Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Traditionalists vs. Constructivists: a battle royale?

It may seem common sense to combine a rigorous, content-rich curriculum with an innovative, progressive set of teaching methods and philosophies -- but apparently morphing the two is harder than it would seem. Case in point: Yesterday's Washington Post article, "Educators Blend Divergent Schools of Thought," by Jay Mathews.

Somewhere along the line, edu-wonks seem to have divided themselves neatly into two camps that view each other with disdain and distrust. On one hand, the traditionalists emphasize learning that focuses on the subject matter. On the other, constructivists believe that true knowledge can only be "contructed" from students' own experiences and discoveries.

Both groups fault the other's position, with the constructivists saying "traditionalists are all about rote memorization and drill-and-kill," while traditionalists fire back that "constructivist theory is all warm and fuzzy....but academically empty."

In the Post article, some of education's greatest luminaries weigh in on the debate over whether the two philosophies can -- or should -- be combined. According to Alfie Kohn, noted progressive education guru, "If we want kids to be deep thinkers, then why blend an education model that features deep thinking with one that's focused on memorizing a list of facts?"

But that kind of black-and-white thinking is all wrong, says E.D. Hirsch, founder of the Core Knowledge curriculum. "The logic that Core Knowledge has traditional content, ergo it also must have 'traditional' pedagogy. [But] we don't specify pedagogy."

Meeting somewhere in the middle is a worthy goal for schools, according to New York University educational historian Diane Ravitch, who says she would be happy if
"a new generation of educators figured out that nontraditional means of teaching can be merged with a solid academic curriculum," but she also said, "It would be a miracle."
Why does the debate matter? It demonstrates that the way a school organizes its educational product and sets the philosophy that drives should not be an accident, but a conscious decision. The simple fact that there is a debate at all should highlight to all of us that there's sense in having regular discussions on the issues of what is taught, and how it's taught. Seems like common sense, but somehow even for the experts it's so hard to agree on the best answers....


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