kitchen table math, the sequel: E.D. Hirsch on the philosophical roots of progressive education

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

E.D. Hirsch on the philosophical roots of progressive education

Hirsch writes:
In my mind, progressive educational ideas have proved so seductive because their appeal lies not in their practical effects but in their links to romanticism, the 19th-century philosophical movement, so influential in American culture, that elevated all that is natural and disparaged all that is artificial. The progressives applied this romantic principle to education by positing that education should be a natural process of growth that flows from the child’s natural instincts and interests. The word “nature” in the romantic tradition connotes the sense of a direct connection with the holy, lending the tenets of progressivism all the weight of religious conviction. We know in advance, in our bones, that what is natural must be better than what is artificial. This revelation is the absolute truth against which experience itself must be measured, and any failure of educational practice must be due to faulty implementation of progressive principles or faulty interpretation of educational results. Thus the results of mere reading tests must not be taken at face value, because such blunt instruments cannot hope to measure the true effects of education. The fundamental beliefs of progressivism are impervious to unfavorable data because its philosophical parent, romanticism, is a kind of secular theology that, like all religions, is inherently resistant to data. A religious believer scorns mere “evidences.”

The Chasm Between

There are many disputes within the education field, but none so vituperative as the reading and math wars—the battles over how best to teach children to read and to solve arithmetic problems. These aren’t just disputes over instructional techniques; they are expressions of two distinct and opposing understandings of children’s nature and how children learn. The two sides are best viewed as expressions of romantic versus classical orientations to education. For instance, the “whole language,” progressive approach to teaching children how to read is romantic in impulse. It equates the natural process of learning an oral first language with the very unnatural process of learning alphabetic writing. The emotive weight in progressivist ideas is on naturalness. The natural is spiritually nourishing; the artificial, deadening. In the 1920s, William Kilpatrick and other romantic progressivists were already advocating the “whole language” method for many of the same reasons advanced today.

The classical approach, by contrast, declines to assume that the natural method is always the best method. In teaching reading, the classicist is quite willing to accept linguistic scholarship that discloses that the alphabet is an artificial device for encoding the sounds of language. Learn the 40-odd sounds of the English language and their corresponding letter combinations, and you can sound out almost any word. Yet adherents of “whole language” regard phonics as an unnatural approach that, by divorcing sounds and letters from meaning and context, fails to give children a real appreciation for reading.

The progressivist believes that it is better to study math and science through real-world, hands-on, natural methods than through the deadening modes of conceptual and verbal learning, or the repetitive practicing of math algorithms, even if those “old fashioned” methods are successful. The classicist is willing to accept the verdict of scholars that the artificial symbols and algorithms of mathematics are the very sources of its power. Math is a powerful instrument precisely because it is unnatural. It enables the mind to manipulate symbols in ways that transcend the direct natural reckoning abilities of the mind. Natural, real-world intuitions are helpful in math, but there should be no facile opposition between terms like “understanding,” “hands-on,” and “real-world applications” and terms like “rote learning” and “drill and kill.” What is being killed in memorizing the multiplication table? The progressivist says: children’s joy in learning, their intrinsic interest, and their deep understanding.

The romantic poet William Wordsworth said, “We murder to dissect”; the progressivist says that phonemics and place value should not be dissected in isolation from their natural use, nor imposed before the child is naturally ready. Instead of explicit, analytical instruction, the romantic wants implicit, natural instruction through projects and discovery. This explains the romantic preference for “integrated learning” and “developmental appropriateness.” Education that places subject matter in its natural setting and presents it in a natural way is superior to the artificial analysis and abstractions of language. Hands-on learning is superior to verbal learning. Real-world applications of mathematics provide a truer understanding of math than empty mastery of formal relationships.

Romancing the Child
E.D. Hirsch
Education Next
Spring 2001 / Vol. 1, No. 1
This is where whole math comes from.

Also, this is why it's illegal to teach sentence diagramming (pdf file - Martha Kolln's 10 core sentences) in public schools.


I see I've posted this passage before: E.D. Hirsch on "spilt religion."


Hainish said...

Is it really illegal? I thought it was merely terribly out of fashion.

BTW, I had a fantastic English teacher in grade 7. We did diagramming sentences, the whole nine yards. For me, it was the best part of ELA.

I found out recently that she had been under pressure more and more to abandon that sort of teaching and do more of the readers'/writers' workshop crap that took hold in my district. So she quit, or retired early. (She was not exactly young when she left, but it was a loss for the students.)

I got to see a grade 8 ELA classroom last year at the same school. A row of small, colorful clay models of various objects (presumably, revealing each student's inner soul) lined one wall of the classroom.

Catherine Johnson said...

It's a capital offense.

Glen said...

What exactly is "Readers' Workshop"? My son's school just sent me an email announcing the apparently great news that we have cleared some sort of hurdle, so we will now be able to begin Readers' Workshop as of January. Woohoo! Given that it is the same people who were equally excited about adopting Everyday Math, I'm almost afraid to ask.

Hainish said...

Glen, Reader's Workshop is a pedagogical method in which the teacher gives explicit instruction for the first 5 or 10 minutes of the lesson, whereafter students form small groups and apply the new information to some task. During this, the teacher goes around and assist groups by providing the information they need, but must never, ever address the whole class or write on the board. At the end, the teacher queries the groups and reviews their conclusions.

Ditto for Writer's Workshop. This model was developed at Teacher's College.

The thing is, in and of itself, this is not an entirely terrible way to teach a class, provided that the material can profitably be learned using such method and that there is adequate time to implement it.

As it turns out, that is not how it is used. In my district's middle school, two periods of the 9-period day are given over to readers'/writers' and math workshops, meant to reinforce the skills learned in the regular ELA and math classes. The periods are 43 minutes long.

In many of the NYC schools where I have interviewed, every class, every day, in every subject is taught using the workshop method.

After the first interview in which I learned this, I trained my jaw to not fall into my lap and wrote up a biology workshop model lesson plan for my portfolio. Now I cheerfully announce to the interviewers that I really really love workshop method and would marry it if I could.

Hainish said...

Catherine, LOL!

palisadesk said...

What exactly is "Readers' Workshop"?

More than you want to know at these two sites:

Readers' Workshop


Best Practices: Readers Workshop

Video examples here:

Video clips of RW


Lucy Calkins on Readers Workshop

cranberry said...

Palisadesk, I was amused to see the following sentence on the first page of your first link:

Over the course of the year, students read many books and are encouraged to do as good reader's do in exploring different genres, authors, and texts.

Everyone can create typos, of course, but I don't hold out high hopes for the approach if those pushing it aren't competent at proofreading their own texts.

Anonymous said...

I can't resist: is proofreading "authentic"?

NY_I said...

Can't anyone put the links together and see that these "progressive" dictates contribute to our being behind most industrialized countries?

It pains me to see high schools pausing a minute to reflect and using their hands to calculate simple multiplication tasks. Progressive-constructivist math has done incalculable damage to students.

Anonymous said...

You mean anyone other than the folks on KTM?

Never fear, NY_I. These progressive dictates have caught on in the rest of the industrialized countries too. We're leading the way in being behind, but they are working as fast as they can to catch up! Europe is beginning to change its assessments to match this malarkey, Singapore has already abandoned Primary Math, and the list goes on and on.