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49: How Do We Learn? How Should We Teach?

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 How Do We Learn? 

How Should We Teach?






The beginner cannot perform like the experienced professional. No one would imagine this possible. 

Starting out, we replicate the path followed by the pro. We do all the same baby steps that the pro once did, until we become expert ourselves. No other pattern or procedure is realistic. Although blind geniuses might play piano by ear, and child prodigies might compose music, these cases are rare and tell us nothing about how one would educate 99% of children. In short, learning is cumulative. We crawl, walk, run, dance, in that order.

The paradigm is the same whether we’re learning tennis, arithmetic, biology, Latin, juggling, chess, mountain climbing, accounting, history, driving, or anything else. The beginner starts at the very beginning and proceeds systematically through steps A, B, C, D, E, F, etc. It would never occur to a rational, sensible teacher to push way ahead, jumping from A to H or M, for example.  


Perversely enough, our Education Establishment routinely tries to evade the obvious blueprint, with disastrous results for millions of young students. Why?


Our top educators seem almost to prefer academic failure. We see it happening all around us; but what exactly is the mechanism? How do our so-called educators achieve their dismal effects? Are there tricks of the trade, so to speak? I’ve been struggling for years with the weird sensation that something paradoxical and backwards was going on. I wanted to figure it out.

My sense, finally, is that the Education Establishment invariably does what will produce the worst results. Isn’t that an extraordinary thing to say? And yet this conclusion has forced itself on me, and I think now I can quickly explain it to you.

Let’s look at four teaching situations that pretty much cover all of k-12 education. 

In the first two--reading and math--the fallacy is to jump ahead to the end, or pretend to, thereby causing bewilderment and low achievement. In the third and fourth situations, which apply generally to almost all subjects, the fallacy is to remain perpetually in the first days of training, to stay at A and B, which also ends with low achievement.  

All of these approaches are logically perverse, counter-intuitive, bizarre, and preposterous. It seems our educators have dedicated themselves to failure by any means possible.


Reading instruction was where I first became aware of the “future fallacy,” as I would later name it. Things that children would encounter in many years, stages that students might reach or experience a dozen years from now, were used as justification for making the childen skip A, B and C, and jump ahead to K.

This sophistry is the dark heart of the failure known as Look-say (or, later, Whole Word). Experienced readers appear to be doing certain things (e.g., recognizing entire words), the sophistry goes, so let’s make children do these things right off the bat. The more you think about this, the more insane it will seem to you. Compare someone training to be a jazz pianist by first growing a beard, sitting down at the piano, and improvising. That’s what expert pianists do, so you should start the same way. Or suppose that a surfer starts off on 20-foot waves.

Paul Witty, one of the big names in American education, presented this nonsense in its purest form circa 1950: “Teaching the preschool child the ABC's so that he can spell out words isn't generally a good idea. Good readers don't spell out words, for one thing. They learn to recognize them as whole words....Learning to pay attention to individual letters will only slow up the child's progress later.”

Note the sentence: “They learn to recognize them as whole words.” I would argue that this is not a correct description but even if it were, this process still unfolds over many years. "Learn to recognize," especially if we're talking about more than a few hundred words, takes time. Something that might not happen until high school is used as alibi for a horribly destructive action now. The sophistry occurs right in that sentence, and it unleashed a plague of literacy problems. Indeed, it’s NOT paying attention to individual letters that cripples a child’s progress forever.


Look-say had been in place for 15+ years when Witty made his pronouncement. I’ve reviewed a book by Witty where he pondered the drop in reading skills. He and his gang knew they were getting dreadful results. In my opinion, they had to know they were pushing a hoax. But they kept pushing, with the result that this country now has 50,000,000 functional illiterates. And all of this failure was made possible by the simple device of pretending that beginners would be so much better off if they skipped the baby steps. With the result that these students remained babies perpetually. 

(See “42: Reading Resouces” for more.)

In the 1960s the Frankenstein’s monster known as New Math stalked the landscape, traumatizing millions of children into innumeracy.

Here was the future fallacy in blatant form. Math majors in college (age about 20) did X, so school kids (age about 8) should do X. In this way, according to the sophistry, kids would understand the deep structure of math, not just the trivial surface. Never mind that most people don’t become math majors or do advanced math at any point in their lives. Didn’t matter. Kids had to be made familiar with set theory, geometry, algebra, matrices, symbolic logic, and--this one was really popular-- counting on bases other than 10.

Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, you taught kids to add, subtract, multiply and divide effortlessly and confidently, and then you wanted to segue into some more advanced stuff in the fifth and sixth grades. Maybe a case can be made. But that was not the story here. Kids were pushed into the heavy stuff right off the bat. They learned all about the commutative and associative functions but never did learn arithmetic! 

The whole thing was preposterous. I’ve just looked at two books written circa 1965, ostensibly for a general public, allegedly to explain the joys of New Math to parents so they can share in the fun and help their children with home work. Every page of both books bristles with charts, tables, and arrays of numbers that would stymie a high school kid. Fun for parents? Sure, like the fine print in an insurance policy. Help the kids? Hardly ever; that was one thing everybody mentions about New Math--how it drove a huge wedge between the generations. These books are grotesquely comical in the same way a car crash might seem to be in certain moods. 

The only good thing about New Math is that the whole package was so stupid and unworkable. Everybody saw this immediately. New Math, in development for decades, came and went in a few years. 

I would suggest not thinking of New Math as an odd historical aberration. Think of it as the naked aggression of educators determined to make sure nobody will learn much math. That was, in fact, the results. I believe it was, in fact, the goal. A lot of very brainy people worked on this thing for many years. Don’t we have to assume that they created more or less what they intended to create?

Here’s some historical background: Charlotte Iserbyt in her wonderful book "The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America" relates an anecdote about a math teacher who was accidently invited to a meeting of progressive educators trying to devise a curriculum to keep children from mastering math. The working title for this abomination was Modern Math. This meeting was all the way back in 1928!  

I believe that just as Modern Math must have been a precursor to New Math, so was New Math itself a precursor to everything we now call Reform Math. The educators went back into their dank laboratories and devised more subtle variations of this flop, which they introduced to the public in the 1980s. I believe the central gimmick remains the same up to the present: stir in advanced concepts with simple concepts so that children never master even basic arithmetic. There is endless chatter about the meaning of math but nobody can do any math.

PS: One of the funniest fall-outs from New and Reform Math is that math experts patronizingly preach that what they deal with daily has relevance to how we should teach kids. The comments on YouTube videos are a gold mine if you want bad education advice. This is typical: “Arithmetic is not in any way the central component of math, as we are led to believe in elementary school. I've taken 4 semesters of rigorous advanced mathematics (beyond integral calculus) and in excess of 10 engineering and physics courses applying those concepts at a top university. Almost every professor has made explicit mention of the unimportance of arithmetic computation and the importance of knowing WHY we do things.” It’s just silly. Unimportant for him, maybe, way up there beyond integral calculus. But he wants to leap to the non-sequitur that arithmetic is unimportant for kids. There’s the future fallacy in full flower. Listen to advice like this and you guarantee that most children learn little math of any kind.

(See “36: The Assault on Math” for more.) 


How do you define a beginner? Simple. They don’t know anything. 

What is 2+2? They don’t know. 1776? Never heard of it. A cell? Is that where prisoners live? Europe? What’s that? 

Age is not part of the definition. Six or sixty, a beginner is someone who just started to study a topic. The brain is empty, devoid of facts or any relevant information. The genius of our schools is that they devised methods for prolonging this null-state indefinitely. All students, of whatever age, appear to have just started. 

The content-free school. The fact-free classroom. The prohibitions against memorizing information. All of these are tools in the quest for academic nothingness.

The casual observer assumes that a person studying X for a year or two will invariably learn something about X. Not in our public schools. Children study history, science, geography and literature for years. Surely something seeps in. Something sticks. Not necessarily. Surveys and testing reveal a constant decline in real knowledge.

Two things appear to have happened. The Education Establishment, true to John Dewey’s injunction against mere learning, have resolutely worked to turn schools into fact-free zones. But that’s only half the battle. 

Then the educators had to create dozens of make-believe programs whereby students would seem to be engaged in learning, but this appearance would be a lie. Additionally, the educators had to create methods that would undercut instruction, or scramble young minds and make them incapable of receiving instruction. Just to give one example, consider Critical Thinking. This thing is contantly hailed as an important pedagogical method. But all it is in practice is empty-headed kids chatting at a very superficial level about things they know little about. (Imagine most adults having a discussion about the Rise of the Ottoman Empire.) But the apparent activity fools both kids and parents into thinking that something is going on.

But nothing is. That’s the whole point. Pretend that children are learning. But keep them perpetually at the starting line. Let them wallow in steps A and B forever. Busy is good. Actually knowing anything is not. And thus students remain always in the first days of training. Really, it’s a remarkable bait-and switch. Schools say, we’ll teach X, Y and Z. But they don’t teach X, Y, and Z. At the end, it’s as if school never happened! 

 (See “45: The Crusade Against Knowledge--The Campaign Against Memory” for more.) 

Perhaps the one most popular educational gimmick today is something called Constructivism. It can turn up in every subject, and in any grade.

The fancy way of defining Constructivism is to claim that children must construct their own new knowledge. A more down-to-earth definition of Constructivism might be that children are required to reinvent the wheel. Many, many wheels.

The prescription, whevever Constructivism turns up, is always the same: teachers must not teach what they know; they must instead build a course around what the students know (i.e., prior knowledge). Meanwhile, students must not learn what everybody else already knows; students must construct their own new versions of everything. 

Obviously, this process could take a long time. Given the great number of inventions, discoveries, facts and knowledge that the human race has acquired, you can well imagine that fifth-graders might spend years in the wilderness discovering for themselves a block of knowledge which the traditional teacher could communicate in a few hours. 

Students don’t have years?? Well, you can probably predict how very little they will construct in the available time.

And that is the prize our educators apparently seek. If students are busy reinventing the wheel, they will rarely reach the point of completing a wheel or doing anything very sophisticated with it.

It must be admitted that in some instances Constructivism could result in a deep insight into some aspect of some subject. But across the board, given the thousands of things that children need to study, Constructivism is a perfect recipe for staying at the starting line. The simplest things such as the names of the oceans, that 3 + 3 = 6, that Europe is a continent to the east of us, could be taught in rapidfire order. But not by Constructivism.

The supporters of Constructivism and other learning or cognitive strategies, as they’re known, constantly harp on the process. Information flows along this channel, and is recycled along some other channel, the learner does this, and the facilitator does that. A lot of pipes move small amount of water around, that’s one way to put it.

We could talk about cooperative learning, where children always work in groups and will never learn to think for themselves. We could talk about self-esteem and how this limits teachers from trying very hard because somebody’s feelings will be hurt. All of the methods that our educators love have the peculiar property of slowing things down, of keeping students at the starting line. Constructivism is singled out because it’s the most popular method at this time, and thus the most devastating.

(See “34: The Con in Constructivism” for more.)


Now, if you can stand it, just imagine the cumulative impact of the four strategies discussed. Let’s say a kid is 10 or 14. He can’t read worth a darn. He can’t do arithmetic without a calculator, and even then he has no confidence he has found the right answer. He hasn’t been taught any factual information to amount to anything. If asked the simplest question, such as how many stars are on the American flag, he will smile blankly and say, I don’t know. He spends his days working in little groups, preparing portfolios of things that caught his attention in magazines, chatting about things he is never encouraged to learn more about.


I think it’s clear the cumulative impact would be brutal and dehumanizing. Our Education Establishment seems to think it has the job of creating a race of menial workers and serfs, people who will end up on welfare because they don’t know how to do anything else. Why do our educators aim so low? In any case, our elite educators are reliable predictors of what doesn’t work. If they really like an idea, you know it’s bad news. Avoid it like the swine flu it is.  

One thought that haunts me is that our public schools are so debased that we no longer have any clear concept of what kids can actually do. Recall that 40 years ago Marva Collins started a school in Chicago and took what appeared to be the least qualified children in the city. She sent most of them to college. Here’s my modest proposal. If in doubt, figure out what Marva would do and copy it. Did you notice that all our great educators are people not in the Education Establishment? People such as Samuel Blumenfeld and Siegfried Engelmann. You’ll say I’m guilty of hyperbole but I really do think that, compared to these three, the entire Education Establishment hasn’t got the sense that God gave green apples.


In the process of dumbing down the country, the Education Establishment dumbed itself down. Each new generation of educators had to be less aware and less questioning than the one before, so that nobody would dare mention, or even notice, that the emperors had no clothes. Many educators built whole careers on small refinements of ideas that were never any good to start with.

What we need are educators who can stand back and acknowledge that huge mistakes were made, wrong turns were taken. We need people capable of exclaiming, “Whole Word? What kind of nut came up with that? New Math? Wow, those people were really out of their minds, weren’t they?” 





The four paradigms discussed above--jumping way ahead or staying perpetually at the beginning--are pure, that is, they are fairly easy to point out and discuss. 


There is a fifth technique every bit as destructive as the ones mentioned. But it’s not pure. It appears sporadically and randomly. It may happen one week but not the next week. It may be the fault of the textbook, the teacher, the school system, the prevailing educational philosophy, carelessness, or darker motives  So this technique is messy to analyze. I initially decided not to try.

However, I can at least define it for you. It might best be called fragmentation. It might also be called disorder and chaos. The trick here is that--even while perhaps teaching most things from A to Z--a teacher doesn’t teach anything in a logical sequence. You start with L, you mention P,  you spend a few weeks on D, you make oblique reference to B... and so it goes throughout the year. This device might guarantee that children never see the whole structure, that each of the parts will fight with the other parts, and nothing will fit together in the memory. (A typical blueprint might look like this: H, W, C, G, T, F. That is, a few items in no particular order. There are classes where children make models of the pyramids and that's how they study the Egyptians. By the simple device of never teaching A, a teacher could invalidate a whole year’s effort.)


In Reform Math, there is a popular gimmick called spiraling, a fancy term for chaos. (Teachers are told to move to the next topic even though nobody in the classroom has achieved mastery of the previous topic.) So fragmentation is actually an OFFICIAL part of some curricula. My guess is that “spiraling” is used consciously and destructively in more places than Reform Math.

In “26: How To Teach History” and “39: How To Teach Physics,” I explore the notion that there are logically ideal ways to organize every course. Typically, you want to start at the very, very beginning, at zero, at A. If you do jump ahead, you have to be sure in advance that this bit of chaos will be constructive, that it will add spice to the overall understanding of the course. A good teacher can probably make anything work. But a bad teacher might be teaching items in a disjointed way and not even realize it.

© Bruce Deitrick Price 2010