Why Are We In This Situation?

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

Activities expand exponentially because teachers think that’s what they are supposed to be doing. Administrators, curriculum specialists, education gurus, workshop presenters, psychologists, academic journals, and textbook publishers have told teachers that activities are the only way to engage students. “Chalk and talk” and “drill and kill” are the derisive names given to traditional approaches.

Teachers, understandably, shudder at the thought of being associated with such dreary pedagogy. Should they resist the traditional wisdom, they may face scorn and intimidation for being instructionally out of date or even insensitive to student needs.

Lack of variety and imagination in assignments does lead to dull classrooms. Whole-class, teacher-led instruction is not always of high quality. But it certainly can be, frequently is, and would be much more often if it weren’t caricatured asinevitably boring and ineffective, thus discouraging teachers from perfecting the art, as Japanese and Chinese teachers work so hard and successfully to do.

Activities-based learning often suspends valid educational premises: that the ability to communicate derives from verbal training; that the ability to absorb, filter and process information requires facility with words and numbers; that general knowledge leads to project mastery; that getting there requires hard work and even then is not universally conferred.

The fear of passive learning may be spectacularly misdirected, but the chalk-and-talk caricature has done its work. Pressed to be events coordinators and social directors, teachers have been robbed of traditional pedagogy’s vision of quality: the carefully prepared lesson, rich with analogy, illustration and anecdote; focused and guided; demanding and lively; peppered with good humor; with frequent interchange between student and teacher, student and student; interspersed with small-group work when appropriate; and with a clear sense of direction at the beginning and summary at the end, leaving all participants with a feeling of completion and satisfaction.

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