Back in the years when Dan DiNicola was writing his excellent essays for this newspaper, he wrote about great art, quoting Tolstoy, “One hour of honest, serious thinking is more precious than weeks of empty talk.”
I was thinking about DiNicola and that essay when I first came across some of the malarkey associated with the Common Core State Standards for curriculum. I suspect that Dan, like me, would be scratching his head in disbelief.
You really have to see some of this stuff to believe it. It includes the standards that are being presented to New York state teachers in some districts as ideal teaching practices. The people who have been concocting this nonsense confidently refer to it all as “best practices.”
It makes for some remarkable reading, reflecting some really peculiar notions from educational bureaucrats about classroom practices. These new standards illustrate a long standing problem in public education, one documented again and again by Peter Berger: Non-classroom teachers project fad educational ideas from the Ivy Tower into the classroom.
It all reminds me of some of DiNicola’s convictions about the quiet joys and benefits of clear thinking — of using common sense and serious thought as a counterbalance to empty words and ideas.
Here are some verbatim assumptions of “best practices” taken directly from what is supposed to be an instructive document for teachers. The principles are immodest enough. Teachers are directed to create a classroom that exemplifies these principles: experiential, reflective, authentic, holistic, social, collaborative, democratic, cognitive, developmental, constructivist, psycho-linguistic, child-centered and challenging.
Imagine trying to do all this with a roomful of 14- to 18-year-olds who would rather be Twittering their friends . . . or chilling out listening to some temporarily cool song on the iPod.
In order to create “authentic” instruction, teachers are advised that lessons or textbooks that water down or control content ultimately “disempower” students. This insight stands against what many adults observe: that it is actually constant media conditioning and indifferent parenting that “disempower” more children than do oppressive textbooks or those content-oriented adults called “teachers.” Ignorance itself is also rather massively disempowering, some others might note.
Moreover, in order to create a “collaborative” environment, teachers are instructed to organize cooperative learning activities that tap “the social power of learning.” Some teachers, though, observe that “cooperative learning” is a euphemism for the practice of group activities in which the stronger students end up doing most of the work while the kids who most need to be engaging in learning activities sit back and do little or nothing.
It is inconceivable that many administrators themselves are not themselves blinking in incredulity at some of this naïve bunk.
Subject teachers are being told what kinds of activities are suitable for the classroom. Here is an example of other recommendations for reading teachers: Increase students’ choice of their own reading materials. Decrease teacher selection of all reading material. Use strategies that activate prior knowledge. Encourage invented spelling in students’ early writings. Teacher should keep his or her reading tastes and habits private. Teacher should avoid grouping by reading level, etc.
The practical effect of all this advice to reading teachers is that students will choose to read Harry Potter instead of Harper Lee, Rick Riordan instead of Toni Morrison, and only a very small percentage of students will ever develop the reading skills and taste to read Tolstoy, Faulkner or Virginia Woolf. Most will never progress beyond highly seductive fantasy and supernatural stuff. No teacher apparently should be modeling an interest in literature and writing by sharing adult tastes and enthusiasms.
The grim reality, though, is that when students are given choice in classroom activities, even the best students will virtually always choose what entertains over what enlightens. Letting students choose their own material is part of a recipe for mediocrity. One has to wonder about the basic adult judgment of the so-called educational experts who decide how and what teachers should be teaching in the classroom.
Instructions for teaching mathematics seem even more bizarrely disconnected from the practices that have led to the flowering of math and science progress in the past three centuries. Teachers are being instructed to increase cooperative group work to teach math, to “increase the use of calculators and computers” and increase “writing about mathematics.” Teachers are also advised to decrease “relying on authorities (teacher, answer key),” and “the role of teacher as dispenser of knowledge.”
It goes on and on.
This is great stuff for anyone with a nose for sniffing out incompetence in high places. Science teachers are advised to increase “in-depth study of a few important thematic topics” instead of providing a broad general knowledge. Reality, though, indicates that the basic problem is that the overwhelming majority of students have really weak prior knowledge and basic skills. Don’t even marginally educated people need a base of broad knowledge, especially in science? You bet they do!
My favorite guideline from the Evaluation and Assessment section of this “Best Practices” document is the instruction to all teachers “to decrease the role of the teacher as the sole evaluator of student work and as the keeper of the grades.”
How might that work out in reality? The most popular girl in the class can have input on which of her friends receive which grade? It is not a good idea for those of us who believe that real achievement is almost always attained against the social grain, not by being popular and going along with the social peer group attitudes.
The genius of America has always been that the nation somehow prospers despite all the silliness floating across the public surfaces. But how much longer can we get away with this level of ineptitude in our public institutions? Indefinitely? Or almost indefinitely? Or only until our as-yet youthful national vitality wanes?
I wonder what Dan DiNicola would think about all this? He would probably decide in his quiet and reflective way that it is a good time to be alone and think, to argue with ourselves, and inspect the worth of our own notions and ideas. Of course, he would be right . . . again.
L.D. Davidson lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.