Sunday, July 11, 2010

Please visit an actual classroom before making recommendations, VI

In this latest case it's hard to say what's more shocking: that the "expert" in question thinks she's qualified to make recommendations about general classroom pedagogy, or that the publication in question has given her a forum for doing so.

The expert in question: Martha Nussbaam, a professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago Law School.

The publication in question: The New Republic.

In a July 1st opinion piece entitled "The Ugly Models", Nussbaum criticizes American liberals, specifically President Obama and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristov, for extolling the virtues and successes of the Chinese and Singaporean education systems.

Alluding to "the Chinese government’s ferocious opposition to political dissent," Nussbaum writes:

Obama and Kristof and all the other U.S. proponents of Singapore and China’s educational systems apparently aren’t thinking very hard about the relationship of those policies to democratic debate and democratic autonomy. Indeed, they are glorifying that which does not deserve praise.
Nussbaum offers just one reason why these education systems don't deserve praise:
By their own internal accounts, [educators in China and Singapore] do a great deal of rote learning [sic] and “teaching to the test.”
Given that educators in the US have been making the same claims about US education from time immemorial, this presumably qualifies us as steadfast "Ugly Models" as well. But Nussbaum doesn't go there.

Instead, she implicitly concedes that there is a bright side to this Sino-Singaporean critical self-awareness, namely, an inkling of possible reform:
In recent years, both nations have conducted major educational reforms, concluding that a successful economy requires nourishing analytical abilities, active problem-solving, and the imagination required for innovation. In other words, neither country has adopted a broader conception of education's goal, but both have realized that even that narrow goal of economic enrichment is not well served by a system focused on rote learning.
Nussbaum elaborates Singapore's reform attempts in particular:
Singapore, similarly, reformed its education policy in 2003 and 2004, allegedly moving away from rote learning toward a more “child-centered” approach in which children are understood as “proactive agents.” Rejecting “repetitious exercises and worksheets,” the reformed curriculum conceives of teachers as “co-learners with their students, instead of providers of solutions.” It emphasizes both analytical ability and “aesthetics and creative expression, environmental awareness … and self and social awareness.”
The problem, Nussbaum explains, is that these reforms remain theoretical:
Observers of current practices in both Singapore and China conclude that the reforms have not really been implemented. Teacher pay is still linked to test scores, and thus the incentive structure to effectuate real change is lacking.
Here, Nussbaum herself waxes pragmatic:
In general, it’s a lot easier to move toward rote learning than to move away from it, since [this kind of progressive education] requires resourcefulness and perception, and it is always easier to follow a formula.
The American education reformers I know would disagree. So powerful is today's false dichotomy between teaching to the test, rote learning, "repetitious exercises and worksheets," and teacher-centered instruction ("bad"), on the one hand, and active problem solving, child-centered instruction, imagination, and creativity ("good"), on the other, that detractors are ignored, thwarted, reprimanded, and, if they happen to work in k12 education, risk being fired for insubordination.

(These are the people, all too readily dismissed in America today, who believe that teaching to the test is perfectly reasonable if the test is a good one, that a certain amount of rote learning and "repetitious exercises and worksheets" are necessary for arithmetic fluency and mastery of algebra [and of phonics and foreign languages], and that teacher-centered instruction is often much more efficient and effective than student-centered instruction.)

Nussbaum, however, seems completely ignorant of America's dissent-crushing education establishment, instead berating Singapore and China for "these authoritarian nations’ fear of true critical freedom." From here, she segues into Singaporean civics education:
In Singapore, nobody even attempts to use the new techniques when teaching about politics and contemporary problems. “Citizenship education” typically takes the form of analyzing a problem, proposing several possible solutions, and then demonstrating how the one chosen by government is the right one for Singapore.
I suspect, however, that Singaporean civics includes more factual information about the functioning of Singaporean political institutions than American civics does. The latest version of American civics, as I discussed two posts ago, does not prepare American students to participate politically as informed citizens.

Nussbaum's worries for American democracy, however, aren't about the diminished content of America's social studies curricula, but about the nefarious influences from across the Pacific:
Singapore and China are terrible models of education for any nation that aspires to remain a pluralistic democracy. They have not succeeded on their own business-oriented terms, and they have energetically suppressed imagination and analysis when it comes to the future of the nation and the tough choices that lie before it.
Nussbaum doesn't entertain the possibility that the U.S. education system might already be achieving precisely these results without help from Singapore and China.

As for "The Ugly Models," the real ugliness is in the stereotype of rote learning in East Asian classrooms for which Nussbaum is but the latest mouthpiece.  As I commented on JoaneJacobs, who wrote about her piece yesterday, it is astonishingly irresponsible and arrogant of Nussbaum, a Professor of Law and Ethics, to make such pejorative comments without actually visiting Chinese and Singaporean classrooms and taking a look at their curricula.


Lsquared said...

And do you know what stood out to me? She says: "Teacher pay is still linked to test scores, and thus the incentive structure to effectuate real change is lacking." I find it fascinating that this is the latest brainwave of our government, too... Sadly, I doubt that our government will be able to be consistent enough to successfully tease out of the data what they should be encouraging to achieve those test scores, and instead we will continue to chase after whatever is new and shiny... Sadly Singapore Math probably doesn't look new and shiny enough.

There's a T-shirt I nearly bought once that says: "People say I have attention deficit disorder, but really I---Ooo shiny!" Perhaps we have a government (well, the education part anyway) with attention deficit disorder? I know we have Ed schools with ADD--it's almost required: Publish or Perish ya know.

Anyway--on the other side, she also says "In general, it’s a lot easier to move toward rote learning than to move away from it, since [this kind of progressive education] requires resourcefulness and perception, and it is always easier to follow a formula." and I have to have some sympathy for this. Some of the very best teachers I know do this--they have their curriculum goals in their head, and they have ways of teaching them that aren't following a book, and they are doing excellent teaching and personal curriculum development, and this is the sort of stuff that (a lot of) the reformers are trying to bottle. I don't actually see this, though, in people who are using reform curricula--this sort of excellence comes when teachers look at a curriculum and say--that doesn't work, how could I do it better? Indeed, while some of those teachers are putting aside Prentice-Hall or whatever to do something better, just as many of those excellent, amazing teachers who are doing superb child-centered learning are putting aside their copies of Everyday Math to do something better.

OK--I'm done waffling now. Thanks for the post!

Barry Garelick said...

"Rote learning" is a convenient pejorative term to describe direct instruction and example based teaching. There's nothing rote about it. Anyone who has spent time with the Singapore math books knows that procedures are not taught in isolation to the underlying concept--and in fact, the concept informs the procedure. But that point is lost on self-styled know-it-alls, law professors and men's room attendants.

Barry Garelick said...

For more info on the Singapore Math program, my article on its piloting in Montgomery County, MD is located here.

The school district dropped the program despite success at the four schools in which it was piloted. There were, shall we say, cultural differences between the teacher/educational culture and how math should really be taught.