Educating for Democracy: Cutting Their Feet to Fit Your Shoes

How long is it going to be before the American public understands what learning and teaching really mean and how students really learn? The traditional classroom routine is broken.
10/01/2015 09:13 pm ET Updated Oct 01, 2016

The most reliable measure of student achievement, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, recently reported that American students are woefully inadequate in a number of important areas of study such as civics and history. When one considers the importance of an "informed electorate" as conceived by the Founding Fathers, this should be a cause for alarm.

As I quoted from The Wire in a previous blog: "Many Americans know U.S. students' test scores on subjects like math and reading are low. In civics, however, they're appalling. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a respected, voluntary nationwide test, 22 percent of students test proficient in civics, and only 18 percent rate proficient in U.S. history. American citizenship depends on its citizens sharing some body of knowledge together about the political structure that governs their daily lives."

But it makes one wonder how long it's going to be before the American public understands what learning and teaching really mean and how students really learn. The traditional classroom routine, the "banking" method -- in which a teacher in front of the room explains skills and conveys information to students, and then "tests" them on what they were supposed to have learned several days or weeks later -- may work very well for middle-class students, especially those who have been "socialized" into accepting the "banking" method. But it is definitely not an effective approach for many other young learners as seen by the NAEP scores.

In fact, if one were to examine the way in which children learn language and begin to figure out how to negotiate the world they live in, the "banking" technique would seem absurd. In a TED talk several years ago, an Indian educator, Sugata Mitra, presented the view that the best ways to educate students were by letting them teach themselves and each other. The role of teachers would be facilitators who would know not to shut off students from a positive view of learning by undue emphasis on tests, especially standardized tests.

There are other methods that are far better than the "industrial" models still commonplace, especially when emphasis on test scores reinforces the "drill and kill" approach. A recent documentary from American RadioWorks discusses a form of professional development called "Lesson Study." It is a standard practice in Japan and uses collaborative techniques both among students and teachers.

Catherine Lewis, an educator at Mills College, has written extensively on the process of developing this method in which teachers methodically observe how their students learn and how to improve their own teaching through careful and collaborative analysis of most effective practices. The atmosphere in the schoolroom in which such "Lesson Study" would have any chance of success is not likely in the culture of fear and anxiety both of students and teachers in the "test prep" mania prevailing in many parts of the country. The following link gives greater detail to this teaching format.

Another alternative to the "banking" model of teaching is "Outward Bound" which uses the outdoors as the environment in which young learners can develop positive attitudes that improve their education, especially in finding ways to channel their interest and enthusiasm for learning.

"In a typical class, participants are divided into small patrols (or groups) under the guidance of one or more instructors. The first few days at a base camp are spent training for the outdoor recreation activities that the course will contain and in the philosophy of Outward Bound. After initial confidence-building challenges, the group heads off on an expedition. As the group develops the capacity to do so, the instructors ask the group to make its own "decisions."

If the so-called educators who still support the increasingly discredited testing mantra over more effective alternative ways of educating it can only hope that the students themselves and their parents demonstrate as they are doing in the "Opt Out" become advocates for the end of the status quo. Educational reform if it truly wants to improve learning, must not expect young learners to cut their feet to fit the wrong-sized shoe.