Willingham: On Susan Engel
By Daniel Willingham
In her February 2 Op-ed piece in The New York Times, Susan Engel of Williams College celebrates the current administration’s goal of education reform, but cautions that reform may not mean much unless the curriculum is changed. Test-driven accountability, she argues, has led to a curriculum that “is strangling children and teachers alike.” As an alternative, she suggests a curriculum with more authentic, real-world tasks, and greater student choice.
Engel does not mention that this curriculum has been tried again and again, and it has failed again and again.
Engel, senior lecturer in psychology and director of the teaching program at Williams College, envisions a classroom in which two hours are spent hearing and telling stories, or reading aloud or alone.
There’s an hour of writing things of “actual meaning” such as stories, newspaper articles and letters. A “short period” would be devoted to computation, but more time to observing the world and designing experiments. There would also be extended time for play, which, Engel argues, “help[s] them acquire higher-order thinking skills.”
I would argue that there is a significant shortcoming in this vision, notably that content is never mentioned. It’s all about process—reading is a skill, science is all about observing and finding patterns, and so on. Skills and knowledge are actually not separable, and it’s a mistake to base a curriculum solely on skills. The response, I expect, would be that the content will come along naturally, as part of the authentic activities.
But it hasn’t in the past.
The ideas presented here are not fresh and new, nor are they based on “modern developmental science,” although that’s the claim. These ideas are close to 100 years old. Originally referred to as “progressive,” they have been recycled in every generation under new names, as ably documented by education historian Diane Ravitch in her book, "Left Back."
There is a reason these ideas have perennial appeal. They are good ideas. And they sound particularly good when schools are in the midst of back-to-basics movements, which can lead to classrooms that seem to squelch imagination. They are good ideas that are incredibly difficult to implement.
A few terrific schools used these ideas, for example, the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. But most have not been terrific in the least. Kids learned very little. It’s very difficult to teach lessons in this curriculum as they are intended.
Progressive curricula are characterized by “authenticity.” Authenticity means that the underlying principles that the child is supposed to learn are seldom overt. To learn about ecosystems, the child might grow tomatoes. It is simply harder to ensure that the child is thinking about ecosystems and not about tomato sandwiches, or that worms are gross, or that his shoes are muddy. It can be done, assuredly, and it’s wonderful when it is, but it presents real challenges.
Progressive curricula are also characterized by student choice. Student choice makes a teacher’s job tougher because she cannot predict what students might want to pursue, and she must make more in-the-moment decisions about the direction of the lesson. She cannot do as much planning in advance.
Done right, progressive methods are terrific. All the benefits — student engagement, understanding that is more closely tied to out-of-school contexts — do accrue. Done wrong, progressive methods turn in to fluff, into kids horsing around a greenhouse.
Supervising “extended periods of student play” so that it will be an enriching experience for all; does that sound easy to you?
Engel is not alone in assuming that teachers can successfully implement curricula that “the research,” divorced from classroom practicalities, shows is best. As I have argued before, advocates of 21st century skills have also made this erroneous assumption. (Tony Wagner is one of the few advocates who takes this problem seriously.)
I’d be happy for my young child to attend a school like that described by Engel, so long as I thought that the curriculum were being carried out effectively. And my first question for the principal would be “How do you differ from all the schools that have tried this curriculum in the past and failed?”
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| February 5, 2010; 3:45 PM ET
Categories: Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers | Tags: Daniel Willingham, school reform
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