Forward Into The Past

Abigail is given plenty of worksheets to complete in class as well as a substantial amount of homework. She studies to get good grades, and her school is proud of its high standardized test scores. Outstanding students are publicly recognized by the use of honor rolls, awards assemblies, and bumper stickers. Abigail's teacher, a charismatic lecturer, is clearly in control of the class: students raise their hands and wait patiently to be recognized. The teacher prepares detailed lesson plans well ahead of time, uses the latest textbooks, and gives regular quizzes to make sure kids stay on track. 

 What's wrong with this picture? Just about everything. 

The features of our children's classrooms that we find the most reassuring -- largely because we recognize them from our own days in school -- typically turn out to be those least likely to help students become effective and enthusiastic learners. That dilemma is at the heart of education reform -- or at least at the heart of my book (see bio for info). 

On the relatively rare occasions when nontraditional kinds of instruction show up in classrooms, many of us become nervous if not openly hostile. "Hey, when I was in school the teacher was in front of the room, teaching us what we needed to know about addition and adverbs and atoms. We paid attention and studied hard if we knew what was good for us. And it worked!" 

Or did it? Never mind all those kids who gave up on school and came to think of themselves as stupid. The more interesting question is whether those of us who were successful students achieved this success by memorizing an enormous number of words without necessarily understanding them or caring about them. Is it possible that we are not really as well educated as we'd like to think? Might we have spent a good chunk of our childhoods doing stuff that was exactly as pointless as we suspected it was at the time? 

It's not easy to acknowledge these possibilities, which may help to explain the aggressive nostalgia that is loose in the land. Any number of people subscribe to the Listerine theory of education: the old ways may be distasteful, but they're effective. Doubtless, this belief is reassuring; unfortunately, it's also wrong. Traditional schooling turns out to be as unproductive as it is unappealing. 

Thus, we ought to be demanding non-traditional classrooms for our kids, and supporting teachers who know enough to reject the siren call of "back to basics". We ought to be asking why our children aren't spending more time thinking about ideas and playing a more active role in the process of learning. In such an environment, they're not only more likely to be engaged with what they're doing but also to do it better. 

Parents have rarely been invited to consider this point of view, which is why schools continue operating in pretty much the same way, using pretty much the same set of assumptions and practices, as the decades roll by. In this article, I'll try to explain what traditional schooling is, then make the case that it's still the dominant model in American education and explain why this is so. 

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Two Models of Schooling 

Let us begin by acknowledging that there are as many ways of teaching as there are teachers. Anyone who attempts to apply a single set of labels to all educators will be omitting some details and ignoring some complications -- not unlike someone who describes politicians in terms of how far they are to the left or right. Still, it isn't entirely inaccurate to classify some classrooms and schools, some people and proposals, as tilting toward a philosophy that is more traditional or conservative as opposed to nontraditional or progressive. The former might be called the Old School of education, which of course is not a building but a state of mind -- and ultimately a statement about the mind. 

When asked what they think schools ought to look like, some back-to-basics proponents cite the importance of "obedience to authority" and list certain favored classroom practices: "Students sit together (usually in rows) and everyone follows the same lesson. Missing are... clusters of youngsters working at a pace and on a topic of their own choosing. In basics classrooms, lines of responsibility are very clear; everyone knows his or her task and recognizes who is in charge." The idea is to have students memorize facts and definitions, to make sure that skills are "drilled into" them. Even in social studies, as one principal explains, "We are much more concerned about teaching where Miami is than about Miami's problem with Cubans." 

Not all traditionalists would go quite that far, but most would agree that schooling amounts to the transmission of a body of knowledge from the teacher (who has it) to the child (who doesn't), a process that relies on getting the child to listen to lectures, read textbooks, and, often, to practice skills by completing worksheets. Furthermore, "children should be behind their desks, not roaming around the room. Teachers should be at the head of the classrooms, drilling knowledge into their charges."

In the Old School, reading lessons tend to teach specific sounds, such as long vowels, in isolation; math classes emphasize basic facts and calculations. Academic fields (math, English, history) are taught separately. Within each subject, big things are broken down into bits, which are then taught in a very specific sequence. The model also tends to include traditional grades, plenty of tests and quizzes, strict (punitive) discipline, competition, and lots of homework. 

Anything that deviates from this model is often reviled as a fad, with special scorn reserved for efforts to teach social skills or address students' feelings, to have students learn from one another, to use nontraditional ways of assessing what they can do, as well as to adopt bilingual education, a multicultural curriculum, or a structure that brings together students of different ages or abilities. 

Nontraditional or progressive education is defined in part by its divergence from all of this. Here, the point of departure is that kids should be taken seriously. Because learning is regarded as an active process, learners are given an active role. Their questions help to shape the curriculum, and their capacity for thinking critically is honored even as it is honed. In such classrooms, facts and skills are important but not ends in themselves. Rather, they are more likely to be organized around broad themes, connected to real issues, and seen as part of the process of coming to understand ideas from the inside out. A classroom is a place where a community of learners -- as opposed to a collection of discrete individuals -- engages in discovery and invention, reflection and problem solving. 

These aspects of progressive education have been around for a very long time -- so long, in fact, that they may actually define the more traditional approach. For centuries, children learned by doing at least as much as by listening. Hands-on activities sometimes took place in the context of a mentor-apprentice relationship and sometimes in a one-room schoolhouse with plenty of cooperative learning among kids of different ages. Many aspects of the Old School, meanwhile, really aren't so old: "The isolated-skills approach to learning," for example, "was, in fact, an innovation that started in the 1920s."

What we may as well continue to call the traditional approach (if only to avoid confusion) represents an uneasy blend of behaviorist psychology and conservative social philosophy. The former, associated with such men as B. F. Skinner and Edward L. Thorndike (who never met a test he didn't like), is based on the idea that people, like other organisms, do only what they have been reinforced for doing. "All behavior is ultimately initiated by the external environment,"' as the behaviorists see it -- and anything other than behavior, anything that isn't observable, either isn't worth our time or doesn't really exist. Learning is just the acquisition of very specific skills and bits of knowledge, a process that is linear, incremental, measurable. It says the learner should progress from step to step in a predictable sequence, interrupted by frequent testing and reinforcement, with each step getting progressively more challenging. 

It's a straight shot from a theory like that to a reliance on worksheets, lectures, and standardized tests. On the other hand, not all proponents of worksheets, lectures, and standardized tests consider themselves behaviorists. In some cases, traditional educational practices are justified in terms of philosophical or religious beliefs. There is no single seminal figure responsible for an emphasis on order and obedience in the classroom, but the idea that education should consist of transmitting a body of information is today promoted most visibly by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., a man best known for specifying what facts every first-grader, second-grader, third-grader, and so on ought to know. 

In the case of progressive education, it can safely be said that two twentieth-century individuals, John Dewey and Jean Piaget, have shaped the way we think of this movement. Dewey (1859-1952) was a philosopher who disdained the capital-letter abstractions of Truth and Meaning, preferring to see these ideas in the context of real human purposes. Thinking, he argued, is something that emerges from our shared experiences and activities: it is what we do that animates what we know. 

Dewey was also interested in democracy as a way of living, not just as a form of government. In applying these ideas to education, he made the case that schools shouldn't be about handing down a collection of static truths to the next generation but about responding to the needs and interests of the students themselves. When you do that, he maintained, you won't have to bribe, threaten, or otherwise artificially induce them to learn (as is routinely done in traditional classrooms). 

Jean Piaget (1896-1980), a Swiss psychologist, demonstrated that the way children think is qualitatively different from the way adults think and argued that a child's way of thinking progresses through a series of distinct stages. Later in his life, he began to analyze the nature of learning, describing it as a two-way relationship between a person and the environment. All of us develop theories or perspectives through which we understand everything we encounter, yet those theories are themselves revised on the basis of our experience. Even very young children play an active role in making sense of things, "constructing" reality rather than just acquiring knowledge. 

These two basic approaches rarely show up in pure form, with schools being completely traditional or nontraditional. The defining features of traditional education don't always appear together, or at least not with equal emphasis. Some decidedly Old School teachers assign essays as well as worksheets; others downplay rote memorization. Likewise, some progressive classrooms emphasize individual discovery more than cooperation among students. Even from a theoretical perspective, what appears at a distance to be a unified school of thought turns out, as you approach it, to be more like a teeming collection of factions that accept some common principles but loudly disagree about a good many others. 

Still, those common principles are worth exploring. There is a very real contrast between behaviorism and "constructivism", the latter having grown out of Piaget's investigations. The things that teachers do can usefully be described as more consistent with one theory of learning or the other. Likewise, there is a marked difference between classrooms that are relatively authoritarian or "teacher-centered' and those that are more "learner-centered", in which students play a role in making decisions. It's therefore worth thinking about the philosophy that predominates in the schools to which we send our kids.

 This article was excerpted with permission from the book:

The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and "Tougher Standards"
by Alfie Kohn.

Published by Houghton Mifflin; 0395940397; $24.00 US; Sept. 99.

Info/Order this book

Alfie KohnAbout The Author

Alfie Kohn's six previous books include Punished by Rewards and No Contest: The Case Against Competition. A parent and former teacher, he was recently described by Time magazine as "perhaps the country's most outspoken critic of education's fixation on grades and test scores." He lives in Belmont, Massachusetts, and lectures widely. This article was excerpted with permission from his book The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and "Tougher Standards". Published by Houghton Mifflin; 0395940397; $24.00 US; Sept. 99. Visit the author's website at


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