Sunday, January 26, 2014

'Good-old fashioned' not enough

The French microbiologist Louis Pasteur and the British surgeon Joseph Lister made extraordinary contributions to the world in the 19thcentury. Pasteur's work in microbiology provided support for the germ theory of disease and advanced the concept of vaccination. Lister was the first to develop antiseptic surgical methods. He introduced the use of carbolic acid to sterilize surgical instruments and to clean wounds, which made surgery safer for patients. Before the introduction of vaccination and antisepsis, people commonly died due to unsanitary conditions in the home, or following surgery, or even childbirth. These breakthroughs in medicine have saved millions of lives and are among the greatest discoveries of the 19th century.

Today, when you need medical care you would want a practitioner whose training accounted for the contributions of these two men. My guess is, however, you would not actually want one of these two men providing your care, or anyone from the 19th century for that matter. After all, much learning has taken place since then.

I read an article recently that suggests it's time to revive good, old-fashioned education. This makes me nervous. Not because good old fashioned is bad. It’s not. Pasteur and Lister are old-fashioned by today’s standards. I worry that good old fashioned education does not account for new learning, for today’s context.

Journalist Joanne Lipman asserts, in a piece published in the Wall Street Journal, Why Tough Teachers Get Good Results, that “a kinder, gentler philosophy” has errantly “dominated American education over the past few decades” and that "conventional wisdom holds that teachers are supposed to tease knowledge out of students…” and that “projects and collaborative learning are applauded…” while “...traditional methods like lecturing and memorization--derided as 'drill and kill'-- are frowned upon, dismissed as a surefire way to suck young minds dry of creativity and motivation."

She argues that this so-called conventional wisdom is wrong. The problem with this position?

First, projects and collaboration are not conventional. The individual's ability to recall, in fact, is still the most highly valued skill in most schools. Lecturing and direct instruction are still the most prevalent instructional methods. And memorization is still the most common cognitive student activity. So any conclusion that practices that include projects and collaboration are not working is, at best, incomplete.

But there is a bigger problem with her argument. She frames this discussion as an either/or proposition. That somehow we must choose between what we know and what we are learning. Ironically, her argument about learning does not account for, well, learning. While Lipman outlines a number of interesting discoveries across the social sciences, her synthesis does not support the argument that good old fashioned education is enough.

The reason?

It's not an either/or proposition. It's not memorization or inquiry. It's not lecturing or projects. It's not independent practice or collaboration. It's not having kind teachers or demanding teachers.

It's all of them.

Lipman’s argument is not wrong. It just falls short. Good old fashioned in education is not enough. Not anymore.

Here’s my two cents on some of what she presents:

Lipman writes about rote learning...
"Rote learning, long discredited, is now recognized as one reason that children whose families come from India (where memorization is still prized) are creaming their peers in the National Spelling Bee Championship."

My two cents...
Rote learning has not been discredited. It simply is one kind of learning, probably quite relevant if your goal is to win a spelling bee. Relevant, but not sufficient, if your goal is to develop the capacity to invent something, produce a great piece of writing, start a company, or pass a modern standardized test to graduate high school.

Lipman writes about memorization... 
"William Klemm of Texas A&M University argues that the U.S. needs to reverse the bias against memorization. Even the U.S. Department of Education raised alarm bells, chastising American schools in a 2008 report that bemoaned the lack of math fluency (a notion it mentioned no fewer than 17 times). It concluded that schools need to embrace the dreaded 'drill and practice.'"

My two cents...
Now, if not so much the U.S. Department of Education, I certainly do love Texas A&M University (Whoop! '95), but there is no bias against memorization in education. This doesn't even really make sense. Memory is a good thing. I'm using mine right now. Cognitively, memory is the residue of thought. The more you think about something, the more likely you are to remember it. Rote learning is a memorization technique. It's great if the goal is to recall. And recall is necessary if one is to think. But in schools, we too often stop at recall. We also need to ask students to think, to recall information for a larger purpose. By helping students acquire knowledge and then asking them to use it to analyze problems, research, and develop solutions, we are asking them to think, which in turn improves the likelihood they will remember what they are thinking about. Ironic, isn't it?

Lipman writes about praise...
"Praise makes you weak..."

My two cents...
This is an incomplete analysis. It is true there is good research to suggest praise that supports the fixed mindset (that you are what you are and you can't do anything about it) inhibits confidence building and self determination. But praise that supports a growth mindset (that you are what you work for) facilitates greater confidence. It's not whether you praise or not, it's how you praise. Praise can make you weak, but it can also make you strong.

Lipman writes about complex problems...
"...American students struggle with complex math problems because, as research makes abundantly clear, they lack fluency in basic addition and subtraction—and few of them were made to memorize their times tables."

My two cents...
This is a good point, an example of the necessity of rote learning and the reality that it is not enough. Solving complex math problems requires that students develop automaticity in basic mathematics functions. They need to be able to recall without working at it. Rote learning of the times tables is probably a good idea. But complex problems require critical thinking. You have to have knowledge to think critically; to analyze, to conceptualize, to create. So it's not either/or, it's both.

Lipman writes about creativity...
"The rap on traditional education is that it kills children's' creativity. But Temple University psychology professor Robert W. Weisberg's research suggests just the opposite. Prof. Weisberg has studied creative geniuses including Thomas Edison, Frank Lloyd Wright and Picasso—and has concluded that there is no such thing as a born genius. Most creative giants work ferociously hard and, through a series of incremental steps, achieve things that appear (to the outside world) like epiphanies and breakthroughs."

My two cents...
Right! Geniuses aren't generally born. Thomas Edison worked hard as did Frank Lloyd Wright and Picasso. But I doubt rote learning got Edison to the phonograph, or Lloyd Wright to the Prairie House, or Picasso to cubism, or Albert Einstein to the theory of relativity. Einstein, whose success was predicated on imagination, thought, and creativity, had his richest educational experience at a school in Aarau, Switzerland where rote drills, memorization, and force-fed facts were avoided and hands-on observations, visual imagery, and conceptual thinking were promoted. Now that’s a theory!

Lipman writes about grit...
In recent years, University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth has studied spelling bee champs, Ivy League undergrads and cadets at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.—all together, over 2,800 subjects. In all of them, she found that grit—defined as passion and perseverance for long-term goals—is the best predictor of success. In fact, grit is usually unrelated or even negatively correlated with talent.

My two cents...
This is good stuff. But the question is where does passion and perseverance--or grit-- come from? In the study referenced by Lipman, Angela Duckworth cites the work of Benjamin Bloom regarding the development of world class pianists, neurologists, swimmers, chess players, mathematicians, and sculptors. Bloom observed that in every studied field, high achievers had a strong interest in the particular field in which they excelled. In other words, it was meaningful to them. Self-determination theory helps to put grit into context. According to SDT, intrinsic motivation develops when people, in the pursuit of something, are able to feel competent, connected to others, and in control of their own behaviors and goals. When people experience these three things, they become self-determined and are able to be intrinsically motivated to pursue the things that interest them, to persevere in the face of difficulty… to show grit. Furthermore, while extrinsic rewards are strongly linked to low level tasks, intrinsic motivation is more strongly associated with complex, creative endeavors. In fact, extrinsic rewards can undermine creativity. Therefore, grit, in the pursuit of learning, seems most likely to appear when the work learners are doing is challenging and personally meaningful.

Duckworth closed her research findings about grit by reminding us that the goal of education is not just to learn a little about a lot but also a lot about a little. Not one or the other, not either/or, but both.

“Good old-fashioned” can get us a little about a lot, but that’s not enough. Not anymore.
  • Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (2001). Extrinsic Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation in Education: Reconsidered Once Again. Review of Educational Research, 71(1), 1–27. 
  • Dewey, J. (1938). Experience & Education. New York, NY: Kappa Delta Pi
  • Duckworth, A., Matthews, M., Kelly, D., & Peterson, C. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, (6), 1087–1101
  • Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.
  • Isaacson, W. (2007). Einstein: His Life and Universe. New York: Simon & Schuster
  • Kim, K. H. (2011). The Creativity Crisis: The Decrease in Creative Thinking Scores on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. Creativity Research Journal, 23(4), 285–295. doi:10.1080/10400419.2011.627805
  • Mangels, J. A.; Butterfield, B.; Lamb, J.; Good, C.; Dweck, C. (2006). "Why do beliefs about intelligence influence learning success? A social cognitive neuroscience model". Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 1 (2): 75–86.
  • Schlechty, P. (2011). Engaging Students: The Next Level of Working on the Work, Wiley, John & Sons, Inc.
  • Willingham, D. (2009). Why don’t students like school? A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom, San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.  

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