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Posted at 3:45 PM ET, 02/ 5/2010

Willingham: On Susan Engel

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a professor at the University of Virginia and author of "Why Don't Students Like School?"

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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By Valerie Strauss  | February 5, 2010; 3:45 PM ET
Categories:  Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  Daniel Willingham, school reform  
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The best teachers combine direct instruction for basic skills and content, plus the types of activities Engel is recommending. But, there is no assumption that the skills/content can be imparted by the enrichment activities; rather, the projects/experiments/free reading extend the children's grasp of the skills/content material and provide hooks for them to want to go further.

Posted by: jane100000 | February 5, 2010 5:50 PM | Report abuse

Learning is an active activity. students only retain 10% from reading, but retain 90% of material covered by participating in it. this means that all the sitting down during the day is not very effective in getting students to retain information. The fact that so many students sit down all day doing nothing but reading and worksheets is not helping students to learn, but sucking all happiness and enjoyment out of learning. The best way for students to learn is to get involved and do a presentation over curriculum learned, acting out a story in English/History, Reading aloud(even in high school and college), seeing a demonstration or actually learning but doing it(hands on).

Posted by: LadyJane341 | February 6, 2010 2:32 AM | Report abuse

There are too many gimmicks in education. Opportunities to use crayons and glue sticks are substituted for putting a pen in hand to discuss themes in literature, for example. "Alternate forms of assessment" means arts and crafts projects that are done in lieu of research papers and other scholarly work. Students need to sit down with their books, do their work, and learn something. (Please do not tell me at this point that not all kids learn the same way.)

Not long ago, a former student, now a college freshman, returned to see me saying that he had not yet been asked to do any group work or use glue sticks in college. Parents do not want their high school kids using arts and craft supplies regularly as a vehicle to demonstrate their understanding of complex ideas. I know this is true. I speak with enough of them and am one myself.

Posted by: GSN1787 | February 6, 2010 5:57 AM | Report abuse

My greatest concern with all these approaches is that it assumes all children are alike--for instance, that doing worksheets "is sucking all happiness from the student." In fact, I have students that learn best by doing worksheets, and find hands-on, authentic activities confusing and unhelpful. I have students who learn from "play," and those that learn nothing from play. My job is to use as many different approaches as possible so that all of my students learn. Meanwhile, visions of the classroom as nothing but "authentic" tasks, or nothing but lecture and worksheets--these are SO 19th century. Stop already with the one-size-fits-all-as-long-as-it's-my-way approaches. Study Myers-Briggs carefully, then differentiate your classroom so ALL students enjoy and learn both content and skill.

Posted by: pattipeg1 | February 6, 2010 7:09 AM | Report abuse

The idea that any subject can be taught completely using "self-discovery" methods is ludicrous.

It took the top thinkers on the planet over hundreds of thousands of years to come up with relativity... kids are supposed to self-discover it in an afternoon?

This stuff makes some sense in elementary school, but no sense at all in high schools.

Posted by: someguy100 | February 6, 2010 2:24 PM | Report abuse

Willingham optimistically refers to Engel's prescriptions as a "curriculum". A real curriculum describes content (i.e. knowledge) to be learned. Engel's prescriptions are hostile to knowledge and it is therefore a misuse of language to refer to them as a "curriculum". Engel is just another obscurantist voice in the century-old "progressive" war against the academic curriculum so ably described by Diane Ravitch in "Left Back." It is no accident that students cannot find the U.S. on a map or think Austria is Australia.

Posted by: realist9 | February 6, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

WIllingham writes: 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.

As an MCPS elementary school teacher, I find it rather curious that you would cite the study of ecosystems to lampoon Ms. Engel's approach.

In my fourth grade classroom, students learn about ecosystems by creating miniature ones using 2-liter bottles, various aquatic and terrestrial plants, fish, snails, isopods, and crickets. They observe the interdependence of the connected terrarium and aquarium that they have created.

Once they gain a fundamental understanding of this simple system, we apply that to a much more complex system: the Chesapeake Bay. We incorporate reading, writing, science, and social studies into this unit of study. The students learn about the complexity of issues tied to the bay's pollution problems and how individuals and governments work--and sometimes fail--to address these problems.

This is standard curriculum. I take issue with your assertion that students will be pondering the significance of tomato sandwiches. It is, in fact, relatively easy to measure student learning. Paper and pencil assessments, role playing and debate, authentic writing aimed at convincing local politicians to act on bay pollution problems--these are all tried and true ways of determining what the children retain.

Do they need fundamental reading, writing, and reasoning skills to succeed in this (and other) areas of study? Of course. But students DO learn in many different ways and we should do our best to reach them all.

Posted by: daveairozo | February 6, 2010 2:54 PM | Report abuse

Agreed. And there's another point that Engel's piece completely misses. In schools with a culture of dysfunction, how the day is structured within a classroom is relatively unimportant. Give kids more time to read, but if it's against the backdrop of sheer chaos, it's hard for quality learning to happen - the latter is an invitation for more chaos. The trick is finding a way to promote creativity and critical thinking within a structure that offsets the lack of structure in the school at large.

- The Ed Skeptic

Posted by: -JP- | February 6, 2010 2:59 PM | Report abuse

In response to the previous comment, I would venture that a classroom full of students who are required to passively absorb information in a vacuum would be much more likely to descend into "sheer chaos" than a classroom full of actively engaged students who are applying their knowledge to real-world situations.

Posted by: iarcher1 | February 6, 2010 8:05 PM | Report abuse

its a tough transition... in those "sheer chaos" schools, students have been taught for 10 years that anything besides lectures = free time to do whatever you want.

Posted by: someguy100 | February 7, 2010 8:57 AM | Report abuse

At some point America will realize that it needs different educational policies for the differences in schools.

There are many public schools in poor neighborhoods with high failure rates while there are public schools in affluent and middle class neighborhoods where there are not high failure rates.

Common sense would dictate that different policies are needed to deal with different problems, while America attempts to simply use the same policy for each type of school. Test them until they drop and teach to the test are not needed for public schools that do not have high failure rates but these are the policies that are approved and enforced by the government for these public schools.

The educational policies of this country are geared to the public schools that have the highest failure rates and it is no wonder that these policies are incorrect for many public schools in this country.

Posted by: bsallamack | February 7, 2010 4:58 PM | Report abuse

Willingham and many commenters here seem to agree that project-based learning holds great promise for student learning – and that it’s very difficult to implement successfully. It may be harder to implement for kids in higher-need schools, but that is no reason to settle for a lower level of learning, as bsallamack’s comment borders on suggesting. Instead of giving up something promising because it is hard, we need to be smarter about how we get there.

Here are 4 ideas:
1) Study and utilize teachers who are experts in these approaches
2) Share tools for increasing efficiency and rigor within projects and inquiry
3) Up the rigor of teacher development
4) Recognize that *interest* and *content* can drive each other

For examples from my classroom and more detail on how I think we can get there, please visit my blog:

Posted by: UseSerendipity | February 9, 2010 5:33 PM | Report abuse

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