I made it through about ten minutes of Chris Lehmann
's keynote speech at this year's NECC entitled Progressive Pedagogy and the 21st Century
. Nothing you haven't seen before, but here's an embedded link for you diehards.
Lehmann is the principal of the Science Leadership Academy
(SLA). SLA is a Philadelphia-based magnet high school which claims to be, not unsurprisingly, an "inquiry-driven, project-based 21st Century school with a 1:1 laptop program." SLA also makes available its 2007 Family Night Book
(PDF) for prospective students and their families. Caveat Emptor.
The Family Handbook and Lehman's speech paint a rosy picture of progressive education and technology. You're supposed to get the impression that progressive education is simply super and adding technology takes it one step higher -- to the super-duper level.
Normally, at this point I'd criticize the inquiry-driven, project-based brand of progressive-education practiced at SLA, but SLA has already done the heavy-lifting for me with its Family Handbook.
The Family handbook helpfully gives us actual examples of its student projects making it clear that Lehmann's lofty rhetoric doesn't survive its contact with reality.
According to the Family Handbook:
Although student projects, in general, generate more student interest they also often have involved multiple steps and drafts and can, quite often, require a great deal more effort than just studying for a test. One of the first things students realized when they first come to SLA is that projects here are different. The key to this difference lies in a concept that the faculty employs to create curriculum called “Backward Design.” Teachers in each course ask the question – “What are the enduring understandings students should have when they leave this class?” Teachers then create projects that can only be completed by showing both the skills and knowledge that are deemed to be critical to master the subject and demonstrate that deep level of understanding.
Furthermore, "the primary assessment of student learning is through their projects" (p
So let's take a look at one of these projects from the Family Handbook. I'm going to assume that this is a project that SLA is proud of and that the student example demonstrates mastery of both the skills and knowledge that are critical to master the subject and demonstrate a deep level of understanding.
The project comes from page 10 of the Family Handbook and pertains to African-American History. The project is:
To write a letter as the president of an abolitionist society to the group’s members upon hearing the decision in the Dred Scott case. Your letter should explain the decision, your perspective as a leader of the abolitionist cause, and what you want your membership to do about the decision. The content of the letter is restricted to information available in 1857.
It appears that the student is expected to consult the Supreme Court's 1857 Scott v Sanford
decision (54 glorious pages of mid 19th century prose), and perhaps other secondary sources, and construct a sensible interpretation of the decision in light of pre-Civil war historical events like an expert historian might do. That's a tall order for a novice student lacking the deep-structured well of domain knowledge possessed by the historian. Lacking this domain knowledge, we would expect a superficial analysis of the decision focusing on surface features of the decision rather than the more important abstract, functional features needed for an expert analysis of the problem.
A decent high-school level analysis of Dred Scott might go something like this:
Briefly, the Dred Scott decision is important because it upset the political compromise at the federal level (the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act) which served to limit the spread of slavery. Each new state would now be able to determine for itself whether slavery would be permitted within its borders under the doctrine of popular sovereignty. At this time in U.S. history, the population of the western territories was growing rapidly and the U.S. was growing rapidly as territories petitioned for statehood. This rapid growth threatened to upset the existing balance between slave states and free states which maintained a gridlocked Senate. As long as the Senate was gridlocked, the North would not be able to pass a constitutional amendment banning slavery in all the states. The North was content with this arrangement as long as slavery was contained in the existing slave states and, thus, a political compromise had been reached which permitted the admission of free states and slave states in equal proportion. The Dred Scott decision threw out this political compromise in favor of popular sovereignty. Thus, the Dred Scott decision threatened to upset the existing political balance, would permit the growth of slavery, and would make it impossible to amend the Constitution to make slavery illegal in the U.S.
(This is my synthesis of about a half dozen relevant secondary sources)
A superficial analysis of Dred Scott, in contrast, would focus on the plight of the slave, Dred Scott, who was seeking his freedom in federal court. A superficial analysis would focus on Dred Scott and not the larger issue--the spread of slavery. With this in mind, let's take a look at the example student project that SLA chose to include in its handbook:
These past few months have been busy, with major changes being implemented in government decisions. In the Supreme Court, a case has recently been heard that affects our mission to help reverse the plight of African-Americans in this country. This case goes against our values as Pennsylvanians, Philadelphians, and abolitionists, and our beliefs in human rights.
In the case of Dred Scott v Sanford, the courts unfortunately favored Mrs. Emerson, Mr Scott’s “owner”. While under the rule of his master, Mr. Scott was taken to live in Illinois state and Wisconsin territory, respectively, both of which are free. Mr. Scott pleaded that since he had lived in those areas, he was entitled to his freedom, because it was illegal for him to be living there and be enslaved at the same time. The court eventually decided that Mr. Scott was not a citizen, being of the African persuasion, and therefore had no right to sue in a federal court. They went further as well, stating that our U.S. Congress has no right to declare certain states free and 0thers slave-owning.
This decision promotes the message that African Americans have no rights. In the majority write-up, Chief Justice Roger Taney writes: “They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order; … so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” That statement is pure fiction. Negroes have had rights in our commonwealth for decades. One of our African American members, Mr. Forten, is a sail maker, and makes his living through his own business. He enjoys the right to own property and to make a profit. Mr. Forten would not benefit from being forced into backbreaking labor daily with insufficient food. No one would. The idea that slavery is beneficial to the slave is preposterous. No human would think it in his favor to be sold like a table and to work from sunrise to sunset, and then not get to reap a single seed he has sown.
Family Handbook, p
This is a superficial analysis. The analysis focuses on the specific facts of the case, rather than the larger issue--the spread of slavery--presented by the decision. The student seems unaware that the (federal) citizenship issue was only important because Dred Scott was trying to gain redress in federal court based on diversity jurisdiction which required the plaintiff Scott to be a citizen of a different state than the defendant Sanford. The student fixates on the inflammatory language in the decision regarding plaintiff's citizenship which was merely of procedural importance. The analysis fails to cover any of the important issues presented by the decision, the historical context of the case, and why the case is historically important.
We shouldn't be surprised by the student's analysis. The student is a novice and is being asked to create a new interpretive narrative of facts stemming from the Dred Scott decision. The student, unlike the historian, is not an expert in pre-civil war history and how our republican form of government operates. The student lacks the background knowledge of the expert. Lacking this background knowledge, the student is going to have a difficult time separating the important facts from the unimportant facts, accessing what little relevant knowledge he possesses from his memory with the speed and accuracy needed to perform the analysis. The result is that the novice student is likely to focus on the surface features of the problem, rather than the abstract functional features of the problem that are needed to analyzes the problem. This is exactly what happened.
More importantly, the student's "inquiry" failed to teach the student what was supposed to be learned about the Missouri compromise, the Nebraska-Kansas act, bleeding Kansas, and all the other issues presented by slavery before the civil war. This wasn't supposed to be some silly busy-work project. This "project" was supposed to be "the primary assessment of student learning" showing "both the skills and knowledge that are deemed to be critical to master the subject and demonstrate that deep level of understanding." I think the project shows just the opposite. The student failed to acquire a deep understanding of the issues which was the entire object of the project.
The project continues with the student's recommendation for what the abolitionist society should do in light of the decision.
We must protest this unethical decision. Our society wishes its members to petition to lawmakers on the fairness of this ruling. The Chair of the Committee on the Judiciary in the Senate is one James Bayard Jr. of Delaware, a Democrat. His counterpart in the House of Representatives is George S. Houston, a Democrat hailing from Alabama. We beseech you to write to these men and protest this injustice! Help our brother in bonds who should rightfully be free. Every letter sent raises our chances to help Mr. Scott.
We thank you for your dutiful support of our efforts to help improve the condition of African Americans in our country and this Commonwealth. Many voices blend together to make a choir! With all of your voices singing, we know we make beautiful music. Please continue in your support so that one day we might all be free.
Petitioning the legislature's judiciary committee isn't going to accomplish much, especially for a 7-2 Supreme Court decision. And nevermind that the pre-civil war Democrats were mostly for the expansion of slavery, especially the southern Democrats, like the Senate member the student recommends petitioning. Again, the project shows that the student did not gain a deep understanding of the issues. A better answer would have been suggesting that its members persuade people to flood the new territories to affect the vote on whether slavery would be permitted under popular sovereignty which was the result of the decision.
Treating the student like a junior historian isn't going to make the student think like an historian. The student lacks the requisiste domain knowledge and the understanding of the abstract functional relationships inherent therein needed to perform the kind of analysis that an historian would be able to perform. This project isn't going to aid the student in acquiring that domain knowledge or give the student any practice thinking about the abstract relationahips which might have been gained by conducting a real analysis of the historical facts and the decision. Rather, the student wasted time conducting a superficial analysis which ignored all the relevant historical facts. The student missed a valuable opportunity to think about the important functional relationships presented by the exercise because the student was asked to create new content which is outsude his ability as a novice. This student didn't even gain practice in analyzing like an expert because he didn't analyze like an expert would have. It's a charade.
The fact that SLA included this project in the Family Handbook as an exemplary project is telling. This example supposedly shows the superior understanding supposedly conferred by the project-based inquiry pedagogy favored by SLA. Instead, what the example shows is that the "pedagogical" tail is wagging the "student learning" dog. That the student hasn't demonstrated a deep understanding isn't important. What is important is that SLA gets to teach according to its ideological bias.
It is somewhat embarrassing that SLA doesn't understand the difference between deep understanding and superficial understanding. Anyone can google "dred scott" and read the hits. But, it takes someone with some domain knowledge to separate the unimportant facts from the important ones and to synthesise the important facts into a good analysis. Sadly, this SLA student is no closer to that goal than he was before the project.Update:
Chris Lehmann stops by in the comments
to provide a lengthy rebuttal of my arguments re SLA and this particular project. Chris actually advances the discussion and doesn't just give us talking points, whcih is a good thing. I'm tied up for the rest of the day and won't be able to respond until later. Play nice until then.
Update II: Here is my response