Memorizing and drilling students, once thought out of fashion, is now back in vogue in schools across the country. In the wake of the “No Child Left Behind” act, the emphasis of teaching has shifted to basic skills, and to increasing performance on state-wide standardized multiple choice tests. And while many children, especially at middle class public schools, are scoring better on standardized tests, some educators are starting to wonder if these results might not be telling the whole story.
In his book The Global Achievement Gap: Why Even Our Best Schools Don’t Teach the New Survival Skills Our Children Need – and What We Can Do About It, Dr. Tony Wagner questions the wisdom of the traditional teaching approach and the apparent excellence of suburban elementary, middle and high schools. It is an important book to read for parents and educators alike.
Dr. Wagner believes that even the best public schools spend too much class time on memorizing content and drilling on basic skills, and he suggests that this leaves students without the thinking skills and real, meaningful knowledge they need to succeed in life. He writes of his decades of experience as a teacher, researcher and education policy advisor:
What I have seen in some of our best public schools over the past decade is that while Johnny and Juan and Leticia are learning how to read, at least at a basic level, they are not learning how to think or care about what they read; nor are they learning to clearly communicate ideas orally and in writing. They memorize names and dates in history, but they cannot explain the larger significance of historical events. And they may be learning how to add, subtract, and multiply, but they have no understanding of how to think about numbers. Not knowing how to interpret statistics or gauge probability, many students cannot make sense of the graphs and charts they see every day in the newspaper. They are required to memorize (and usually quickly forget) a wide range of scientific facts, but very few know how to apply the scientific method—how to formulate a hypothesis, test it, and analyze the results. Finally, I have observed that the longer our children are in school, the less curious they become.
Dr. Tony Wagner
He quotes a scientist from MIT, who describes his two sons’ experience in science class in 4th grade at one of the most acclaimed public schools in the country:
They went to the same school and had the same teacher. … My eldest son had a great experience. His class went over to the pond at Mount Auburn Cemetery and took samples from the muck. They brought them back to school and studied what they found. They discovered all kinds of creatures there –ones that even I hadn’t seen! It was great, ‘hands-on’ science, and it really motivated my son.
But my second son’s experience was totally different. Now all the kids had to take the MCAS test [annual standardized test required of all Massachusetts schools], and the teachers felt they couldn’t take the time for the ‘fun stuff.’ They felt they couldn’t take the time to collect and study the muck. They had to prepare fall the kids for the tests.
I worry about the future of science in this country… For kids to get passionate about science, they have to get their hands dirty—literally. They have to have labs where they study things in depth and learn to observe, instead of just memorizing facts from a textbook. The kids who take my intro lab courses today have gotten top scores on all the Advanced Placement science courses in their high schools, but they don’t know how to observe. I ask them to describe what they see in the microscopes, and they want to know what they should be looking for—what the right answer is.
Dr. Tony Wagner
In our view, this is one of the best summaries of what is wrong in education today: children memorize words, but don’t learn about the world.
Mr. Wagner continues with an even more alarming observation, namely, that the public education establishment—from educators to policy makers, from researchers to concerned business men—is not even asking the right questions to address the problem: “The only debate taking place about education in America today is simply whether to modify certain provisions of NCLB [the No Child Left Behind education act.] Few question what students are being taught or how.”
Yet these are exactly the questions an intelligent parent ought to ask of potential schools: Why are you teaching—what is the goal of your education? What are you teaching my child? And how are you teaching it? If you share our belief that children need to be engaged at school, that they need to care about what they learn, that the content of education matters (=what children learn), as does the pedagogy (=how children learn), then come and observe in our Montessori elementary school and Montessori middle school programs. You’ll discover an education like no other, and may just decide that it is time to question your own child’s educational options and explore Montessori for your child.