Blackboards Help Affirm A Teacher’s Authority

Education is another of many American institutions that are disintegrating before our eyes while at the same time self-consciously innovating at warp speed.  The net effect of these changes is that classroom management collapses, classroom misbehavior increases, and learning is diluted resulting in a dumbing down of the school age population.  Veronique Mintz, an 8th grade student draws our attention to this drift in a recent NY Times op-ed article.  Her op-ed poses the alternative she faces between social isolation at home in front of a screen and collaborative or group learning projects in the school where most of the students do not want to either cooperate or “discover.”

When she was growing up, my daughter also complained about those collaborative projects because she, or she and another student, would do all the work for their group, but everybody in the group would get the same good grade. This is an educational strategy that essentially inculcates communism. It’s a case study in equality of outcomes that the left has been spouting for quite awhile.  Further, students in groups often do projects that are so dismally simple that any thinking person would be embarrassed to engage students with those projects.   One 11th grade teacher I observed had a collaborative, discovery project that involved pasting pictures on colored construction paper and “making a booklet” which booklets were then hung on the bulletin board as samples of “student work” indicative of “engagement” (another buzz word).  Collaborative learning tends to encourage simpler projects and thus is part of the dumbing down noted by such profound educational critics as E.D. Hirsch, Bruce Deitrick Price, and Charlotte Iserbyte.

Once, when I was teaching at a NYC high school that had totally embraced the cooperative learning model, I asked my principal how could students “discover” the laws of physics which have evolved through painstaking research and mathematical creativity over hundreds of years?  How could there be any alternative to hitting the books and being able to do a lot of advanced math?  She scoffed and brushed off my old fashioned mentality.

In addition to the over-simplified learning projects that typically are promoted, the decentralized group-oriented classroom contributes to inattention, restlessness, and rowdiness.  To get around this impossible choice between working alone on one’s computer and being distracted by a group of rowdies, schools are increasingly experimenting with computerized “teaching” where each student goes at his or her pace. This is touted as “individualized learning” and hyped as an alternative to classroom teaching.

Thus, at the same time as the progressive school environment emphasizes “collaboration” rather than individual learning process as in the traditional classroom, they argue simultaneously that traditional classrooms are not respectful enough of individual differences.  According to today’s leftwing educators, a significant problem with the traditional classroom is there is a group standard, with different levels of progress identified by grades A,B,C,D, and F.  This leads to stratification and a sense of failure in some of the growing persons.  The classic classroom standard is portrayed as arbitrary, a “one size fits all” model.  So the idea is to keep some individuality, but have equality of outcomes.  This is not unlike the communist mindset behind collaborative learning.

Thus, many schools not only have a lot of collaborative learning, but they also try to include a lot of computerized learning where each student “proceeds at his or her own pace.”  When students go at their own pace on computers, some finish 1/10 of the course, others finish the whole course, and the rest are at all points in between, yet they all get credit for finishing. The term is over and they “finish” so they “completed” the course. Nobody gets “left back.” It’s a nice finesse.   American optimists call it win-win.  This writer calls it lose-lose.

Nevertheless, the rowdiness and disruptions continue to grow, and it is never seen that this growing misbehavior and unwillingness to really study hard, respect the teacher and other students, and listen is caused by these methodological innovations. The leftwing drive for equality of outcomes is the idea driving the failure of our schools. Under these computerized strategies and group work strategies, less attention is paid to the teacher, students are encouraged to think they know more than they do because they have “progressed,” the success of a few students is distributed via grade recognition to the many.

Further, these “alternative strategies” are leading to progressively fewer cognitive skills, a loss of connection with the great realities of geography, history, math, and literature, and an aggressive flippancy indicative of a decline in character.

Increasingly we have division between the anti-social losers who are deluded into thinking they are normal and friendly and the a-social ones who are dismissed as nerds. The educational methods striving for equality of outcomes are actually breaking down our social cohesion.  In addition to bad behavior falling under the heading of “unintended consequences” of educational practice, educators and leftist politicians look the other way regarding the misbehavior because they believe that increased punishment will not improve behavior but only engender resentment.  The Columbine HS mass shooters, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, wore trench coats to school and gave each other Nazi salutes in the hallway, but they were not confronted about this nor stopped.

The so-called progressive left in our country cannot see that most of these unacceptable outcomes result from promoting equality of outcome by putting collaborative learning and computerized learning as the central methodologies in the classroom.  A big leap forward in learning and behavior would happen if our schools return to the traditional classroom model with students seated in rows on a regular basis, and with education based on direct communication between the teacher and the students. Teacher control over learning should be restored. This teacher-centered model as opposed to a group-centered or computer-centered model is the key to successful reform. Some group work and some computer-assisted activities can be integrated into education, but the teacher must once again be more than a facilitator and become the source for the advancement of knowledge and socialization in the schools.

This writer has been told that the restoration of this classroom model cannot work because the kids today come from disrupted homes and misbehavior is standard behavior. However, education will work better (notice, not “work perfectly”) with the traditional model because there will be some restoration of the in loco parentis principle in the school’s methodology. Order and stability are hallmarks of the intact family, not to mention love, and that is what a return to the traditional classroom will help restore.

Jeffrey Ludwig is a Harvard Master Teacher who has taught philosophy and other humanities subjects at Harvard, Penn State, Juniata College, and City University of New York, and has been selected four times for Who’s Who Among America’s High School Teachers. He has published three books, the latest of which is The Liberty Manifesto Vol. 1 available here.

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