Advice for Obama on education
If you know anyone who has the President's ear, please pass on to him that both the problem and solution are simple if anyone wants to look. Perhaps Governor Palin could pay him a friendly call. Both Democrats and Republicans need to understand this.
The problem started back in the early 1900s. Before that, eighth graders often knew more than do college students today. The reason? Educators believed that knowing was important and that classroom activity caused it--intent and method. And while it ignores the issue of method, the No Child Left Behind Act has returned all US schools to the bar used before 1900: Do students know? To find out, ask them questions.
But in the early 1900s, some complained that the curriculum was outdated, criticizing it as "pre-ordained" and imposed by "authoritarian" methods. A trend began called Progressive Education for which John Dewey, a comprehensive and appealing mind, was the spokesman. In his 1919 book (available online) titled Democracy and Education, on page 36 he specifically discards the basic idea of academic learning."'The development within the young of the attitudes and dispositions necessary to the continuous and progressive life of a society cannot take place by direct conveyance of beliefs, emotions, and knowledge. It takes place through the intermediary of the environment." He continues with 'The deeper and more intimate educative formation of disposition comes, without conscious intent, as the young gradually partake of the activities of the various groups to which they may belong." He advocates communication, training, fostering, nurturing, cultivating, setting up conditions, direction, control, and especially guidance, declaring "We never educate directly but indirectly by means of the environment." Get the environment and influences right, osmosis does the work, and generations of teachers breathe a sigh of relief, finding it a whole lot easier than requiring actual learning. They exclaim instead, "Didn't we have a good experience today?"
Relying on osmosis ignores a crucial brain fact: we refer to our explicit mental plans to do anything in the world or understand it. When the guiding hand is removed from our shoulder and we must soldier on by ourselves, what do we do? We return to the mental plan we formed. If we kept nothing (though complying with the "hand"), we're helpless and lost, which describes many dropouts. We lose very few who are proud of knowledge they've mastered. We lose very many who are confused, unsure of their ability to learn, and haphazard with their mental plans.
The remedy is a different manner of teaching. To engage long-term memory, learning must first be encoded firmly in short-term memory, recalled at once, and then recalled at expanding time intervals. Millions of times a day, as student minds encounter new knowledge, these steps are ignored, the knowledge never reaches long-term memory, and tens of millions of students forget almost as fast as they learn.
Everything needed is under teachers' control and the steps are easy once the end is clear: assimilating a comprehensive body of permanent, mastered knowledge. First we realize what we've lost, and then decide that we want it back.