Friday, November 11, 2005

I recently enjoyed reading Doomed to Fail : The Built-in Defects of American Education by Paul Zoch. Zoch does an admirable job in tracing the origins and major figures of the "progressive" movement in american education and discusses the negative consequences on student learning and achievement. The foremost idea here is the teacher-centric model, the idea that student learning is dependent (almost entirely) upon the quality and methods used by teachers.

One portion I read with particular interest was his look at the impact of Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences thesis on the public schools. While I'm sure that Gardner is a brilliant man and is on to somethig or other with his theory (briefly, that intelligence is multivariate and each person has some measurable amount of intelligence in at least eight disctinct areas), the manner in which this theory is applied to educational theory has had poor results. When students are made to believe that they are, e.g., primarily kinesthetic learners, they have a built in excuse to tune out lectures o blackboard demonstrations since they are led to believe that they just aren't designed to learn that way.

One portion of the book which I found intriguing but wished I had more knowledge about was regarding John Dewey's ideas about education serving the needs of the community. Zoch seemed oblivious to what I consider the obvious point that education must have some sort of teleology, and that that teleology should reflect what society feels children should become through participation in the schooling system. Thus the question of how many students develop some competence in Latin seems to me to be entirely secondary to the question of what purpose is served by teaching Latin in the school system. Something for mew to look into another day.

The book ends with a brief look at what Zoch considers a model school system in terms of creating academic success--the Japanese schools. This was fascinating to read about as a contrast to american attitudes. In Japan it is universally taught and believed that academic success is a function of the amount of work devoted to it. Academic lectures are simple, straightforward, and boring. The idea is to present information in as clear a manner as possible so that the students can grasp it and then practice it.

I found myself wondering to what extent the "Japanese method" could flourish on american soil, but then I consider that in fact it is the method, more or less, of the top american schools already.

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