Op-ed column: Much-maligned ‘old method’ actually taught students something

In a recent cover story, “The Creativity Crisis,” Newsweek announced that American creativity is dec

In a recent cover story, “The Creativity Crisis,” Newsweek announced that American creativity is declining. While problems like saving the Gulf of Mexico, bringing peace to Afghanistan and delivering health care are “crying out for creative solutions,” two decades of “creativity scores” for American children and adults have consistently inched downward.

Newsweek devotes an entire sentence to two likely culprits: television and video games, before spending four pages prosecuting its featured likely culprit, public schools.

In keeping with the custom of blaming schools for everything from bullying to obesity, Newsweek’s investigators trace the creativity slump to an education system that’s allegedly fixated on “standardized curriculum,” “rote memorization,” and “drill and kill teaching” methods. They quote a Chinese professor who’s laughing out loud because American schools appear to be retreating toward an old model even as China is “racing” toward the theories and practices that have characterized American education reform since the 1970s.

Joke’s on them

If that’s true, the real joke will be on China. If China were to cripple its schools the way we’ve crippled ours for 40 years, it might help us hang on as the world’s No. 1 power.

Not long ago, experts preached that schools should modify their behavioral expectations because 1980s kids were living in the shadow of nuclear war. The fact that 1950s first-graders routinely practiced diving under their desks to hide from the bomb, and that nobody felt it necessary to make excuses for their behavior, didn’t faze reformers.

Reformers and experts are still adept at ignoring history. They’re also still too often in the business of manufacturing excuses.

It should be fairly obvious from little enterprises like the New Deal, D-Day, the Manhattan Project, the civil rights movement, and the Apollo moon landing that Americans have creatively solved world-class problems. The men and women who solved those problems attended school in the old days and were educated under the “old model” that focused on content-based curriculum and entailed standards and drill.

That means those successful, creative problem-solvers were graduates of an education system that experts now claim is the reason today’s Americans can’t creatively solve problems.

Neat trick

It’s a neat trick to simultaneously praise and blame the same education methods for both succeeding and failing to accomplish the same objective. Even neater, beginning in the 1970s reformers drove the “old model” from most American classrooms, which is coincidentally around the same time American students started knowing and creating less.

It’s the content-light, student-centered, pass/fail, self-esteem obsessed reforms of the 1970s that prompted A Nation at Risk to condemn “the rising tide of mediocrity” that had overtaken public schools by 1981.

A Nation at Risk specifically indicted undemanding, superfluous curricula and extensive student choice where students too often choose “appetizers and dessert” from a “curricular smorgasbord.” It warned that we had “lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling” and that expecting schools to solve personal and social problems would continue to exact a burgeoning educational cost.

Experts applauded the report as a call for reform. Then they continued reforming schools by implementing all the bad ideas it had identified as the problems. In short, the education model that’s responsible for the decline in creativity and achievement isn’t the “traditional” approach that reformers like to blame. The fault lies in the very reforms they’ve imposed on schools for 40 years.

It’s still happening. Headlines constantly tout “student-directed learning,” school health and counseling clinics, and “innovative” curricula based on activities from gardening to chess.

In a world where increasing numbers of graduates know appallingly less, Newsweek’s experts recommend that schools stop trying to “stuff more complex information into [kids’] heads.” They denounce today’s schools as standards-obsessed. They spotlight a team-based science project to reduce the noise in a school library where students chose fabric samples and built models of the library. Solutions included “playing the sound of a gentle waterfall” and filling double-paned windows with water. The window idea morphed into an aquarium, with students assigned to “persuade a janitor to care for the plants and fish during vacation.”

But not learning science

In case you’re thinking this sounds harmless enough, consider that it represents an entire month of science class. Consider that very little time was spent actually learning the science of sound, and that students at the spotlighted school spend three-fourths of each day this way.

I’ve weeded my share of gardens, and I learned to play chess as a kid. But planting a community garden isn’t science, and my chess club met after school, not instead of school. Spending class time playing chess instead of on math and reading on the grounds that it will “make students better at subjects like math and reading” makes no sense.

Reformers offer platitudes about how the world has changed, and how “old model” teaching and learning methods don’t work in the 21st century. But skills still require diligent practice. Achievement and creativity still rest on knowledge and insight, and they’re still driven by inspiration and perspiration. Those ancient attributes haven’t changed just because the century has.

There’s no success without them.

And no shortcut around them.

Peter Berger teaches English in Weathersfield, Vt.

Categories: Opinion

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