Seven Deadly Progressive Education Myths

Seven Deadly Progressive Education Myths

Our schools are failing our kids, and 'Seven Myths About Education' explains how politics replaced pedagogy.
Jane Robbins

In many ways, the progressive education establishment is akin to a leftist “Hive”—people who think and speak alike and move in concert, even without centralized control or an active conspiracy.

The education Hive exercises power and influence in every state and nearly all Western countries. From the Department of Education, to congressional education committees, to state departments of education, to colleges of education, to the numerous and multiplying individuals and private foundations that dump money and theory into questionable education reform efforts, the Hive is enormous and remarkably monolithic. There are differences, to be sure, on topics such as charter schools, but about the fundamentals there is no disagreement.

What are these fundamentals? Shibboleths about what schools should accomplish, and particular pedagogy. We hear ad nauseum that schools must turn out students who are college- and career-ready and prepared to compete in the twenty-first-century global economy. (Classical educators would argue that the purpose of education is much broader and more fundamental than this, but that’s a topic for another essay.) To create such students, schools must teach less factual content (or knowledge), which is instantly available through the Internet, and focus more on “noncognitive skills” such as critical thinking and collaboration.

There’s a surface plausibility to these tropes. Who could oppose teaching “critical thinking”? And it’s true, isn’t it, that most facts are available in a matter of seconds? So shouldn’t schools focus more on what to do with those facts? But many traditionalists are skeptical of these claims, perhaps without being able to identify exactly why.

Most Sincerely Wrong

Thankfully, there’s a book that explains why these pedagogical claims are 100 percent wrong. To paraphrase the Munchkin coroner, they are not only merely wrong, but really most sincerely wrong.

Daisy Christodoulou wrote Seven Myths About Education after teaching for several years in a British secondary school (British schools, like American, are controlled by the Hive). As a teacher she wrestled daily with “astonishing evidence of the pupils’ low levels of basic skills and knowledge” and began researching why the dominant pedagogy wasn’t working.

She discovered that scientific research about how the brain functions and how human beings learn utterly refutes everything she had been taught in education school. These are the myths Christodoulou explodes:

  • Learning facts interferes with developing understanding;
  • Teacher-led instruction is passive;
  • Because of 21st-century changes in technology and in the economy, students must be taught differently;
  • We should teach “transferable skills” such as critical thinking rather than content knowledge;
  • Projects and activities are the best way for students to learn; and
  • Teaching knowledge is indoctrination.

The Hard Work Of Teaching Facts

If there’s one thing the Hive is sure of—and around which they build most of the progressive-education structure—it’s that students need “deeper conceptual understanding” rather than “rote memorization” of facts. But much of the research Christodoulou reports establishes how crucial it is that students build long-term memory with thousands of facts, because without this base of knowledge, the brain’s “working memory” is crippled in its ability to process more complicated information.

For example, she explains why students really should memorize the date of the Battle of Waterloo:

Of course, pulling out one fact like this on its own does seem rather odd. But the aim of fact-learning is not to learn just one fact—it is to learn several hundred, which taken together form a schema that helps you to understand the world. Thus, just learning the date of the Battle of Waterloo will be of limited use. But learning the dates of 150 historical events from 3000 BC to the present and learning a couple of key facts about why each event was important will be of immense use, because it will form the fundamental chronological schema that is the basis of all historical understanding.

This observation applies across all disciplines. A student will struggle with reading unless he commits phonetic rules to long-term memory, and with math unless he memorizes multiplication tables and standard algorithms.

Going further, Christodoulou demonstrates how the “deeper conceptual understanding” so touted by progressive educrats is, in fact, impossible unless teachers and students first accomplish the hard work of teaching and learning facts. She cites Professor Rex Gibson’s account of Shakespeare’s education, which was rote memorization on steroids—as a schoolboy, he had to memorize more than 100 figures of rhetoric. But everything he learned in school he applied to his plays.

“On this evidence,” Gibson says, “Shakespeare’s education has been seen as an argument for the value of learning by rote, of constant practice, of strict rule-following. Or to put it another way, ‘discovery favours the well-prepared mind.’”

Christodoulou concludes, “[N]eglecting to focus on knowledge accumulation, therefore, and assuming that you can just focus on developing conceptual understanding . . . ensures not only that pupils’ knowledge will remain limited, but also that for all the apparent focus on conceptual understanding, their conceptual understanding will not develop either.”

It Takes Knowledge To Gain Knowledge

What about the pedagogy of traditional teacher-directed instruction (the teacher relating the content, to be mastered by the students) versus student project-based learning? The Hive, of course, sniffs at the former and embraces the latter, arguing that one better achieves deeper conceptual understanding by independent investigation. In fact, Christodoulou recalls that one of her instructors when she was in teacher training warned her that if she was talking, her students were not learning. The most effective learning technique, she was told, was to assemble the students in groups and let them discover information for themselves. This is precisely what is taught in most American education schools as well.

But Christodoulou makes the point that much of what students must know to establish any foundation for further learning is not something they will acquire naturally if the teacher just establishes the right learning environment. She explains:

The alphabet and the numbering system, which one would hope are essential parts of schooling, are both highly complex and abstract inventions of civilisation. There is nothing natural about them. There was nothing inevitable about their invention, and there is nothing inevitable about young children discovering how they work, even if they are exposed to them… The same is true of important scientific discoveries… If they are not explained to us and we are left to discover them for ourselves, many people will never discover them, or will have very imperfect understandings of them. Even those pupils who do manage to learn through these methods will have taken a highly inefficient method that will have wasted a lot of time.

Another problem with the “just look it up” school of thought is that, in the words of E.D. Hirsch (quoted by Christodoulou), “it takes knowledge to gain knowledge.” (Professor Hirsch, a bestselling author and well-known educational critic, has called Seven Myths About Education a “cleansing breeze.”) While she acknowledges that projects can be effective as an adjunct to teacher exposition, too often students are turned loose to explore topics without adequate foundational knowledge, and therefore either miss or misunderstand key components of what they’re supposedly discovering.

Leaving All The Poor Kids Behind

But what about the argument that teacher-led instruction is boring and de-motivating? Here Christodoulou cites Project Follow Through, the most extensive study of education for minority children ever conducted by the U.S. government. This study revealed that students taught with the direct-instruction method “outperformed their peers not just on their academic performance, but on affective measures such as self-esteem too.” As Christodoulou observes, “[d]irect instruction is successful and pupils enjoy succeeding.”

Schools should be especially diligent about imparting the fundamental knowledge rather than assuming the new century’s developments will eclipse it.

Project Follow Through also established another problem with project-based learning—it is especially damaging to children from lower socioeconomic environments. Christodoulou points out that projects lend themselves, even require, background knowledge that the students are expected to discover for themselves if they don’t already know it. But who is more likely to be missing the required background knowledge? The answer is poorer children. They struggle with project-based “learning” more than their more affluent peers, but the equity-obsessed Hive seems not to notice.

Ah, but here we are in the twenty-first century, when technology has minimized the importance of acquiring knowledge and made it more vital that schools focus on “transferable skills,” such as problem-solving. Right? Not so fast, says Christodoulou. She points out that “twenty-first-century skills” is in large part code for erasing academic content.

Moreover, she challenges the progressive assumption that everything is changing so fast that whatever we teach kids this year will be outdated in a few more. She points out that new discoveries, rather than disproving or superseding previous ones, usually build on previous information and require a thorough understanding of those established facts and concepts.

In fact, Christodoulou argues, schools should be especially diligent about imparting the fundamental knowledge rather than assuming the new century’s developments will eclipse it. “[T]he newer the idea, the more skeptical we should be about teaching it in a school, and the older the idea, the more likely it has stood the test of time,” she writes.

Elitism Masquerading As Equality

The final myth she takes on is that teaching knowledge is really just a form of indoctrination, “bound up with questions of power, authority and social class.” Here we have the aversion to teaching the works of “dead white males.” But Christodoulou argues that failing to teach this knowledge—much of which forms the foundation for our society—will actually exacerbate inequality by trapping students in the ignorance that will hinder their advancement.

The progressive idea that only elites need to know about great literature or art or music is, itself, elitist.

The progressive idea that only elites need to know about great literature or art or music is in fact profoundly disrespectful and harmful to the children of the “lower” classes. As she rightly observes, that idea is, itself, elitist.

The error, and in many cases, nonsense guiding progressive educational theories have not prevented their wide acceptance in the education community. Nor has their utter failure in the classroom. But fortunately, at least one teacher was curious enough to investigate the emperor’s wardrobe.

When Christodoulou began exploring why so many students leave school ignorant of so much, she “was shocked to stumble across an entire field of educational and scientific research which completely disproved so many of the theories I had been taught when training and teaching. I was not just shocked; I was angry… [I]deas that had absolutely no evidence backing them up had been presented to me as unquestionable axioms.” So she wrote a book, and one every parent and citizen with an interest in education ought to read.

Jane Robbins is an attorney and a senior fellow with the American Principles Project in Washington DC. She is a graduate of Clemson University and the Harvard Law School.

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