Back when telephones still had dials, I attended one of those 1960s junior highs that reformers like to slap around, where teachers focused on content, disruptive students were sent to the offices and middle schools hadn’t yet enabled American students to excel in math self-esteem while they were failing actual math.
According to reformers, those schools didn’t teach us to think. It’s worth noting that, shortly after schools began touting “critical thinking,” civil, fact-based discourse began circling the drain.
Not that my education was idyllic. I didn’t find geography fascinating, for example, but I learned a lot about what was in the world, and I understood more about it than students today typically do, despite the “information-rich” internet void they inhabit.
Reformers complain because my homework consisted chiefly of reading a textbook and answering questions. They condemn my teacher for neglecting “higher order thinking skills,” for being too concerned with information and too little concerned with my opinions and feelings about that information.
It’s true we spent much of our time learning the names of places on maps, what those nations produced, and how their ways of life compared to ours. I learned where the Amazon was, that Berlin was surrounded by East Germany, and that the Soviet Union spread across Europe and Asia.
It’s true nobody ever asked how I felt about the Alps. I did, however, know where they were. I could also explain how mountains served as barriers to trade and conquest, why cities grew up along rivers, and the name of the ocean next to New Jersey.
As for social justice, I understood that dictatorships like those we’d helped defeat in World War II were evil, and that there existed a moral imperative to combat dictatorships behind the Iron Curtain, which I incidentally could draw on a map. I viewed those topics through a Cold War lens, just as contemporary biases tint schools’ presentation of current social studies issues.
Reformers have railed for years against the education I received on the grounds that it was too factual, too short on “critical thinking” and inappropriate for the 21st century, where apparently nobody needs to know anything because you can find it on Facebook. One reform-minded Common Core fan published her views in an essay subtitled, “Moving Beyond the Worksheet.”
She chuckles that, early in her career, she posted her state’s math standards and crossed each one off as she taught it. That was before she realized “teaching math and covering textbook sections were not synonymous.”
It’s hard to believe anyone could teach for more than a few weeks before realizing sometimes you can teach things that your students don’t learn, and that there are many reasons this can happen, including your instructional methods, the difficulty of the material, your students’ prior knowledge or lack of knowledge, and their apathy or sloth.
It’s also hard to believe a Common Core disciple could smirk at the memory of checking off her state’s standards when the Common Core simply replaced them with voluntarily adopted national standards that became her state’s standards that she had to check off.
Now we call those standards “proficiencies.”
Yes, you’re supposed to check them off.
She condemns the way she used to teach math, when she’d write the steps for solving a problem on the board prior to sending students home to complete a worksheet. I’m assuming she skipped recounting the part where she’d explain the steps and work through sample problems because Mr. Carola knew to do that in 1965 when he taught me.
I also know that teachers, like Mr. Carola, have long worked to equip students to explain the “methodology” for solving a problem, “transfer” their knowledge, and “apply” it to similar problems. None of that is new for the 21st century.
She’s big on teaching the “why” behind mathematics, and that’s fine, provided you recognize that not every student needs to, or can, understand the “why,” and that for many, the ability to follow the steps and solve the problem is sufficient. Additionally, worksheets aren’t automatically pointless. Students need to master a skill by practicing it.
She’s big on letting students “navigate themselves” through new material. Except leaving children alone in the woods isn’t the surest way to get them home safely. You don’t have to “discover” something on your own, whether it’s math or the way home, in order to learn it.
Finally, she’s big on classes where students “are truly engaged” in learning. Who isn’t? It’s just that Mr. Carola’s version didn’t involve students aimlessly wandering the room the way “engagement” often does today.
A “straw man” in a debate is an opposing argument you create that either doesn’t exist or doesn’t accurately reflect what your opponent believes. When you knock that straw man down, you give the appearance of having destroyed your opponent’s position.
Yes, there were classes then, as there are now, where more time spent in informed, active discussions would have been both beneficial and more enjoyable. But 20th century classrooms weren’t the barren, tedium-obsessed, idea-free places reformers conjure up.
It’s time experts stopped promoting their recycled reform blueprints by knocking down a straw man that never existed. Instead, they need to account for the subsequent lost decades when their student-centered, content-light schemes brought public education to its knees and so needlessly shortchanged our students.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years. Poor Elijah would be pleased to answer letters addressed to him in care of the editor.