No one 'best' way to teach

Current competition among theories of learning reflects entrenched philosophical differences.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Socrates taught by asking questions.

Plato, his student, warned against training youths by "force and harshness." Meanwhile, Sophists argued for teaching facts and lecturing.

Fast forward to the 16th century, and the Dutch humanist scholar Desiderius Erasmus was bucking the rigid educational practices of his day, berating teachers who taught by "hammering [grammar] rules into children's heads." He recommended playing games as part of Latin studies.

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Remarkably similar battles continue today.

In the intellectual wrestling over educational philosophies, old theories never really die - they just keep on shifting, adding new layers and new ideas as the centuries pass.

"The reformers come at you, saying, 'Have I got a proposal for you!' and there's often a feeling among educators of dj vu all over again," says David Tyack, professor of education and history at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. "It's clear that people often rediscover the same ideas later."

Take the revolution that was occurring in education in 1762. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had just published his landmark book, "Emile," in France. Expounding his "natural" approach to learning, Rousseau wrote that the child is innately good, but his teachers - like all adults - are corrupted by the institutions of "civilized" society.

Because of this, educational processes should be child-centered, not teacher-centered or content-focused, Rousseau argued. Learning should happen in a natural environment. It should flow out of a child's development, not from a group of contrived experiences. To motivate children, teachers should rely on innate curiosity, not force.

Sound familiar? It might to Plato. And it might to many people today.

But Rousseau's natural approach was a revelation then. And so were the views of early 20th-century American educator John Dewey. Like Rousseau before him, he decried rigid, rote-oriented school systems, and advocated a "child-centered" education.

Around 1920, the push began in the US to dump stiff teaching and desks in straight rows. But in the 1950s, cold-war concerns and societal conservatism led to rejection of progressive education. Progressivism resurged in the 1960s, marked by innovations like open classrooms, cooperative learning, schools without walls, and whole-language reading instruction.

"The vocabulary changes, but the basic tension remains the same," says Nicholas Burbules, professor of educational policy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "It's not too much of an oversimplification to say that the battle playing itself out today between the discovery-oriented view versus the didactic view is just the latest incarnation of Plato and Socrates versus the Sophists."

In 1983, the landmark report "A Nation at Risk" cited a long decline in test scores, precipitating another pendulum swing back to basics. And with that push, back-to-basics is poised to thrive in the new millennium. But while Rousseau, Dewey, Plato, and others seem on the run, they are perhaps not entirely routed by back-to-basics legions.

An example of this dichotomy can be found in Washington, which, like dozens of states, is in the middle of a massive shift to "standards based" education. Legislators have mandated that schools teach specific knowledge, and test to make sure students learn it. Sophists rule.

But Rousseau "rocks" at Glenridge Elementary School in Renton, Wash. It is one of about 40 schools across the country that are guided by Harvard professor Howard Gardner's theory of "Multiple Intelligences."

Sculpture, painting, and music are front and center for the school's 530 children, says Principal Sheryl Harmer. In math, students may do role-playing to solve the problems. The arts-centered curriculum is aimed at staying in sync with Dr. Gardner's theory that children learn through seven levels of intelligence: musical, bodily-kinesthetic, logical-mathematical, linguistic, spatial, personal, and intrapersonal.

But an opposite theory is at work 200 miles west at Washington Elementary School in Kennewick. There, the school operates according to the "Core Knowledge" theory of E.D. Hirsch Jr.

Teachers follow an outline of what children, many of them from lower-income homes, are supposed to learn each month. And it's up to the teacher to get them to learn it, whether it's all about Susan B. Anthony and the right to vote - or how to compute area in square inches.

Still, something interesting has happened at both Glenridge Elementary and Washington Elementary: The teachers have adapted both theories to better meet the needs of their students.

Glenridge spends more time on basics. Washington Elementary devotes half a day to reading - and the other half to studying the "core-knowledge sequence." Test scores are up at both schools.

"I've been doing this for 27 years," says Washington Elementary Principal David Montague. "You look around, you find the one [education theory] you think is best, then you fight like heck not to have it changed. Every 10 to 15 years there's a new bandwagon. You always have to keep in mind that it's the teacher that makes the difference. The curriculum is never going to solve your problems by itself."

If a solution exists, it probably lies with neither Plato nor Sophistry but with better teacher training, educators say.

"It's teachers, rather than theoreticians who are melding this stuff every day," says David Berliner, dean of the College of Education at Arizona State University in Tempe. "What we need are teachers who can adapt theoretical knowledge to meet their daily needs."

Even though teachers roll their eyes at new theories, educational historians say theorists like Dewey, Rousseau, and the rest are needed to push the envelope, to stir thought. It's the tension between theories that produces progress, they say.

"In this century we have gone from believing only a small fraction of children could master serious academic material to maintaining that all children can master serious material," says Patricia Albjerg Graham, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.

Dr. Tyack of Stanford concurs. "Powerful thinkers create a change of consciousness about the possibilities of education," he says. "Major thinkers like Dewey, [Thomas] Jefferson, or Rousseau make it possible for society to have a different consciousness.... It is marked by thinking and acting in ways that would have been difficult to do, or even imagine, without these new ideas. But it's not real quick.... It takes a long time to change people's minds."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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