January 24, 2013
Published by The Chronicle Herald (Halfax)
One of the most common sayings prospective teachers hear in university is that a classroom teacher should be “a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.” This pithy quote sums up the progressive approach to education that dominates our public schools.
The progressive approach de-emphasizes subject matter knowledge and encourages students to construct their own understanding of the world around them. Teachers who make their students master basic math and reading skills through drill and practice are dismissed as old-fashioned, while teachers who involve students in open-ended inquiry projects are hailed as innovators.
While progressive educators claim their approach is supported by educational research, the reality is quite different. In fact, research evidence makes it clear that students benefit greatly from teachers who use traditional teaching techniques.
John Hattie is director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne and one of the world’s leading experts on student achievement. His recent book, Visible Learning for Teachers: Maximizing Impact on Learning, is based on a synthesis of more than 60,000 research studies.
Hattie does not shy away from critiquing the cherished dogmas of progressive ideology. Most notably, Hattie rejects the notion that teachers should act primarily as non-intrusive facilitators, arguing instead that teachers must assume an active role directing learning.
One thing all teachers should do is require students to develop their skills through practice. While progressive educators deride practice and repetition as “drill and kill,” Hattie argues that deliberate practice is an essential part of learning. He cites a number of research studies that demonstrate the importance of many hours of practice in order to develop expertise. Hattie even goes so far as to say that, in some cases, learning “is simply doing some things many times over.”
Progressives strongly support open-ended activities in the classroom in which students direct their own learning. However, Hattie cautions against too many open-ended activities (such as discovery learning, searching the Internet, and PowerPoint presentations) because students are easily distracted from what is important. Once again, teachers need to do far more than act as mere guides on the side.
While Hattie acknowledges the importance of helping students develop critical thinking skills and gain greater self-awareness, he differs starkly from progressives in his emphasis on content. “All of this depends on subject matter knowledge, because enquiry and critical evaluation is not divorced from knowing something,” concludes Hattie.
As for the progressive mantra that all students have their own individual learning styles (visual, auditory, tactile-kinesthetic, etc.), Hattie bluntly states there is “zero-evidence” for this theory. Hattie concludes that identifying learning styles is a “modern fad” and a “fruitless pursuit.” Other well-known experts, such as cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham, back up his assessment.
Unfortunately, education officials in Nova Scotia seem blissfully unaware of these findings. As a case in point, the government’s Kids & Learning First document calls on teachers to identify the individual learning styles of each student. Similarly, the Halifax regional school board’s formal assessment policy requires teachers to design “multiple assessment and evaluation strategies that meet the learning styles of students …” Clearly, the individual learning styles fad remains firmly entrenched in this province.
As a result of this unproven theory, many teachers burn themselves out trying to adapt their lessons to every student’s so-called learning style. Instead of wasting their time designing multiple lessons for each topic, teachers should put more effort into instructing the whole class at the same time. Students would learn more and teachers would have more time to focus on things that really matter.
Similarly, the provincial government could significantly improve math instruction if it adopted a curriculum that required students to learn the basic math facts and master the standard algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. However, the government’s plan to adopt the math curriculum used by provinces in Western Canada is woefully inadequate since that curriculum is heavily influenced by progressive ideology. With this curriculum, Nova Scotia can expect more of the same poor results.
If the government is serious about improving education, it needs to reject the failed progressive ideology that maintains its stranglehold on public schools. Real change means empowering each teacher to be far more than a mere guide on the side.