Progressive Educators and the Teaching of Facts

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I included this quote from a new book, Seven Myths About Education, in The Brilliant Report today. Some readers objected that it was unfair. What do you think? (That’s the author, Daisy Christodoulou, in the picture at left.)

“[For many who call themselves 'progressive educators,'] factual knowledge is seen as being in opposition to the kinds of abilities and thinking they want to develop. They all identify that teaching facts without meaning is unhelpful. But they all make a further assumption: that teaching facts is therefore opposed to teaching meaning. But this is not true. Factual knowledge is not in opposition to creativity, problem-solving and analysis, or indeed meaning and understanding. Factual knowledge is closely integrated with these skills. It allows these skills to happen . . . If we want pupils to have good conceptual understanding, they need more facts, not fewer.”

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8 Responses to “Progressive Educators and the Teaching of Facts”

  1. Doug Holton says:

    It seems to be a completely false claim. A straw man argument.

    Perhaps it’s telling that E.D. Hirsch likes this, and that there are no data or citations to back up any of the claims, just assertions.

    As an example, I see from other sites that a main example she criticizes is a lesson where a teacher had young students use puppets to act out Romeo and Juliet.

    There are actual research studies that show increased story and reading comprehension when using figurines, toys, and things like puppets as aids: http://psychology.clas.asu.edu/sites/default/files/1_iejee_4_1_glenberg.pdf

  2. This seems like a bit of a strawman argument. I don’t know many progressive educators that wouldn’t provide explicit content/help to a student who was struggling to understand complex material.

    I think many progressive educators do to take issue with memorization that is divorced from any context, where a student may be able to repeat back a formula, but has no idea how that formula applies to a broader context, significantly reducing the value of that information.

    I think it is much more valuable to educate within a larger context, showing how different parts of a system interact, versus simply memorizing facts about the system. Both have value, but in general I’ve seen much more of the latter within education.

    There are some situations (multiplication tables, how to tune a guitar, etc) that are difficult to approach in a non-rote-memorization fashion, but even in these situations there may be ways to focus on the patterns vs. the facts to develop a better intuitive sense of how the system works while memorizing the specific answer to a finite number of possibilities…

  3. anniempaul says:

    Dana Goldstein (on Facebook) I agree with the critic. This is a very uninformed critique of progressive pedagogy, which is about exposure to facts through experiences/project based learning, and less through rote learning, not about a fact-free education.

  4. anniempaul says:

    Robert Pondiscio (on Facebook): @Dana Perhaps not your point, but I’ll raise the same challenge I’ve made to Alfie Kohn numerous times (and which he’s never seen fit to address). If “rote memorization” is the dominant form of instruction in American schools, please take me to a school where this is happening. To your specific point, I don’t believe progressive educators are promoting a “fact-free” education. But in the main, facts and information are not seen as the driver of cognitive skills like comprehension, critical thinking, problem solving, etc. but a by-product of the skills. I see no reason to think that these skills can be directly taught; it is closer to accurate to say the skills are the by-product of the acquired knowledge. This mis-orientation is why I do not count myself as a progressive educators. One must invariably choose, I often feel, between progressive ends and progressive means. Progressive pedagogy tends to value progressive means. A knowledge-rich education tends to support progressive ends.

  5. One of my pedagogical tools is the progressive educator lens as outlined by Educational theorist John Dewey. Upon reading the quote, I was immediately shocked at the writer’s generalizations on progressive educational instruction, and was even more so after fact-checking a bit on her disapproving stance on using toy figures or dolls to role-play age-appropriate social situations. This is activity I use with great success with many kids on the autism spectrum.

    To m,e progressive education is an instructional approach by which we teach the learner to learn the facts (the content), as well as refine those very important life skills that come along with the learning content. Likewise, progressive educational lenses supports the educator’s mindset as they look to not only teach content, but to bring out talent and empower of the whole person.

    A major tenet of progressive education is creating an environment that prompts the free flow of feedback from Teacher to student and vice versa, allowing customization of instruction to the learner, and prompting the learner to think outside the box.

    If we want pupils to have good conceptual learning, we need to be able to convey these concepts to them in a variety of ways—including, for example, allowing for the use of student-centered teaching, which, when guided by the teacher, can foster small group discussion and finally whole class discussion. On a regular basis, this makes class discussion spirited; participants look forward to the free flow of ideas being exchanged. Fairfield University’s graduate education program is big on this.

    The environment that welcomes and prompts idea sharing, while helping mold the learner towards proactive civic mindedness, is an environment that I believe is bound to turn out individuals with content knowledge as well as the life skills to be able to put this content knowledge into practice.

  6. Ken Holting says:

    As I see it, there as degrees of progressivism. What the author of Seven Myths is arguing is that the extreme progressives (e.g. alternative school advocates) think facts are unimportant. The authors of the first two posts call the argument a “straw man” because they are progressives who believe in imparting *some* facts.

  7. Tom Snyder says:

    Oh boy… This is going to be a difficult one to debates, and I already feel myself about to get in trouble. The surface problem with this topic is that there is so much feel – good Rhetoric in Paul in discussing education, that’s any stance that seems to not support, for example, “student centered learning” Or “project-based learning”, is going to seem harsh, and conservative, and reactionary. I can only hope to assure you that for 10 years I taught elementary and junior high school students in a very personal, and project oriented, and creative way. But, alas, I think the authors point is extremely important. I find it curious that the commentary I have heard, not necessarily from this site, seems to be written by people who have not read her book, but have read reviews of her book. It is also curious how many reviewers refer to a strawman argument, which is her own language from the first section of her book. She anticipates that her points will be seen as such, and even helps critics to formulate their arguments against her. My only complaint with her writing is that she will capriciously use the word “All” in front of words such as progressives. That’s gets the hackles up on intellectuals who should definitely be able to stand back and dispassionately understand her point. What I find so necessary and valuable about her thinking is that, even though she doesn’t say this precisely, progressive education has been way too Self aggrandizing in the face of evidence that it has not led to greater instruction generally speaking over the last 80 years.

    I used to sigh deeply when a new principal would come to the schools where I talk and announce that we were going to work in a child centered way. That is the functional equivalent of any leader saying to her troops that are going to be working very hard at a subtle and complex task, that we are all going to be trying to be good people. It is a wonderful sentiments but it can mean almost nothing given a rigorous look at the requirements of great teaching. I know I have not gone into specifics about the importance of the authors seven main points. I used to talk about these in keynotes I did across the United States. There just isn’t room here in this comments except to say that I am saddens to be surrounded by progressives who are so astoundingly non self-critical. This goes double for my conservative friends, but I expect more from my so called liberal chatty class buddies. These questions about education are so terrifyingly real and problematic, and the inability to consider the weaknesses of the progressive program as practiced is So demonstrably unscientific and unprogressive. Please excuse the fact that I used Siri to dictate this and she takes marvelous liberties with my voice.

  8. Catherine says:

    Speaking as a parent and college instructor, I have never heard a progressive educator defend memory or memorization. I can’t tell you how many passages I’ve read condemning the “regurgitation of facts,” and I’ve seen more than one progressive educator use the even more unpleasant expression “spitting out facts.”

    What I haven’t seen, at least so far, is a blog post, article, or book by a progressive educator keenly interested in precisely what content children need to memorize or in what practice regimen would allow them do it.

    The two anti-knowledge arguments I hear most frequently are:

    * Students don’t need to memorize content because they can “look it up” on their smartphones; and

    * Students shouldn’t memorize content because knowledge is changing so rapidly that the content they memorize will be obsolete by the time they graduate from college.

    Here is Deanna Kuhn of Columbia Teachers College making the second argument:

    “Traditional answers to the question of what schools should teach children have become increasingly hard to justify. Beyond basic literacy and numeracy, it has become next to impossible to predict what kinds of knowledge people will need to thrive in the mid-21st century.”

    “Basic literacy and numeracy” is a very small body of knowledge!

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