Monday, September 11, 2006

Where's the beef?

My sixth-grade class was a model of progressive teaching. We worked in self-directed groups to explore the classic epic Beowulf. We created our own lists of spelling words by finding words we didn't understand in literature. We explored ourselves and our world views by creating multi-media projects over a quarter. We discovered the wonders of math by trying various approaches to solving problems. My school was on the cutting edge of education theory.... and this was way back before George Lucas introduced us to Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars movie.

The best thing about my 6th grade -- we were never wrong! It was all about self-esteem, self-discovery, and creative, reflective thinking.

The problem -- it was a total waste of a year.

It's not that there's anything inherently bad about progressive teaching methods. And self-esteem and creative, critical thinking are both noble and important goals. But if those goals are pursued without any meat behind them, then it's a fraud.

Here's a great article from noted education writer Joanne Jacobs on why focusing on the delivery -- and not the content -- is a dangerous, foolhardy approach to education. Unfortunately, it's also a common approach. The eduworld has exploded with angry debate on the subject. One pithy comment from Ken de la Rosa of the blog D-Ed Reckoning should give you a taste:
If the kids were really developing super higher-order thinking brains with these new-fangled progressive teaching techniques why are they unable to use those super brains to solve algebraic equations on a simplistic multiple choice exam? Why are they unable to higher-order think their way to the correct answers on lower-order basic skills exams?

Tomorrow: The three components of a great curriculum, and why content matters.


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