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Some Decisions Must Be Kept Close to the Learning Site


Dear Diane,

I just read a column about Sol Stern in The New York Times on why vouchers aren't the answer. I'm glad he's given up on them; alas, he has joined you in viewing a standard curriculum reform as the answer. The dilemma for me is not who is right on curriculum or phonics but with the idea of imposing either solution.

Democracy uses the tool of "majority wins" because sometimes only one decision is feasible: we either go to war or don't, build the highway or don't. But I'm a libertarian wherever I can be—like about the ways we organize knowledge, which knowledge is most important, and how best to help this or that particular human being learn. And within very broad limits, how we raise our kids. So while we can justify decisions about curriculum and pedagogy being made at any level of government, there are, I believe, strong reasons to keep these matters close to the site of learning. (Which doesn't equal "anything goes.") One reason has to do with the purpose of schooling, and the other has to do with the health of democratic life. Here I'm focusing on the first.

I admit that I have trouble understanding why constructivism is controversial. But I know it is—and opponents include smart democratically minded people like you and Sol. Still, I just don't get it. It seems so obvious to me that we each "construct" our understanding based on the mindset and experiences we bring into each new situation. Part of what makes democracy difficult is precisely this "fact". I take it for granted that it's how human beings make sense of the world—and I want to encourage it, not discourage this way of approaching "making sense” and resisting “non-sense.”

But my problem is that my argument doesn't exclude schools (and thus teachers and parents) from pursuing your ideal curriculum, whereas yours prohibits me (as parent or teacher) from pursuing mine.

Ah, yes. You think Klein is trying to mandate constructivism, outlaw phonics, promote social promotion, etc. I think you've got him wrong. We're agreed that he is a petty dictator and ignorant about matters he has too much power over, etc. We even agree that he tried to mandate a particular "constructivist" curriculum—an oxymoron! But phonics is doing just fine—starting with 4-year-olds, and so is the lecture method of teaching, and all NY high schools (except a few I love best) have to pass the Regents curriculum, which whatever else one can say about it is pretty traditional. Dumbed down but traditional. Probably half or more of our students are entering high school over age, and increasingly can legally drop out before they even get to high school. Social promotion??

You mention claims made to you by "academics" about small high schools, including the vocational nature of some them. I need the who, where, what? Behind some of those vocational school names is a conscientious effort to connect serious ideas and subject matter to the interests of this or that youngster. I remember listening to a graduation speech by a young woman at the first MET school in Providence. She noted that the MET was the first time anyone honored her burning desire to be a hair stylist. That fact, she insisted, shifted her whole sense of herself and schooling. It led her eventually to decide to go to college to become a social worker because, as she explored the beauty business, she realized that behind "fooling around with hair" was a deep interest in how people saw themselves and led her into taking "academia" more seriously. I take this to heart rather than dismiss it as vocationalism.

I've got plenty of complaints about how the small school idea that I pioneered (ah, vanity) has been misused. But, keep in mind, kids were going to separate small "schools" within the old big schools for a century. My own kids went through public school before smallness was a fad and were almost always in classes with kids of similar backgrounds. The exceptions were those programs we fought for in the de-tracking movement of the 70s, when "progressive" educators and parents joined together to effect changes (most of which have now been dropped). We thought they required us to rethink pedagogy and curriculum, not just who sat next to whom. Progressives and traditionalists in the private sector, as you have made clear, never tackled that task.

Dozens of NY elementary and secondary schools broke the pattern in the 80s with results certified as success by our esteemed NYC state chancellor Mills and his specially selected committee of psychometricians! These schools succeeded by breaking with the traditional curriculum and pedagogy, while also taking ideas and knowledge seriously. Differently, but not less seriously. We tried to build a "system" around some shared ideas—people do their best work when they have choices, are working in settings where they are respected, have the time and resources to conduct their work well, and have a substantial voice in making decisions. This goes for parents, kids, and teachers. I don’t think it's utopian for this to be done in the public sector, and Klein’s claim that this is precisely what he’s done needs to be exposed. Yes, it’s a fraud.

To make it real is what maybe we can both agree on?



I'm having trouble following Ms. Meier's line of argument. If you oppose school choice, and you oppose a standard curriculum, aren't you then by definition choosing the manner by which my child is educated (i.e, not a standard curriculum?)

Ms. Meier writes that "my problem is that my argument doesn't exclude schools (and thus teachers and parents) from pursuing [Ms. Ravitch's] ideal curriculum."

But it does. If families are not free to choose their school, how are they free to pursue any ideal?

Robert Pondiscio

[I admit that I have trouble understanding why constructivism is controversial.]

Part of the problem is that it seems impossible to pin down what it is. It is self-referential and doesn't seem to have an empirical referent. See my observations on the subject: http://instructivist.blogspot.com/2005/10/arrested-development.html

From what I can gather "constructivists" do not believe there is a body of academic knowledge that teachers should impart. This leads to curricular incoherence and haphazardness. It also leads to non-instruction. All that I find objectionable.

What did I say that made you think I oppposed public school choice? All the schools I "founded" were schools of choice. But I want "controlled" choice--where the family not the school does the choosing. And where efforts are made to see that schools are not used as a way to separate kids by test scores or socio-economic class and race. You are otherwise completely right.


"But my problem is that my argument doesn't exclude schools (and thus teachers and parents) from pursuing your ideal curriculum, whereas yours prohibits me (as parent or teacher) from pursuing mine."


I'm not sure it needs to be this way for either party. Suppose, just suppose, a "standard" curriculum comes into being from some utopian committee's consensus as to what kids should be exposed to in subjects x, y and z for grades K-12.

I think we can all agree, no single curriculum (regardless of the party that develops it) is going to be so comprehensive it's going to cover everything within its discipline, even spread out over 12-13 years of a formal education. However, this same curriculum could certainly be a reasonable jumping off point for kids interested in going off on a tangent from a major unit. If teachers encouraged their students, even guided them through these tangents of interest, (probably done outside of regular class time) then students' interests could easily be addressed in any situation, couldn't they? Done correctly, these tangents could then be incorporated into a lesson shared with the whole class.

Any student's "ideal" curriculum could then be pursued to the fullest. With technology being as ubiquitous as it is today, the parameters are almost infinite. Any student's curiosity should be able to be satisfied. This goes, as well, for teachers and parents. It would be more work for the teacher (only to an extent) but aren’t we there to meet the needs of our students? I hope so.


That sounds utopian, Paul.

It's interesting to me that Deborah Meier, progressive educator par excellence, advocates something that many who label themselves progressives in the political arena find noxious—namely, choice. To me, there is no contradiction between progressive political ideals and empowering parents to choose the kind of schools that will educate their children. However, it seems that just because fiscal conservatives like Milton Friedman advocate school choice (on the grounds that what can be relegated to the private sector should be relegated to the private sector), political progressives jump on the opposite bandwagon. They do this without considering alternative arguments supportive of choice—for instance, that there lacks a universal and objective definition of education, that to have a bustling democracy that supports many different voices and many different kinds, cookie-cutter curriculum mandates will not do.

That being said, giving schools more freedom to teach what they want and parents the freedom to choose schools that fit their outlooks on life does not answer the Accountability Question. In fact, it makes it that much muddier. Diane’s national curriculum would at least make it easier to see if learning is happening at a given school. Historically, we know that instead of serving as the great equalizer when it comes socio-economic injustice, institutionalized education has done just the opposite. What, then, is more important? Having a clearer idea of which schools are responsible for the achievement gap in order that we eliminate it within the next ten years? Or trying to redefine the educational system as the handmaiden of a bustling democracy (its reason for existing in the first place) and hoping that educational equity will naturally ensue?


I’ll try to be a peacemaker on the constructivist thing. There is a difference between social constructivism as an epistemological theory and the type of constructivism talked about in schools of education, which—depending on its proponents—is an unfortunate trend that glorifies babysitting. One can be a social constructivist and an excellent teacher without any sort of contradiction. The teacher who is not a social constructivist might teach one view of the French and Indian War (namely, the one in the textbook), while the teacher with social constructivist tendencies knows that no one explanation can be touted as definitive, and will introduce his/her students to many viewpoints, inviting them to think critically about each and every one. If I am not mistaken, Deborah’s constructivism has nothing to do with swapping recess (“Hey, they’re experiencing nature!”) for science instruction.


I see it more as reasonable (legal threshold) than utopian. For me, the standard is doable, which begs the question, why shouldn't we be doing something along these lines? After all, if kids get some say in what they're learning in school they're more likely to be invested and therefore apply themselves more, aren't they?

Thanks JP for distinguishing the various uses of "constructivism". That's helpful. Jean Piaget's work was what opened my mind to thinking more deeply about the difference between what I "taught" and what kids "learned". Best of all is Eleanor's Duckworth's invaluable book--The Having of Wonderful Ideas. What's hard is when we characterize eachother's views into easy to dismiss paradies. I cannot beieve that Instructivist (and sometimes Diane) really think I believe in some of the descriptions they use to parady progressive education ideas. Catch me when I do the same for so-called traditional teaching, please!

Thanks also to Robert and JP and others for taking on the "choice" question. Every (well most!) good idea involves trade-offs. As we tweak to find the best balance regarding choice we come up against difficult trade-offs. In a more egalitarian world, all this might be easier to do. But let's acknowledge the dilemma. (I go back and forth between my anarchistic/libertrian side and my communitarian/socialistic side!)

In fact in most communities where choice does not formally exist, schools choose to track kids into different schools-within-schools and provide different forms of education within each. I think that's the worst. But in struggling to undo it, I realize that my solutions often get turned into still another form of the same thing!



What passes as “constructivism” in schools rarely satisfies your definition of children learning to construct their own learning.

Unfortunately, the term “constructivism” has been absconded with by formalistic educators/publishers/marketing people that eschew quality learning and too often is used to promote programs that are rather thin, watered down and severely lacking both in quality and content.

To learn, everybody (children included) need to construct ideas for themselves. But the curricula that purport to be “constructivist” rarely allow this; as the materials and content are so shallow and so lacking in quality as to support nothing more than glorified baby-sitting.

How can you support the so called “constructivist” curricula that are so thin and of such poor quality that in essence deprives our children of the quality learning that is essential for them to feel engaged with the world?

Erin Johnson

Instructivist v constructivist? Can there be some common ground between the two? While the interests of students is an important variable for learning, does the "expertise" and prior world knowledge, along with the life experience(s) of the teacher (and many other adults in the decision making process) get factored into the equation anywhere? Should young children, even teenagers really be permitted to determine what is best for them to study or not study in school? Guess I simply can't get past the whole Summerhill thing on this.

Guess I'm in favor of a student-centered classroom where the teacher is the slave primarily to the students' intelligence, motivation, and PACE OF LEARNING. As rapidly (or slowly) as the child demonstrates they have learned something, the teacher should move them along at the appropriate pace in some pre-determined (by adults) curriculum. However, in all honesty, I cannot subscribe to the notion of a seven or eight year old knowing what is best for them to learn throughout their formative years in school. A student-centered classroom where the student defines what is to be learned, to me, is too questionable with most kids. There may be some kids from Lexington, Duxbury, or Wellesley capable of making responsible choices along these lines but too many kids from too many other districts would be incapable of making these important decisions.

Deb, is this where you defer to no one individual or group (i.e., ED Hirsch and his Core Knowledge philosophy) should establish a prescribed curriculum for the masses?

So, I was looking at J.S. Mill yesterday (On Liberty, specifically) and was reminded of his relevance to this debate. He writes:

“All that has been said of the importance of individuality of character, and diversity in opinions and modes of conduct, involves, as of the same unspeakable importance, diversity of education. A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation, in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind….”

It’s interesting that On Liberty begins as a theoretical discussion of freedom as a philosophical concept, and ends as a practical discussion of education for freedom. He sees (the right kind of) education as the key to throwing off both political oppression and the oppression of custom, and bringing about a new kind of democratic society where freedom reigns.

To Mill, there is no one definition of “the right kind of” education. He thinks that every child, rich or poor, should receive a good education, but the specifics of that are left to the parents. Only when a parent neglects his/her child’s education should the state intervene. And interestingly enough, Mill recommends state exams as the way to make parents accountable for the education of their offspring. If the child does not do well, the parent is to be—yes—fined. A minimal series of compulsory exams must be taken every year, and “beyond that minimum, there should be voluntary examinations on all subjects, at which all who come up to a certain standard of proficiency might claim a certificate.” And here’s the interesting part—Mill wants tests on mathematics and science, but worries that with other subjects, the pupil might confuse the views of the examiner with objective truth, or that the state might use the examinations to force certain opinions onto its future citizens. When it comes to “disputed topics,” views must be patently ascribed to those who hold them, and not offered up as demonstrable fact:

“To prevent the State from exercising through these arrangements, an improper influence over opinion, the knowledge required for passing an examination (beyond the merely instrumental parts of knowledge, such as languages and their use) should, even in the higher class of examinations, be confined to facts and positive science exclusively. The examinations on religion, politics, or other disputed topics, should not turn on the truth or falsehood of opinions, but on the matter of fact that such and such an opinion is held, on such grounds, by such authors, or schools, or churches… All attempts by the State to bias the conclusions of its citizens on disputed subjects, are evil.”

Mill’s against social promotion, for state examinations (with certain qualifications), and for school choice. In sum, an interesting way of bridging differences.

[Instructivist v constructivist? Can there be some common ground between the two?]

There is common ground if you listen to constructivist rhetoric as in the excerpt below from ASCD. For example, both schools of thought believe in asking students probing questions and in pressing them to explain their thinking. It only seems there is a gulf because all too often constructivist give the impression they invented asking students probing questions and pressing them to explain their thinking along with the invention of the recipe for apple pie.

Among the differences I can see is the role of the teacher. In addition to being an active listener and a coordinator and a manager and a facilitator, instructivists also want teachers to give explicit instruction.

From ASCD:

[What is the teacher's role in the constructivist classroom?

Narrator: A constructivist approach requires more of students—and teachers as well.
In addition to providing information, teachers must probe students' understandings, paying close attention to what they say and think and valuing their points of view. Teachers circulate more, talk more with students, asking them probing questions, pressing them to explain their thinking, encouraging them to draw conclusions.

Jacqueline Grennon Brooks: The teacher has a very proactive role. The teacher has a very intellectually rigorous role. The teacher has the role of being an active listener and a coordinator and a manager and a facilitator all at the same time. Because, while listening to what people are telling him or her, the teacher is formulating a plan of action.]

What is still shrouded in mystery as far as I am concerned is this whole issue of constructing knowledge rather than receiving it from others, e.g. from teachers and textbooks. It’s easy to proclaim that students learn best when they gain knowledge through exploration and active learning. But how does that work specifically in the various disciplines? OK, I can explore circles and pi, but how will I learn world history or geography or languages with hands-on materials instead of textbooks? How will I explain my reasoning, if I am not supposed to commit knowledge to memory? And why is reading a book or listening to the teacher and trying to understand the materials not active learning? What is learning if not something committed to memory? Why do constructivists disparangingly characterized a demonstration of learning residing in memory (where else would it reside?) as "regurgitation"?

Again from ASCD:

[The Definition of Constructivism
Constructivism is an approach to teaching based on research about how people learn. Many researchers say that each individual constructs knowledge rather than receiving it from others.

Although people disagree about how to achieve constructive learning, constructive teaching is based on the belief that students learn best when they gain knowledge through exploration and active learning. Hands-on materials are used instead of textbooks, and students are encouraged to think and explain their reasoning instead of memorizing and reciting facts. Education is centered on themes and concepts and the connections between them, rather than isolated information.]

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