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A new way to not teach

Students in several school districts in Michigan are being exposed to yet another educational innovation designed to spur their thinking. It's called 'visible thinking' or 'See Think Wonder'. And, on the surface, it's stupid.

Here is an example. An instructor is showing her fourth grade class an enlargement of a famous Norman Rockwell 'Freedom of Speech' painting where a man is addressing a town hall meeting. Students are asked to give their thoughts on what they think the painting is about, as an exercise in getting them to, well, think. The idea is defended on the ground that we aren't teaching students to get into a 'deeper analysis of the subject areas'.

Let's see: we show students something about they know not what, and expect a deep analysis of the issues. Well, that beats the hell out of actually teaching them the issues important in American History, doesn't it? Let's show them a picture, ask them what they think, and call it education. Small wonder we don't know math and science, let alone history.

What exactly do we get out of students following this teaching method? "I think he's giving a speech or presentation", said one. Which, of course, he seems to be. Other students, at the teacher's prompting, notice how the man is dressed (wait a minute: isn't the point to find out what the students believe they see? Why the prompt?) differently than others in the painting. None of what the kids say is untrue...but then, none of it exactly qualifies as deeper analysis of the subject either.

What we have here is a perfect example of what's wrong with American education: we have bought into ideas which do not educate, but sure make the teacher's job easier. The classroom teacher doesn't have to actually bother teaching the students about the meaning of the painting. She can just let them figure it out for themselves. Never mind the prickly details without which we cannot possibly go into 'deeper analysis' of any given subject. Never mind that Norman Rockwell had something very definite in mind when he painted it, and that he almost certainly didn't care what fourth graders might think about his work in open ended discussion. Never mind either that the point in question, a necessary and proper reverence for freedom of speech and democracy, certainly is not served without due instruction about what freedom of speech in a democratic society must mean.

But wait a minute: they get prompted. Yes; but this only furthers the hypocrisy of the education elite. "Teachers now are back in the role of learners as much as they are as teachers", says Principal Adam Scher of Way Elementary School in Bloomfield Hills. "The role of the teacher is much more about facilitating thinking, getting to where they need to go." We can infer quite a few things from this attitude. If the teachers are learners too, who's doing the teaching? If they're only facilitators, why prompt? Why not let the kids go totally on their own, if it's their ability to think on their own which we want? Are you teaching, or are you facilitating? They seem to be different things. If your job is to get them where they need to go, aren't you teaching in the traditional sense under more vague terminology (and what's your point if you are)? And how exactly can we think on our own without sufficient background knowledge anyway?

Or are we to believe that our teachers don't know their subjects? They surely don't have to, using this approach. We need to realize why facilitation is bad education: would you teach you child not to put his hand in a fire because he'll get hurt, and perhaps badly hurt, or would let him stick it into the flames and find out for himself? Social Services will want a word with you if you do. And they should.

All the while we tolerate that precise sort of idiocy from the people in front of our classrooms. We wonder why so many colleges require remedial work. And we wonder why we have trouble competing in the world market, much less even though much more critically why our kids have increasing trouble understanding right from wrong. If they get to figure it out for themselves, then they most certainly will.

It is not a pretty picture. One does wonder what Rockwell would paint to illustrate that.

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