kitchen table math, the sequel: buzzword education

Sunday, February 25, 2007

buzzword education

Wikipedia has an interesting entry on buzzwords. Buzzwords may sound impressive but have an unclear meaning. Wikipedia says: "Buzzwords are typically intended to impress one's audience with the pretense of knowledge. For this reason, they are often universal. They typically make sentences difficult to dispute, on account of their cloudy meaning."

Buzzwords should not be confused with jargon. For the most part, jargon has a well-defined technical meaning, at least to the initiated. On the other hand, buzzwords not only obscure meaning, but "can also function to control thought by being intentionally vague." As Wikipedia puts it: "In management, stating organizational goals by using words with unclear meanings prevents anybody from questioning the directions and intentions of these decisions..."

What is true for management is true for education to a high degree. Education presents a veritable cornucopia of buzzwords with vague meanings. They form the feeble corpus of the educationist Thoughtworld that would be a corpse in a more rational world. (Thoughtworld is a term coined by E. D. Hirsch to describe the nebulous educationist thought complex).

Ed schools are a rich generator of educationist fog, blasting prodigious quantities of fog into the air the way Mount Pinatubo might spew massive amounts of ash into the air until the sun is reduced to a faint glow.

And yet, astonishingly and improbably, we are asked to believe that the massive amounts of fog mixed with toxic fumes emitted by ed schools magically stop at the schoolhouse door.

It's been claimed by some, including Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews (see The Ed School Disease, Part Two) commenting on educational historian David F. Labaree's new book, "The Trouble With Ed Schools," that ed schools may be pitiful institutions and the butt of jokes, but there is no need to worry. They are not doing any harm: "Why worry about ed schools if they don't do any harm, or any good?" Mathews avers:

What I said in that column was that I had been in a lot of classrooms and had rarely seen much of this guide on the side stuff. I wasn't saying I was happy about it. We have never given the Deweyites a fair test of their theories, and I know of a few schools that have used child-centered learning to good effect. Labaree's insight is powerful and useful all the same: why worry about ed schools if they don't do any harm, or any good?
The blindness revealed in this statement is astonishing. Could armies of new teachers and educational leaders who go through the rigorous ed school indoctrination process really emerge unscathed? Not very likely.

When attempting to write about the harm done by ed school ideology, it is hard to know where to begin. One could start with relatively minor topics like the preachments about the unimportance of correct spelling and the alleged benefits of invented spelling. One could start with the promotion of disastrous creeds like constructivism that are reflected in curricula and teaching methods, and form the core of ed school ideology.

A perusal of mission and vision statements of schools show how deeply entrenched ed school ideology is in the thinking of educationists who run the schools. Take, for example, Chicago's so-called Renaissance schools. Classrooms need to be heterogeneous, disciplines must be integrated, collaborative groups must engage in peer teaching, math and science must be learned by inquiry and discovery without coherent textbooks and so on. Among my many favorites is the Al Raby school:

Educational Philosphy
The Al Raby School will embody a constructivist approach to learning. Learning will be an active process; our teachers will use lecture style instruction and worksheets sparingly. All teachers will stress collaborative groups as well as individual initiative, striving to make the classroom a model democratic community where students have choices and responsibilities. Based on a large body of research, we believe that for true comprehension and retention to occur the learning must be relevant, active and reflective.
Many of these new Chicago schools receive money from the Gates Foundation.

It is also wrong for Mathews to focus solely on what teachers may or may not do. Teachers are not free agents. They must work under the contraints imposed from above. In many schools, this means having to work with fuzzy math textbooks like TERC, Trailblazers, Connected Math, CorePlus, all execrable fuzzy math programs. The CMP teacher manual tells teachers not to provide explicit instruction. Math teachers I've talked to either follow this dictum or are agonizing over it. Often it can mean working with no textbooks at all. Periodically, an ed school-indoctrinated leadership comes in and orders the removal of textbooks and workbooks from classrooms. These are then given away or end up in the trash.

One of the pernicious effects of ed school ideology is how it produces an indoctrinated cadre for top leadership positions which then has the power to impose constructivist texts and practices on schools, like Chicago's CMSI. This cadre could be anything from superintendents to board members to curriculum and instruction experts to principals and supervisory bodies.

The message from this cadre is that explicit instruction should be minimized or avoided altogether; that worksheets (one of the hands-on activities that make sense) should be avoided like the plague [one reason for the highly restricted photocopying allotment given to teachers here in Chicago]; that textbooks are evil incarnate and prevent teachers from being "creative".

On top of everything, overworked and frazzled teachers are expected to reinvent the wheel every day. Since many elementary teachers are not well-educated to begin with (e.g. a pathetic knowledge of history, geography and science), the one source of knowledge (textbooks) that could be a corrective is foreclosed. So you have instances of textbook-free schools. Schools without basals (hated by educationists), history and science textbooks, except for science "inquiry" manuals.

Part of this hatred for textbooks is the belief -- a component of ed school ideology -- that "information" (this is how educationists view knowledge) is exploding like supernovae, and what is true today is hopelessly obsolete tomorrow. Another reason is plain educationist disdain for facts. It interferes with "critical thinking" and "creativity" and stunts the mind.

One can see the hand of ed school ideology everywhere in school. At least I see it everywhere. I see it when DEAR (Drop Everything and Read insipid, vacuous and vapid fiction) is the first thing on the agenda in the morning when students are most receptive for more substantial stuff. This reading then takes place silently for an hour without teacher feedback. I see it in block scheduling to provide ample opportunity for time-wasting activities. I see it in contrived interdisciplinary instruction and in coloring and more coloring. I see the hand of ed school ideology indirectly when new elementary teacher candidates are released from the citadel of anti-intellectualism with scant knowledge of math, science, history, geography, grammar and languages, and subsequently validated by laughable state "content" tests. The list goes on and on...


Instructivist said...

See the mission and vision of these four Chicago high schools:

Here is one:

Our Mission
The Little Village Lawndale High School is a reality because of the principles of social justice. Our belief in self-determination inspired a community to act on its convictions to affirm its right to a quality education. Through a system of support, guidance, and accountability our students will graduate high school, be prepared for college and implement a post secondary plan. Our students will cherish and preserve their ethnic and cultural identity, will serve and determine the future of our community, and will have a passion for peace, justice and the dignity of all people.

Our Vision
The purpose of the school of social justice is to assure that all students become critical thinkers through a curriculum that is rigorous, innovative, and implemented through meaningful school relationships.

Project based and problem based learning that addresses real world issues through the lenses of race, gender, culture, economic equity, peace, justice, and the environment will be the catalyst for developing our curriculum.

Service learning will be the center of our curriculum. Our community and the city will be our classroom. All learning will be relevant to the lives of our students.

We will increase student learning and achievement by building on what our students know and utilize their everyday experiences in order to build the excellence of basic skills and literacy.

The professional community composed of administrators, teachers, students, parents and other community members will learn together and from one another.

Core Beliefs

Truth and Transparency
We will practice honesty and authenticity in our communication and relationships with students, our community, peers, and ourselves.

Struggle and Sacrifice
Our struggle is against systems of power that have been historically used to deny, regulate, and prohibit access to the most basic human rights that should be granted freely to members of society regardless of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or religious belief. We accept the reality that such struggle will require sacrifice from all involved.

Ownership and Agency
We will take responsibility as agents and catalysts of change to expose the truth about the functions of power, work (unite) to interrupt their operations, and operate as producers of power to meet the needs of the Greater Lawndale community.

Collective and Community Power
Through collective community power, we commit to a conscious effort to overcome the intended historical obstacles that have been designed to disempower and divide our communities, and thereby meet the needs of all members of Greater Lawndale for continual betterment and progress.

Catherine Johnson said...

Elaine McEwan, in her book on raising reading scores in middle schools, says the SSR programs (silent sustained reading) haven't worked at all.

Catherine Johnson said...

The idea that people can impose this stuff on disadvantaged kids is incredibly distressing.

No need to discuss their plans with parents.

Barry Garelick said...

Thanks for calling attention to Jay Mathews' misinformed opinions that ed schools do no damage. He is under the impression that constructivism in its various bad forms does not exist.

Teachers are taught in ed school that students need to make connections to real life. They are expected to learn math and science in the same way that mathematicians and scientists conduct research in these professions. Basic skills are something teachers teach on the sly.

LynnG said...

Interesting take on DEAR. We do that. For kids that can ALREADY read well, and have challenging material in front of them, it could be good. I'm thinking of the kids that are overscheduled and don't read on their own. This could (I repeat, could) help them improve their reading.

But, I agree, without research to show a positive benefit, DEAR is just another timewaster. If you can't read well, what possible benefit is it to sit with a book in your hand and go through the motions.

I suspect SSR and DEAR really only benefit kids that enjoy reading already. Direct instruction in the earliest grades is essential to develop the skills they need.

LynnG said...

I would love to generate a list of our favorite education buzzwords. I would, BTW, add that I think most buzzwords, in addition to being vague and foggy, usually also carry some implication of moral superiority. Anyway, here's my list of some of the more distructive, and foggy, education buzzwords:

collaborative learning

I'm sure you can all add a bunch more.

Barry Garelick said...

Here's some more:


Anonymous said...

They are expected to learn math and science in the same way that mathematicians and scientists conduct research in these professions.

What exactly do the people advocating such an approach know about what research mathematicians do? My naive hunch is that unless the kids are doing math rigorously, and I don't mean computational techniques, they certainly are not learning math in the same way that mathematicians do research. I don't doubt that there is someone out there that has conflated a pedagogical device with mathematics and is foisting this confusion off on parents.

Perhaps they are just pretending to do "research" the same way little four year old girls play school. It's one thing to "discover" properties of numbers in different bases, it's another (to imitate the mathematician) to write it up formally and correctly. As someone so delicately pointed out to me about my own efforts, anything less isn't math it's "b***s*** speculation."

MikeZ said...

I'm not in the prefession, but the first reading of "We have never given the Deweyites a fair test of their theories,..." set my teeth on edge. How long are we supposed to give those theories t=yet another chance? Diane Ravitch made short work of that in "Left Behind".

Myrtle Hocklemeier makes a good point. Put another way, scientists and mathematicians do that advanced learning only after mastering the basics. One doesn't discover the structure of DNA by poking around with a knitting needle, or playing with Legos.

Barry Garelick said...

What exactly do the people advocating such an approach know about what research mathematicians do?

Nothing. They think that "problem solving" is research. But even that were the case, one can't learn problem solving without some basic tools that generalize to different types of problems. But the way they teach it is by specific problems, rather than generalizable concepts. Like learning a language by memorizing dialogues. Hey, I still know some dialogues from my 8th grade Spanish class: Como estan Pablo y Luisa? Luisa esta bien, pero Luisa tiene catarro. Oh, que lastima! Lo Sient! Ojala que se mejore pronto.

Barry Garelick said...

OMG, I meant: Pabo esta bien, per Luisa tiene catarro.

I guess it proves my point, whatever that was.

Anonymous said...

"Luisa esta bien, pero Luisa tiene catarro"

Discovery foreign language learning: Stephen Krashen would say that it doesn't matter that you said something incorrectly but that you made a "communicative intent"

It's not just math. Is there some larger underlying movement out there?

KDeRosa said...

In seventh grade our teacher asked us to memorize one word--insurance-- for no apparent reason. ALmsot 30 years later I still kremember that definition of insurance -- a contract that guarantees against risk or loss. We learned it by rote and I'm sure I didn't fully appreciate the meaning of the defionition at the time. Yet oddly, enough I have perfect recall after all these years and now the definition makes sense. Just sayin'.

Instructivist said...

"Interesting take on DEAR. We do that. For kids that can ALREADY read well, and have challenging material in front of them, it could be good. I'm thinking of the kids that are overscheduled and don't read on their own. This could (I repeat, could) help them improve their reading."

Read well and challenging material is key here. Those who don't read well need feedback. I'd also like to see more nonfiction like science and history, biographies and so on. I also think these reading sessions should be held later in the day. There should be more teacher input in the morning when kids are more receptive.

Barry Garelick said...

Memorizing the word "insurance", yes makes sense in your story. In my Spanish book, to be fair, after we memorized the dialogues, we learned the patterns of the various structures being taught in a particular lesson and we practice varying sentences. "Now tell me that Luisa has a dog" "OK. Luisa tiene un perro." etc My point about memorizing solutions to math problems is that it doesn't make sense to memorize how to solve them if you haven't mastered the skills techniques that are used to solve them. But some math programs seem to be that way; like CMP.

Marginally relevant: When I was seven, my brother told me that "anti-disestablishmentarryanism" meant the little staple that holds together the two wooden rods that came with store-bought kites. I held that definition in my head for many years.

Tracy W said...

"In management, stating organizational goals by using words with unclear meanings prevents anybody from questioning the directions and intentions of these decisions..."

Therein speaks someone who has never worked for the NZ Treasury.

3 hours of debate over the meaning of the team goal (which started as one of those bedratted unclear things) and the author would be banging their head against a brick wall and seriously in favour of lack of questioning too.