Ed Reformers: Champions of the Wrong Theory of Learning

In alphabetical order: Mike Bloomberg, mayor of New York City. Eli Broad, financier and philanthropist. Jeb Bush, ex-Florida governor and possible 2012 presidential contender. Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education. Bill Gates, business magnate and philanthropist. Joel Klein, chancellor of New York City schools.

In education issues, mainstream media sometimes call these gentlemen, “The New Progressives.” They’re major movers and shakers in the current reform effort.

None is, or has ever been, a teacher. Many think that’s a very good, even a necessary thing. It’s widely believed that American education is a mess, that teachers deserve most of the blame, and that they either can’t or won’t clean the mess up. What’s needed, it’s thought, are no-nonsense leaders – CEOs from business, lawyers, politicians, ex-military officers.

The New Progressives are on a roll. Their views are sought after and respected by congressional committees. They have money, and cash-starved school districts will do whatever it takes to get some of it. Their press conferences are well-attended. Most newspaper editorial boards share their perspective, so their op-eds get published. The Common Core State Standards Initiative they strongly supported — if not helped engineer — has already been adopted by more than half the states. Leading Democrats and Republicans are on board. Those who question their top-down approach to reform have been neutralized by labeling them “obstacles to progress,” “reactionaries,” “union shills.”

A recent press release provides an example of the New Progressives’ long reach: “NBC Universal presents ‘Education Nation,’ an unprecedented week-long event examining and redefining education in America.” The event will be held in Rockefeller Center in September, 2010. The two leaders with top billing: Bloomberg and Duncan.

The New Progressives and their fans have something else in common besides running the education reform show. They share a big idea – a theory about how humans learn.

Let’s call it “Theory T.” “T” stands for “Transfer.”

Theory T didn’t emerge from successful teaching experience, and it’s not backed by research, but it has something even more useful going for it: The Conventional Wisdom. It’s easily the New Progressives’ most powerful asset, for much of the general public (and a disturbing percentage of teachers) already subscribe to it. Because its validity is taken for granted, Theory T doesn’t even have to be explained, much less promoted.

Theory T says kids come to school with heads mostly empty. As textbooks are read, information transfers from pages to empty heads. As teachers talk, information transfers from teachers’ heads to kids’ heads. When homework and term papers are assigned, kids go to the library or the Internet, find information, and transfer it from reference works or Wikipedia. Bit by bit and byte by byte, the information in their heads piles up.

At an August conference in Lake Tahoe, California, Bill Gates clinched his Theory T credentials. “Five years from now,” he said, “on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world.”

Let the transfer process begin!

Measuring the success of Theory T learning is easy and precise – just a matter of waiting a few days or weeks after the transfer process has been attempted and asking the kid, “How much do you remember?”

No research says how much of what’s recalled at test time remains permanently in memory, nor to what practical use, if any, that information is later put, but that’s of no concern to Theory T proponents. Their interest in performance ends when the scores are posted.

There’s another, less familiar theory about how humans learn. Those who subscribe to it – mostly teachers who’ve spent many years working directly with learners – aren’t backed by big money, don’t get mainstream media attention, aren’t asked to testify before congressional committees, and can’t organize week-long affairs in Rockefeller Plaza, all of which help explain the second theory’s unfamiliarity.

Those who accept the alternative to Theory T don’t think kids come to school with empty heads, believe instead that the young, on their own, develop ideas, opinions, explanations, beliefs and values about things that matter to them. As is true of adults, kids’ ideas and beliefs become part of who they are, so attempts to change them may come across as attacks on their identity and be resisted.

Teaching, many long-time teachers know, isn’t a simple matter of transferring information into a kid’s head, but a far more complex, multi-step process. The teacher has to (a) “get inside” that head to figure out what’s thought to be true, right, or important, (b) understand the kid’s value system well enough to offer ideas sufficiently appealing to warrant taking them seriously and paying attention, (c) choose language or tasks that question old ideas and clarify new ones, (d) get feedback as necessary to decide how to proceed, (e) load the whole process up with enough emotion to carry it past short-term memory, and (f) do this for a roomful of kids, no two of whom are identical.

If that sounds really difficult, it’s because it is. If it were easy, all kids would love school because learning is its own reward. If it were easy, young teachers would be successful and stay in the profession. If it were easy, adults wouldn’t forget most of what they once supposedly learned. If it were easy, the world would be a much better place.

Most of what we know, remember, and use, we didn’t learn by way of Theory T. We learned it on our own as we discovered real-world patterns and relationships – new knowledge that caused us to constantly rethink, reorganize, reconstruct, and replace earlier knowledge.

Let’s call this relating process “Theory R.”

Theory R is why little kids learn so much so rapidly, before traditional schooling overwhelms them with Theory T. Theory R is why Socrates was famous, why project learning, internships and apprenticeships work so well, why the Progressives of a hundred years ago were so adamant about “hands on” work and “learning by doing,” why real dialogue in school is essential, why knowledge of a subject doesn’t necessarily make a teacher effective, why asking good questions is far more important than knowing right answers, why tying national standards to a 19th Century curriculum is stupid, why standardized tests are a cruel, anti-learning, Theory T joke.

The educationally naïve New Progressives have engineered an education train wreck that, if allowed to continue, will haunt America for generations. The young, beaten with the “rigor” stick, are being trained to remember old information when our very survival as a nation hinges on their ability to create new information.

Theory T and Theory R have implications for every major issue in education – building design, budgets, classroom furniture arrangements, textbooks, schedules, class size, the role of corporations, the kinds of people attracted to teaching, how kids feel about themselves – everything. Add to that list the newest Big Thing for the New Progressives – “value-added assessment.” Theory R tests look nothing like today’s machine-scored Theory T tests.

Theory R people, appalled by the current thrust of reform, have been trying for at least six presidential administrations to get Theory T people in Washington to discuss how humans really learn. No luck. So sure are the New Progressives that those who disagree with them are self-serving defenders of the educational status quo, they’re unable to see themselves as the true reactionaries.

Sooner or later it will become obvious even to Theory T true believers that their theory only works in a world in which tomorrows are exactly like yesterdays. Unfortunately, when that realization comes, it’s unlikely that any teachers who understand Theory R will still be around.

(This post was originally published on Washington Post’s Answer Sheet)

Image: Virginia Association for Developmental Education

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29 Responses to “Ed Reformers: Champions of the Wrong Theory of Learning”

  1. August 26, 2010 at 9:03 pm #

    New post by Marion Brady, "Edreformers: Champions of the Wrong Theory of Learning" http://bit.ly/bnifn3 Ecology of Education

  2. August 26, 2010 at 9:05 pm #

    RT @JasonFlom: Edreformers: Champions of the Wrong Theory of Learning http://bit.ly/bnifn3

  3. August 26, 2010 at 11:16 pm #

    RT @DavidASinger: RT @JasonFlom: New post by Marion Brady, "Edreformers: Champions of the Wrong Theory of Learning" http://bit.ly/bnifn3 Ecology of Education

  4. August 26, 2010 at 11:23 pm #

    RT @DavidASinger: RT @JasonFlom: New post by Marion Brady, "Edreformers: Champions of the Wrong Theory of Learning" http://bit.ly/bnifn3 Ecology of Education

  5. August 27, 2010 at 3:04 am #

    RT @JasonFlom: New post by Marion Brady, "Edreformers: Champions of the Wrong Theory of Learning" http://bit.ly/bnifn3 Ecology of Education

  6. August 27, 2010 at 3:08 am #

    RT @JasonFlom New post by Marion Brady, "Edreformers: Champions of the Wrong Theory of Learning" http://bit.ly/bnifn3 #edreform #cpchat

  7. August 27, 2010 at 1:46 pm #

    @dianeravitch You might enjoy this #edreform piece by Marion Brady http://bit.ly/bnifn3 Cheers.

  8. August 27, 2010 at 3:13 pm #

    Ed Reformers: Champions of the Wrong Theory of Learning #fhuedu610 http://tinyurl.com/22w23bz

  9. August 27, 2010 at 6:00 pm #

    Champions of the Wrong Theory of Learning, questioning the perspectives of "New Progressives": http://is.gd/eH4e1 #edreform

  10. August 27, 2010 at 6:11 pm #

    RT @kdwashburn: Champions of the Wrong Theory of Learning, questioning the perspectives of "New Progressives": http://is.gd/eH4e1 #edchat

  11. August 27, 2010 at 6:23 pm #

    If you are seriuos about EDU Reform read this: Ed Reformers: Champions of the Wrong Theory of Learning. http://bit.ly/bnifn3

  12. August 27, 2010 at 7:30 pm #

    RT @kdwashburn: Champions of the Wrong Theory of Learning, questioning the perspectives of "New Progressives": http://is.gd/eH4e1 #edreform

  13. August 27, 2010 at 10:18 pm #

    “If that sounds really difficult, it’s because it is. If it were easy, all kids would love school because…” http://instapaper.com/zwrw4g51J

  14. August 27, 2010 at 10:36 pm #

    RT @budtheteacher: “If that sounds really difficult, it’s because it is. If it were easy, all kids would love school because…” http://instapaper.com/zwrw4g51J

  15. August 27, 2010 at 11:35 pm #

    RT @budtheteacher: “If that sounds really difficult, it’s because it is. If it were easy, all kids would love school because…” http://instapaper.com/zwrw4g51J

  16. August 28, 2010 at 1:04 pm #

    Thanks for this post, making the necessary highlights to understand some of the context of the current big name political reformers. I propose however that we do not continue to name them the “New Progressives” as other media has done. This is not a title they deserve nor that is fitting.

    As you detail they continue a tradition of a “banking” system of education, where children are empty receptacles that need to be filled up with curricular knowledge. We don’t correct the mistakes of the political reformers and reporters if we don’t correct the terminology.

    Duncan, Bloomberg, et al, are not Progressive, they do not further the philosophy or aims of John Dewey’s work, nor are they the next link in the chain after Paul Goodman, Ivan Illich, John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, Ron Miller, etc. Duncan and friends are simply new faces of the industrial education system, the new factory owners, the new masters.

    They don’t talk about experience as education, the whole child, or democracy. They talk about accountability and test scores. Call them the New Factory Managers or New Puritans or Regressives, but don’t call them Progressive.

    Thanks again for this conversation.

    All the best,

  17. Jessica Horton
    August 28, 2010 at 8:51 pm #

    Marion, I love this piece, but I don’t know if I agree with your addition of Bill Gates to the New Progressives. He has spent a great deal of money investing in alternative schooling strctures, and I do believe that he is trying to find out how children will be most successful in school. The core problem I believe is how politicians define success… To be honest, now living outside of Florida I can see how FCAT Science was somewhat a step in the right direction…. Not the testing itself, but the level of questioning that students were asked to attempt. Teachers should be working with students on problem solving, critical thinking and reflection. Our textbooks, and lecture format classrooms are s direct contraction to being able to meet those needs. If we want really progressive, let’s get the textbook companies out of decision making when it comes to curriculum.

  18. Marion Brady
    August 29, 2010 at 8:50 pm #

    I’ve done consulting work twice for the Gates Foundation, and spent their money. I listed Gates because he has a great deal of influence, and buys into the conventional wisdom. He’s one of a long list of people who influence policy that are more than smart enough to grasp the inadequacies of their views but seem not to be listening.

  19. Marion Brady
    August 29, 2010 at 8:59 pm #

    Thank YOU. I hope I didn’t leave the impression that I thought they were progressive. The whole thrust of the present reform effort could hardly be more reactionary.


  20. September 10, 2010 at 7:46 am #

    Today teaching is no more a social service. Teacher became professional like the employees in other occupation. An ideal teacher never agrees in give and take policy but this quality is missing.

  21. September 19, 2010 at 5:45 am #

    Ed Reformers: Champions of the Wrong Theory of Learning: http://bit.ly/b2yUm0

  22. March 6, 2012 at 9:19 am #

    Just came across this post. Like when reading many other posts on the direction of learning, I wish I had seen it sooner. I am especially interested in some of the challenges you mention and possible solutions. 
    I am currently doing an experiment with different perceptions and ideas around learning. Would love to get your view on some of these if you have time.

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