August 26, 2013

"Schools as we know them today are a product of history, not of research into how children learn."

Writes Peter Gray in Salon.
The blueprint still used for today’s schools was developed during the Protestant Reformation, when schools were created to teach children to read the Bible, to believe scripture without questioning it, and to obey authority figures without questioning them. The early founders of schools were quite clear about this in their writings. The idea that schools might be places for nurturing critical thought, creativity, self-initiative or ability to learn on one’s own — the kinds of skills most needed for success in today’s economy — was the furthest thing from their minds. To them, willfulness was sinfulness, to be drilled or beaten out of children, not encouraged.

When schools were taken over by the state and made compulsory, and directed toward secular ends, the basic structure and methods of schooling remained unchanged....

53 comments:

D. Luthor said...

They are a product of other things, as well:

an engine of needless bureaucratic growth for growth's sake:

"The Jayne Mansfieldization of American Education"

and a place for the NEA to make sure bad teachers stay in their positions, as long as they are always forced to give dues *cough* campaign contributions to the Democratic Party.

campy said...

the basic structure and methods of schooling remained unchanged....

Because government hates willfulness and likes unquestioning obedience even more than religion does.

pduggie said...

It worked pretty well for me, but then I'm pretty happy with the Protestant Reformation.

PaulV said...

The Protestant Reformation was a revolution. It was based on reason rather that acknowledging the supremacy of the established Church. I would say that article is based on prejudice.

TMink said...

Yeah, the research indicates that homework is useless, but it abides. One of the big problems I see at work is that children are not taught to respect and obey legitimate authority like their teachers and parents. But then this problem, like so many attributed to schools, is more accurately a family problem.

Trey

Carol said...

BS...today's schools are the product of 100 years of progressive ed theorizing emanating from the columbia ed school.

John Lynch said...

How do we know that research is a better guide than experience? I don't have much confidence that the most recent educational fad will be more effective at teaching children than hundreds of years of experience.

Children haven't changed that much, but the lure of novelty has corrupted education beyond recognition. I remember the moment growing up when I realized that had I been born a couple decades earlier I would have received a much more comprehensive education, and that the people I read about in books had obviously learned more in school than I had. The Boomer generation left an educational desert in its wake that I had to walk through.

That being said, sure, public education needs to change. I'm not sure that scientific research into how children learn is very reliable. People since the Enlightenment (hell, since PLATO) have been trying to shape education along rational lines with mixed success.

Peter said...

Given a choice between history and "research," I'll take history- at least when the "research" is what comes out of schools of education.

At least history tends to empirically select what works over what doesn't.

Whereas schools of education have a grand history of selecting what's fashionable over what works.

And yes, some things which are not at all fun to learn are nonetheless very, very useful once you've learned them. How many of these "learning should be fun!" utopian schools have ever actually worked?

C Stanley said...

That is interesting and a bit ironic, if accurate, because so many religious conservatives now feel that the public schools are indoctrinating kids toward secular and anti-theistic values.

I'd be interested to read his book to see if it is completely reactionary or not. I think there's definitely truth in the idea that kids don't learn to think independently by rote, and for some kids it's particularly stifling. But the "unschooling" approach is a ridiculous overreaction.

prairie wind said...

Sorry...not reading what Peter Gray thinks. Education goes through phases. They try one thing and they try another and then the try the next thing. Then they rediscover the first thing and use a Smart Board to implement it because that makes it so much better.

And through it all, there is still a few kids who don't learn...and probably the same kids in every single new "discovery."

Paddy O said...

I mostly agree with his conclusions, but find the bulk of the article to be idealist,very limited in perspective (an upper middle class perspective), ignorant of human history, and ignorant of actual human people. Or maybe that's all going back to the idealist part.

First, he neglects to point out the Lockean foundation of much public education, which led to people not dismissing others as simply existing in their natural state, but saw that all, even the woefully ignorant, could make progress through discipline, both moral and intellectual.

The kind of mass education that he's referring to really didn't even take off until the 1800s, as people were concerned about the poor. Now the trouble with the Poor is not only that they're poor but that they often perpetuate habits and approaches that keep them poor.

"This amazing drive and capacity to learn does not turn itself off when children turn 5 or 6. We turn it off with our coercive system of schooling."

This is partly true, but the reality is that public schools were started precisely because a broad swath of society was vastly illiterate and uneducated. It's not like kids were running around getting self-educated, reading at home with their involved parents, then public schools stepped in so as to take over, ruining everything.

Kids might be great at self-learning before a certain age, but they're even better at social learning, picking up the priorities and habits of those around them, whether families, friends, older kids.

TML said...

Not surprising at all. From one religion to the next. And the new one is even more brutal, irrational and cruel.

Uncle Pavian said...

How much confidence is inspired by what we know about social science research and the people who do it?

Moose said...

Interesting concept. I'd have to point though that the concept of rigorous adherence to rote learning has taken on a new meaning given the overwhelming number of female teachers and administrative staff that control modern public education. Its still rote learning, but in a form unrecognizable to parents a half century ago...

traditionalguy said...

Two things are wrong with that clever article.

First, The Protestant Reformation actually created the experiment in mass literacy and books in the language of the people where NONE had existed before, and that in turn released great minds to think creatively and form the polar opposite of a top down governance which had been the existing Catholic/Episcopal rule by Bishops and Clergy imposing conformity to exact rituals on the illiterate serfs.

Secondly, all education must start with didactic teaching on the basics. Then the creative part can be added. Montessori experiments are fine too for playtime, but they pass on little knowledge.

SomeoneHasToSayIt said...

This may be true, but what a wonderful ready-made excuse for incompetent teachers and stupid students!

Expect this to get significantly more play.

Note: They may have been forced to read the bible, but at least they could READ.

Quasimodo said...

Ff schools were a product of history, they would be more effective than they are today. Today they are products of PhD dissertations and the Hawthorn effect.

Quasimodo said...

Ff schools were a product of history, they would be more effective than they are today. Today they are products of PhD dissertations and the Hawthorn effect.

Big Mike said...

I can't imagine anyone who writes for Salon actually wanting to nurture critical thought. How much of what Peter Gray fervently believes would stand up to genuine critical thought?

And after seeing all the different programs put into place at my children's schools, I am very skeptical about "research into how children learn."

Salamandyr said...

It was my understanding that the modern public school system was more about inculcating workers for the mass industrial state, but if blaming Christians makes this guy feel better about looking for better ways to teach our children, welcome to the team, I say.

Scott M said...

And yet when we look at high-school exams from those bygone days, we have a hard time believing it's not a test from grad school.

dmoelling said...

Here's a good thesis topic for Ed School types. Take known self educated types and compare their literacy and abilities to formally educated college grads of today. Maybe we put many of the founding fathers, Lincoln, Edison, etc. in the mix.

Desire to learn is the key element as is a respect for basic skills. Many of the current "For Profit" schools started out in the 1880s/1900 as correspondence schools for people with the grade school education of the time. My grandfather went to work after 6th grade but was always buying multi-volume home study series.

A little less sneering by the elite on this path would be helpful.

Michael K said...

"Critical thinking" doesn't do well teaching first graders to read and to calculate. The education industry is in love with fads.

Stephen A. Meigs said...

From article:

... the more we have come to realize that children learn most deeply and fully, and with greatest enthusiasm, in conditions that are almost opposite to those of school.

Schooling and learning should be long or life-long processes. Enthusiasm is a short-term process that leaves one tired out afterwards--it can't maintain prolonged interest. Teachers have a selfish tendency to encourage enthusiasm, since they are judged by how their students do right now in their class rather than in future classes or in life. Enthusiasm is actually mostly a bad thing in learning. A more sacred view of learning would be preferable.

All that said, there is too much homework. Another way teachers, administrators, etc., try to encourage greater attention and interest is to more-or-less always pretend that what is taught is so important that failure to understand and perform well on exams should be equated with screwed-up-ness. Failure on an exam doesn't mean that your butt will fall off (or worse), though many teachers try to make it seem that way. The worst at this are men who are into doing nasty things to fallen women (and the fallen women they delude), who try to make it seem youthful ignorance of what the pedants have learned (e.g., about the advantages of doing boring homework over early interest in understanding sexual desires cleanly and rightly) rather than nastiness was the cause of past mistakes, thereby suggesting that a continuation of nastiness be innocuous.

Reflecting on one's self is important, because it is very important to understand one's self--particularly one's own natural tendencies--but reflection is cheap, and so no one has an economic interest in arguing that kids should do less homework and daydream and fantasize more, e.g., about their feelings toward others. Sometimes the free things are what people (and kids) need the most.

At the college and university level, I'd like to see professors judged more by what they know than by what they have discovered--I'd like to see a rejection of the Prussian model of higher education adopted in the late 19th-century. The latter leads to too much incentive to pretend original non-sense is something profound, causing higher academic success to be more a result of persuasive skills than a result of understanding. And a few great universities in a sea of mediocrity is better than a sea of uniformity; there needs to be official contempt for accreditation and University rankings, or at least a more alternative set of groups undertaking such judgements. A vague proscription for improvement of higher education, I know, because I see no easy solution.

Auntie Ann said...

This is just the same repackaging that's been going on for over a century. Dewey railed against the classroom structure at the end of the 19th Century--and he was hardly the first. "Gradgrindian" is often the word used for traditional classrooms, and that comes from Dickens in 1854.

I'm always amazed that these types of stories pop up every *#$%^* year and are treated like a great breakthrough in educational thinking, when they are actually retreads of over a century of commentary. This has been the standard theory of education, taught at ed schools, since the 1960's. Nearly everyone educated today is being educated on the theory 1) that kids learn best when they learn through self-discovery, 2) teachers shouldn't be in front of the classroom giving lectures (these things even have cute nick names: "sage on the stage" is this one), but should be allowing kids to find things out on their own ("guide on the side".)

Every generation rails against the educational system of the day, yet the reforms always seem to result in degenerating results; with fewer competent, educated adults who can read, write, and cypher adequately.

I remember an old episode of either "Leave It To Beaver" or "Andy Griffith" where the kid was in a class and they were discussing some odd event in American history that no one today has ever heard of. That isn't really a problem, we emphasize different historical events differently as time passes. What really stood out was the level of knowledge 3rd graders were expected to master and be able to discuss. There is no where near that level of learning today, as teachers have been taught for decades to teach kids "how to learn" instead of actually teaching them facts, skills, writing, grammar, spelling, etc. Those kids were learning things that would allow them to think critically later in life.

Basic modern neuroscience is showing that we need information to be able to think about something and analyze it properly. Here's an simple-stupid example: a baseball manager pulls his pitcher even though he's still doing really well. If you don't know that the pitcher's arm was still sore from straining it at practice, or that the manager was worried about damaging it further, you might scream from the stands at the manager's stupidity. You can not analyze the manager's decision without the facts.

The same goes for history, economics, science, politics, etc. Uninformed people can not think critically, yet schools are doing little to inform students.

There is little doubt that kids do actually learn better when they learn through self-motivated self-discovery, but how many second graders walk into the classroom really, really turned on by learning about past participles. Or eighth graders taking a gee-whiz-this-is-fun! attitude toward working to master factoring polynomials. And yet we need just about everyone to learn how to write at a basic competence level, and we need a substantial number of people to excel at factoring polynomials. I'm sure teachers live for the moment, the eureka moment, when a kid figures it all out and finally understands something they've been working on for weeks, and excitement gets kindled--they take ownership of their learning; but I wouldn't want to develop a curriculum based on those moments. The idea that all kids can, or are going to be self-motivated and propel themselves into becoming educated adults is silly, and the fact that it has been the dominating philosophy in ed schools is at least partly to blame for the lack of educational progress in recent decades.

SJ said...

There was a time, in Europe, when Protestant leaders wanted to help their children read the Sola Scriptura that helped them free the children from the control of Catholic priests.

Much later, there was a time period in American history when a bunch of Protestant leaders wanted to inculcate Protestant/American ethics into the minds of children of Catholic immigrants.

At that time, American public schools were designed and intended to be religious.

Catholic communities responded by creating a parish-based school system, in which children were taught by nuns.

Neither of these systems fully achieved their intended goals.

Nowadays, it seems as if educators have a goal of destroying the ethics of Protestant America, at least as it existed in the first half of the 20th Century.

Does this count as a religious goal?

n.n said...

Gray is attempting to explain the failure of education reform through displacement. He claims traditional teaching techniques are restricting, while ignoring that the institutions and individuals which made modern civilization were religious, and specifically Judeo-Christian.

Perhaps Gray has an inferiority complex which he nurses through projection.

Whatever his character flaw may be, and without considering his ulterior motives, he fails to acknowledge and address the cause of progressive corruption: dissociation. It is his philosophy and ideology, which has sponsored and nurtured a diminishing return.

As for damaging our kids, which kids? The kids who survive the sacrificial rites? The kids who meet the diversity quotas? Why so selective, Gray?

Anyway, this is simply fodder to be exploited for marginalizing competing interests. Pathetic.

Charlie Martin said...

The problem with this hypothesis is that schools continued to oeprate reasonably well for some hundreds of years following the Reformation.

mtrobertsattorney said...

Grey is 100% right. As proof, those children who were subjected to that old educational blueprint could actually read and write after only few years of exposure to this travesty.

Things are so much better today. Now, after enlightened ideas of education have taken hold, children, after 12 years of modern education, can proudly demonstrate their illiteracy.

Tom Gallagher said...

Mission creep defines the modern school that long ago abandoned the three R's to shaping tolerant yet unaware drones; see CA AB1266.

Salamandyr said...

The problem with modern education can be summed up in one sentence, "It's my duty to instill in my students a life-long love of learning."

No. It isn't. It's your job to instruct them on a body of information that you are notionally qualified to impart. Whether they "love learning" should be as irrelevant as whether they love liver in the completion of that task.

I'll go so far as to stipulate that "critical thinking" is one of the skills that schools should focus on imparting, however to do so before you have adequately imparted enough information for the student to actually "think critically" is again, backward thinking. The first job of a critical thinker is getting the facts. But "getting the facts" sounds too much like rote learning, and doesn't adequately stroke the teacher's ego as a moulder of young minds rather than an information source. Thus, you get young geniuses who think their uninformed opinions have validity in the real world and insist on give the rest of us the benefit of their ignorance.

DanTheMan said...

My daughter (a junior at a magnet school) was recently promoted to Honors American History.
Why? Because she could name 40+ states. Apparently, year over year, the class average is 14.
My 3rd grader in Catholic school can name 15.

Thank goodness we have this new and improved education, unlike that savage Middle-Ages backward kind that only imparted knowledge.

Salamandyr said...

Notice that you don't hear that kind of crud from driver's ed teachers. They don't care whether you love cars or learning. They just care whether you can operate that big, expensive piece of machinery in a manner that will not kill either you, or the people around you.

Perhaps it's time we take the same attitude toward the teaching of English, mathematics, and history.

Larry J said...

TMink said...
Yeah, the research indicates that homework is useless, but it abides


Homework is to learning school material as practice is learning to play a musical instrument. Remember those articiles that claim it takes 10,000 hours to become expert at something? We can debate the number of hours but the point remains - you learn by doing, not just attending a class. In fact, I argue that most of what we really learn, we teach ourselves either completely on our own or with guided instruction.

Mountain Maven said...

I don't think he's been inside a public school classroom recently or didn't believe his lying eyes. What is happening there is not good, but it is not what he depicts. What he is promulgating is the myth progressives are using to finish pushing their all socialization, no learning agenda into the schools.

Joe said...

All the more reason to end formal schooling at age 16.

My fourth, fifth and sixth grades were wasted on an "open" classroom experience in the early 70s. It was a complete waste of time and a big reason I'm quite skeptical of both the home school and self-directed learning movements.

People do need to learn the basic tools of math, science, English and history. This isn't trivial and without it, you can't do effective self-directed learning.

n.n said...

Gray's analysis fails on two points. It does not take into consideration that a human life evolves from conception to death and that individual dignity ensures disparate outcomes. The former can be addressed through proper association of risk. While the latter must be acknowledged as a property of humanity, which can be influenced but not directed, and is properly addressed at home with proper parental responsibility.

Birkel said...

I am roughly sure the author believes in Progressive goals. He believes history is somehow moving at some positive slope.

Thus has it always looked to those who live in times and places of improvement over the 'normal' condition of man through man's evolution. But to those men who live in down times or in the majority of places on this Earth the author would seem a fool.

Progressives require ignorance to enforce their Vision.

Sam L. said...

TMink, there is much question in my mind that all those teachers have legitimate authority, or should have, given the system that produces them.

Michael said...

All of the "research" into education appears to be a search for an easy way. Remember that without Everyday Math we produced a generation that built the atom bomb, won two world wars, created a thriving automobile business, an interstate highway system and sent men to the moon. Every attempt to make it easier makes for a dumber electorate. Problem solved.

FleetUSA said...

I don't have time to read all the comments now, maybe later.

I think we've had enough of "progressive education" that has basically ruined learning for more than a generation of school children.

To be productive in society our sons and daughters need to finish high school knowing basic math, reading and communication skills, and at least fundamental American history and government structures.

All the feel goodness does nothing to produce a successful life or long-term happiness unless you can call being a ward of the state happiness.

Mitch H. said...

Who is this guy, the time traveller's wife? We've had fifty or sixty years of garbage educratic "studies"-based experimentation with education. I have a friend who went to school in a building with no goddamn interior classroom walls based on some halfwitted Bauhaus-influenced theory about "how children learn" - not in long, echoing halls inspired by factory floors, they belatedly learned. One hopes, but it's always possible there's still this disaster area warping children's minds somewhere in the rural backcountry of Reading, PA.

When you realize that most of the "research" these educrat tools tout are thirty-subject self-reporting grad-student clock-punching, you'll probably want to punch something yourself.

Rumpletweezer said...

My 16-year-old daughter has been warned about education. A knowledge of mathematics, science, economics, and history has only made me unhappy.

Rooted in Him said...

Peter Gray's "research" sounds more like a Dan Brown novel. Schools just like the ones he is calling "Protestant" existed in Catholic countries before Protestantism existed. The Jewish Yeshiva predates anything Protestant. How did Jesus teach? How did Socrates teach? How did Buddha? What was the Confucian method of education? Even the "Socratic method" presupposes a lot of pre-existing knowledge, or why would Ann and other law professors assign readings before discussing them?

He uses the words, "critical thinking" but engages in none of it himself.

Drago said...

Joe: "My fourth, fifth and sixth grades were wasted on an "open" classroom experience in the early 70s. It was a complete waste of time and a big reason I'm quite skeptical of both the home school and self-directed learning movements."

What evidence exists that would indicate that the home school experience today is remotely similar to your 1970's era "open classroom" experience and thus, from your statement, a possible "waste of time"?




David said...

Bullshit. Erudite bullshit, but bullshit nevertheless.

I have been lucky to have a pretty good education. Most of it was this top down model, and with good teachers and motivated students, there was no lack of stimulation of curiosity.

There's nothing incompatible between "top down" and "critical thinking" as long as the teacher is not dogmatic, boring or just lazy.

In fact top down is an essential element of critical thinking. Consider the family. It's the foundational example of a teaching institution. The teacher, the experienced parent, schools the child on how to approach the problems of life. This is the pattern at any age and at any level of complexity. The best parents, like the best teachers, give the child (student) plenty of scope, but also communicate moral, ethical and intellectual standards. These standards give the child a chance to avoid grievous error in solving the problems of life. A chance, but no guarantee.

Often, the child will exceed the parent's expectations and abilities, and create improvements on the parents' methods. This is called progress. but again it is not guaranteed.

Top down can work just fine in a world with moral, ethical and intellectual standards, and accountability for enforcing those standards. This requires responsible energetic people. It's not the structure that causes our biggest educational failures, it's the people.

Revenant said...

I think Gray might have meant "Great Awakening" instead of "Protestant Reformation".

ken in sc said...

When I was teaching in public schools, we had a saying—This Year's New Thing—based on the latest research. Every year we had to implement a new educational fad, which always included new forms and documentation. No mention was made of what went wrong with last year's new thing, although we still had to fill out some of the old forms as well as the new ones. Every year the paperwork got worse. None of it ever promoted learning or benefited any student that I know of.

BTW, what passes for research in education is largely asking various groups to respond to surveys on a five point scale from Greatly Dislike to Greatly Like. I had an education professor tell me with a straight face that that method was an objective measurement. It's what dissertations in education are based on.

Craig Howard said...

Peter Gray obviously know nothing of the history of American schools. Once upon a time, they were fairly effective in teaching the intelligent how to think and the less-intelligent how to function in society.

All that changed with the rise of the progressive movement in the late 19th century with the demand that our schools become more "democratic". The result was a gradual, century-long process of lowering standards and sacrificing the able for the sake of the average.

Those of us of a certain age [Ann and I, for example] benefited from the remnants of the earlier period as an older generation of teachers who naturally resisted the dumbing-down spent their last few years teaching the older Boomers.

But aprés eux, le déluge. And we're left with the mess he talks about with no idea whatsoever how it came about.

Mountain Maven said...

Ann, Why are you putting up these punching bags from Salon etc on your site?

Jason said...

Nobody expects the Protestant Reformation!!!

Jason said...

Bring forth: The Casserole!!!!

Mark Trade said...

Rare dose of insight from Salon.

Maria Montessori was already trying to fix this problem a hundred years ago. Is she a household name yet?