Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Building the House

Teaching is like building a house. I am not the first person to think of this, as evidenced by the language around education-- "strong foundation," "building on," etc. There has always been an ideological battle about how to best build that house and today it seems especially virulent.

Nothing is ever black & white, but there are essentially two major camps struggling to push their philosophy into our curriculum. There are the traditional teachers who base their philosophy on the idea that without a solid foundation, no other learning is possible. They have a logical, time-tested rationale behind this belief. Critical thinking is not possible without a deep, broad factual knowledge base. Problem solving is virtually entirely dependent on domain knowledge of the problem in question. This is all true, but the criticisms from the other camp are true as well-- just learning facts in isolation is akin to building a foundation and then forgetting to build the walls, select the windows, add the roof, the plumbing, the electricity, the paint, the
furniture, i.e. all the things that make the actual house.

The response from the traditional educators' community is usually something like, "Once you have a solid foundation, you are empowered to begin self-directed learning." This is true, but it is the same as your architect saying, "Once we build the foundation, you are free to build the rest of the house yourself." The goal is to help them build a solid, sturdy house that they can inhabit for decades to come, not a foundation that will decay and crumble once it is exposed to the elements because we have not taught them how to build walls and install the plumbing.

This is a philosophy built around the idea of creating a broad schema, but it is incomplete and shallow.

The other end of the spectrum is where the progressive educators live. They promote a way of learning that includes a focus on the rest of the house. They understand that memories are created with the family sitting around the fireplace, that a home is where you are safe from the elements, snug in your bed with your childrens' artwork hanging on your refrigerator. They realize that a house is more than just a foundation.

The problem with their philosophy is in the execution. They advocate spending less time doing the unexciting work involved in building the foundation. They think doing the painstaking work of making sure the foundation is level and built on solid ground is boring. I agree with them. However, it is foolhardy to start trying to install bathroom fixtures and skylights in a house before completing the foundation.

In other words, they ignore the harsh reality that all critical thinking and problem solving rest on the foundation. Higher-order skills are extensions of factual knowledge. Educators who bash factual knowledge live in a world where houses just sort of hover in mid-air.

Image Source: PCWorld.com

It is a cartoonish view of learning that exposes more about what our inner-4th grader wishes was true than what thousands of years of learning has proven to be true: we can't do any higher-order thinking without a solid foundation.

This is why I advocate a counter-revolution in education. One that embraces the fact that building the foundation is an unavoidable part of education, but it is also just the beginning. Broad factual knowledge is only a means to an end, but it is the only way to reach that end. We should reject "educational" philosophies that use phrases like "drill & kill" or "mere facts" because we know better. We should also fight with all of our might to make sure educators don't think they have done their job once the foundation is in place.

We need to take a step back and objectively look at what we are doing and stop rooting for people on either extreme of the education debate.

Let's not let traditional educators get away with this:

Image Source: Washington Post

And let's not let progressive educators get away with this:

Image Source: Cloudking.com

Let's help students build a house that is both stable and beautiful.


  1. I disagree.
    I think NO "progressive" educator questions the power of solid knowledge and the importance of lower-order thinking skills. (that would be illogical, i.e. you cannot run until you walk).
    What they (myself included) disagree on is HOW these skills are developed, the type of activities that are designed to improve these skills.
    And that happens because the traditional model clashes with the natural way of learning (in point of psychology). We need to develop skills and enable students to acquire knowledge in MEANINGFUL contexts - because that is how the brain retains information which can later be accessed in complex learning situations.
    The old example of spelling (which I tweeted a while ago) stands as a comparison"
    -traditional:long spelling meaningless lists of words to be memorized
    - progressive: explore the spelling pattern in many examples, identify the rule, apply the rule in a meaningful way (e.g. paragraph)<-------all stances of STUDENT-generated learning
    The same applies to Math, Physics or whatever.

  2. I forgot to add something...
    Most educators see Bloom's taxonomy as being LINEAR - which is not true.
    We all know that UNDERSTANDING comes after REMEMBERING. There are instances when students understand a concept (e.g. the morphology of adding the suffix -es after fricatives such as fox (es), bus(es)etc) but won't immediately remember all these instances.
    Similarly, in art, mathematics, geography history (e.g. they can UNDERSTAND the consequences of World War II but will need to practice to REMEMBER historical dates, places etc).
    My both arguments (this one and the one above) point to the fact that the apparent dichotomy or rather, linearity of the higher/lower order thinking skills can be deceiving.
    And that no one undermines the importance of ALL skills, may they be traditional or progressive educators.

  3. Cristina, thanks so much for taking the time to read and share your thoughts.

    I'll touch on your points one by one.

    1. re: "I think NO "progressive" educator questions the power of solid knowledge and the importance of lower-order thinking skills. (that would be illogical, i.e. you cannot run until you walk)."

    I wouldn't say "progressive" educators completely discount lower-order thinking skills, but I would say that questioning their importance is one of the defining characteristics of progressive education. Constructivism is built entirely on this premise-- questioning the importance of lower-order thinking skills.

    2. re: "HOW these skills are developed"
    "Progressive" educators do believe in approaching learning from a different angle than "traditional" educators, agreed. Embedded in that difference is a decreased emphasis on gaining factual knowledge, especially knowledge that does not have an instant gratification payoff.

    3. re: "We need to develop skills and enable students to acquire knowledge in MEANINGFUL contexts"

    Agreed. As far as I know Hebbian Theory is virtually universally accepted, i.e., "Cells that fire together, wire together." That is not the only element to retaining knowledge though. "Traditional" educators tend to minimize the importance of context and "progressive" educators tend to minimize the importance of practice/repetition.

    4. re: "spelling meaningless lists of words to be memorized"
    In most cases, memorizing lists of stuff is not a very effective way to retain information. In some cases it works very well, but either way it is boring and makes both teaching and learning less fun.

    5. re: "UNDERSTAND the consequences of World War II"
    This is where things fall apart for both ends of the spectrum in my opinion. "Traditional" lessons will provide the conventional answers to questions like these and undercut a student's opportunity to think deeply and research answers on their own. This can lead to a parrot-like regurgitation of what the teacher told them and that regurgitation will fade and disappear over time (for many of the reasons you mentioned, context, etc.)

    "Progressive" lessons do what you described as trying to run before you walk. Critical thinking is built on a vast store of specific factual knowledge about historical events. Students can not detect bias in their books or articles if they do not have a sturdy baseline of facts with which to compare them. They can not deeply understand relationships between events until they master the factual knowledge that defines the event.

    Much of what you say I agree with, but these points are important to discuss and debate regardless of whether we agree or not. I am really glad to have someone with your intellectual firepower engage me on these topics.


  4. Thank you for so comprehensive a comment.

    I think good education comes down to a very delicate BALANCE between the two approaches within the specific context of:
    a) the AGE group you are working with,
    b) the very characteristics of the school SUBJECT you are teaching.

    In terms of age,it is obvious that Mathematics requires a more sensory-based, concrete,interactive approach with young children (therefore, a more "progressive" approach), but a more "traditional" approach with older students as the "contents" is more conceptualized and the mathematical thinking behind them is more complex.

    Along the same line, with respect to the school subject, you will teach Arts differently than Math, or English to native speakers differently than to second-language learners - due to inherent features of each discipline.

    The problem today is that educators tend to sacrifice one for the other, and emphasize either behaviorism, constructivism, cognitive-based pedagogy, humanism or whatever other learning theory (although, honestly, I don't know how many have actually studied each).

    Overall, I think we do not disagree on essentials. Or so is my feeling.

  5. I wish I had more time to hand out here but I was busy hanging out with my family ;)

    I think what a lot of good progressive educators I have met do poorly when explaining their craft (style?) is that in order to build their house where they snuggle with their kids by the fireplace they did spend a lot of time on the foundation. Since the foundation is the least exciting place (who looks at the cellar first when buying a house) they end up only sharing those snuggly moments. I think they also start off with the idea of "I want to snuggle, maybe by a fireplace" and then inadvertently work backwards to the foundation...and then back to the fireplace. Many progressive educators give assignments/projects/etc that simply necessitate those foundation skills you write about, without specifically including them in the plans. A good progressive unit simply forces(maybe wrong word) kids to build a foundation on their way to a solution.

  6. Paul!
    Thanks for taking the time to debate and discuss.
    I hear what you are saying about not sharing because it is less fun, but I think most people who are effected enough to gloss over the "grunt work" in describing their practice probably gloss over it while executing the lesson for the exact same reason.
    That has been my experience as a learner and an observer. My perspective is hardly complete enough to say with certainty but relative to traditional approaches, progressive approaches diminish the importance of factual knowledge.

  7. This is quite a moving post. Yes, education is a lot like building a house. A strong foundation is key to making a legacy last for future generations, and sometimes all it takes to build one is a single step, a single decision.

  8. Excellent!! This is so inspiring thank you! I will start work on my solid foundation!