Walking the walk instead of talking the talk

I’ve just finished teaching my latest crop of ed school students, and I’ve been puzzling over two trends in education. These trends aren’t exactly new, but, for some reason, it hadn’t occurred to me until now the degree to which they’re in hopeless contradiction. Think irresistible force hitting immovable object. The one: most instructors spend most of their time being guides on the side rather than sages on stages. The other: most students no longer get through most of the assigned readings.

So, unless you give up on students learning specialized knowledge—of the sort that comes from instructors or readings—how do you run a student-centered classroom that addresses the course material?

Let’s say, for example, you’re teaching a class on the cognitive idiosyncrasies of autism, and you want to draw your material from experts like Uta Frith, Nancy Minshew, and Yvonne Groen. And let’s say, hypothetically, that no one does all the reading, and that some students do no reading at all.

To the rescue come four additional edworld trends: trends that suggest ways for you to avoid being a stage sage while still appearing to cover the course material. The trends in question? Real-world “relevance,” personal connections, group work, and hands-on activities.

Option 1: shift class activities from specialized knowledge to related topics that are accessible to people whether or not they’ve done the reading. Instead of focusing on, say, what experts have concluded from experiments measuring perceptual processing or complex task performance in autism, students could share their anecdotal experiences and current opinions. They might discuss their impressions of the cognitive strengths and weaknesses of whichever individuals with autism they happen to have interacted with personally. Or they might share their opinions on whether society should be pathologizing, accommodating, and/or celebrating these cognitive differences.

Option 2: shift class activities away from whole-class discussion towards group activities. Make sure each group contains at least one student likely to have done at least some of the reading. Have each group discuss a question (based, at least loosely, on the readings) and then present their responses to the rest of the class. Recent incarnations of this increasingly popular protocol–Chalk Talk and Gallery Walk— factor in poster boards, markers, post-it notes, and students walking around the classroom-turned-poster-gallery, thus lending the process the kind of hands-on, active-learning “feel” that appeals, at least theoretically, to the millennial and post-millennial mindsets.


Option 3: drastically reduce the reading assignments and have students read during class time. (J recently had a history class like this that he had to drop because of what comes next…). Once the 10-20 minutes allotted for reading is over, have students write responses. Though this disfavors slow readers and poor comprehenders, Option 3 serves an additional purpose: making sure students aren’t plagiarizing or having parents or college writing center “tutors” write their reading responses for them.

Option 4: a variant on Option #3 in which the solitary writing activity is replaced by Option 2.

There’s one remaining option, of course—brazenly defiant though it is of the many sages on educational stages who tell the rest of us we shouldn’t be sages on stages. If students haven’t read about perceptual processing and complex task performance in individuals with autism… then perhaps they should spend most of class time listening to the instructor present this material to them.

Stop making sense

I had a funny moment last night… I had the TV on in the background while I was dealing with the dogs, fixing their food bowls & the like, also cooking spinach because spinach is my new Health Plan … 

Point is, I wasn’t paying attention to the television.

And I happened to catch a line. 

Alex Trebek was interviewing the contestants, and I heard one saying (this is close to a direct quote): “. . . so I assign a lot of projects. They do a lot of independent learning. I guide from the side.”

That was the contestant’s wrap-up. 

I guide from the side.

And that was it, back to the game. No particular reaction from Alex, who, I think it’s fair to say, did not look enthusiastic. Then again, he didn’t look unenthusiastic, necessarily, either. 

Two thoughts popped into my head at the exact same moment, then ping-ponged back and forth, vying for dominance. (Maybe spinach will fix that.)

My first thought: Common Core doesn’t seem to have put much of a dent in constructivism. Not that it was supposed to, really, but CC did have instructivist elements. Plus a friend of mine, who teaches in the city, tells me kids there are now being taught phonics, so I was thinking there’d been some progress.

But maybe not.

Maybe it’s constructivism that’s on the rise.

I’ve always found it telling that no one ever calls himself, or herself, a constructivist. Yet here was a young teacher announcing, on national television, that he’s a guide on the side. He didn’t sound defensive.

Anyway, that was my first thought.

Constructivism, still here.

Possibly more here.

My second thought: You’re on Jeopardy, bub.

Jeopardy, for pete’s sake !

People win Jeopardy by spending hours and hours and hours memorizing stuff.

Then, after they win on Jeopardy, they post Jeopardy book lists to help other people memorize stuff

There is no constructivist path to victory on Jeopardy.  

I don’t get it. 

The contestant ended up losing pretty badly, which–I won’t lie–I enjoyed, but not before giving me a scare when he pulled into 2nd place after correctly answering a couple of big-ticket questions while his two opponents flubbed theirs. 

But in the end he closed out the game with $500. 

Compared to the winner, who had $13,601.

Bonus points: I read a journal article on neoliberalism the other day, which pointed out that no one ever calls himself a neoliberal, either. Hah! I guess not. Of course, maybe I’ll turn on Jeopardy tomorrow and hear a contestant telling Alex he’s always been a big fan of the Phillips curve, ever since he was a little kid.

A gigantic pyramid scheme

It was the opening sentence of an Opinion piece in last week’s Philadelphia Inquirer that first caught my eye:

Ask students what year Columbus sailed the ocean blue and they’ll likely respond with “1492!”

I’m guessing that most students these days have no idea when Columbus sailed over here. After all, as yesterday’s Washington Post reports, two-thirds of millennials don’t know what Auschwitz is, and 22% “haven’t heard of the Holocaust or are not sure whether they’ve heard of it.”

As for Siri Fiske, the author of the Inquirer piece, whatever she may know about historical facts, she seems out of touch with present-day practices:

Schools have been drilling such facts into children’s brains since the dawn of public education. In past decades, long lectures and rote learning were necessary evils…

You have to go back many decades before you find long lectures and rote learning as standard practices in K12 classrooms.

Fiske goes on to say:

Information had to flow in one direction only — from all-knowing teachers to students — because there was no practical way for students to teach themselves.

No practical way? In one of the best math classes I ever attended, back in the late 1970s, we each worked independently, at our own rates–essentially teaching ourselves via well-designed textbooks.

Fiske explains:

Modern technology has irrevocably disrupted that flow of knowledge. The digital revolution has made it necessary to reorganize the classroom and radically alter the student-teacher dynamic.

Necessary? I’m guessing whatever necessity there is to alter classrooms comes from a very specific aspect of the digital revolution that Fiske omits: the short attention spans fostered by cell phones and social media. These days, maintaining students’ on-task focus is more challenging than ever.

For Fiske, though, the reason not to lecture is Google and websites:

Say a teacher is introducing her class to the solar system. Today, students can instantly Google any facts they’d need to know about the planets. They can even create their own solar system models on NASA.gov. In the near future, students might even break up into teams and embark on space exploration missions, thanks to virtual-reality headsets.

Given the new digital landscape, a half-hour lecture on the solar system can be a waste of time.

Fiske continues with a bunch of unsupported assertions:

Lecturing also fails to impart the knowledge and skills students will need in their future careers.

Today’s students are.. ill-served by educators who cling to an outdated, top-down teaching approach.

Prepping students for the modern workforce means coaching them on how to analyze material and approach topics in unconventional ways.

The closest she comes to justifying these claims is this:

Nearly 90 percent of executives report trouble finding workers with soft skills like critical thinking and creativity.

If this is true (Fiske provides no link), it’s also true that employers report trouble finding workers with hard skills like literacy and numeracy.

What bugged me the most about Fiske’s piece, though, was her reliance on the debunked Learning Pyramid theory, and on an irrelevant study conducted by a private company whose mission includes promoting “innovative solutions” and “technology integration.” So I wrote the following letter to the Philadelphia Inquirer (which the Inquirer has declined to publish):

Siri Fiske’s April 4th piece (“Modern teachers shouldn’t waste time lecturing students”) claims that “students retain only about 5 percent of information” from lectures, “but 70 percent when they practice a skill themselves.” But the study Fiske cites, by the National Training Laboratories, appears neither in Fiske’s hyperlink, nor in a Google scholar search, and its conclusions were debunked four years ago by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham (“Why the ‘learning pyramid’ is wrong”, Washington Post, 3/3/2013). Second, Fiske claims that students whose schools focus on real-world problems like app-development and drone-flying “are more likely to attend four-year colleges” and get “better test scores.” But the study Fiske links to, a study by MIDA Learning Technologies, was of 2nd and 5th grade classrooms, and it investigated something else: whether project-based STEM learning “influences classroom instruction and student engagement” and “students’ ability to problem-solve.”

The Learning Pyramid is everywhere. Here’s one of its most popular guises:


Regarding the Learning Pyramid’s checkered history and viral spread, the Association of College & Research Libraries has a great blog post here. It turns out the Pyramid was initially proposed, not as a theory of learning, but as a model of levels of abstraction:


Over a half-dozen decades (it first appeared in 1946), the Learning Pyramid was perverted from a model of abstraction into a reason to replace teacher and textbook-based instruction with hands-on projects.. and at no point has it had any empirical backing.