Sunday, May 6, 2012

The 10 most critical reasons why we can’t go "back to basics"

The "Back to Basics" cry among education reformers comes from a frustration with the growing failure of public education. All these new innovative methods that have been tried and failed over the past few decades seem to point to that simple solution. People latch onto it as a rallying cry.

I don't want to poke fun at it, but I do have this image that keeps coming back to me. When I think of the nostalgic call for educational days gone by, I see “Happy Days.”

Richie and Potsy and What’shisname, with their books under their arms, coping with school, whining about homework but cooperatively going to their rooms to do it at a warning glance from Mom.

Fonzie was the cool dropout — it’s acceptable in this idealized vision for motorcycling leather-jacketed greasers to drop out. Fonzie was, literally, too cool for school. Guys like him had jobs in motorcycle repair shops.

People seem to think everything was fine back then, so why all the hand-wringing about wanting engaged kids who follow their passions?  According to educator and writer Ira Socol, public education has undergone many changes, but the structures and priorities of the system would seem very familiar to those educators who originally conceived it. The education we accept as "normal" now was not created for children as individuals who were all capable of critical thinking and creativity.

Recently I received a Tweet from someone who believes that since traditional education sent men to the moon, we should stick to it. I've been thinking about it, and talking with others and pondering what seems to me at first blush an entirely wrong statement, and gets worse when you start to pick it apart.

Here are 10 reasons why we need to move ahead, away from the idealized "Good old days" of education.

1. It was bad back then, too. The Happy Days version of the past gives us pictures of happy car mechanics and factory workers, having everything they needed in life. You don’t have to scratch the surface very hard to find the frustration of those who wanted something else but could not jump the roadblocks. Public education was never designed to develop creativity and critical thinking in all children; its just that in the old days, more people could make a living without those things.

2. “Tracking” of children labeled and dismissed them. In the name of teaching kids at the level that they were best able to cope, schools made choices about them, stuck labels on them that stayed throughout a student’s career. Tracking left kids no mobility, and no doubt about the educational contempt that was felt for them.  (This kind of tracking still exists in many, many school districts. Often this sorting of kids is covert.)

3.  Segregation. I don’t remember any African-American faces in Richie’s and Potsie's classes. Let’s not idealize a system that separated out the darker-skinned among us, and sent them to second-class schools.

4. Gender role stereotyping. In that grand period of human innovation, the Apollo Space Program, where were the women? Should we go “back to basics” so girls can go back to home economics and the boys to woodshop?.

5. There are no more factories. We can no longer support a system designed to find the 10% of people who respond to the top-down, verbal/logical/mathematical style of teaching and learning. Those students could rise to the top and run the world, while the rest can find factory or service work. This is 2012...what factory work? (In the autobiography of Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, his father supported his family as the manager of the produce section of a local grocery store. His mother was a stay-at-home Mom and their house had a nice yard).

Kids simply need to be better educated now than they did then. Cherry-picking those students who thrive in the traditional model isn’t enough. We need our schools to operate under the assumption that every child is capable of becoming educated — not just trained to make do.

6. Families are under more stress.  Middle-class wages have been flat or falling since the 1970s. There are women in the workforce now, with families needing two full-time wage-earners to get by.  Then in the boom of the 2000s, income disparity between rich and poor became much greater. The rising tide was lifting the yachts but the going was rougher for the rowboats. Then, the Great Recession took place, and lots of families lost their homes and their jobs.

We hear a lot of blame put on parents and families for the fact that many children are not prepared for school in the way that school is prepared to teach. Financial stress, generational poverty and ignorance all contribute. In his book, “Stop Stealing Dreams, Seth Godin says, “I can’t think of anything more cynical and selfish...than telling kids who didn’t win the parent lottery that they’ve lost the entire game.”

7. We’ve undergone an information revolution. Teachers and textbooks no longer hold the monopoly on information. Kids today are fully aware of the free-floating availability of the answer to almost any question, while their teachers are still teaching them facts and our classrooms are still structured around the dissemination of information.

The Internet explosion and rise in cellular telephony has made it nearly impossible for teachers to compete for their students' attention. They must go where students are, and teach in ways that are equally exciting and engaging. In fact, kids could take the lead, and show teachers how to use the tools of interactivity to open their classrooms up and let in the world.

The “back to basics” strategy, operating with kids' full attention, teaches small skills first, and brings the big picture into focus later. This is the topsy-turvy pedagogy of most American classrooms: we teach kids to hit, throw and run before they ever get to see a game of baseball.  But outside of school, kids are seeing the big picture. It's there for them to see and experience. The genie is out of the bottle, and education has to catch up.

8. The world is changing too fast to NOT educate for innovation.  The job title, “Website Producer” didn’t exist twenty years ago. Neither did hundreds of other job titles. The world of work is changing faster than it ever has, and yet the K-12 curriculum has barely moved. How can we prepare kids for job requirements that don’t exist today?

We can’t.  Rather, we need to develop a course of study for kids that develops their ability to innovate.  Tony Wagner’s new book, Creating Innovators, gives us some surprising insights into how this is done. Through interviews with young innovators, their teachers and their parents, he has developed a formula for creating innovators: Play, Passion and Purpose. (For Wagner, people who say, “It’s not supposed to be fun” are dead wrong. Fun is important.)

9. "Engage me or enrage me". When I was growing up, television was the enemy of education. We knew that TV existed to sell products; we knew that it dulled the mind and wasted our brain power. Ah, things were so simple then!

Add video games to the mix. It was only in my last year of high school that I encountered Space Invaders, the first really popular video game. A lucky friend had stuff like Breakout Blocks and Tennis on their TVs. Good times.

What we call “distractions”-- video games, television, smartphones, YouTube -- are central to the  lives of most of our kids. The educational value of the endless ability to explore the information available to kids is plain to them, if it isn't to us. Are kids bored when they are surfing, downloading music, talking on gaming message boards?

The educational value of the more complex, sophisticated video games is entirely lost on my generation as well, because we don't play them. We see the surface of them, the images, the fighting, the crime, and we don't look at the back-end, the complex and demanding nature of the games. A mantra of hard-core video gamers is, "If I ain't learnin', it ain't fun."

School is not. Whatever your feelings about video games are, whatever emotions we have when we see a kid who spent the whole weekend trying to level up, whether you see games as wasted time or intensive learning, the solution is clear: we must make school a place where kids can pursue the learning they want and need the most, in the way that they choose.

The above leads us to this point: we must ensure every child has an internet enabled device for use at school and away from school. Schools don't need to provide it for all, just those who don't have it. Knowledge is power and this is 21st century knowledge.

10. Advances in our knowledge of the human mind make top-down teaching obsolete.  There have been huge advances in our understanding of the brain since I was a child in school. The one I want to focus on has to do with the development of mastery. The brain is a lazy organ; before it works, it needs to understand why.  Students push themselves through learning and acquiring new skills when they are motivated, or ignited, fully understanding what they will gain.
According to Dan Coyle in The Talent Code, developing mastery in any area has three components: ignition, master coaching and deep practice. Deep practice is the component that actually makes the skill happen. It is defined as practice that pushes the learner against the edges of their abilities. It is marked by frustration, a feeling of being out of your depth and control. But it is this action that physically creates stronger and faster neural circuitry. Because it is an unpleasant process, the ignition that drives one through the hard parts is absolutely essential.

This is a fact that is absolutely ignored by the traditional education system. We are so concerned that kids learn what we regard as important that many of us believe that the the most critical learning takes place when the student is unwilling. But the wiring of the brain tells us that the unwillingness to learn actually prevents the learning from happening.

Those who can’t see the success of a passion-driven education often cite instances where this pushing was beneficial. There might be circumstances when a parent or caring teacher, one who thoroughly knows and understands a student, can successfully push a child to learn something that he is unwilling to learn. But pushing kids to do work that isn’t meaningful to them should not be the foundation of the public education system.

In any system, there will be outliers; those individuals who transcend time and place and circumstances to rise above with tremendous success. It is a statistical mistake to focus on those outliers as proof that a system is working...but that's what those who call for "back to basics" are doing.

Instead, we must pay attention to ordinary children of ordinary parents and ask, how can we design for them the best education we can? We can do it when we let go of nostalgia and mistaken pictures of better times, and create a system designed to allow joyful success for all students, no matter who they are.


  1. Lisa:

    I love this post. Interestingly, for me, it led me to thinking about the issue in a different way, though. In the good ol' Happy Days, there was a narrative consensus about what education was--a narrative that my parents and my teachers and employers believed. Of course it left many people behind, but the narrative was strong enough that we told ourselves the same stories about why some succeeded and why some failed, and it gave a large number context for working hard.

    There is a huge power in a consensus narrative--a power that can be both good or bad, depending on the circumstance and your perspective. Compliance to a pervasive cultural narrative can lead to something as awful as genocide, but in positive circumstances can give us enough boundaries to play productively within our shared beliefs. I see this in the many different education movements which have widely disparate cultures--compare KIPP to Big Picture Schools, or Finland and Shanghai--but what they have in common is a shared narrative by the stakeholders and so human capacity and energy is released in an effort to accomplish something good.

    Which is where we get into something of a dilemma--the education reform movement right now encompasses a hugely diverse set of narratives that really have at core a temporary linked belief: our current system is broken. From the venture capitalists to the foundations to the KIPPS and the Big Picture Schools, there is very little actual consensus about pedagogy or practices. If we think getting past the factory model of schooling is hard, wait until we try to agree on where to go from there.

    So where do we go? In my view, the narrative we build has to be about the narrative. Education should be about processes of learning, and we should be ever learning about those processes and tolerant of the different ways people think about teaching and learning. We have a great example of this, at least in theory, in democratic institutions, in which we believe the process of participation is the core driver. Unfortunately, we see education right now as an "outcome" rather than a process, and that seems to lead to shallow debates, an incredible emphasis on market-like terminology and measures, and a kind of sorry scramble to be "the ones who found the solution." As if there could be one solution to one of humanities great conversations.

    I love your list. I agree with much of it. What I like most about is, though, is the discussion. I think that the most important thing we can do is to help our communities have this kind of discussion, build conversations about the purposes of education, involving everyone in the process.

  2. Thank for taking the time to comment, Steve!

    I'm developing a reputation in some quarters for not being very tolerant of other views on education. It's true that I'm not very patient with the insistence that there is nothing wrong with traditional education that the restoration of respect for teachers and the elimination of high-stakes testing couldn't cure. So I can't say I'm spreading the call for peaceful engagement through my participation in the debate. However, I also know that the times I've made mistakes -- like walking out of school board meetings -- I would have done better to have counted to ten and found SOME grounds for agreement.

    I've recognized lately that it isn't enough to say that education is "not working" because it's something that's equally likely to be said by Diane Ravitch and Jeb Bush. So there is common ground there, but how to make use of it? Especially when there is such a huge profit motive on one side.

    We have to move (there I go with the imperatives again) from the fixed to the fluid; from teaching all kids the same stuff, to teaching all different kids the stuff they each need to learn. Nothing is fixed, not the nature of the student nor the subject matter and method of learning. "There is only one kind of kid...the one who is different than all the other kids."

    But the imperative of people I argue with is that the true benefit of learning happens when kids are made to learn stuff they are unwilling to learn; that the very fact of their unwillingness makes it more critical and beneficial to them. And every person who makes this claim cites countless examples to support the claim.

    What is it that people are holding on to when they call for us to move forward, into the past?

  3. Lisa, I saw your link on Alice Barr's FB. So glad I did! I enjoyed your points you made about moving forward to the PAST! I am a special education teacher and I have been extolling the benefits of Universal Design for Learning, and teaching everything with multiple ways of instruction, of assessment and multiple ways of allowing for student choice. We have flattened the world, our friend Vicki Davis and Julie Lindsay have flattened the classroom, now if we would only apply these new methods to all our schools and customize learning for all our students and teachers.

  4. Fantastic article! Thank you.

    One soapbox of mine that you left out is the power of physical activity. The book Spark by John Ratey discusses how physical exercise literally makes the brain grow, and how exercise makes learning more efficient--not to mention makes people more psychologically sound. High-stakes testing has been blamed for the elimination of recess and PE. Its lack is detrimental for a multitude of reasons, but ironically also for the high test score goal.

  5. Thank you, Laura! I am amazed sometimes at how the HST cabal defeated itself. Not only did learning get flushed down the toilet, but teaching to the test didn't even result in higher test scores.

    I'll check out Spark. I wonder if what he's saying about the brain growing has to do with what Dan Coyle talks about in The Talent Code -- that "deep" or "deliberate" practice wraps myelin around neural circuits making them fire faster and better. This occurrs during any deep practice -- music, math, or basketball.

    We all seem to be on this big kick about obesity and physical activity, but we can't get off this testing crap long enough to let our kids outdoors to wrap myelin and burn calories!

  6. Actually Ratey doesn't talk about myelin, he talks more about BDNF and other proteins/chemicals and how they interact. The two books combined are really fascinating.