruction. First, the work needs to be generalized to natural objects and real-world information of the type encountered in classrooms. Second, we found a benefit for initial training on difficult items only for a certain specialized kind of learning that is probably rare in classroom instruction. The goal of most classroom instruction is to convey explicit knowledge to students, and our research found no benefit to training initially on difficult items when the knowledge to be gained is explicit.”

It’s not hard to imagine how this broad, unsustainable idea — tackle the hard stuff first — could be misapplied.  For example, as a justification to continue to have kids attempt Algebra before mastering basic math.  Kudos to Willingham.

Poor Speller? Blame Your G-E-N-E-S

by Robert Pondiscio
October 28th, 2008

Some people have a way with words.  Othurs not weigh haf.  According to the Times of London, it could just be your genes. 

In the past, poor spelling was attributed to all manner of things, from bad schooling to a lack of moral fibre. But science is offering a new explanation. A difficulty with spelling could be rooted in your genes and in the way that your brain is wired. These findings stem from research into the language disorder dyslexia, but they are proving important for the wider population. Biology, it seems, not only influences those with dyslexia but also people without the syndrome. If you are a bad speller you can blame your grey matter.

Simply deciphering the written word is the most complex task your brain will face says John Stein, Professor of Neuroscience at Oxford University Medical School, who notes that written language is a relatively recent invention.  “It was invented only 5,000 years ago, notes Stein.  “It is piggybacked on to our linguistic ability, which was invented 30,000-40,000 years ago.  The consequence is that many people fail to read or spell.”

Child-Centered Learning: Are We Going Too Far?

by Guest Blogger
April 1st, 2008

In  The Fundamental Importance of the Brain and Learning for Education, Kurt W. Fischer and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang warn, “Expectations for educational neuroscience are extremely high, but at this point it could turn out to be just another fad, a popular enthusiasm that fades with time as the unreality of exaggerated expectations becomes clear.” Given Fischer’s role as advisor and former president of the International Mind, Brain and Education Society, one cannot easily dismiss such a statement. It is peculiar, in this light, that the NYC Department of Education would award a multi-million-dollar no-bid contract to a “brain-based” program like Schools Attuned®, which specifically trains teachers to diagnose students’ learning breakdowns in terms of brain function and apply relevant strategies. “Brain-based” and “child-centered” approaches both view the child (and brain) as the starting point—a laudable premise on the surface, but treacherous beneath.

My purpose here is not to criticize Schools Attuned® (whose workshops I have attended), nor to comment on the scientific aspects of brain-based programs in general. Rather, as a teacher of middle-school students, I ask whether our schools might not be taking child-centered and brain-based ideas too far, glorifying the strategy at the expense of knowledge, and accommodating the individual student beyond reason. As nice as it is to reach out to the kids, perhaps we ignore some of the dangers of over-accommodation: dilution of curriculum, isolation of the student, confusion of roles, and invasion of students’ privacy.

In Education and the General Welfare (1920), Frank K. Sechrist writes, “Any activity that is made an end in itself, when it is properly only a means to a higher end, is an educational fad.” Perhaps “success” is one such fad today. We are supposed to help every child succeed, but what does that mean? Success is only as meaningful as the thing it serves. One cannot “succeed” in general; one succeeds at a particular activity, for a particular purpose. In order to help students learn, we must establish a curriculum. Conversely, if we ignore curriculum, then we will chase our own tails in pursuit of success.

Some might argue that we are not ignoring curriculum, but rather tuning it to the individual. Why demand that an entire class read Antigone, when the individuals have different interests, levels, and needs? To these child-tuners I reply: How can we ignore two of the deepest human needs of all: to understand the world around us and to communicate with others? When I teach literature, music, or theatre to my students, I am often struck by the meanings they find and the bonds they form. Without common knowledge and common vocabulary, we are stranded and can only send out help signals.

The teacher, then, becomes the rescuer. Instead of conveying subject matter, she circulates from student to student, providing “strategies” for vague purposes. The “strategy” may be a tape recorder, checklist, behavior chart, mnemonic device, highlighting technique, stuffed animal, or soothing music. The teacher is now psychologist, maid, surrogate parent, and “guide on the side.” Students quickly figure out that teachers are supposed to serve them, and treat them accordingly. A teacher who actually teaches a specific book may be taken to task for not “differentiating” the instruction enough, or for making students read something they might not want to read. The teacher is supposed to turn her eyes away from the book and toward the child. Yet such a gaze has its dangers.

Perhaps the most insidious effect of this ultra-sensitive pedagogy is the invasiveness. We are supposed to scrutinize, diagnose, and remedy every possible learning obstacle in every child. Are they not entitled to some dignity and privacy? If the child’s mind wanders in class, must we find a “strategy” to rein the child back in? What about the child who loves daydreaming and is not harmed by it? Is it our duty or even our business to make every student perform in the way we expect? I always appreciated the teachers who let me be and who gave me help only when I asked for it. Students differ in this regard; but no child should be subjected to diagnoses that have not been substantiated by research, nor should teachers be required to diagnose brains.  Teachers should remain teachers.

This is not to say that teachers should ignore students’ individual obstacles and challenges. By all means, teachers should do their best to help their students learn the subject at hand, striking the appropriate balance of class instruction and individual assistance. Teachers must know and love their subject. Within the context of excellent lessons, we can offer appropriate help to our students, who must respond with their own efforts and choices. If we do not give them this opportunity to learn and choose, then we will turn schools into social service centers– and futile ones at that, as we will have forgotten what they are for.

Diana Senechal teaches ESL and drama at a Brooklyn middle school and holds a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Yale.