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Educators Now Favor Learning Technique over Knowledge

Dec 28, 2016 by

A recent trend in education is a belief that subject matter knowledge is not important. If a teacher knows teaching method she can teach anything. Bad idea!

By Will Fitzhugh

There has been a very long struggle in American education between Pedagogy and Knowledge, or as it is now framed, Skills vs. Content. From the 1911 Cardinal Principles to Outcomes Based Education in the 1980s to Social and Emotional Learning programs today, educators have fought hard to steer away from academic work for students in our schools.

When I started teaching at a public high school in the late 1970s, my greatest fear was that the depth of my knowledge of the field I was teaching would be too shallow and my students would find that out. As it turned out, they didn’t care at all about the knowledge I brought to the classroom. What they wanted to know was whether I could control the class.

From the beginning, this lesson has probably arrived for every schoolteacher in our history, and the most common complaint today among new teachers emerging from schools of education is that their training has prepared them poorly for working with students, perhaps most particularly in things like controlling the class.

Faculties of Arts and Sciences have long looked down on Normal Schools and then Schools or Colleges of Education, seeing them as not having any real academic subject matter to offer. Education schools have countered this disdain with the proud contention that their special gift is pedagogy. This has led to the fallacious claim that someone who knows how to teach can teach anything (whether they know anything about the given subject matter or not), and to the equally false educational philosophy that knowing how to learn is more important for students than learning anything.

Educational leaders have long taken the position that if students acquire ‘thinking skills’ or ‘learning skills’ of the right sort then they can manage knowledge of any sort in school and beyond. David Coleman of the College Board seems to believe that if students have the right practice with Literary Analysis they can then read and understand any ‘text’ they meet with. While the New Criticism may be of some use to students moving from one poem to another, it is completely out of its depth if the student is moving not from one poem to another, but from a literary passage to a History passage, or one in chemistry, or math, or Chinese.

As E.D. Hirsch has argued so well and for so long, understanding academic material depends on prior knowledge of the particular domain, and of the vocabulary of the subject under study. There are no general ‘thinking skills’ which can relieve students of the necessity to learn the facts of a field of study. As a Harvard professor of physics wrote, “It is not possible to ‘think like a physicist’ unless you first know a good deal of physics.”

In their avoidance of the stigma of having little or no academic knowledge to impart, American educational leaders have retaliated with the proposal that the most important goals of education are not academic knowledge anyway, but are really what are now called “Social and Emotional Skills,” which, they believe, pedagogy may be in the best position to champion.

More than a century ago, there was agreement on the new Cardinal Principles of education….

In 1911, a new committee of the N.E.A., the Committee of Nine on the Articulation of High School and College, submitted another report, which shows that a revolution in educational thought was well on its way…This statement, Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education, was given a kind of official endorsement by the United States Bureau of Education, which printed and distributed an edition of 130,000 copies…[The change in personnel was itself revealing. Gone were the eminent college presidents and distinguished professors of the 1893 report; gone, too, were the headmasters of elite secondary schools]…The report claimed that “The requirement of four years of work in any particular [academic] subject, as a condition of admission to a higher institution, unless that subject be one that may properly be required of all high schools students, is illogical and should, in the judgment of this committee, be immediately discontinued.”….Moreover, the child was now conceived not as a mind to be developed but as a citizen to be trained by the schools…The commission drew up a set of educational objectives in which neither the development of intellectual capacity nor the mastery of secondary academic subject matter was even mentioned. It was the business of the schools, the Commission said, to serve democracy by developing in each pupil the powers that would enable him to act as a citizen. “It follows, therefore, that worthy home-membership, vocation, and citizenship demand attention as three of the leading objectives.” The commission went on: “This Commission, therefore, regards the following as the main objectives of education: 1. Health. 2. Command of fundamental processes. (It became clear in context that this meant elementary skills in the three R’s, in which the Commission, no doubt quite rightly, felt that continued instruction was now needed at the secondary level.) 3. Worthy home-membership. 4. Vocation. 5. Citizenship. 6. Worthy use of leisure. 7. Ethical character.”

from Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by Richard Hofstadter

New York: Vintage Books, 1962, pages 332-335

Parents who, over the decades have assumed that taxpayers were supporting schools for their children which would give due priority to History, math, chemistry, foreign languages, physics, literature and the like, seldom realized what the Educator Community valued. In the 1980s, educators produced a new new direction for schools, called Outcome Based Education (OBE), which many believed might pay attention to whether our students knew enough History to pass the citizenship test required of immigrants wanting to become U.S. citizens. However, a closer look revealed that OBE was a close cousin to the Cardinal Principles of 1911:

The very number of “learning outcomes” is significant. As Shanker notes, the large number of outcomes “sounds demanding, but it’s the opposite.” That is because teachers are already spread thin and will therefore have to pick and choose among the dozens of mandated “outcomes.” It is not hard to predict what sort of choices they will make. Remarks Shanker, “it’s a lot easier to schmooze with kids about ‘life roles’ than to make sure they can do geometry theorems or read Macbeth. In an educational version of Gresham’s law, the fluffy will drive out the solid and worthwhile.”

Wisconsin, known for its good sense and immunity to the trendy and untested, has not escaped infection. OBE buzzwords have become commonplace in local district mission statements and planning documents. The City of Waukesha School District’s Strategic Planning report, for instance, declares that “The process of learning is as important as the content being taught” and that “learning to cooperate is as important as learning to compete.”

The movement towards outcome based education was given its greatest impetus, however, by a state commission charged with developing goals for the state’s schools. The Governor’s Commission on Schools for the 21st Century called for state law to be revised “to state the goals and expectations of Wisconsin public schools in language that is compatible with an outcome-based integration education model…” It also called on state officials to ensure “conformity with outcome-based educational objectives.”

The Fish Commission embraced an “integrated education model curriculum framework” that says that “every student will give evidence of the knowledge, skills, and understanding in each of the following areas.”

There followed a list of “outcomes” and “goals,” including: “Leisure Time; Cultural interdependence; Interpersonal skills; Adaptability; Equity; Accepting People; Positive self-image; Application of values and ethics; Risk taking and experimentation; Family relationships; Environmental Stewardship; Positive work attitudes and habits; Racial, ethnic, cultural diversity histories of U.S.; Team Work; Human Growth and Development; Respect all occupations; Shared decision making; Health & wellness.

“Dumbing Down Our Kids—

What’s Really Wrong With Outcome Based Education”

Charles J. Sykes, Wisconsin Interest, reprinted in

Network News & Views 2/1994, pp. 9-18

Even Harvard College, concerned that students had almost no opportunities for survey courses on the History of civilization and the like, worked in the 1980s to produce a Core Curriculum, which would ensure that all Harvard graduates would have some academic background as a common heritage to take with them. The debates in the Harvard faculty were fierce, with each department arguing that no one could tell them what knowledge was most essential for a Harvard graduate. In the end they compromised, each department agreeing to teach the ‘research skills’ of their disciplines, not any particular knowledge of their field. This enabled each set of professors to teach about whatever they were currently working on, and allowed them to avoid the labor of designing a survey course to impart the broad discoveries in their fields. Some of the professors who thought such a compromise was irresponsible were quoted in an article by a recent Harvard graduate in Mathematics, writing in The Atlantic Monthly in 1990:

One professor said: “The philosophy behind the core is that educated people are not those who have read many books and have learned many facts but rather those who could analyze facts if they should ever happen to encounter any, and who could ‘approach’ books if it were ever necessary to do so”…Another pointed out: “Rather than emphasize knowledge, the new core curriculum would stress students’ critical faculties”…[and another] “The intellectual style that elevates subjective process over objective fact meshed perfectly with the administration’s reluctance to launch an intrinsically controversial discussion of what subjects should be at the core of a Harvard education.” A physics professor: “The problem goes beyond the particular courses that are now in the core: no set of introductory courses could achieve the core’s ostensible goals..” As Anthony Oettinger, a professor of applied mathematics, said about the resulting proposal, “This motion…cannot fail to pass; it has become totally content-free.”

“Harvard’s Hollow Core,” Caleb Nelson Class of 1988 (Mathematics)

The Atlantic Monthly, September 1990

While the support for what is called STEM has been stronger and more durable in the schools over the years, thanks in part to the clear connection between those fields and the American economy, much more damage has been done to History and to academic expository writing.


Much has been written about the extensive damage done by passionate multi-culturalism to the study of History in American schools. The founding fathers of our Republic are having their names removed from school buildings for being insufficiently diverse, and any History taught is vulnerable to the charges of neglecting the story of the Iroquois, or the Hmong, or the Chicanos, or the Sioux, or the Irish, or the Etruscans or the Navaho or the Nigerians or the Jamaicans, or the Iranians, or ‘you name them’—a recent (December 2016) set of demands from students at the University of Maryland, including for a ‘Muslim immigrant President of the United States’—outlined ”64 demands across 8 subsets of students—Marginalized, American Indian, Black, Latinx, LGBTQIA+, Muslim, Pro-Palestine, and Undocumented—including scholarships for ‘students of marginalized communities,’ a ban on Columbus Day, beginning every on-campus event with an acknowledgement that ‘this is Indigenous Land,’ that [all] African American professors get tenure, that preferred [gender] pronouns are included on rosters, and that ‘queer diversity training’ is required…”

So much fear has been spread that David Steiner, when he was Commissioner of Education in New York State said, at a conference in Boston, “History is so politically toxic no one wants to touch it.” As a result, the teaching of Social and Emotional principles and practices looks a whole lot easier than trying to give young Americans some basic understanding of where and how their civilization and their government were formed. The most recent NAEP test of U.S. History found that 82% of high school seniors were not proficient, the worst outcome for any subject. This drive for inclusion and the ignorance that goes with it, may perhaps best be shown in the statement Al Gore once made to a large audience celebrating diversity. He said we believe in E Pluribus Unum, which he translated as: “From One, Many,” which is exactly backwards.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the resident Historian in the John F. Kennedy White House, wrote in The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society [Revised, 1998]:

What happens when people of different ethnic orientations, speaking different languages and professing different religions, settle in the same geographical locality and live under the same political sovereignty? Unless a common purpose binds them together, tribal antagonisms will drive them apart. In the century darkly ahead, civilization faces a critical question: What is it that holds a nation together?…multiculturalism also assumes a militant form in which it opposes the idea of a common culture, rejects the goals of assimilation and integration, and celebrates the immutability of diverse and separate ethnic and racial communities. Extreme separationists, while often flourishing the multicultural flag, in fact rush beyond true multiculturalism into ethnocentrism, the belief in the superior virtue of their own ethnic group.

The resulting distaste for teaching a common History in our schools is very welcome to educators who wanted to focus on ‘thinking skills’ and ‘worthy home membership’ anyway. As a vice-president of the National Council for the Social Studies once pointed out, “History is Pastology,” the clear implication being, who would want to study that?!

In her review of a century of retreat from the academic mission of the schools, the historian Diane Ravitch wrote in Left Back, A Century of Failed School Reforms [1990]:

History helps us understand these issues. We cannot understand where we are and where we are heading without knowing where we have been. We live now with decisions and policies that were made long ago. Before we attempt to reform present practices, we must try to learn why those decisions were made and to understand the consequences of past policies. History doesn’t tell us the answers to our questions, but it helps to inform us so that we might make better decisions in the future. The aim of this book is to trace the origins of America’s seemingly permanent debate about school standards, curricula, and methods. In particular, it recounts the story of unrelenting attacks on the academic mission of the schools.


Given the preference among Educators for skills rather than for academic content, it might be hoped that academic expository writing might have survived the battles to remove knowledge from the schools. Instead, what has happened is that writing has become the exclusive property of departments of English in the schools, and their preference is for personal and creative writing, the five-paragraph essay, and more recently, the 500-word ‘personal’ essay which college admissions officers request. College professors, who have complained for decades that the students in their classes are incapable of writing coherent term papers, have succeeded in persuading colleges, even at the level of Harvard and Stanford, to require {remedial) writing programs for first-year students—who have not been asked to write a paper in high school.

It seems odd to me, that even in secondary schools which think it is reasonable for students to study computer science, Chinese, chemistry, calculus, European History and the like, most do not seem to believe that their students are capable of writing the sort of History research paper, [or read one complete nonfiction book] for example, which might help them prepare for the college papers [and books] to come.

Since 1987, The Concord Review, a unique international journal for the academic history papers of secondary students, has published more than 1,200 research essays by authors from schools in 44 states and 40 other countries. These papers now average 8,400 words, with endnotes and bibliography, and it is interesting that more and more of them are submitted, not from their History course, which does not ask for a serious term paper, but as an Independent Study paper. Clearly, these young students of History are becoming aware of the serious substantial History papers which their peers have had published, and, like their athletic peers, they seek to compete with the best work being done by others their age.

Nevertheless, secondary teachers of History, having long ago given all responsibility for term papers to the English department (which does not want them) have been reluctant to let their students even see the exemplary (8,000-word) History research papers written by their peers from around the world. Of course, even for those History teachers who wrote serious papers of their own in college and know very well the value of a research paper in allowing students to make a Historical topic something which they can earn and make their own, most have so many students, that they have too little time to give such papers the attention they need. When teachers ask me about teaching academic writing to their students, I often tell them that there should be more writing and less teaching, because the work of reading for and writing a strong History paper is overwhelmingly the work of the student, not the teacher, but this is often a difficult message to get across.

In any case, student failures in writing go on and on. Ohio State University recently sought $500,000 to pay instructors in their remedial (not called that) writing courses for first-year students, (imagine what 2,500 colleges are paying for remedial writing courses) and the problems do not stop with college.

The Business Roundtable did a survey of its member companies to find out if they had any remedial nonfiction writing courses for their employees. They reported that they were spending, for new salaried employees in remedial writing courses: $104,860,000, for new hourly employees in writing courses: $98,670,000, for current salaried employees in writing courses: $1,362,104,758, and for current hourly employees in remedial nonfiction writing: $1,525,308,436—for a total of $3,090,943,194 each year.

This letter came to The Concord Review from a Valedictorian at a public high school in New York State:

I want to thank you for publishing my essay in the Fall edition of The Concord Review. Before beginning the seven-month odyssey of researching and writing on my topic, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, I considered myself a lover of history but a possessor of second-rate writing skills. Part of the reason for my lack of confidence is that I attend a school where students are given few opportunities to develop their talents in this field (it is assumed students will learn how to write in college). With publication in your journal as my goal, and with the help of my teacher, Mr. Timothy Rood, I began the process of learning how to use the English language to prove my thesis. The results were not only vastly improved skills but also, due to the nature of my topic, the questioning of my own feminist beliefs. 

The back copies you sent me were a great help. I want to thank the other students who have been published in The Concord Review, the quality of their articles was what I aspired to. In the future I will use their techniques, such as using more original sources, to enhance my writing.

As a public high school student, I want to urge other students in similar situations to consider independently studying a Historical topic and experiencing the thrill of becoming an author. For myself, being published has opened doors not only in the academic world, but in my own mind as well.

That young author was told she would learn to write in college, but as indicated by the costs of remedial writing programs at Business Roundtable companies, it appears that colleges are not solving the problem either. American Educators have fought long and hard to avoid academics in the schools and to focus on skills, but it appears that the result of their century and more of effort has been large majorities of students both ignorant of History and incompetent at expository writing. There is work to be done. It appears that Pedagogy is not enough, and that the Skills fostered in schools must be academic ones, as well as, or instead of, the Social and Emotional ones, after all.

Source: educators now favor learning technique over knowledge |

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