Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Repetition, Repetition... apologies to Mark E. Smith.

All week over on the Core Knowledge blog, Dan Willingham is hawking his new book.

You know, maybe it's just me, but I really can't take seriously a guy talking about "what teachers need to know" who a) hasn't ever in his life actually spent a year teaching full time in a school [Ed. clarification 5/25/09 12.01PM -- By 'school' I mean K - 12; and I don't know, maybe the good doctor has, but it's not something he values enough to put on his cv.] and b) ends his blog posts with the words: "I elaborate in detail on these two issues - shallow knowledge and lack of transfer - in my book." Available from Amazon for $16.47... My emphasis.

Sure, it's hard to deny much of what Willingham says. Consider, on the issue of practicing the basics:

Why do I say that practice is necessary? One benefit of practice is to gain a minimum level of competence. A child practices tying her shoelaces with a parent or teacher’s help until she can reliably tie them without supervision. Less obvious are the reasons to practice skills when it appears you have mastered something and it’s not obvious that practice is making you any better. Odd as it may seem, that sort of practice is essential to schooling. It yields three important benefits: it reinforces the basic skills that are required for the learning of more advanced skills, it protects against forgetting, and it improves transfer-the ability to apply what we know in different circumstances.

The problem is, there are a lot of crappy teachers out there for whom this "practicing" thing is all they've got. And Willingham is giving them ammunition to just keep doing what they are doing.

I recall one of my own former language teachers who boasted of his success rates in getting kids to Spanish fluency. His method? Drill, baby, Drill!

And he did accomplish two things. First, out of the 30 or so kids in our class, he managed either to scare the wits out of half of them with his militaristic demeanor or so completely bore the life-blood out of the other half through constant and de-contextualized repetition that by the end of a 45 minute session one literally felt like a drone.

Maybe he and Dr. Willingham just got too much Mr. Miyagi in 'em ("Wax on; Wax off...), but I can't say the results were worth the means. At the end of three years of this, exactly two students were fluent enough to take AP Spanish.

But, Willingham sees hierarchical learning as essential:

What’s true of reading, writing and math is true of most or all school subjects, and of the skills we want our students to have. They are hierarchical.

There's a problem here. A big one. Take for instance the student with an LD who can't read on grade level, but can play jazz. The student equivalent of the seven-year-old Louis Armstrong. Or the student who is thinking beyond the skills his or her teacher is teaching and therefore seems foolish: I'm thinking the young Picasso and the young Einstein. What about those unknown Satchmos and Picassos and Einsteins in your class?

Is Willingham suggesting that a student who can perform beautifully on the trumpet, but who can't read the notes on a page of sheet-music is less proficient than a student who can read the notes on the page, but who can't improvise to save his life because the latter student better fits into the hierarchy?

Because that's where this "hierarchy" thinking gets you. True, it is valuable for most people to learn algebra before Calculus. But why demand it be learned before geometry? Sure, most people will say that you should understand the American Revolution before studying the Iraq War in history class. But why? There's no real benefit outside 'fitting in' to an arbitrary chronology; why not go backwards? or thematically? Personally, I DON'T want more than anything to have my students attain "hierarcical skills" if in doing so I'm gonna totally miss the point of what the education of an individual is all about to begin with.

It's about getting folks to be able to think for themselves about the concepts and situations that historically face us and be able to make wise decisions about what may face us in the future. That's the point of education. It's not to get a kid to recite to you what Kant said. It's about getting a kid to understand what it means to make a serious decision. It's not about getting a kid to complete a math problem for the sake of getting an 'A'. It's about getting a kid to understand a math concept so that down the road she or he can do something with it. It's not about teaching a kid "the right way" to play a song. It's about inspiring kids to look inside themselves and find new ones. It's about concepts.

And a good teacher can teach any concept using whatever is immediately at hand. Figuring out what is at hand: that's the real trick.

Look, any good teacher knows that you build on prior knowledge. But, what the good Dr. seems to forget is that "prior knowledge" ain't just the stuff on the bookshelf or on the chart. If you really want to connect with these kids and raise them up from basic knowledge to the upper levels of understanding, you gotta start by finding out who they are and what kinds of experiences they've had. That's what you use to teach kids.

You want to talk about "core knowledge"? Then ask kids what they know; and tie-in what they know to the fundamental ideas that garner the concepts that you are trying to teach. And that goes for anything from teaching the nature of economies to the nature of invertebrates. But, dear Doctor, please don't give the warmth of scientific authority to teachers who are going to twist what you say in an attempt to keep pursuing crap teaching while bullying students into hours of strategic shoe-tying.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for reading my posts and taking them seriously enough to reply
    First, you’re right, I have never taught in a K-12 classroom, and I recognize that that is a serious limitation in my ability to contribute anything to a conversation about K-12 teaching. To try to be better informed I rely on observing classrooms and conversations with teachers, who read and critique what I write. I honor your expertise—obviously teachers know more about classrooms than I do. I ask in return that I not be cut off because I lack that experience. In return, I will not cut you off if you question the validity of laboratory results. I know the lab, you know the classroom. I think a sensible point of view from each would be that the other might tell us something that could inform what we do, but that ultimately we know our own domain best.
    Second, I agree that one could pervert what I’ve said to justify bad teaching. The last paragraph of the blog entry was meant to emphasize that not everything should be practiced, and that in fact the candidates for such practice are probably limited. I briefly considered adding something more explicit like “but this doesn’t mean you should give kids mindless worksheets, or ask them to engage in practice in the absence of thought.” But I didn’t write that because it seemed insulting. Do teachers really need me to tell them such an obvious thing?
    Third, regarding the hierarchical nature of expertise and proficiency: I didn’t think I was saying anything all that controversial, or that would surprise teachers. What I meant was that complex skills typically build on simple skills. The number of students who leapfrog over simple skills to more complex skills (the Einsteins or Satchmos) are a vanishingly small number. I trust that teachers can recognize the geniuses.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.