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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 08/24/2010

How ed reformers push the wrong theory of learning -- Brady

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Marion Brady, veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author.

By Marion Brady
In alphabetical order: Mike Bloomberg, mayor of New York City. Eli Broad, financier and philanthropist. Jeb Bush, ex-Florida governor and possible 2012 presidential contender. Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education. Bill Gates, business magnate and philanthropist. Joel Klein, chancellor of New York City schools.

In education issues, mainstream media sometimes call these gentlemen, “The New Progressives.” They’re major movers and shakers in the current reform effort.

None is, or has ever been, a teacher. Many think that’s a very good, even a necessary thing. It’s widely believed that American education is a mess, that teachers deserve most of the blame, and that they either can’t or won’t clean the mess up. What’s needed, it’s thought, are no-nonsense leaders – CEOs from business, lawyers, politicians, ex-military officers.

The New Progressives are on a roll. Their views are sought after and respected by congressional committees. They have money, and cash-starved school districts will do whatever it takes to get some of it. Their press conferences are well-attended. Most newspaper editorial boards share their perspective, so their op-eds get published. The Common Core State Standards Initiative they strongly supported -- if not helped engineer -- has already been adopted by more than half the states. Leading Democrats and Republicans are on board. Those who question their top-down approach to reform have been neutralized by labeling them “obstacles to progress,” “reactionaries,” “union shills.”

A recent press release provides an example of the New Progressives’ long reach: “NBC Universal presents ‘Education Nation,’ an unprecedented week-long event examining and redefining education in America.” The event will be held in Rockefeller Center in September, 2010. The two leaders with top billing: Bloomberg and Duncan.

The New Progressives and their fans have something else in common besides running the education reform show. They share a big idea – a theory about how humans learn.

Let’s call it “Theory T.” “T” stands for “Transfer.”

Theory T didn’t emerge from successful teaching experience, and it’s not backed by research, but it has something even more useful going for it: The Conventional Wisdom. It’s easily the New Progressives’ most powerful asset, for much of the general public (and a disturbing percentage of teachers) already subscribe to it. Because its validity is taken for granted, Theory T doesn’t even have to be explained, much less promoted.

Theory T says kids come to school with heads mostly empty. As textbooks are read, information transfers from pages to empty heads. As teachers talk, information transfers from teachers’ heads to kids’ heads. When homework and term papers are assigned, kids go to the library or the Internet, find information, and transfer it from reference works or Wikipedia. Bit by bit and byte by byte, the information in their heads piles up.

At an August conference in Lake Tahoe, California, Bill Gates clinched his Theory T credentials. “Five years from now,” he said, “on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world.”

Let the transfer process begin!

Measuring the success of Theory T learning is easy and precise – just a matter of waiting a few days or weeks after the transfer process has been attempted and asking the kid, “How much do you remember?”

No research says how much of what’s recalled at test time remains permanently in memory, nor to what practical use, if any, that information is later put, but that’s of no concern to Theory T proponents. Their interest in performance ends when the scores are posted.

There’s another, less familiar theory about how humans learn. Those who subscribe to it – mostly teachers who’ve spent many years working directly with learners – aren’t backed by big money, don’t get mainstream media attention, aren’t asked to testify before congressional committees, and can’t organize week-long affairs in Rockefeller Plaza, all of which help explain the second theory’s unfamiliarity.

Those who accept the alternative to Theory T don’t think kids come to school with empty heads, believe instead that the young, on their own, develop ideas, opinions, explanations, beliefs and values about things that matter to them. As is true of adults, kids’ ideas and beliefs become part of who they are, so attempts to change them may come across as attacks on their identity and be resisted.

Teaching, many long-time teachers know, isn’t a simple matter of transferring information into a kid’s head, but a far more complex, multi-step process. The teacher has to (a) “get inside” that head to figure out what’s thought to be true, right, or important, (b) understand the kid’s value system well enough to offer ideas sufficiently appealing to warrant taking them seriously and paying attention, (c) choose language or tasks that question old ideas and clarify new ones, (d) get feedback as necessary to decide how to proceed, (e) load the whole process up with enough emotion to carry it past short-term memory, and (f) do this for a roomful of kids, no two of whom are identical.

If that sounds really difficult, it’s because it is. If it were easy, all kids would love school because learning is its own reward. If it were easy, young teachers would be successful and stay in the profession. If it were easy, adults wouldn’t forget most of what they once supposedly learned. If it were easy, the world would be a much better place.

Most of what we know, remember, and use, we didn’t learn by way of Theory T. We learned it on our own as we discovered real-world patterns and relationships – new knowledge that caused us to constantly rethink, reorganize, reconstruct, and replace earlier knowledge.

Let’s call this relating process “Theory R.”

Theory R is why little kids learn so much so rapidly, before traditional schooling overwhelms them with Theory T. Theory R is why Socrates was famous, why project learning, internships and apprenticeships work so well, why the Progressives of a hundred years ago were so adamant about “hands on” work and “learning by doing,” why real dialogue in school is essential, why knowledge of a subject doesn’t necessarily make a teacher effective, why asking good questions is far more important than knowing right answers, why tying national standards to a 19th Century curriculum is stupid, why standardized tests are a cruel, anti-learning, Theory T joke.

The educationally naïve New Progressives have engineered an education train wreck that, if allowed to continue, will haunt America for generations. The young, beaten with the “rigor” stick, are being trained to remember old information when our very survival as a nation hinges on their ability to create new information.

Theory T and Theory R have implications for every major issue in education – building design, budgets, classroom furniture arrangements, textbooks, schedules, class size, the role of corporations, the kinds of people attracted to teaching, how kids feel about themselves – everything. Add to that list the newest Big Thing for the New Progressives – “value-added assessment.” Theory R tests look nothing like today’s machine-scored Theory T tests.

Theory R people, appalled by the current thrust of reform, have been trying for at least six presidential administrations to get Theory T people in Washington to discuss how humans really learn. No luck. So sure are the New Progressives that those who disagree with them are self-serving defenders of the educational status quo, they’re unable to see themselves as the true reactionaries.

Sooner or later it will become obvious even to Theory T true believers that their theory only works in a world in which tomorrows are exactly like yesterdays. Unfortunately, when that realization comes, it’s unlikely that any teachers who understand Theory R will still be around.


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By Valerie Strauss  | August 24, 2010; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Curriculum, Education Secretary Duncan, Guest Bloggers, Marion Brady, Teachers  | Tags:  joel klein and schools, marion brady, michael bloomberg and schools, new progressives, school curriculum, school reformers  
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online education can provide especially for people who are already in the workforce and want to retrain the chance to upgrade their skills without having to quit their job

Posted by: Rozziecharles | August 24, 2010 7:19 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: ilcn | August 24, 2010 9:00 AM | Report abuse

Amen! Well said. It's true that the Theory R folks have been less successful at communicating a vision of how learning really works, but I think the tide might be turning. I've spoken with many parents who are quite concerned about what's happening to their kids. Likewise, the Theory T crowd is really starting to show their hand. Their obsession with VAA makes it especially apparent; you have to believe in the banking model of education in order to assume that the method has any reliability whatsoever.

It has been a fear of mine that if these self-styled reformer types have their way, we'll end up with the kind of schooling depicted in Wall-E: children staring open-mouthed at a giant screen that brainwashes them into loving their school's corporate owner. I'm daring to hope that we may be turning the tide, though!

Posted by: TeacherSabrina | August 24, 2010 9:11 AM | Report abuse

I don't believe the so-called "New Progressives" have a theory of learning. Their big innovation is refocusing attention on the outcomes of education rather than the inputs, and holding schools accountable for learning. For too long education reform has been characterized by ridiculous polarizing debates, e.g., constructivism versus direction instruction or whole language versus phonics or TERC versus Saxon. Good teachers know to draw from both or many sides of these debate to address the unique needs of their students, and what is truly important is whether or not their students ultimately learn the knowledge and skills they need for the future. Setting up this straw man of the right or wrong theory of learning takes us backwards.

Posted by: gideon4ed | August 24, 2010 9:13 AM | Report abuse

I don't think the "New Progressives" are actually interested in genuine education.
They want drilled, passive drones who will fill slots in low wage jobs.

Posted by: sanderling5 | August 24, 2010 9:32 AM | Report abuse

I don't think the "New Progressives" are interested in genuine education.
They want drilled, passive drones who will fill slots in low wage jobs.

Posted by: sanderling5 | August 24, 2010 9:33 AM | Report abuse

Theory T and Theory R both have validity. It's not an either/or proposition. Actually, effective education is grounded in both. But, Valerie, please please please ask Marion Brady to cite either valid research or a school/classroom that uses his theories before you go on giving him valuable column space to state generalities.

Posted by: jane100000 | August 24, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

Jane 100000 calls for Brady to produce research...Let's see, the research to support the Theory T folks amounts to what? Twenty years and billions of dollars later, even the test scores aren't any better (see Ravitch, this column), let alone improvement of problem solving, critical thinking, or creativity.

Posted by: rvaliant | August 24, 2010 10:49 AM | Report abuse

Rvaliant, there is plenty of research to support Direct Instruction and there's starting to be research to support Core Curriculum. Brady did a hatchet job in his description of these types of education by setting up a straw man,saying that these methods amount to attempting to pour knowledge into passive students. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I'm not saying that today's non-teacher reformers are doing such a great job of improving education; they're obsessed with test scores and constantly trying drastic measures that haven't been working very well. But I'm also saying that Brady hasn't (at least in this column) said what his ideas actually look like on the ground. It's easy to criticize traditional methods; what specifically is he proposing in their place?

Posted by: jane100000 | August 24, 2010 1:02 PM | Report abuse

One tires of the reformers and the anti reformers.

One side speaks of the great internet and information available for learning.

The other side speaks of the need for thinking skills, insight, and problem solving.

Apparently both sides lack thinking skills, insight, and problem solving.

The problem is the failing students and the achievement gap, poverty gap, or learning gap. What ever is in fashion at the Gap this week.

For D.C. 56 percent of students failed 4th grade reading in 2010 and this is probably the norm for the problem poverty public schools.

If these students can not read what is the good of the internet to them or of standardized tests?

See the pretty pictures on the internet.

Not much chance of developing thinking skills, insight, and problem solving from students that can not read.

Great when both sides are supposedly offering solutions to problems that do not exist and the solutions offer nothing to deal with the problem that does exist.

The problem is large number of children that have great difficulty in learning.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 24, 2010 1:14 PM | Report abuse

The Two Real Problems In Education.

Large numbers of children that have great difficulty in learning and will probably never be able to read.

Low enrollment in colleges and universities for the computer sciences, mathematics, engineering, and the sciences.

Problem 1 has been around for years and but is now reaching epidemic proportions because of multiple generations of poverty and the lack of employment for those who can not read.

Problem 2 started in 2001 with acceptance of American companies such as Microsoft sending American jobs to cheap foreign labor. Americans have no desire to enroll in these fields any longer since Americans have no desire to spend a great deal of money and four years of study in a field where there are no jobs for Americans.

Problem 2 is probably more important than problem 1 since this causes America to simply accept the loss of the great benefits of these fields in the 21st century by accepting the idea that any job that entails using computer technology in an office is not a job for Americans but the jobs for cheap foreign labor.

Americans in 2000 led the world in the computer sciences. Now it is difficult to find any Americans that will enroll in this field at colleges or universities. The Department of Defense now has trouble finding Americans to work on sensitive national security projects involving computer technology because of the shortage of Americans in this field.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 24, 2010 1:34 PM | Report abuse

I guess I am not allowed to use that word.

I give you, moderator, full editorial control to revise my remarks to make them safe for the eyes here.

Why don't you just change the offending word to "stuff" and publish it?

Posted by: tfteacher | August 24, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

This is a much better education piece than the one the Post published today from the CEO of a diploma mill (like Kaplan).

Posted by: mcstowy | August 24, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

The Elitists View of Education

Large numbers of American jobs can be shipped to cheap foreign labor involving using computer technology and working in a lab or office in fields such as the computer sciences, mathematics, engineering, and the sciences.

It is only necessary to educate the few top students in fields that Americans will not enroll in since there are no jobs for Americans in these fields because of the use of cheap foreign labor. The smaller departments in college and universities that result from these decrease in enrollment will be sufficient to educate the few top students.

The above could be viewed as the cherry picking theory of education.

The major flaw with with this theory is that there is no way to cherry pick when it comes to human intelligence.

The advances that Americans made in fields such as the computer sciences, mathematics, engineering, and the sciences occurred with large enrollments in these fields since this introduced a large gene pool of intelligence.

Advances in these fields have in many cases come from those individuals who do not fit the norm.

Imagine Einstein being passed over because of his failure to pass standardized tests and told to study the visual arts.

It is impossible to cherry pick accurately intelligence.

Accepting low enrollments of Americans in the computer sciences, mathematics, engineering, and the sciences caused by American companies using cheap foreign labor. with the pretense of cherry picking will not work.

Other nations will make the advances in the computer sciences, mathematics, engineering, and the sciences while reaping the benefits of these advances.

Posted by: bsallamack | August 24, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

Valerie - thank you again for passing on a superb column. Too bad the currrent administration is busy ignoring this information and point of view. I'm sure most, if not all, experienced classroom teachers know the validity of "Theory R" and the insanity of "Theory T".

One concern is the use of the term "New Progressive" to designate this movement from those on-high decision-makers,ramming their agenda through the states with $$ bribes.

In Merriam-Webster, progressive is in part defined as
" b : making use of or interested in new ideas, findings, or opportunities
c : of, relating to, or constituting an educational theory marked by emphasis on the individual child, informality of classroom procedure, and encouragement of self-expression".
"No child left untested" does not fit into the definition. Therefore it is not "progressive".

Change for change's sake does not equate with progress. Real improvements in education must be research-based, yes. But the largest data source anywhere is in the many years of experience of actual classroom teaches themselves. They aren't the last ones to be asked; they are never asked.

I think the New Progressive label should be changed to something like the New Regressives. They ignore the experts in the field, run a purely political agenda whether "right" or "left", and cloak the stupidity in claims like "we do it for the children". Trying to compare education processes to for-profit business models is beyond irrational.

Keep up the good work, Valerie.

Posted by: 1bnthrdntht | August 24, 2010 2:55 PM | Report abuse

Imagine Einstein being passed over because of his failure to pass standardized tests and told to study the visual arts.

Einstein is also credited with saying that
"Imagination is more important that knowledge."

Re the term "Reform".....I've tried to say it before, and I will reiterate:

Why aren't we going for a true Renaissance?! That means we don't just opt for some narrow-visioned focus on tests and a few isolated subject areas....There are many subject areas such as philosophy, history, the fine arts, anthropology, etc. that not only expand the mind to provide vision, but give back to society in ways that make life worth living. There are many areas of our society where the 'economics' are to cut the very things that would give us inspiration, the will to go on, and - heaven forbid! - some joy in living...not just the empty pleasures of shopping, mindless sex and much low-life entertainment that passes for TV fare these days.

Renaissance....Rebirth...of experiences that matter, that will make the human race better all around by giving individuals the opportunity to be Renaissance men and women, not just cogs in testing wheels.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | August 24, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

Excellent post! Sadly, I think most people would tell you that they learn best in ways that sound like Theory R. They would also tell you that their children's best school experiences and best teachers are most grounded in Theory R. But, for some reason, when it comes to suggestions or prescriptions about how to educate other people's children - especially those who are struggling - people shift to Theory T, and imagine that there is some threshold of information that must transfer before students are supposed to engage and let Theory R take over.

Posted by: DavidBCohen | August 24, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

As bad as Bill Gates and company may be with respect to education people who've never stepped outside of education, like Mr. Brady for example, are just as bad if not worse. People send their kids to school so they can function BEYOND SCHOOL, and ed school "professors" and other education "theorists" are people who've never experienced the world outside k12.

Our current problems are the products of these various "progressive" dreamers, and we shouldn't be looking to them for any solutions.

Posted by: physicsteacher | August 24, 2010 5:57 PM | Report abuse

As a long-time teacher, I know kids love participating in Theory R learning experiences and are totally turned off with Theorty T. If I remember correctly, brain research shows that only 7% of the students we teach learn using Theory T methods of instruction.

BTW, do you think today's RTTT selections were based on politics?

Posted by: lacy41 | August 24, 2010 8:16 PM | Report abuse

lacy41 -- certainly, politics were involved. surprised?

Posted by: axolotl | August 24, 2010 8:58 PM | Report abuse

"As a long-time teacher, I know kids love participating in Theory R learning experiences and are totally turned off with Theorty T."

This says it all. Here we have a 'long-time teacher' concerned primarily with how students feel rather than what they might be learning. By the logic of 'progressives' 'Keeping up with the Kardashians' is more 'engaging' and thus more educationally effective than NOVA on PBS because far more horny teenagers will tune in to see the adventures of Kim and Kourtney than to 'boring' details about the evolutionary path of birds.

Even the village idiot knows that the most 'engaging' programs out there are the most vacuous. The progressives have yet to figure this out.

As a physics teacher I got to see the culmination of years and years of engagment, projects, and activities on students. Many, if not most, couldn't figure out which side of the ruler was the centimeter side and few knew how to measure the surface area of something as simple as their desktop. This isn't the fault of Gates, Bloomberg, or Obama, but of the various 'progressive' fools we allowed to grab the helm.

"If I remember correctly, brain research shows that only 7% of the students we teach learn using Theory T methods of instruction."

I've seen plenty of "Theory R" practices in which 0% learned anything.  THey all had fun and were engaged though.

Posted by: physicsteacher | August 24, 2010 11:17 PM | Report abuse

I think that the kids need direct instruction and a lot of checking for understanding to see if they "get" the material. Some projects are fine, it depends on the subject area that you are teaching.

The "new progressives" or whatever they are are only looking at part of the picture, so they will get test scores up and probably have a lot of drop outs. (my opinion)

There is nothing wrong with testing if the tests are truly assessing what the kids have learned and if the standards are high enough. Multiple choice tests do not satisfy more complex tasks like speaking a foreign language, but can be used to test whether a student can recognize proper grammar.

Posted by: celestun100 | August 25, 2010 12:00 AM | Report abuse

I hope education discourse can move beyond these false pedagogical debates. The truth is that organizations backed by these vilified ed reformers have made immense contributions to the field of teaching and learning. For example, Doug Lemov's highly-regarded work came out of Uncommon Schools, an ed reform org that is pushing the envelope around instructional leadership. It's ed reform orgs like YES Prep and Aspire who realize that "meeting standard" on state tests is not good enough and that students will not be college ready unless we drive more rigor into our academic programs. These orgs succeed because they believe good teaching results in high student achievement (no matter how you measure it). There is no stigma around trying to figure out the impact adults have on students. Where are the thousands of disaffected Theory R teachers and why aren't they opening fantastic schools? I'm guessing our best Theory R educators are already taking money from Broad and Gates to start schools that make a difference for kids. The ed reformers I know want to see kids learn and leave it to great educators to figure out the best ways to make that happen. Let's stop with the fear-mongering and let students benefit from putting great ideas into practice.

Posted by: UrbanEducator | August 25, 2010 3:37 AM | Report abuse

I steer clear of taking issue with substantive issues raised by my op-eds, newspaper columns, blogs, and so on, and will continue to do so.

However, I'd like it known that, far from being a "theorist," who's "never experienced the world outside k12," I was a long-time member of two unions, one in construction and one for tire builders, was a shift foreman in a manufacturing enterprise, and owner-driver of a rig hauling mine timber from WV to PA.

Marion Brady

Posted by: mbrady22 | August 25, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

Brilliant essay. Thank you! I do want to respond on the comment, "In education issues, mainstream media sometimes call these gentlemen, “The New Progressives.”"

Really? Secretary Duncan a "New Progressive"? I think not. As proof, I offer a brillant essay, "The New Progressivism is here" by Peter Gow, which you may read at

Basic principles:
- Assessment against high standards via varied strategies.
- Professional Development: mission-driven and collaborative.
- Real-world connections
- Multiculturalism as a process, not a program
- Character and creativity
- Civic engagement
- Technology as tool

The National Middle School Association's research-based principles of successful middle schools, published in "This We Believe," intersect well with New Progressivist principles. You may check them out at

Thank you!

Posted by: billi01370 | August 25, 2010 1:39 PM | Report abuse

Hmm. We're getting tangled in two different usages of the term, New Progressives. One. Neo-Liberals call themselves Progressives as exemplified by the Center for American Leadershio and the Democratic Leadership Council. In matters of el-hi education there is no difference between Neo-Lib
and neo-Con positions.

Progressivism/constructivist in education is an ideology with a long tradition in education. The New Progressivism is the old Progressivism dressed up with "21st Century" rhetoric.

Posted by: DickSchutz | August 25, 2010 4:13 PM | Report abuse

Education is just a political football. D.C. has not a clue and never has. What Carter started (the DOE) has turned out to be a just a huge mess.

Posted by: Educator10 | August 25, 2010 5:09 PM | Report abuse

Really? Standardized tests are a stupid joke?

Do we all know what the term "standardized test" means? It means that all kids are given the same test, under the same conditions, and all the tests are graded the same way.

For example, in a standardized test, every fourth-grade student in the state is given the same test, at the same time of day, at the same time of school year, in his or her own classrooms, with the same directions. If a given response is correct, it's correct for everyone, not just for the wealthy or white kids. In a standardized test, you don't explain the directions twice to the mostly-white affluent kids while telling the black kids that it's all their own fault if they didn't hear the directions the first time. You don't tell poor kids that they get to flunk because they don't have a pencil. You don't give one test to the racially privileged groups, and a different test to the racially disadvantaged groups. The test, the circumstances, and the grading are the same for everyone (or as nearly as possible).

Society uses standardized tests all the time, and every American adult with a driver's license has not only taken a standardized test, but passed it. Would any of us want to have their written driving test vary dramatically according to their income, race, age, or hometown? Should poor Latino teenagers take a completely different test from wealthy Asian teenagers?

Does the author here really oppose the concept of standardized tests? Does the author prefer discrimination, unequal conditions, and randomness in testing?

I certainly hope not.

Posted by: jiji1 | August 26, 2010 2:27 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Brady makes many very important points. Now if only the general public knew that Gates, Duncan, etc. are not true reformers.

Posted by: jlp19 | August 26, 2010 3:39 PM | Report abuse

Both Shakespeare and Dickens understood what is wrong with Theory T--which, of course, was just as common in education in their times as it is today.

Shakespeare describing the second stage of life in As You Like It: "And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school."

Dickens describing school in Hard Times: "Say, good M'Choakumchild.(the teacher) When from thy boiling store, thou shalt fill each jar brim full by and by, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill outright the robber Fancy lurking within -- or sometimes only maim him and distort him!

Posted by: joney | August 26, 2010 3:51 PM | Report abuse

You have been rejecting my comments for the past few weeks, and I don't understand why.

Posted by: joney | August 26, 2010 3:54 PM | Report abuse

First post, using an ID to indicate that some posters here claiming to be teachers clearly have never taught in a classroom, nor have endangered their belief system i.e. ideology with the results of research or experience in schools.

Anyone truly interested in the research basis of Marion Brady's comments should click once on a search page of choice with his name written in the white space beside it. You might also try that with Gene Glass, Martin Brokenleg, Ross Greene, Gordon Neufeld, all of whom identify their extensive research basis. Doing so will lead on to many others. These are not ideologues: they're people who work with teachers and students, who look at the research and do some themselves, and who report as best they can about what really goes on in learning and in schools.

I mean, even Diane Ravitch gets it now, more or less. How do ravers for force-fed 'knowledge' and forced standardized measurement of the 'feeding,' some masquerading here as teachers, still manage to be taken in any way seriously? Well, in the great marketplace of ideas everyone's brilliant idea is as good as the next one, isn't it.

My nineteen years teaching in secondary school classrooms, almost entirely in programs for at-risk youth, has been spent helping students without learning disabilities who are nonetheless failing in school. Many of them succeed in school, while virtually all succeed if we follow them to age 25, by which time just about everyone 'gets it.' What do they eventually, and Diane Ravitch (finally) share?

We are social creatures, who learn best from each other, and learn by far the most with those with whom we share a basic level of respect. We wend our way through life looking for that, and when we find it we sit still for a while and learn. When that process is explicitly a shared task, by the way, cooperative learning has been proved to improve learning by one full standard deviation. Like Yogi Berra said, you could look it up.

It is worthy of note that the least respectful posters here, and over and over again in other similar places are ideologues, uninterested in facts. Al Gore may have had a second round of fame with An Inconvenient Truth (before his third unfortunate round recently), but his best book was titled The Assault on Reason.

Anyone interested in reason being applied to our children's learning processes and so presumably to our schools, might want to look at some research, a few of many potential avenues identified here for you. If not, well don't. Just don't expect to be taken seriously.

Posted by: notafaketeacher | August 26, 2010 6:00 PM | Report abuse

Bill Gates may not save education, but neither will Brady.

Posted by: physicsteacher | August 26, 2010 7:16 PM | Report abuse

I don't know to whom you refer as a 'fake' teacher, but I taught physics for three years before leaving for an engineering job. I got sick of all the illogical ideas in the education world.

Prior to that I spent almost three years pursuing and getting a 'masters' in education. I've seen what passes for 'research' in education.

Know why our kids suck at math? It isn't because of Obama or Gates. It's because of worthless math programs like Everyday Math, produced by prestigious schools of education and supposedly supported by 'research'.

Learning to multiply by 'stacking', as it's called these days, enables students to multiply not just small numbers, but larger numbers, and, far more importantly, to multiply arbitrary polynomials and complex numbers using essentially the same technique. EM has this crazy lattice method, which is a mathematical dead end. Even multplying two four-digit numbers is unwieldy, to say the least, and it's unimaginable for use with polynomials or much of anything else. The fact that so many students COMING IN to my classes couldn't do things like multiply by ten or solve the simplest algebraic equations isn't surprising when you factor in their early years in math.

And yet the 'experts' defend this crap on the grounds that "some" kids find it easier. Even if that is true, which I doubt, hobbling an entire generation of students for that reason is criminal. But this is what you get when math teachers are valued for their "engaging" activities rather than their math knowledge.

It doesn't end there. The overuse of calculators leads to awful skills. The the grand educators keep defending the practice.

Brady mentions projects and hands on activities. You can't learn math or physical sciences through projects. If that were the case Neanderthals would have been great physicists and chimps would be greater physicists.

Bill Gates may not save education, but neither will Brady.

Posted by: physicsteacher | August 26, 2010 7:17 PM | Report abuse

This is likely the most succinct and accurate description on the issue of non-educators - outsiders - controlling education reform - thank you.

I just finished reading "The Shallows" (the brain on the internet) and if you think this article is 'on the money', read this book as well. Too many people who control education and who are trying to control education (e.g. Gates) seem to have NO IDEA how the human brain learns and as the authors of both the book and this article say, if education is a mess now, just wait a decade or so if we continue to think the New Progressives know what they are doing. (Gates left school early because it was not meeting his needs - the T model of learning did not work for him, why is he involved in promoting it?)

Maybe at the bottom of all this frantic and misguided behavior are feelings of desperation. America has never been in the place it finds itself today and finding the way back is much more complex than anyone could have imagined. However, making decisions with a 'frantic' brain usually makes the problems worse.

Posted by: sumonaclayton | August 28, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

The 'R' Model has been in force now for decades. The slide in American education began decades ago, long before anyone thought of standardized tests as a bad thing and long before NCLB. THe author of this article is disingenuous in blaming current education problems on the 'T' crowd.

Read about the history of Project Follow Through. This extensive study discredited various "child-centered" techniques way back in the 60's. Yet the education world ignored it to promote their own agenda.

Posted by: physicsteacher | August 28, 2010 11:51 AM | Report abuse

Speaking of 'knowing how the brain learns', my computer science professors understood more about what it takes to be able to read 20 years ago than education professors know today. Artificial Intelligence research revealed that what is known as machine translation requires a tremendous amount of knowledge to be encoded and is not simply a matter of finding the right algorithm, as is generally true in tasks like theorem proving or chess. In other words, you need to know stuff to read. Ed school professors still cling to the idea that it's all about literacy strategies. THIS IS WHY SO MANY KIDS, ESPECIALLY IN POOR SCHOOLS DO SO BADLY ON STANDARDIZED TESTS. It isn't the tests, but the foolish approach to teaching reading.

Posted by: physicsteacher | August 28, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse

Someone has very sensibly asked for data. The figures given in my Teachers' and Parents' Guide in the Core Materials section of were provided by the UK National Literacy Trust in London. They represent the capacity of the average child to retain knowledge after different kinds of class activity.

1. Listening 5%
2. Reading 10%
3. Audio-visual 20%
4. Demonstrations 30%
5. Discussion 50%
6. Practice by doing 75%
7. Explaining to others 90%

These figures are based on U.S. research by NT Laboratories into the learning pyramid:, which charts the average information retention rate for various methods of teaching. The reference for this work is, I believe: National Training Laboratory (NTL,1963). The learning pyramid. Alexandria, VA: Author. This research itself is based on research by Edgar Dale from the 1950s who was interested in discovering how effective learning could be according to the media involved in the learning experience.
In my invitation to teachers to join my Institute's UNESCO project,, as recently reported on, I refer to this T Theory praxis as depending on the one-to-many transfer of knowledge - from teacher to the class: which is, at best, highly problematic - as compared with the many-to-many process of learning, which - I agree with Marion - is how youngsters learn naturally.
Best of luck! the situation is not better over here. Colin Hannaford.

Posted by: democracy3 | August 28, 2010 6:07 PM | Report abuse

I see some commentators on both sides: some say Theory R >> Theory T. some say Theory T >> Theory R. The latter group included the physics teacher.

It seems to me that Theory T (which for me implies direct instruction) is appropriate for some subjects and objectives, and Theory R (which to me means constructivism and guided inquiry) is superior for another set of subjects and objectives.

I think sometimes the debate gets contentious because people don't consider the possibility that direct instruction is appropriate for some subjects, and not for others. Likewise, the constructivist approach is appropriate and superior for some subjects, but not for all subjects.

Conversations such as this would be more productive if there were wide-spread understanding of this dichotomy.

Direct instruction is a fine way to teach math & music performance (I know this from experience), and probably javelin throwing (I have no experience here), whereas direct instruction is probably NOT an effective and engaging way to teach creative writing, music appreciation and choreography.

Another aspect to this is sorting or "tracking." Tracking is probably beneficial in those subjects that are best taught through direct instruction.

I suspect most musicians and mathemeticians would agree that math students and musicians derive greater benefit from a direct instruction approach than from a guided inquiry approach.

Here are subjects that I would classify as suitable for Direct Instruction: study of musical instrument performance, ballet fundamentals, carpentry, javelin throwing, physics, chemistry, biology, grammar, punctuation, spelling, macro & microeconomics, medicine, hydrodynamics, gymnaistics, automotive repair, cooking basics, logic, inductive reasoning, perspective drawing, human figure drawing, computer-aided design, ...

Here are subjects I would consider suitable for Theory R (constructivist, guided inquiry approach):

musical composing, furniture design, choreography, journalism, music appreciation, literature, history, art history, drama, ...

Posted by: joan-seattle | August 28, 2010 7:08 PM | Report abuse

1. Listening 5%
2. Reading 10%
3. Audio-visual 20%
4. Demonstrations 30%
5. Discussion 50%
6. Practice by doing 75%
7. Explaining to others 90

Regarding 'doing': Exactly what do we mean by this? The 'R-Theory' crowd never bothers to answer this.

One can certainly learn long division best by doing the steps prescribed by the algorithm (the traditional one). This is not the kind of 'doing' the constructivist crowd likes to see. The 'doing' they like to see involves lots of arts and crafts and plenty of chattering, mostly about the prom and extra-curricular activities. I know this from experience.

Joan from Seattle: excellent commentary. The critics should note that no one out there is suggesting standardized testing for things like creative writing.

It is the not T crowd trying to impose their will on the R crowd, but the other way around. As a physics teacher I not only had R-type ed school professors doing nothing but wasting my time and money with their artsy-fartsy ideas, but I also had to put up with a former English teacher with her 'child-centered' ideas when I actually taught.

Posted by: physicsteacher | August 28, 2010 9:50 PM | Report abuse

Getting teachers involved in this critical assignment may sound like a good idea on the surface but I would caution, be careful what you wish for.

Wasn’t it teachers who championed constructivism? Teachers were the ones who hailed this model as the pedagogical "holy grail" for US classrooms? Teachers as facilitators proved to be yet another in the long line of the progressive mindsets bordering on the precipice of an instructional holocaust for America's students. Young children constructing their own curricula fortunately proved to be a questionable practice in the minds of many rational adults.

And weren’t teachers the ones who emphasized the superiority of whole language over phonics? In the 90's California adopted whole language as their mantra for teaching reading and the federal NAEP results showed California students had plummeted to the bottom on their reading results, behind Mississippi.

Then there were the math standards, hailed by National Council of TEACHERS of Mathematics, where the "new" math or "fuzzy" math became the contemporary mantra of progressives. Here teachers abandoned the notion of grounding their students in a solid foundation of knowledge of the subject matter sacrificed at the altar of developing an appreciation for math and becoming confident in their problem solving strategies.

And how about the English standards with little or no regard for grammar, correct spelling, or classic literature? Teachers put this disastrous document together as well. This piece of rubbish was deemed so anemic its funding was terminated.

Then there were the original history standards with their blatant disregard for names and dates of critical events in US history, all developed by teachers. This was US history with no mention of prominent individuals such as Paul Revere, Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, etc. Instead this panel of experts decided to stress such events as the spread of disease across the Americas by carpet-bagging European monsters from Columbus to Lewis and Clark. Important facts and dates of US history suddenly became anathema to America's classrooms. All this occurred under the guise of allowing our students to become active learners who would be better able to "appreciate" what actually happened during the first four hundred years of our country. This single document perhaps set back national standards for US schools more than any other event since A Nation At Risk launched education reform over a quarter century ago. It was so deplorable that the United States Senate issued a resolution condemning the document, 99-1. As well, this single document set back US public education by an unimaginable degree relative to what was going on in other industrialized classrooms around the globe.

And hasn't it been teaches, especially their misguided unions, who have fought standards and high stakes associated with these standards at every turn?

Posted by: phoss1 | August 29, 2010 6:16 AM | Report abuse

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