When I was a kid, school was simple. We sat in tidy rows and sounded out “The cat sat on the mat,” and learned to add 4 and 3. Most of the teachers were kind and good. None had ever heard of critical thinking skills, multiple learning styles, emotional intelligence or collaborative learning. Despite their ignorance, most of us learned to read and write. School was fun, but orderly. It was widely believed that the principal, Mrs. Murphy, had a spanking machine in her office.
I would never say that school was better in the good old days. But the classroom hadn’t yet been taken over by educational pseudo-science. Today, education systems are in the grip of wave after wave of faddish, mostly unsubstantiated ideas about how children learn and how they should be taught. The champions of these ideas promise that they can teach us how to turn our students into smarter, better, more creative citizens who have the tools to thrive in the 21st century, which will be a century like none the world has ever known.
New ideas crash upon the system at regular intervals, engulfing teachers, schools and entire ministries of education in jargon-ridden floods of good intentions, bold initiatives, dubious research and wishful thinking. Good, experienced teachers roll their eyes, pretend to comply and carry on.
Now, one teacher has struck back. Tom Bennett’s Teacher Proof: Why Research in Education Doesn’t Always Mean What it Claims, is a witty, energetic demolition job on what passes for modern pedagogic science. He’s British, but the education fads and follies he describes have swept through Canada and the United States as well.
Take the theory that there isn’t just one kind of intelligence, but many. The originator of this theory was Howard Gardner, who argued that intelligence can be spatial, linguistic, logical-mathematical, kinesthetic and so on. A related idea is that kids have different learning styles, and that teachers should adapt their methods to each style. These theories are widely thought to be grounded in the latest neuroscience. In fact, there is zero science to support them. They are assertions that are essentially untestable – and the evidence that they can make classroom teaching more effective simply does not exist. The same goes for emotional intelligence, an appealing concept arguing that “emotional competence” is distinct from old-style intelligence and can be modified in the school environment.
It’s easy to see why these theories are appealing. We’d like to think that every kid is special, with his own strengths. We’re also wedded to the notion of egalitarianism – the idea that every child can have an equal shot at success, if only we nurture her talents in the right way. This is what Mr. Bennett calls the “magic bean” syndrome: “People want to believe that there are magic ways to solve complex problems,” he says in Teacher Proof.
Some of these fads are harmless, but some are not. Mr. Bennett has a special loathing for “collaborative learning” – the assumption, now deeply entrenched, that everything is done better in groups. He calls it an invitation to misbehaviour, a recipe for disguised inactivity, unequal loading and unfair assessment. He drips with scorn for “the self-evidently intellectually bereft idea that children learn best from other children” and the equally loony idea that teachers should “stop telling them things they don’t know.”
Mr. Bennett isn’t arguing that all kids should be treated the same, that they they can never learn from each other or that group work is never useful. He’s arguing that there are no magic beans. Armchair experts should stop telling experienced teachers how children learn, and how to teach them how to learn. “I have some strong opinions about this,” he says. “I suspect that children learn when they are told stuff, and forced in some way to remember it, and practise it.”
Education is rife with advocacy passing as research. Nowhere is this more true than with our contentious, emotional and awesomely expensive foray into all-day kindergarten. Anxious parents who want the best start for their children (as well as free daycare) are all for it, understandably. According to the kindergarten lobby (which includes most provincial ministries of education), depriving our children of full-day kindergarten is tantamount to child abuse.
“There is powerful new evidence from neuroscience that the early years of development from conception to age 6, particularly for the first three years, set the base for competence and coping skills that will affect learning, behaviour and health throughout life,” B.C.’s Education Ministry says on its website, quoting research from Ontario. What the website doesn’t say is that there’s no evidence at all that early childhood education makes any difference to children’s long-term outcomes. Sadly, even all-day kindergarten is not a magic bean.
“There is definitely a lot of neuro-garbage in the education market,” Daniel Willingham, a University of Virginia psychologist who is an expert on science and education, says on his blog. And there are lots of of vested interests in perpetuating it. A large industry of education consultants, advisers and academics – not to mention publishers and businesses selling everything from seminars and textbooks to interactive smart boards – makes a living off these magic beans. Much of the research claiming that the beans work is remarkably shabby. But, he writes, “universities are reluctant to blow the whistle on the whole charade because schools of education – second-rate or not – bring tuition dollars.”
Please remember this the next time you hear the phrase “critical thinking skills.” It doesn’t really matter what they are or whether your kid has them. What matters is whether she can read and write.