K-12: Hope and Hopelessness

Mar 26, 2022 by

Want better schools? Let’s talk about the best way to teach in every situation.

To start, let’s for a few seconds wonder what happened to classical conditioning? That was for a time considered the answer to all education problems. Does it have a place in modern classrooms?

The basic idea was that, if you give corn to a chicken, you can persuade it to perform a certain task. The closest thing to that scenario would be a piece of candy every time the students did what you want. But that’s hardly feasible in classrooms, although some of the early reading theories seem to be imagining such a simple-minded sequence.

We probably have to give up the idea of a tangible reward. Let’s think more generally, of something desirable, something pleasurable that the student wants. A good feeling perhaps, such as confidence or self-satisfaction.

Here’s my suggestion: probably the most fertile research would identify approaches based on the pleasure principle. Successful education makes children feel good, that’s the bottom line. Conversely, bad education makes children feel bad. Oddly enough, we have mountains of that.

I got these insights as I studied common practice in K-12. I was struck by how quickly children are frustrated and depressed. I knew this was the opposite of what we want.

It seemed to me that the Pavlovians have done research to find the worst ideas. What would most paralyze a child’s education? For example, in Common Core Math you give them impossible weird techniques so they never feel in control. In the case of reading you make the children memorize thousands of sight-words, which is Mission Impossible for almost all children.

So the big brains in elementary education, with millions of dollars to spend, came up with methods that are the opposite of what generates confidence. We see a real perversion here. I think it’s sick and I write this article in the hope I can persuade people to stop going down the same wrong road.

Looking at these Hindenburg approaches that inevitably crash in flames, you have a clear guidepost on what NOT to do. If the students are grim, if they need more medication, if they come home complaining, if they can never finish their homework, and they can’t sleep…Wake up! You have lunatics running your schools. I’m disappointed in the intellectual level of superintendents, principals, and above them the local VIPs, that is, political, media and business executives, in short, all the people who used to protect citizens from nonsense.

Now I want to quote Mona McNee in England, now deceased, who wrote a phonics book called Step-by-Step, and on this side my favorite educator of all Joan Dunn, and her 1953 book, Retreat from Learning. Both women basically made the same point: children want to be taught step-by-step so they can see their progress; and the more ordinary the kids are, the more urgent and decisive is this need.

Give children small steps they can easily master. That is everything you need to know. We don’t have to teach children the so-called meaning of math nor the deeper truths inside of language. People pushing those goals, I believe, are saboteurs.

Teach children the simplest bits and pieces, and then review their mastery, and then teach and test them again in different ways, so they know deeply that 2+3 = 5, and 100s of other basic facts. If the Common Core hustlers pretend that such mastery is not actually knowing anything because they merely memorize it, then you should respond, yes that’s exactly the right way to do it.

The essence here is not to get bogged down in trying to prescribe details and specifics. Every day there are thousands of different situations.

The true goal is always the same. Children feel good and learn more quickly because of that. What you don’t want to see is children squirming in their seats and looking miserable because they can’t grasp the clutter that you tried to put into their minds. Whatever you told them is too complicated. Do it again more simply.

The reason we don’t have enough scientists and mathematicians, and enough science and math in the general population, is we don’t teach them in a congenial, child-friendly way. The same goes for literacy and basic knowledge.

Instead of hope, we give children hopelessness. Everybody loses.


Bruce Deitrick Price is the author of Saving K-12 (book) and Let’s Fix Education(podcast). His next novel is Frankie, a unique mystery inspired by advances in AI; for info, visit Frankie.zone

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  1. Public schools cannot be fixed.
    Whatever victories gained trying to fix public schools will need to be monitored beyond the capacity of hundreds of volunteers. The teacher unions and their allies such as the ACLU own government schools. They will quickly take back any lost ground and they will not hesitate to do it in an under-handed manner while your group operates honestly and ethically.
    I am a retired teacher and unequivocally proclaim that there is no hope for America as long as Christians and conservatives allow their children to be indoctrinated in the public schools. We must rescue our children!

    • You keep telling me the same thing. What, I should stop thinking and planning and scheming and plotting? Not a chance. Nothing is ever all or nothing. I like to think what we might do.

      The thing I like about this article is that in a mere 700 words I repudiated everything going on in the public schools. You may not be able to use that information. But lots of people can.