kitchen table math, the sequel: Susan Engel's revolutionary new proposals for education reform

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Susan Engel's revolutionary new proposals for education reform

In an Op-Ed in yesterday's New York Times, Susan Engel, a senior lecturer in psychology and the director of the teaching program at Williams college, makes the bold proposal that "if we want to make sure all children learn, we will need to overhaul the curriculum itself." Almost as original as Engel's proposals is her original use of language, some of which I've put in bold face.

"Our current educational approach," Engel argues, "is completely at odds with what scientists understand about how children develop during the elementary school years and has led to a curriculum that is strangling children and teachers alike."

In particular, students shouldn't be spending "tedious hours learning isolated mathematical formulas or memorizing sheets of science facts that are unlikely to matter much in the long run."

Engel proceeds to enlighten us on the following things that "scientists know" and that "research has shown unequivocally":

-children "construct knowledge; they don't swallow it."

-"the first step to literacy is simply being immersed, through conversation and storytelling, in a reading environment"

-"the second [step to literacy] is to read a lot and often."

-"people write best when they use writing to think and to communicate rather than to get a good grade."

-"children learn best when they are interested in the material or activity they are learning."

-collaboration is "a skill easily as important as math or reading."

Based on these astonishing new insights from science, Engel boldly proposes the following paradigm-shattering changes to classrooms:

-every child should be given "ample opportunities to read and discuss books."

-children should "spend an hour a day writing about things that have actual meaning to them--stories, newspaper articles, captions for cartoons, letters to one another."

-children should "spend a short period of time practicing computation" and once they are "proficient in those basics they would be free to turn to other activities that are equally essential for math and science: devising original experiments, observing the natural world and counting things, whether they be words, events, or people." (Children love such activities, Engel argues, "if given a chance to do them in a genuine way").

-children should engage in playful activities "from building contraptions to enacting stories to inventing games," which will "help them acquire higher-order thinking skills like generating testable hypotheses, imagining situations from someone else's perspective and thinking of alternative solutions."

-children should have ample time "to collaborate with one another."

Clearly Engel not only knows her cognitive science, but has spent countless hours observing what happens in today's classrooms: all that futile phonics instruction; all those tedious math and science drills; all that dearth of collaborative learning, game playing, letter writing, and cartooning.

But I must reserve my greatest appreciation for the New York Times for deeming it fit to publish this courageous piece, with its original criticisms of today's classrooms, its revolutionary proposals for reform, and its pioneering attempts to bring science into classroom teaching (Dan Willingham, please take note!).


Liz Ditz said...

Katherine, in between Jay Gordon's pusillanimous HuffPo piece on the ethical midget Andrew Wakefield and this staggeringly stupid piece from Susan Engels, I've reach my emesis threshhold.

It is indeed always worse than you think. No wonder teachers emerge from the edschools not knowing what they need to know.

Whole Language -- the kudzu of education.

Anonymous said...

Purple Cows must be saddened today.

I find the timing of the piece to be fascinating since the new federal ed funding is expressly moving away from the previous requirement that reading instruction be "scientifically based". What a victory for Marie Parks and her Guided Reading program!

Likewise the NSF Math and Science Program ($180 million last year) that is responsible for pushing the fuzzy math texts like Everyday Math, Investigations, CMP on school districts is being EXPANDED to $300 million and moved into the USDOE.

There will also be a Well Rounded Ed Fund to change the nature of history and civics instruction. Anyone think the Howard Zinn estate will soon be swimming in more royalties?

Ms Engels' piece and the fed Budget heralds the final assault on solid academics in US classrooms.

And we're funding our demise with borrowed or printed money.

SteveH said...

"It is indeed always worse than you think."

After all of these years, I still can't understand where they are coming from? They have no ounce of doubt. They don't even couch it in terms of opinion - what they think is best for kids. No. Research shows. The best I can figure is that this is all they know. If you take that away from them, then they have nothing. Their position resists all attempts at examination of the details.

Anonymous said...

Marie Clay and Guided Reading are rejoicing!

Guess this will also save her poorly conceived and expensive Reading Recovery program.

Anonymous said...

There's big money for higher ed institutions that advocate for these ideas.

There's big money for the "nonprofits" that implement these ideas. Ever seen their oversize salaries and benefits. Start looking into KnowledgeWorks and New Tech Network and see how well it fits this vision.

Finally teachers and administrators get to go to conferences in luxurious locations they are unlikely to visit except for an all expense paid package.

There are lots of professional benefits for those willing to push this vision. Plus it fits in with their sense of equitable outcomes and school as a socialization process.

Anonymous said...

Ditto. Constructivism has allure precisely because of its romantic and positive view of children and learning. Who could argue against its superiority to, say, the most restrictive tenets of behaviourism. And there is much to commend: constructivism's stress on pupil engagement in learning, its emphasis on dialogue, conversation, argument, and the justification of student and teacher opinions in a social setting. But when it comes right down to it, the constructivist view of the world is deeply troubling. Reality exists only as is understood by the learner. There is no objective truth to be explained and accepted. In such a post-modern relativism, science is just one of many ways of knowing the world. Its whole-language approach to reading has a corollary in the constructivist approach to mathematics, in which math is taught to be "appreciated" rather than as the sequential mastery of basic skills. Models of community and solidarity typically advocated by constructivists are what one critic has called "quasi-anarchical;" personal responsibility is replaced by group consensus. And because self-esteem is so important, children in constructivist classrooms are taught to tolerate almost every behavior, however destructive. So, again, shared experience takes precedence over facts, logic, and truth. Research does not support Engel's view that the constructivist approach enhances learning. Hers is a rigid ideological stance. You can do the research yourself. No, the cultish adherence to constructivism is symptomatic of a culture obsessed with choice and marked by a loss of confidence in study as a worthwhile activity that can spur debate that allows us to know truth.

momof4 said...

Sigh. Speaking of sighs, I was just told by parents researching Westchester County schools that they had been informed that at least 50% of Scarsdale first graders (and others) are being tutored, in spite of (because of?) the Scarsdale demographics. Does anyone have any more info on this? Specifically, is it because of the weakness of the curriculum and instruction (progressive idealogy)vs. the get-ahead of the Joneses mindset? I read that Scarsdale was switching to Singapore Math. How are the schools in Rye? elsewhere in the county? I'd appreciate info/links etc.

Just-a-Thought said...

Anonymous wrote: "And because self-esteem is so important, children in constructivist classrooms are taught to tolerate almost every behavior, however destructive."

Isn't this also the mindset on Wall Street and among corporate oligarchs? Are there dots to connect here?

Anonymous said...

"Our success depends on embracing a curriculum focused on essential skills like reading, writing, computation, pattern detection, conversation and collaboration — a curriculum designed to raise children, rather than test scores.

Pattern Detection. Well, thank god that pattern detection is finally being recognized as the important skill it is, right up there with reading.

And "conversation" too. Why, instead of sending home those annoying art projects that take us hours to do, why don't they just assign "conversation"? That would be great.

Seriously, it's like Whack-A-Mole. You finally knock one down and another one pops up.


Anonymous said...


Catherine might have that info but I think she's out of town at the moment. I remember her looking into that a few years ago.

The old site might have something about it, too. Try the search engine there (or here.)


Genevieve said...

When I saw this on the op-ed page, I hoped it would be about pre-school and Kindergarden because where I live, they do need to put play back into the day (also quiet time in Kindergarden.
I was so sad when I read the op-ed. I wanted to send her a link to the video about how teaching content is teaching reading.
I don't even want to think about the rest.

Anonymous said...

"We say to Engel what we say to P21: Where's the content?"

Robert Pondiscio said...

From the Core Knowledge Blog, with a tip of the hat to Katharine:

Old Whine, New Bottle

How did the New York Times get suckered into running an op-ed piece that recycles standard ed school constructivist orthodoxies, presenting them as a bold, new curriculum initiative?

Anonymous said...

Susan Engels teaches adults in college. I want to hear from the classroom teachers not their professors.

Anonymous said...

I am part of a commission that is helping the new Sup. John Covington help reshape and revitalize the Kansas City Missouri School District. I loved reading the comments. our first exercise was examining constructivism versus other approaches like behaviorism or pragmatism for example. It seemed most of us believed a blended approach was best.Hearing what teachers think about this is the best. I am not sure what another poster was saying about Howard Zinn. I guess that person and I disagree about the relevance of the late historian's work. I am hoping that the district will look at and use some of the same methods or books that are used in Singapore.

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Softmod Wii said...

I find the timing of the piece to be fascinating since the new federal ed funding is expressly moving away from the previous requirement that reading instruction be "scientifically based". What a victory for Marie Parks and her Guided Reading program!s

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