To teach or not to teach, that is the question

Jun 25, 2019 by

Bruce Deitrick Price

I saw a video on YouTube where somebody I didn’t know explains a famous Robert Browning poem in five minutes. This video illuminates every big issue in K-12, mainly are we going to teach or are we going to stand around talking about it? I was inspired to leave a big enthusiastic comment on YouTube. Here it is:
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This short video illustrates the huge but largely unseen battle in all of modern education. 
Shall teachers explain things to students in simple quick ways so that they can easily understand them?My answer is emphatically: YES: This approach is often called “direct instruction.” It is the default position of all education since the beginning of time. Look at how much ground is covered in a few minutes. Whether you’re a child or an adult, you want new things explained precisely like this. You do not want some long-winded, discursive, muddled, tangential meandering around in the woods.

Here’s the bad news. Virtually all of Progressive education throughout the past century, and especially Common Core Standards now, agree that direct instruction is wicked and ineffective. Instead, students must be encouraged to discover everything for themselves. They must construct their own new knowledge, never mind how long it takes or how incomplete it is. Children should read the same passages again and again and again and then guess at what they mean. Teachers should shut up and let the children wallow in their ignorance. (See “No Joy in Reading–That’s the Plan”.)

College students, and certainly graduate students, would reasonably be expected to analyze things for themselves. But that’s after many years of preparation. Asking sixth graders to do original, critical analysis of a poem, essay or novel is not that useful. 

When a kid is learning to ride a bike, you often need to hold them upright and give them a push. That’s what you see in this video. I don’t think our Education Establishment is deeply concerned with real education. They seem deeply concerned with keeping everybody at the same mediocre level. No, we want to encourage everyone to soar to whatever degree they can. Before the modern foolishness, the first thing a teacher did was provide background about the artists, their upbringing, the cultures they came from, the themes that each typically explored. All this stuff provides texture. Students are pulled into the subject, not driven away because they don’t get it right away. Even TV series can be discussed at many levels. We have professionals–called critics—who do exactly this. Most people welcome this sort of input. Pretty soon you’re riding that bike by yourself.

Constructivism is the fancy word for our modern nonsense. It is now sabotaging every public school from K to 12. Let’s instead sabotage Constructivism! Tell students what you know. Tell students what you think they might want to know. I’ll give you an interesting example that stays in my mind. Apparently Poe’s The Raven was the most financially successful poem in history. It swept around the world and was published in every newspaper. People thought it was radical genius, as scary as our best sci-fi. Who today could deduce all that without some help? I was an English major at great schools but never heard these things. When I read what people wrote at the time (ca.1845), I was charmed and fascinated. Some people had nightmares. How many poets have accomplished that?

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Larry Sanger has made many videos for children, a project he calls the Sanger Academy. His main point is brilliant: talk directly to children, give them exactly the amount of information appropriate at their young age. Sanger is almost perfectly minimalistic in videos I’ve looked at. He resists the temptation to tell more and then more. He uses graphics well, unlike Khan Academy. Sanger was involved in the creation of Wikipedia. He’s clearly a guy who enjoys information and knowledge for their own sake. If I have to choose, I’d say shut down the public schools and let children look at Sanger’s videos. 

QED: If you want to fix the public schools ASAP, get rid of Constructivism, Common Core Math, and Sight-words. 

Bruce Deitrick Price’s new book is “Saving K-12 – What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them?” 

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