Network News

X My Profile
View More Activity

Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 02/19/2011

A salvage operation for public education

By Valerie Strauss

This was written by Marion Brady, veteran teacher, administrator, curriculum designer and author. His latest book is What’s Worth Learning? from Information Age Publishing.

By Marion Brady
Many years ago an elderly widowed aunt brought into our family a replacement uncle. Dan, she said, had once been deputy state superintendent of schools. Before that, he’d been a high school principal and a county superintendent.

The little I know about Uncle Dan comes mostly from pins, plaques, and other contents of a cardboard box left with a cousin after he and my aunt died. That he did well financially, including serving on bank boards, might suggest to those familiar with southern-style politics that he at least knew his way around the hallways of the state capitol.

In the cache of memorabilia was a sort of diary written and given to Dan by a friend who signed it “JH.” Recalling a situation in which JH had found himself in 1913—a high school principal at odds with his boss—he’d written:

“The board and superintendent had developed in the school what I for lack of a better term call a mechanistic tendency. The general idea was that if tests were given every day, and long examinations once a month, if grades were then marked to the third of one percent, if the principal would keep all papers and send in to the superintendent all the individual grades, somehow education of a very rare sort would result.”

Ninety-eight years have passed since 1913, and the two very different views of educating of JH and his superintendent continue to frame the debate.

Today, aligned with the superintendent, are high-profile corporate managers who shape much of the conventional wisdom about educating. All share the view that educating is a simple matter of opening up heads, pouring information in, and checking gauges to see how things are going.

Lou Gerstner, an early, important figure on the corporate-manager side of the faceoff, says educating is just a matter of “delivering information.” Bill Gates bubbles with enthusiasm about making available on the Internet the lectures of the world’s great authorities on various subjects.

Facing off against the managers are many of America’s most experienced educators, all arguing that this level of ignorance about educating will do America in.

Sadly, there seem to be no words or concepts shared by the two groups that make meaningful communication possible. The term JH used—mechanistic—comes at least as close as other words to capturing the corporate-manager view of teaching and learning. Gerstner and Gates are mechanists. They see in the tell-them-and-test-them process a beautifully simple, easily executable design for educating. And, because that design fits with and is reinforced by pop culture myths about the ability of free-market forces to cure all social ills, it’s an easy sell to the mainstream media and the public.

But “mechanistic” fails to bridge the gap in understanding between corporate managers and educators. Indeed, bridging that gap may be impossible. An apocryphal Chinese story has it that 2,000 years ago, a young teacher, attempting to defend himself to village elders angry about his departure from traditional instruction, explains: “If I tell them, they forget. If I show them, they remember. If I let them do it for themselves, they understand.”

Two thousand years says the communication problem between the managers who think mere telling teaches, and educators who know from hard experience that it doesn’t, isn’t likely to disappear anytime soon.

But the stakes are too high not to try to find a way around the faceoff, so I’ve a proposal.

No one—not even the most enthusiastic fan of traditional education—argues that humans don’t learn from experience. The main objection is (and has always been) that learning by doing is just too inefficient. There’s only so much time in the school day, say the managers, and there’s so much to “cover.” Compacting it for quick delivery by lecture, text, or technology just makes the most sense.

After all, why should every kid reinvent the wheel?

Here’s my proposal: Set aside an hour or so a day for out-of-seat, out-of classroom, “real world” experience. (Think of it as a cheap, easily reversed experiment.)

There are practical considerations, of course. Kids accustomed to years of rigidly imposed “seat time” can’t just suddenly be turned loose to wander around. And in an hour or so they wouldn’t be able to wander very far anyway.

Add to that the fact that there’s no longer money for field trips, and if there were, field trips generate lots of complicated logistical, insurance, and supervision problems.

Then, add yet another fact, that enhancing the kind of self-direction that makes wandering around productive isn’t something American education has ever been encouraged to do. Adult guidance will be necessary.

This means that whatever “real world” experience kids get will have to take place within the existing physical boundaries of the school.

Which, it turns out, have a surprising lot to offer. Useful math is about quantifying reality, and there’s enough reality on school property to keep kids quantifying forever.

For their part, the physical sciences are all about making sense of the material universe, and school boundaries offer a big enough sample of that universe to pursue a doctoral degree in whatever physical science one chooses.

Finally, anyone who’s ever gotten as far as first grade has come into firsthand contact with enough social complexity for a lifetime of study.

That covers the content of the traditional core curriculum. It’s all there—tangible, instantly accessible, waiting to be measured, analyzed, and described, using skills already familiar to educators.

This isn’t Mickey Mouse work. Its inherent complexity, its immediate potential for making an important social institution work better, and its relatability to the larger world which it models so thoroughly and conveniently, sees to that.

There’s so much wrong with traditional schooling it’s tempting to say it’s beyond salvaging. Its very system of organization—based as it is on 19th Century Prussian military theory—is upside down. Those who know the most about the system—kids and teachers—have the least power to change it. Its continued use of a rigid, standardized curriculum designed to produce compliant workers for a system of industrial production that America will never see again, assures irrelevance. Its failure to put in place multi-year, manageable-sized groups of learners guided by small instructional teams, builds in instability and lack of continuity.

The list of problems with today’s schools could extend for pages, but no system of education on Earth is better suited to maintaining democracy, or has more potential for developing individual and collective potential, than free, universal public education.

That makes a salvage operation essential. The first step is to reject centralized, top-down corporate control. Bill Gates may mean well, but he’s not qualified to be America’s education czar.

The second step is accepting that kids walking around with tape measures, meters, trowels, sketchpads and the like are going to learn more in an hour or so than kids glued to their seats for six hours as they’re bombarded with secondhand information about which most could care less.

Give teachers and kids some moving-around room, some real autonomy, and in 10 years’ time American education will be the envy of the world.


Follow my blog every day by bookmarking And for admissions advice, college news and links to campus papers, please check out our Higher Education page at Bookmark it!

By Valerie Strauss  | February 19, 2011; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Learning, Marion Brady, School turnarounds/reform  | Tags:  bill gates, how kids learn, how students learn, marion brady, public education, school reform, the learning process  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: D.C. vouchers and the arrogance of Congress
Next: Why school zero tolerance policies make no sense


Amen. I wrote on this several times. Our children spend time learning the history of China and cannot find their way around town on a bus. They can find the area of a box drawn on a piece of paper, but not on a map or measured off outside. Our children can write fictitious letters in class yet never write to their representatives, local politicians, or even residents to help those in need.

So tell me, how much more would that cost a teacher? I recall spending time outside playing kickball but never measured the property for a field of play. I played basketball, but never really explored life around the playground. We did however, write to various states tourism councils for brochures. We posted those on our wall and then had to research a topic on the brochure and present that to the class. That was 6th grade.

The alternatives are endless, unless you take a mindless approach.

Posted by: jbeeler | February 19, 2011 9:45 AM | Report abuse

It shouldn't have taken so many words to state the obvious!

Posted by: jdman2 | February 19, 2011 10:10 AM | Report abuse

You are so right on all of this, Marion.

Especially the points regarding Bill Gate's lack of knowledge and experience to have the influence he has, and how important and meaningful experiential education is.

Think it would be of enormous value if you, Valerie, Diane Ravitch and some of the other notable writers on this blog could do a series with Charlie Rose....he has a wide, respected audience.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | February 19, 2011 12:39 PM | Report abuse

“If I tell them, they forget. If I show them, they remember. If I let them do it themselves, they understand.” This sounds suspiciously like Madeline Hunter—direct instruction, guided practice, independent practice—that was disparaged by the “professors of Education.”

Posted by: demathis | February 19, 2011 2:19 PM | Report abuse

Is it perhaps possible that those who control public education (and clearly it has never been the public; we all simply believed we did!) do not want to create schools that produce thinking people, let alone critically thinking ones?

Do watch this videoclip about the history of Hindu schools that our public schools are based on! There it was to keep the caste system alive, and here? Maybe the same reason!

Join Uniting 4 Kids on Facebook
Follow me:!/ConnyJensen

Posted by: gpadvocate | February 19, 2011 6:42 PM | Report abuse

Mr. Brady, we may be far from your wonderful vision, but it's nice to dream....

Once again, if we could dump these standardized tests we could do this, and while not every child would learn everything about Algebra 1 they sure would learn more than they knew when the year started, and keep it longer since they actually DID the math.

Posted by: pdexiii | February 19, 2011 7:40 PM | Report abuse

As a science teacher I have more opportunities to go the way Mr Brady points and I absolutely agree that we should be going this way. I do what I can with the time allotted. we explore our school trail which I helped develop and I use inquiry which allows children to explore and most importantly to think for themselves. Unfortunately every year there is less time to actually teach in a system run by high stakes testing and other top down directives which produce sometimes surreal results such as multiple fire drills taking lab time and even professional development time away from teachers (because they were required to run fire alarms non stop the entire week before school started). I know we do what we can within the system right now at my school but eventually something will have to give because we could do a better job of actually educating our kids if democracy ever returns to our public schools. And the first lesson for our students would be that their voices and those of their teachers and parents actually have a place in our society.

Posted by: kmlisle | February 19, 2011 10:48 PM | Report abuse

What infuriates me most is a magazine article I read on Bill Gates. Apparently, he was really bored in public school, so his mom had him attend a private school where the teachers had the freedom to expose him to extremely interesting ideas. Yet he doesn't want that privilege for our own children in public schools. Talk about an elitist hypocritical piece of crap. In a speech to high school students, he said life isn't fair and you have to accept it. Boy, when I think about jerks like him, the rage comes out of me. Boredom and seeing no value in life and the robbing of time are some of the chief causes of our societal ills. If there's an unfinished revolution to be done in America, it's on our educational system that's under such strict corporate control.

Posted by: Playitagainsam | February 20, 2011 1:43 AM | Report abuse

One can only wonder, if giants in the profession such as John Dewey and Jerome Brunner advocated this approach why it never caught on in practice?

"The main objection is that learning by doing is just too inefficient." Have a century of first-hand teacher experiences along with their countless efforts to establish a foothold for this practice all been misguided or off base?

Some aspects of "learn by doing" have endured in schools but as for everyday practice and being the staple of education practice - not so much. It appears to be an enigma wrapped in an riddle as to why this philosophy has attained little to no currency in practice.

Posted by: paulhoss | February 20, 2011 8:15 AM | Report abuse

playitagainsam's words really resonate with me:

"What infuriates me most is a magazine article I read on Bill Gates. Apparently, he was really bored in public school, so his mom had him attend a private school where the teachers had the freedom to expose him to extremely interesting ideas. Yet he doesn't want that privilege for our own children in public schools. Talk about an elitist hypocritical piece of crap. In a speech to high school students, he said life isn't fair and you have to accept it. Boy, when I think about jerks like him, the rage comes out of me. Boredom and seeing no value in life and the robbing of time are some of the chief causes of our societal ills."

Posted by: teachermd | February 20, 2011 10:16 AM | Report abuse

It does take alot of time to "shoehorn" experiential learning into the classroom.
I've done so successfully and I'm confident that the various "lessons" will remain with the students into their adult lives.

Posted by: thetensionmakesitwork | February 20, 2011 10:18 AM | Report abuse

The private school my niece and nephew attended followed this approach thirty years ago. (One enterprising teacher also solved the problems of a restless, inattentive class by taking a spontaneous "field trip" in which the students walked around the campus with trash bags and picked up litter. Not only did they use up some energy, but they suddenly began telling other students to pick up after themselves!)

Also, why does all maintenance half to take place after school hours? Couldn't someone repair a broken chair or change a light bulb with the class watching? Many custodians would be pleased to explain the process to the students, the students would learn a little about the process, the students would begin to develop respect for manual labor (a respect often educated out of them in college-oriented schools), and--maybe--the students might take a bit more interest in keeping the school functioning.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 20, 2011 11:21 AM | Report abuse

Sorry--"half" should have been "have."

Posted by: sideswiththekids | February 20, 2011 11:24 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2011 The Washington Post Company