Bruce Dietrick Price*
For those who enjoy a good puzzle, K-12 education is more intellectually entertaining than most people imagine. Classrooms are full of convoluted theories and mystifying methods. Probably the teachers themselves can’t explain the reasoning behind approaches that are used almost universally in American public schools.
Chat with friends who are smart and successful. Try to find even one who can explain Sight-Words, Prior Knowledge, Multiculturalism, Constructivism, Reform Math, or Common Core Math. Why are Geography, History, and Science so often slighted? What justifies the hostility toward memorization and academic content? Can anyone understand the paradox of most students getting A or B but almost no one possesses any general knowledge?
Jimmy Kimmel brilliantly illustrated the mystery we live in by sending a staffer out to the streets with a map of the world. “Point to any country,” people were told, “and name it.” Lots of people could not do this! (This video has been viewed 20 million times.)
Prof. Patrick Deneen of Notre Dame found that many students on his prestigious campus did not know who won the Civil War. His students were “know nothings.” Deneen wrote a polemic against the school system, arguing that “cultural amnesia” is its proudest achievement.
Probably the alpha mystery in K-12 is the one called Whole Word, which dictates that children must memorize thousands of sight-words in order to read. This policy is surely a mystery given that nearly all research favors phonics.
But Constructivism may be the most pervasive enigma. It’s commonplace in every subject at every grade but almost no one can say what it is. All we know for sure is that Constructivism has devastated classroom success by outlawing traditional teaching. Teachers must be passive facilitators. Students have to construct their own new knowledge.
Our vast educational structure is now based on a wisp of theory by a French biologist who studied how young children learn. To truly know something, children must formulate it for themselves. If somebody else gives you knowledge, it doesn’t count.
In the real world, there are many ways to gain knowledge. You might ask somebody where a bank is. “Go three blocks that way and turn left at the light.” A few minutes later you are at the bank. Constructivism seems to require that you explore the city until you find the bank for yourself. This kind of absurdity makes our schools silly, and children ignorant
A third-grade teacher sent me this sad letter:
“…The principal has refused to recommend me for employment as a teacher because I flagrantly ignored the school’s emphasis on education reform (read constructivism) according to him. He was appalled that I had the students memorize facts. Where was the higher order thinking involved in the task, he queried me – not waiting for an answer and clearly not wanting one. It mattered not to him that the kids loved the geography unit. Nor that 90% of them scored above 88% percent on their post-test (all fill in the blank – no multiple choice). That they had learned about the equator, they had seen images of maps and had talked with me about how the world seemed to grow over time in ancient maps. We talked about technology and how our planet looked on Google Earth. We talked about the invention of the wheel, of navigation, and all sorts of other fascinating things. The boys were wondering if we would soon have Google Moon and Google Jupiter. They knew what a compass rose was and what it did. They learned about scale and computed some simple scale problems. No, none of that mattered because I had violated two major rules – I had had the children memorize facts and I had taught them information.”
This woman is the teacher that most parents want for their children. Instead of celebrating her, the system discards her.
I confess that before this letter, I didn’t know what a compass rose is. Many times, if nobody tells us something, we never know.
*Bruce Deitrick Price is a novelist, poet, artist, and education reformer. This essay was published originally at his website Improve-Education.org