September 14, 2006

John Dewey is No Mr. Miyagi

File this under unclear on the concept. (Hattip: Hun-blog)

I must have stumbled into an alternate universe. A place where everything is not quite right -- like the episode of Star Trek where Spock had a goatee.

Nothing else could possibly explain this article's ham-fisted attempt to justify the progressive education lunacy of John Dewey using the cognitive science behind "effortful study." The lede is buried near the end:
The connection between Toyota, John Dewey and the Algebra Project lies in the research of K. Anders Ericsson, a psychology professor at Florida State University, who has shown that doing leads to learning, and learning by doing leads to doing better.
As you hopefully recall from this recent series of posts, Ericsson's research is the foundation for our understanding that effortful study, i.e., practice until perfect, is necessary in becoming an expert in nearly every field of human endeavor, including academics. To think that this in anyway validates John Dewey's discredited claptrap is a stretch to say the least.

John Dewey, the pragmatist philosopher and originator of progressive education, harnessed the power of learning by doing three decades before Toyota. In 1895, he founded the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago. His mission was to "reinstate experience into education"; as a result, Laboratory students spent most of their day outside the classroom, engaging in activities such as sewing, carpentry and cooking. But these activities weren't simply exercises in manual labor. Rather, they were demonstrations of "active learning." "If a child realizes the motive for acquiring a skill," Dewey argued, "he is helped in large measure to secure the skill."

The purpose was to make education seem indivisible from action. "Absolutely no separation is made between the 'social' side of the work, its concern with people's activities, and the 'science,' regard for physical facts and forces," Dewey wrote in 1899, in his best-selling pamphlet "The School and Society."

To Dewey, students learned by experiencing not by being taught. In Experience and Education (1938), Dewey juxtaposed traditional and progressive perspectives:

To imposition from above is opposed expression and cultivation of individuality; to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means to attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation for a more or less remote future is opposed making the most of the opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world.

According to Dewey, students learn by experiencing. That's why he had them doing carpentry, sewing, and cooking instead of being taught the three Rs by teachers in a classroom. Dewey's mistake was that he had his children practicing carpentry, sewing, and cooking instead of practicing reading and math. They probably become good carpenters, cooks, and seamstresses instead of good readers and math nerds.

To understand why Dewey was so wrong, it helps to compare him to his modern day analogue, Mr. Miyagi of Karate Kid fame who taught Daniel-san karate by making him paint his fence, sand his floor, and wash his car. At first this "training" appears to be an elaborate ploy to skirt the child labor laws, but it turns out that our hero was actually practicing karate moves while he performed those menial task. In the movies, the karate kid eventually becomes a karate expert and kicks the asses of the Cobra Kai kids. In real life, John Dewey's students failed to learn academics by building pretty birdhouses and got their asses kicked by life.

Yet, Dewey's progressivism thrived. Child centered education is all the vogue. As the article points out, today's progressive's "teach" algebra by experiencing algebra. No, really:

Moses spent the next five years developing a completely new curriculum. He called it the Algebra Project. Instead of confronting students with abstract equations, Moses took them out into the real world, traveling around Boston in search of experiences that could demonstrate the practical uses of math. A ride on the T became a lesson in coordinate graphing and negative numbers. Neighborhood landmarks stood in for integers. When Moses taught students about displacement, he had them measure the dimensions of their own bodies. The first rule of Moses' math class was that students always had to "participate in a physical event."

His unconventional methods changed the way the students felt about math. "When you take a trip on the subway and learn about algebra," Maisha says, "what you're really doing is developing a new way of thinking. Instead of just trying to memorize these strange equations, you're busy relating the math to your own experiences. All of a sudden, you find math spilling over into other areas of your life."

Riding the subway to learn about algebra seems about the furthest thing away from actually "doing" alegebra that I can think of. And, I don't see any Mr. Miyagi subterfuge in this "training" either. Learning algebra like this, would be like Tiger Woods taking a golf cart tour of golf courses in order to experience golf instead of practicing golf from before he could walk.
Thanks to an encouraging father who happened to be a golf fanatic, Tiger took his first golf swing before he took his first steps. When he was 18 months old, his dad started taking him to the driving range. By the age of three, Tiger was better than most weekend amateurs.

This allowed Woods to get a head start on his current competitors, but what really made him great is how he practices. For starters, his routine is merciless. Rain or shine, Woods sets out. More importantly, he always makes sure his practice sessions revolve around learning by doing. He analyzes sequential snapshots of himself playing, relentlessly scrutinizes the elements of his swing, then drills these subtle alterations into his nervous system through thousands of repetitions. Of course, more practice leads to more new ideas, which leads to more practice. "Other golfers may outplay me from time to time," Woods wrote in his book, "but they'll never outwork me."

The right way to learn algebra is by "doing" algebra. Doing algebra means sitting down and solving algebra problems not engaging in hokey "real world" activities that purport to enable the student to relate the abstract concepts of algebra to things they've experienced. This isn't the kind of practice that makes experts. This is the kind of practice that just wastes time. Oddly enough, the article actually refutes its own premise, though the author appears to be oblivious to that.

[Ericsson] began looking in detail at the way people practice. He noticed that the best performers had a unique training style. They tended to downplay mindless drills and rote repetition. Instead, their practice sessions were deliberate, creative and thoughtful, like the outings of the Algebra Project or the progression of a rat through a maze. They set specific goals for themselves, continuously analyzed their progress and focused on process. "A crucial part of practicing well is that you are always learning while practicing," Ericsson says.

Solving algebra problems is neither rote repetition nor mindless drill. When will the dopey progressives get this through their thick skulls. Solving algebra problems you've just learned how to solve is exactly the kind of practice that is needed to gain expertise. Sufficient practice will lead to automaticity. Continued practice beyond automaticity will likely become mindless repetition. But any decent teacher will have moved on to the next challenge by that point.

Reading challenging texts and solving challenging math problems is not mindless rote memorization. Characterizing this kind of practice as "mindless rote" doesn't in any way justify loopy progressive theory. Is it mindless when Tiger Woods practices his swing over and over? Is it mindless when a concert violinist practices the same piece over and over? The only mindless activity I see in this entire article is taking a subway ride to learn about the coordinate system.

Finally, we have the obligatory swipe at standardized testing.

This is the paradoxical flaw of standardized testing--—in the rush to quantify learning, it discourages the sort of teaching that actually gets results. Instead of learning by doing, children are forced to memorize a random-seeming body of knowledge. Even if students pass the test, they never learn what to do with all their new information. As a result, they quickly forget the lesson plan—probably while dreaming at night.

Paradoxically, this paragraph is almost accurate. If students did in fact learn by doing and engage in sufficient practice to overlearn the material, they might have not fallen prey to the ravages of forgetfulness. However, learning through the progressive techniques of Dewey which wastes time which could have been better spent engaging in real practice, virtually ensures that the material won't be mastered and soon forgotten.

This is Dewey's legacy.


Anonymous said...

I could take your posts, post them on the online discussion boards for my asinine education master's classes, and they would be ridiculed as hopelessly naive and out of touch with the way The Children learn (you know, their multiple intelligences and all).

I recently stumbled on your blog (via Right Wing Nation); you are doing the hard work of analyzing the exact words of the progressivists and taking them to task. As a 6th grade math teacher I appreciate your efforts.

KDeRosa said...

It's like shooting fish in a barrel.

they would be ridiculed as hopelessly naive and out of touch with the way The Children learn

No doubt. The thing is though that they have no idea how kids learn as evinced in their inability to teach most kids math.

TurbineGuy said...

KDeRosa, you beat me to it (thankfully since you are a lot more articulate than I am). I had a page and a half written about the contradictions in that article, but we had to put on our gas masks before I could finish it (I am AF and we are in middle of exercise this week). Somehow I knew you would be on to it. One huge contradiction that I noted...

The author Jonah uses standardized test scores to show how "successful" Project Algebra is and then turns around and blames standardized testing for it being cut.

Ironically, a little bit of research shows that this is a false argument. Sadly Project Algebra is alive and well and still being implemented in schools across the country, despite NCLB.

Anonymous said...

I think there is a difference between effortful learning and mindless rote drill.

When I first was taught the multi-digit multiplication formula in school I got a bit muddled and thought I was meant to add the carried number and then carry out the second multiplication, rather than the opposite. I was rather puzzled as to why my answers got marked as wrong sometimes. Luckily my teacher picked this up after my first set of exercises and corrected me.

So after that I used the multiplication algorithm a lot, and had a lot of practice in doing it right.

If the teacher had never bothered to find out why I was getting some answers wrong (in fact, she probably knew it from first glance at my answers, I can't recall her name but I think she was quite experienced), then all that drill would have been mindless and a waste of time.

Part of what Tiger Woods appears to be doing when he practices is providing that feedback by things like his analying sequential snapshots of himself playing.

So repeated practice is probably mindless drilling if there is not enough feedback.

BTW, KDeRosa, I want to email you some material. Can you please email me at (the dashes can be removed)

Anonymous said...

There are two ironic points in your article. First, isn't it ironic that cutting-edge educrats with all their "research" are still stuck in 19th century ed theory? And the second one is here: "The right way to learn algebra is by "doing" algebra." Ironic that "learning by doing" is the most basic definition of constructivism, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

There is nothing "mindless" about rote memorization or drilling. Repetition is how our brains learn.

There's the connectionism lesson for the day.

Anonymous said...

In real life, John Dewey's students failed to learn academics by building pretty birdhouses and got their asses kicked by life.

Citation, please?

La Maestra said...

I must be a lousy progressive then, because I believe that there are times where rote learning is called for, and math is one of those times.


Oh well, I'll still vote for Hillary (unless McCain decides to run!) in 2008.

silvermine said...

The only person that subway thing would make sense to is a math teacher who doesn't actually like math.

But hey I'm crazy -- I think solving equations is fun.

Recetly I've been watching a math tutoring program on our local station, where kids call in and get help wih their homework. I applaud them for trying to help but it seems obvious to me that it's too little, too late for most of hte callers. So many of them can't follow the simple step-by-step logic that the tutors are trying to help them follow and they don't know simple math facts to be able to pull them all together into a cohesive whole. And I don't think it's because they didn't ride the train enough. :P