A Wisconsin-based teacher named Daniel Buck once show-ed his high-school freshmen a documentary about the Great Depression, which mentioned that some American workers had moved to the Soviet Union during this period. When he asked the students why they thought this was, he writes, “the class gave me the silent stare that so many teachers dread.” He asked himself the questions he was taught to ask during his teacher training: “Had I framed the question poorly? Did I have an adequately accepting classroom culture?” As it turned out the problem was much more elementary. One student finally broke the silence: “Is the Soviet Union a country?”
Buck’s new book, What Is Wrong with Our Schools, is a powerful and succinct explanation of how we got here. As he notes, the kids in his district had learned “a smattering of U.S. and ancient history.” But any kind of instruction about the World Wars and the Cold War had been saved for later on in high school. “How could I possibly ask them to think critically about the Great Depression and the Soviet Union when they knew nothing about it?” he writes. “I might as well ask them to water a garden with an empty pail.”
While it is not uncommon or unwarranted to focus on the politicization of American classrooms—from critical race theory and gender-bending ideology to apocalyptic environmentalism and plain old cheerleading for the welfare state—the truth is that what’s destroying American education is the lack of actual content. The justifications for eliminating from the curriculum books with information in them have come in various forms. But at the heart of all of them is the idea that teaching is itself “oppressive.”
From John Dewey to the more recent pedagogical texts offered at almost every education school in the country, the message is clear: Students are best off when they are discovering things on their own. Memorization is to be avoided at all costs. Teachers are better off playing “guide on the side” rather than “sage on the stage.” Learning should be driven by student interest. Imparting skills is more important than imparting knowledge. The 21st century doesn’t care whether students know facts because they can look up everything on the Internet. All students need is to be trained in critical thinking.
What Is Wrong with Our Schools manages to debunk all of these myths in 200 pages, and if there’s any philanthropist out there willing to send a copy to every superintendent and school-board member in America, trust me, there are worse ways to spend money. Short of that, please give this book at baby showers. It will be much more useful than another onesie.
Let’s start with reading. Many American parents will recognize in their children’s classrooms the scenario Buck describes. Grade-school students are asked to pick books off the classroom shelf based on how many words they don’t know on a page. Once they have a “just right” book, they go off into corners of the room either in groups or alone and read. Middle-school students are asked to choose their own book or share one with two or three other kids and come up with subjects for discussion.
This choose-your-own-adventure strategy is at the heart of the Lucy Calkins Units of Study program, which has been employed in classrooms across the country for decades and was the subject of a New York Times exposé earlier this year for its extraordinary failure. As Buck explains it: “The child’s natural interest and personal will come to direct the curriculum, and we as teachers are only there to react. Unfortunately, there is little research to suggest such an approach works well for most students, not to mention that it’s a rather isolated affair.”
Buck contrasts this to the situation in class when he reads aloud Tom Robinson’s conviction in To Kill a Mockingbird. He does it so that students “can experience the build-up and disappointment together.” He writes: “Every year someone lets a ‘No!’ slip out; when the bell rings, my students walk out of the classroom talking about how affecting that scene is.” Much is lost when the classroom “transitions to Rousseau-influenced workshop models,” he says. “The individual child’s interest is so centralized as to atomize the class; we no longer commune around books.”
Buck criticizes the relentless focus on “relatability” in choosing what children should learn. He notes that kids have a natural curiosity about things outside of their experience, and teachers should be exploiting that. Moreover, teaching students actual texts and important pieces of knowledge makes it easier for them to acquire more knowledge as they go on. Citing the work of E.D. Hirsch, Buck notes that acquiring more knowledge helps build more connections and creates more hooks for students to hang future learning on. Asking students to start from scratch every day and come to new discoveries on their own is not only ineffective, it is also extraordinarily frustrating. Education, he argues, is not all questioning: “We open our minds to close them again around something concrete.”
Come to think of it: That might be Buck’s most radical suggestion. When was the last time you heard a teacher suggest that the class should actually try to arrive at answers?
Again and again, Buck cites evidence from studies of educational settings with the same conclusions. Project-based learning, student-driven classrooms, and skills-based curricula are failing our kids. Children need and want instruction on actual subjects with regular assessments on what they have learned along with all of their classmates.
How have we strayed so far from this older model of education? Of course, the nonsense on offer for teacher training is the root of the problem. But there are reasons that it has been so readily embraced. One of them is the fact that it allows principals and school boards to avoid the question of what should actually be taught. Buck is firmly on the side of teaching old books and teaching them to everyone, regardless of the reading level they are at. “Tradition provides the language and arguments we need to understand the present,” he writes. “Macbeth helps me to understand power-hungry politicians. The arguments between Booker T. Washington and WEB DuBois, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X help us to understand current debates over racial justice. These works provide the very language we use in our current debates. We cannot emancipate ourselves from tradition any more than an animal can emancipate itself from air.”
But Buck also sees the imparting of knowledge to his students as deeply practical: “Most people would consider a school a failure if its students were unable to comprehend a major newspaper.” He notes, “Professional writers assume a certain level of background knowledge. Otherwise newspapers would have sentences constructed out of endless appositive phrases and clarifications.… A writer in the New York Times will assume that we know certain foundational texts, major figures from history, general country locations and much more that they will not clarify. It would take too much time and too many words to do so.”
Educated adults should have a certain automaticity of knowledge—we don’t spend all day trying to get through a newspaper by googling where Germany is or what is contained in the Declaration of Independence or when Pearl Harbor was attacked. We should help students develop that, too. Not only in their academic subjects but in their personal habits, as well. When schools create expectations of punctuality, order in classrooms and hallways, and civil behavior, students are able to focus on the educational tasks in front of them. Throughout the book, Buck returns to this theme of how the leaders of schools are responsible for inculcating habits—habits that will free students to accomplish greater things. He uses Rousseau’s opposition to swaddling infants as a metaphor for explaining how the ideas that societal restrictions on children are detrimental to their proper development have shown themselves to be not only wrongheaded but deeply unhealthy and destructive.
When you start with the fundamental assumption that teaching is oppressive, it becomes all but impossible for teachers or administrators to put rules in place, let alone demand that students follow them. He notes the terrible consequences of recent bans on school suspensions or any kind of punishment for kids who misbehave. The students who are in the class cannot learn. Instead of thinking about the topic at hand, they are worried for their own safety. Buck, whose Twitter account I also recommend, regularly posts about the emails he gets from teachers who disagree with him on everything but who see an urgent need for school discipline both for their own safety and the well-being of their students.
Perhaps the fact that Buck is a teacher will allow this book to gain a greater audience. I am more cynical than Buck about some of these developments—student-driven learning can be a much easier lift for teachers who don’t want to do any actual work, such as creating lesson plans. Still, it’s fair to assume that most teachers do want their students to learn but have been sold a bill of goods when it comes to how best to make that happen. “The direct instruction part of [learning] is foundational,” Buck writes. “Without explanation, children cannot learn.… Phrased differently, students need a teacher.” From Daniel Buck’s lips to God’s ears.
Photo: Steven H. Keys
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