Wednesday, March 05, 2014

lack of individualization is the 19th century school model's fundamental defect

publicradio |  Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham wrote a book called Why Don't Students Like School? The book is complex and fascinating - and 228 pages - but you can basically boil the answer down to this: Students don't like school because school isn't set up to help them learn very well.

The first thing to know is that everyone likes to learn.

"There is a sense of satisfaction, of fulfillment, in successful thinking," writes Willingham.

But it's not fun to try to learn something that's too hard.

"Working on a problem with no sense that you're making progress is not pleasurable," writes Willingham. "In fact, it's frustrating."

Working on a problem that's too easy is no fun either. It's boring.

What people enjoy is working on problems that are the right level of difficulty.

"The problem must be easy enough to be solved yet difficult enough to take some mental effort," Willingham writes. He calls this the "sweet spot" of difficulty.

The problem with most schools is that kids don't get to their sweet spot enough. There are 20 other kids in the class - or maybe 30 or even 40. Everyone is in a slightly different place. Some kids get it and want to move ahead. Others are struggling to catch up and need more explanation. It's a challenge for teachers. The best teachers try to meet each student's needs. But a lot of teachers end up teaching to the middle. That leaves a lot of kids bored, or frustrated, or both.

"I think teachers are acutely aware that this is an enormous problem," Willingham said in an interview. "I don't think it's easily solved."

You can trace the roots of the problem back to the Industrial Revolution. That's when American public schools as we know them today got started.

Prior to the rise of factories and cities, most people lived on farms and in small villages. Children were typically educated in one-room schoolhouses. "In such environments, education could be individualized," says Angeline Lillard, a professor at the University of Virginia who has written about the history of education.

Not everything was perfect in the one-room school. But if you were 10 and needed to learn addition, that's what the teacher taught you. If you were 5 and already knew how to write your name, you'd move on with the older kids.

Then in 1847 in Quincy, Massachusetts a new kind of school appeared on the scene. Instead of being together in one room, students were separated into classrooms based on how old they were. It was seen as a more efficient way to educate children.

"The whole country was so taken by this idea that we could improve through industrialization," says Lillard. "Mass production was going to be the wings through which we could fly into the future. And schools were no different."

By the early 20th century, some education experts were actually referring to schools as factories. Elwood Cubberley, dean of Stanford University's School of Education from 1917 to 1933, put it bluntly: Schools were "factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life."

"What we lost from the one-room schoolhouse days was individualization," says Lillard. "We replaced that with an expectation that all children be the same."

Today it's a big challenge to deal with the 10-year-olds who haven't learned addition; they're supposed to be doing fifth-grade math. There's not a good way to deal with the 5-year-olds who are ready to move ahead either.