I get it. I do.
These breathless stories never fail to flush out the educationally naive. As if wishful thinking alone will improve the instructional value of children's play time activities.
This kind of child-centered learning has been tried for a very long time and the improved learning has yet to materialize. The technology is certainly there. But no one seems to understand instruction well enough to use all that technology productively.
Even I find this surprising.
And yet a thirty year old critique of child-centered education techniques still remains valid today.
[C]hild-centered approaches have evolved sophisticated ways of managing informal educational activities but they have remained at a primitive level in the design of means to achieve learning objectives.
Child-centered approaches rely almost exclusively on a form of instruction that instructionally-oriented approaches use only when nothing better can be found.
This primitive form of instruction may be called relevant activity. Relevant activity is what teachers must resort to when there is no available way to teach children how to do something, no set of learning activities that clearly converge on an objective. This is the case, for instance, with reading comprehension. Although there are some promising beginnings, there is as yet no adequate "how-to-do-it" scheme for reading comprehension. Accordingly, the best that can be done is to engage students in activities relevant to reading comprehension-for instance, reading selections and answering questions about the selections. Such activities are relevant in that they entail reading comprehension, but they cannot be said to teach reading comprehension.
The contrast of sophistication in management and naiveté in instruction is visible in any well-run open classroom. The behavior that meets the eye is instantly appealing-children quietly absorbed in planning, studying, experimenting, making things-and one has to marvel at the skill and planning that have achieved such a blend of freedom and order. But look at the learning activities themselves and one sees a hodge-podge of the promising and the pointless, of the excessively repetitious and the excessively varied, of tasks that require more thinking than the children are capable of and tasks that have been cleverly designed to require no mental effort at all (like exercise sheets in which all the problems on the page have the same answer). The scatteredness is often appalling. There is a little bit of phonics here and a little bit of phonics there, but never a sufficiently coherent sequence to enable a kid to learn bow to use this valuable tool. Materials have been chosen for sensorial appeal or suitability to the system of management. There is a predilection for cute ideas. The conceptual analysis of learning problems tends to be vague and irrelevant, big on name-dropping and low on incisiveness.
Unless thinkers and experimenters committed to child-centered education become more sophisticated about instruction and start devoting more attention to designing learning activities that actually converge on objectives, they are in danger of becoming completely discredited. That would be too bad. Child-centered educators have evolved a style of school life that has much in its favor. Until they develop an effective pedagogy to go with it, however, it does not appear to be an acceptable way of teaching disadvantaged children.
The tools at educators' disposal have improved dramatically. And yet educators don't seem to know how to use these tools to improve instruction. It must be the pedagogy, the instructional know-how, that is lacking. I can't think of any thing else.
Teaching beginning skills to children is often a mindless and dull endeavor. Effective practice requires lots of repetition. And, repetition is boring (at least for the adults teaching the skills). You know what are good at mind-numbing repetitive tasks? Computers. It doesn't take a genius to see the potential.