Why Modern Progressive Education Fails

Why Modern Progressive Education Fails, by Greg Ashman.

While progressive educators of the early 20th century stressed that learning knowledge, which they always reduced to the rote learning of facts, is boring and unnatural, early 21st century postmodernists challenge the validity of traditional knowledge by viewing it as an expression of white, male, heteronormative oppression. …

When you treat knowledge, the very substance of education, with suspicion, what is left? What should be taught in schools, if not knowledge?

The popular, if deeply flawed, answer to this dilemma is to re-brand academic subjects as ‘skills.’ Reading and writing — and, more recently, evaluating the veracity of internet sources — has become the skill of ‘literacy.’ Mathematics, with a little more justification, becomes the skill of ‘numeracy.’ Layered on top of this are supposedly general purpose skills such as ‘problem-solving’ and ‘critical thinking.’ Content is thought to be interchangeable in the development of all these skills — it’s not what you learn but how you learn that’s important. No need to cover the basics or the boring stuff. Out goes Shakespeare and in comes something more interesting and relevant. It is all the same. It is all going to develop a child’s literacy skills. …

Progressive educationalists argue that developing skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving involves students learning from personal experience, as advocated by Rousseau. According to this theory, students should conduct their own investigations and organize their own research projects in contrast to the supposedly old-fashioned approach where teachers stand at the front of the class and explain things to them.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that critical thinking and problem-solving can be taught in this way. As Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, explains, you need to master a subject before being able to think critically about it. … There is pretty much nothing that you can learn by solving the problem of a blocked toilet that you can apply to the problem of solving a set of simultaneous equations. …

How memory works is vital to how we learn (surprisingly enough):

Another difficulty with the progressive approach is that it is at odds with cognitive scientists’ understanding of how memory works. Working memory — that is, what we are focussing on at the moment — is severely limited. …

In order to learn to read and write, or learn any other academic discipline, we have to process knowledge in our working memory before it can be transferred to our long-term memory.

In contrast to working memory, there appears to be no practical limit to what we can store in our long-term memory. However, it would be a mistake to think of the long-term memory as a bottomless filing cabinet. It is more like a set of webs connecting related ideas. Knowledge can fade if we fail to make use of it, or it may still be there in the long-term memory but hard to retrieve. This suggests the value of regularly recalling knowledge that we want to be available for us to use, something that has been confirmed by research.

Long-term memory can help overcome the limitations of working memory. To give a simple example, if you just know that seven times eight is 56, you don’t have to use working memory resources to figure it out and you can concentrate on some other aspect of a math problem. Perhaps more subtly, a fully established concept such as ‘democracy’ can consist of scores of connected ideas and take years to develop. Yet once you have this concept available in your long-term memory you can effortlessly bring it to bear on problems without running up against the usual constraints.

This understanding of the mind suggests that novices need to learn new concepts in small, discrete steps. They need to be guided to pay attention to just a few features at a time. The role of a teacher is, therefore, to fully present and explain new concepts in bite-size chunks, at least in the earlier stages of learning, and to give students plenty of practice at recalling these concepts via frequent testing. Once learning progresses, ideas can start to be integrated into more complex wholes.

However, if you take Rousseau’s advice and present novices with complex or real-world problems to solve, or areas to investigate, their working memories will become overloaded. Even if they manage to solve a particular problem, they are likely to learn little from the process because they will have no cognitive resources left over for learning. …

When we reflect on the role of long-term memory, it is clear that the content of the curriculum is extremely important. For example, if you want students to think analytically about an aspect of democracy then you need to build up their knowledge of the concept in long-term memory. The same is true if you want them to read and understand all but the most basic texts about democracy.

There is no shortcut to doing this without the right knowledge. That is because knowledge is what you think with. It is, therefore, a duty of schools and education policymakers to ensure that the curriculum contains content that is rich and powerful; knowledge that allows access to the kinds of thinking that well-educated adults are able to perform.

A long and substantive article at the link.


hat-tip Stephen Neil