Another ’email exchange’ with Mike Goldstein

From Mike’s new blog, Puzzl_ED, I take this from today’s posting: Deeper Learning Gets Deep Sixed 

Mike writes:

As a public policy grad student 15 years ago, I had Tom Loveless.  He was great.  Basically, he called b.s. on a ton of ed policy fads.  This didn’t always endear him to other ed policy folks, who promoted the fads.
Tom is at it again.  This time he takes on “Deeper Learning” in a blog he wrote for Brookings Institute:
My hope is that readers of this Chalkboard post will be skeptical when encountering deeper learning in the future.  I will describe two examples of deeper learning that readers should find troubling.  I will not offer a thorough critique of deeper learning or its philosophical kin.  For that, I urge you to read E.D. Hirsch’s The Schools We Need: And Why We Don’t Have Them.  Published in 1996, the book pre-dates today’s deeper learning fad but convincingly rebuts its twentieth century ancestors, showing not only that these anti-knowledge movements lack anything resembling evidentiary support for their claims, but that they also, in disparaging academic content taught in public schools, exacerbate social inequality.  The premise is simple.  If public schools don’t teach algebra or chemistry or history or great literature or how to write well—the old-fashioned learning that has been around for centuries and remains high status knowledge in most cultures—rich kids will get it somewhere else.  Poor kids won’t.

And I reply:

Mike,

I guess I’m getting to be an awful scold, curmudgeon, grouch, kvetch (all those words because I can’t seem to find the right one for me, cynic may be best) perhaps I’ve become (perhaps I always was) just someone who puts down most of what he reads of others (except of course my beloved classics). That was my reaction to Tom’s piece (as earlier to that of your friend, Jal, also at Harvard).  
But when Tom writes, this as one example (I could give many more!)

[Hirsch’s] premise is simple.  If public schools don’t teach algebra or chemistry or history or great literature or how to write well—the old-fashioned learning that has been around for centuries and remains high status knowledge in most cultures—rich kids will get it somewhere else.  Poor kids won’t.

I really do have to smile to myself, poor Tom, that he and others (you?), people who should know better, still believe this sort of thing. First of all there never was/nor is there such a thing, at least as he describes it, as “old fashioned learning,” and certainly nothing that is centuries old. In respect to our schools nothing’s been around for centuries. It was hardly one century ago that most kids even started to go to school for as long as 12 years. The modern school movement, if there is such a thing as opposed to the “old fashioned” one, is mostly the way it is, not because we’ve abandoned something, but because now for the first time we do have most kids in school through high school (well not quite, as more than one quarter of them drop out before finishing) and we’re obviously painfully struggling (witness the number of so-called reforms during the past 50 years or so) while trying to find our what we should be doing with them. We still don’t know (other of course than your “no-excuses” schools in the inner cities!). Do you really think that algebra, chemistry, history, literature et al. are the answer? Hirsch. and evidently Tom and I’m sure others, imagine, I guess, a past “golden age” when kids did learn algebra, chemistry, history, great literature, writing et al. Well as I have said over and over again (hence scold, grouch etc) there never was such a age. Most kids never did learn these things in school. Private schools may have taught these sorts of subjects to the privileged few, perhaps even for a couple of centuries, since the founding of the country, and they’re still doing it today. That’s exactly what they fed me at private school in the forties. In my own case what I probably needed was some “deep learning,” whatever that may be, something that took me and what I was with all my warts and deficiencies and very few talents and abilities, into account and helped me to find something good within myself, a potential on which to build. That never happened in school, but I sure got a lot of algebra, chemistry, history etc. all of which I forgot as soon as I left the class or school environment. If I know any history, American history, now, today, it’s all in spite of the American history course in high school, which was not “deep” but the most shallow of all the learning that I’ve ever encountered. And the irony is that it was taught by Doc Howe who went on to become a beloved and well respected professor at the Harvard Ed School, who wrote great books about education, and one who, perhaps (I don’t know this) became a promoter of that particular form of deep learning called “learning for understanding,” that one being the child, was it? of Howard Gardner?
P

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