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!).