Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Bermuda Triangle of American Education: Pure Traditionalism, Pure Progressivism, and Good Intentions

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Bermuda Triangle of American Education: Pure Traditionalism, Pure Progressivism, and Good Intentions

Article excerpt

The pendulum has been swinging back and forth between traditional and progressive educational approaches for more than 100 years, but we still haven't figured out how to reduce the learning gap. In this first article in a two-part series, Mr. Pogrow suggests fundamental policy changes and argues for finding ways to combine the best of the philosophical traditions to produce substantially better schools.

PURE traditionalists are brain dead. Pure progressives live in a fairy-tale land. And while good intentions are better than bad intentions, relying primarily on their power is not effective.

Pure traditionalists feel that everything is a linear, predictable process that can easily be systematized and manipulated. They feel that anything worth teaching can and should be systematized and tested, and that as long as there is an assembly line of clear objectives with consequences for failure, a renaissance of achievement will result. Their primary management strategy is to get everyone on the same page--figuratively and literally. Competition and increased involvement of the private sector are believed necessarily to produce better schools and results. There is no place for subtlety or complexity, no place for children's growth spurts or emotional disturbance. In this world, students and teachers are rats in a maze that has no cheese, and students never whine and are never too hungry or fearful to learn. If students' development is naturally delayed, they need to be retained. There is no understanding of or respect for the complex nature of learning and teaching, nor is there any comprehension of how those processes differ from producing widgets. Learning is a "pound it into them" process. Those who disagree are wimps.

I suspect that most Kappan readers have been enjoying this article so far. Now for the hard part.

Pure progressives have high ideals, intentions, and goals--all supported by poetic visions and lofty rhetoric. They have a Thoreauvian view of the nature of learning and a Dewey-eyed perspective on children, teachers, and administrators. They feel that all children will learn spontaneously at very high levels as long as you use individualized, "child-centered" approaches. All teachers want to design their own curriculum and are successful as long as they are given the flexibility to teach whatever and however they want. All principals and schools are effective when given maximum freedom to design the curriculum and instructional strategies. There is unlimited time available in the day for teachers and administrators to figure things out, unlimited wisdom to tap, and unlimited tolerance for ambiguity. No one is uncaring, cheats, or is incompetent. Teachers and students magically figure things out when they need to. Students understand and retain content as long as it is learned in context and the school has the right philosophical heart. Postmodernism is extolled, and anything systematic is considered to be artificial and is avoided at all costs. Science is seen as a misleading basis for deciding how to educate or for knowing whether learning has occurred. No value is seen in rote learning or automaticity of skills, and worksheets, textbooks, standards, formal phonics, tests, texts, scripted programs, etc., are viewed as evil. There is no understanding of what is involved in scaling up ideas and making them work in complex systems--or even that public education is in fact a large system. Those who are not true believers are the enemy.

Good intentions are a strength of our profession, and the vast majority of us really do care. However, while bad intentions certainly inhibit learning, there is no evidence that good intentions increase learning beyond a certain basic level. Yet the notion that if you believe that students can do well they will do well is so pervasive that, when we approach students with good intentions and they still fail, we attribute it to factors beyond our control, such as poverty or hormones. …

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