“Bad Information About Learning”

Excellent quote from Gilbert Sewall, “Lost In Action: Are time-consuming, trivializing activities displacing the cultivation of active minds?,” American Educator (Summer 2000).

Activity-based learning is vain. It presupposes it alone is responsive to the “inner gifts” of children, especially children who are challenged or overmatched by traditional academic learning. A salting of high theory stands behind it, theory that is reinforced in faculty lounges and workshops and that has special appeal to those who face a rising number of children who seem alienated from words and numbers.

Teachers are on the receiving end of much bad information about learning. Not only do they endure pressure from gurus and guides. Complicit are schools of education that encourage teachers not to be “hung up on facts” but to concentrate on nurturing self-esteem and individuality. Methods classes uncritically praise project learning and activity-based learning. They subscribe to a set of principles at odds with classical education that go back 75 or 80 years, to William Kilpatrick’s project method and Harold Rugg’s child-centered school.

Project-based learning enthusiasts want children to be—here we return to affective philosophy—active. The learning process, they say, should be “tactile.” With busy hands and classrooms in motion. According to powerful currents that influence how teachers frame their lesson plans, educational success should be joyful noise and creative disorder, durable concepts of the 1970s. In motivational educational workshops, a teacher learns not to be a “sage on the stage.” She should be a “guide on the side.”

Deep bias exists against a teacher-centered classroom.
Those preparing to be teachers rarely hear that some projects are neither beneficial nor valuable, that they may in fact corrupt subtle thinking about a subject. That if projects are to succeed, they must be limited in scope and time. Or that projects need to be filled out and supplemented with generous amounts of reading and writing. Orderly classrooms and unadorned lessons are minuses, they hear, as is “rote” education too terrible to behold.

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