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Posts Tagged ‘The Learning Gap’

Every school year seems to herald the arrival of a new crop of education books seeking to “fix the education system.”  Some champion the latest educational panacea, others target the supposed causes of decline, and a select few identify a possible pathway for improving teaching and learning or making schools better. Despite significant investments in remedial programs and ‘learning supports,’ a yawning “achievement gap” persists between students from marginalized or low-income families and their more affluent counterparts and, with few exceptions, it has not closed much over the past fifty years.

Two new education reform books, Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap, and Michael Zwaagstra’s A Sage on the Stage, raise hope that the sources of the problem can be identified and actually addressed in the years ahead. Each of the two books, one American, the other Canadian, offer markedly similar diagnoses and urge policy-makers and educators alike to shore-up the rather emaciated content knowledge-based curriculum. 

Prominent American journalist Wexler demonstrates that elementary school teaching and learning, once considered a bright spot, is so undernourished that most teachers now teach as though it doesn’t matter what students are reading or learning, as long as they are acquiring skills of one kind or another.  Manitoba high school teacher Zwaagstra, in one commentary after another, shows how teaching content knowledge has been downgraded at all levels and overtaken by constructivist experiments embedded in the latest “foolish fads infecting public education.”

Forays into American elementary schools, during Wexler’s field research, produce some alarming lessons.  First graders in a Washington, DC, inner city school are observed, virtually lost, drawing clowns or struggling to fill-in worksheets in a class supposedly based upon a rather dense article about Brazil. Teachers jump wily-nily from topic to topic asking students to read about clouds one day, then zebras the next, completely out of context.  Few elementary teachers seem aware of the science of learning or the vital importance of prior knowledge in reading comprehension. Equally disturbing is the general finding that so many elementary teachers simply assume that children can acquire content knowledge later, after they have a modicum of skills. Such ‘progressive education’ assumptions prevail in most elementary schools, public, private and independent, almost without variation.

Zwaagstra’s book, composed of his best Canadian newspaper commentaries over the past decade, takes dead aim at the prevailing ideology fostered in faculties of education and perpetuated by provincial and school district armies of curriculum consultants and pedagogical coaches. Beginning teachers are trained to resist the temptation to be “a sage on the stage” and instead strive to be “a guide on the side.”  Zwaagstra completely rejects that approach on the grounds that it undermines teacher content knowledge and devalues the expertise of professionals in the classroom. He is, in this respect, speaking the same language as most secondary school teachers who have never really given up the notion that prior knowledge matters and that knowing your subject is critical to higher achievement in colleges and universities.

Zwaagstra speaks up for regular classroom teachers who focus on what works in the classroom and have learned, over the years, to be skeptical of the latest fads. Most regular teachers reading his stinging critiques of ‘discovery math,” whole-language-founded “balanced literacy,” and  incomprehensible “no zero” student evaluation policies will likely be nodding in approval. Not content simply to pick holes in existing theories and practices, he makes a common sense case for strategies that do work, especially in high schools —explicit instruction, knowledge-rich curriculum, and plenty of practice to achieve mastery.

Both Wexler and Zwaagstra go to considerable lengths to spare teachers from the blame for what has gone wrong in the school system. Prevailing pedagogical theories and education professors are identified as the purveyors of teaching approaches and practices floating on uncontested progressive education beliefs. When it comes to teaching reading comprehension, Wexler carefully explains why teachers continue to teach reading comprehension as a set of discrete skills instead of being founded on prior knowledge and expanded vocabulary. It is, in her analysis, “simply the water they’ve been swimming in, so universal and taken for granted they don’t question or even mention it.”  In Zwaagstra’s case, he’s very sympathetic to hard-working teachers in the trenches who cope by carrying-on with what works and developing ‘work-arounds’ when confronted by staunch ideologues or impossible mandates.

What’s really significant about these two education reformers is that both are strong advocates for, and supporters of, the international researchED movement out to challenge and dispel popular myths that have little or no basis in evidence-based research or cognitive science. Zwaagstra is a very popular presenter at researchED Canada conferences and Wexler is one of the headliners at the upcoming American researchED conference, November 16, 2019, in Philadelphia, PA. 

The two authors are very much part of the great awakening made possible by the flourishing of social media conversations, especially on EduTwitter, where independently-minded educators from around the world now go to debate education reform, share the latest research in cognitive science, and discuss ways of grappling with common problems in everyday teaching.

Slowly, but surely, the global edu-gurus are losing their single channel, uncontested platforms and facing more and more teachers equipped to call into question prevailing teaching approaches and fashionable education fads. Moving forward is now less about finding and embracing education evangelists or grabbing hold of,  and riding, the latest fad, and far more about interrogating accepted truths and trusting your teacher colleagues to work out what works in the classroom.

What’s significant about the two books — Natalie Wexler’s The Knowledge Gap and Michael Zwaagstra’s A Sage on the Stage?  Now that the call for content-knowledge curriculum is back in vogue in the United States, will Canadian policy-makers and educators  begin looking more critically at their policies and practices?  With more educators embracing a knowledge-rich curriculum, what would it take to successfully challenge the the sugary progressive education consensus in elementary schools?  

 

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