Educational Reform: Back to the Future
The scope and force of informational and communicative technologies has powered change in all industries and fields. These technologies have spawned new companies and areas of business and also facilitated faster, more efficient means of dealings. Yet even as the means of doing business has rapidly changed, the essence of many professions, from accountancy to zoology, has remained constant.
Education is one field that, according to Ted McCain, Ian Jukes, and Lee Crockett in Living on the Future Edge, has not just remained unchanged by technology, it has deliberately resisted innovation by clinging to a learning paradigm forged during the Great Depression for an industrial economy. This book seeks to break education’s “paradigm paralysis,” for “it is critical that educators embrace a new paradigm for education to keep instruction effective and relevant for the twenty-first century.”
But the “new paradigm” for education advocated by the authors bears a striking resemblance to the same tired ideas of progressive education proffered by John Dewey in the 1930s and widely adopted by American schools in the ensuing decades. At root, Living on the Future Edge and its vision for technology-driven education—a vision promoted by a great number of educators, administrators, and politicians throughout the country—invites educators back to the future so they can refashion an old pedagogy with the alluring raiment of today’s informational technology.
Classical education, which was born in ancient Greece and Rome and developed by the Christian West, has two specific goals: the cultivation of wisdom and virtue in the learner. Through an interpersonal exchange between teachers and learners, students are directly taught, in the phrase of classical education apologist Martin Cothran, “how to think and what to do.” As the centuries have passed the means for bringing about this type of education has changed—from wax tablets, to printed books, to ball point pens, to electronic tablets—but all these tools have been utilized in service of education’s essence: the cultivation of the mind and soul of the student. Technology can certainly play a role in helping schools meet this goal, and today there are infinite ways in which a teacher can appropriately employ the Internet and other technological developments to enhance students’ intellectual, moral, and psychological development within the context of the enduring truths of the permanent things.
Progressive education, by contrast, turns the classical end of education on its head. It replaces growth in wisdom and virtue with a program of self-discovery aimed at conforming students’ minds and behaviors to the will of the State. In the words of Cothran, it is an education in “what to think and how to do.” With progressive education, the traditional relationship between the knowledgeable teacher instructing inquiring students is inverted so that the teacher becomes a “guide on the side” to students who determine their own goals, pursue what is of their interest, and engage in practices considered useful to society. Memorization and drill work, practices that inculcate the foundational knowledge necessary for gaining wisdom and virtue, are replaced with activities that conduce student feeling and “critical thinking,” even as they are not compelled to remember any content to think critically about.
The pedagogical vision espoused in Living on the Future Edge stems directly from the progressive education lesson book. The authors’ three mandates for public education—acculturation of the individual, cultivation of social skills, and preparation to be productive members of society—all ultimately serve to fit students to societal expectation. But the first two, distorted remnants of classical education’s wisdom and virtue, receive very little attention from the authors. They instead devote most of their space to suggesting ways that education can prepare students for contributing to the modern economy: “The great challenge for education is to prepare students for a world that doesn’t yet exist, to equip them for solving problems that we haven’t even begun to think about, and to train them to use technologies that haven’t yet been invented.”
Hence in their approach to education and societal change, teachers and administrators must act like quarterbacks: they must see what is immediately present while simultaneously anticipating and reacting to the future developing in front of them. For this future the authors have clear goals of what learning should be: customized for the individual learner; nonlinear so as to follow students’ interests; virtual and physical; assisted by “thinking machines”; focused on processing multimedia information, for a “visual culture is taking over the world” and placing verbal literacy on the back seat; collaborative, for due to technology the teacher is “not the only expert in the classroom”; “whole mind” to include “right brain” creativity in addition to “left brain” logical reasoning; based on discovery.
This future is very much the past: these learning goals have long been espoused by Dewey and the progressive education movement. The difference, though—and what makes Living on the Future Edge so important for progressive education—is that our century’s new learning technologies make the fulfillment of this vision far easier and more attractive than ever before, and a host of “ed tech” companies have arisen to help schools adopt this vision. With electronic tablets and handheld computers in the classroom, learning can be subordinated to student self-discovery in ways that Dewey could not have dreamed. Rather than be formed by encountering the best that has been thought and said under the careful instruction of a teacher, students are now empowered to take over the classroom with the same instruments they use as toys at home.
But ironically, developments within web-based education have highlighted progressive education’s inherent flaws. The huge incompletion rate for students in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), in which thousands of students enroll at their own initiative and learn without any personalized prodding from a teacher, points to the fallacy of making student discovery, rather than the teacher’s cultivated wisdom and watchful eye, the catalyst for instruction. Further, as Mark Bauerlein has documented in The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, while today’s students have, through the Internet, more information available to them than any prior generation, they remain on the whole appallingly ignorant of even the most basic knowledge. The Future Edge authors refer to this ubiquity of information as “InfoWhelm.” But rather than urge students to become proficient in foundational knowledge, they argue that “in the age of InfoWhelm, what begins to matter more is not the ability to remember specific content, but rather the ability to place information in a context and use it effectively.” What is worth knowing, in this view, is only what we can subject to human power.
The authors thus replace the cultivation of mind and soul with a purely utilitarian view of education. With the multiplication of technological devices, teachers are no longer “burdened with delivering content”; instead “their focus will shift to creating learning tasks that challenge their students to develop higher-level thinking skills.” This vision has been realized in the enactment of Common Core, a progressive education initiative adopted by over forty states that places heavy emphasis on students solving problems with practical applications. One recommendation by the authors has been implemented by Common Core: a curriculum shift to include more technical reading, a shift that comes at the expense of reading fiction and poetry. Like the writers of the Common Core standards, the authors hold that “schools must change drastically to reverse the growing disconnect between school life and real life.”
To convince readers to adopt their acceleration of progressive education theory, the authors devote the first quarter of the book to the subject of change, with many anecdotes offered as warnings for those not willing to make the leap. But most of the stories related to this end—from the failure of Swiss watch manufactures to adapt to digital clocks, to resistance in schools over new writing implements—concern changes of degree, not kind. No matter the technology at hand in a given moment, the essence of certain activities remains constant: clocks tell time, pens write, doctors heal, accountants audit, mechanics repair. Living on the Future Edge does not seek a change in education by degree by suggesting ways that technology can complement learning; rather, it uses technology as the means to transform the nature of education itself.
Progressive education has been failing American children for decades, as comparisons with other nations have consistently made clear. Progressive education is a failed pedagogy, and no amount of technological additions can change that. But the essence of education, classically understood, remains unchanged by technological advances because it is not defined by gadgets or by “keeping instruction future relevant.” It is about persons bringing other, younger persons to the truth. No matter how bright or attractive the future may be, it will only be right for our children and schools if it yields to the truth, which is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
David G. Bonagura, Jr. is a teacher and former associate editor of The University Bookman.
Posted: October 19, 2014