Friday, July 31, 2015

Creative teaching readings July 31st 2015: Noam Chomsky/ Guy Claxton and John Dewey and much more!

By Allan Alach

I welcome suggested articles, so if you come across a gem, email it to me at

Making Learning Visible: Doodling Helps Memories Stick
The practice also makes student learning visible and provides a valuable formative assessment tool. If a student sketches an interesting side note in the lesson, but misses the big themes, that will show up in her drawing. And when students share their drawings with one another, they have the chance to fill in the gaps in their knowledge, and drawings, while discussing the key ideas. Going over the drawings also solidifies the information for students.

Divide and Rule
Why are we stuck with politicians who think they are education experts?
A mark of a successful primary school career is, according to the Conservatives, the ability to do long division. As our privately-educated Education Secretary Nicky Morgan explained, long division is at the heart of giving every child the chance to master the basics and succeed in life,something that is a fundamental dutyof government.

Secret Teacher: Elizabeth is 12 and homework is stealing her childhood
What are we doing to our children?
I received a phone call from one of my tutees, Elizabeth, at 10pm one night last week. She was
crying, panicking about an end-of-year assessment she was due to take the next day. She apologised for calling so late, but said she needed to run through a topic wed covered a few weeks back she knew she wouldnt be able to fall asleep otherwise. She is 12 years old.
Education: the Next Corporate Frontier
Wake up people.
Education has profound implications for the economy, for human wellbeing, and for the future of life on this planet. It is about both what and how we teach children. Do we want private investors and corporations to decide that? If not, then those of us in the new economy and environmental movements need to join our voices to those of the education activists and resist further privatization.

Noam Chomsky: Bubble Tests Yield Meaningless Rankings
“So youre giving some kind of a rank, but its a rank thats mostly meaningless, and the very ranking itself is harmful. Its turning us into individuals who devote our lives to achieving a rank, not to doing things that are valuable and important. Its highly destructive. This is elementary education, so you are trying to train kids this way, and its very harmful.

More on My Beef with the Term "Instructional Leader.”
Another Bill Ferriter article:
“Can I push your thinking for a minute?
I'd like to suggest that learning teams -- NOT school principals -- should be the primary source of instructional leadership in PLCs.  I'd also like to suggest that using titles like "the instructional leader" to describe the role of the principal in a PLC is incongruous with the core principles of professional learning communities.”

Why the Drive to Prepare Students to 'Compete Globally' Entirely Misses the Point
Another hard hitting article by Peter Greene about the USA but which is applicable everywhere else.
“We aren't losing jobs because we can't "out-innovate, out-educate or out-build" the rest of the worldbut because we don't have enough people willing to work for far less money in far crappier conditions. (Even if we were, you don't raise people who can out-innovate anyone by forcing students through a one-size-fits-all, test-driven straightjacket of an education program; even China understands that.)”

Can a quick auditory test predict future reading ability?
This article by Stephen Krashen debunks yet another dubious idea. Reading expert Brian Cambourne’s pithy summary:Another example of absurd research drawing absurd conclusions resulting in what Ken Goodman calls the pedagogy of the absurd.
Beware - we can expect non-educators driving education reform to seize upon this as an another reason to test young children.
“The claim has been made that a short, 30 minute test, can predict future reading success. I argue here that this test "that can look in to a child's (reading) future" (Turner, 2015) only predicts the child's performance on measures of phonological awareness and other non-reading tasks, not reading comprehension.”

This weeks contributions from Bruce Hammonds:

Project-Based Learning vs. Problem-Based Learning vs. X-BL
Project based learning and problem based learning how different are they?
“The term "project learning" derives from the work of John Dewey and dates back to William Kilpatrick, who first used the term in 1918. At BIE, we see project-based learning as a broad category which, as long as there is an extended "project" at the heart of it, could take several forms.”

Special Topic / "Best Practice"The Enemy of Better Teaching
‘Research and practical experience suggest that focusing on continual improvement of teaching is more effective than imitating best practices.
The term best practice is widely used in education by practitioners, researchers, politicians, and product advocates. "We believe in using best practices." "Our teachers need more access to best practices." "Our product is based on best practices." These claims sound good, except there's no consensus on what practices are “best.'

Methods that Matter: Six Structures for Best Practice Classrooms
And in contrast Teaching Best Practices’ – a readings study guide for an excellent book.
“Methods that Matter argues passionately that teaching does matter and that the methods teachers employ not only affect student achievement but also condition the quality of human relationships in the classroomand beyond.” See book in following link.

Teaching Best Practices - a book in line with creative teaching in contrast to most current 'best practice’.
Authors Marilyn and Harvey
Bruce’s latest blog posting:
“This is, as mentioned, a very practical book based around the world of ‘realexperts classrooms teachers who develop their programmes around their students experience and expression. For schools who want to develop personalised authentic teaching this is a book that will help them to develop quality learning that will be hard to criticize.”

From Bruce’s ‘goldie oldies’ file:

The learning brain
An oldie, referencing Guy Claxton:
“Although the structure and how the brain works are interesting to learn about what is more important is to consider how we can create the conditions, or the environment, to ensure we develop all the potential that lies within each individual brain. The brain is now seen as a open system that is continually learning, for better or worse, through continual feedback. And, to make teaching challenging, no two brains are alike.”

Do leaders prefer ‘dogs'?
“The dog is usually the first to get lots of affectionate attention. When questioned why, the reply is, 'the dog is always so happy to see me', 'the dog never talks back'.In other words the dog is a 'suck up'.
It seems if we aren't careful we can treat people at work like dogs by rewarding those who heap unthinking admiration upon us. In return people learn to 'suck up' to us.

Too much reliance on 'experts' and not enough common sense
Too much reliance on ‘experts?
“It seems that teachers respect what real people, like themselves, do in classrooms. All too often todays facilitators are presenting ideas designed by a distant group of ‘expertswho have long since forgotten the white heat and creative confusion that teaching all too often is. They even imagine teachers would sit down plan how they will teach whatever, and will have time to calmly evaluate it. This is without even considering first, that whatever little bits they are recording, are actually worth the time to do so.”

Together principals can do it
A cloak of shared beliefs
“Principals have been too passive the past decades busying themselves with complying with demands placed on them from those on high. In this process they have become stressed out, not sure what is expected, and this is exacerbated by the Ministry continually adding new requirements.It is time they added their collective voices to the debate and this is easiest done by groups of courageous principals, defining what is important, and sharing it with others. And what they decide ought to focus on the needs of their students and communities and not the whims of politicians.”

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Teaching Best Practices - a book in line with creative teaching in contrast to most current 'best practice'.

I have been clearing out notes I have kept over the decades. It is a difficult thing to do and I couldn’t resist keeping articles that had been important to me – and, of course, material I had written!

My next task is to sort through all the books I have acquired. I plan to keep a small number of books that have been seminal  to the development of my own educational beliefs. In an earlier blog I listed a number of important books.

Still one of the best!
One book , I have decided, is the most valuable for anyone wanting to develop  creative/progressive or/holistic approaches to learning in contrast to the current formulaic approaches based increasingly on standardised testing in literacy and numeracy.

I have chosen ‘Teaching the Best Practice Way’ by  Harvey Daniels and Marilyn Bizar because not only does it provide  a theoretical background to such teaching but also provides classroom based practical examples for teachers to read and gain insight to improve their own teaching.
Marilyn and Harvey

I have the 2004 second edition (the original was published in 1998) which strategic reading is now placed as the first strategy – reading that goes far beyond the current isolated (usually ability grouped) reading approaches. ‘Reframing’ reading (and numeracy) in the service of inquiry learning is a vital idea if developing your class as a community of learners is to be made central.

This is, as mentioned, a very practical book based around the world of ‘real’ experts – classrooms teachers who develop their programmes around their students experience and expression. For schools who want to develop personalised authentic teaching this is a book that will help them to develop quality learning that will be hard to criticize.

The authors write that ‘best practices’ is a phrase that is almost used as a slogan – something teachers are supposed to embrace – practices that have the official seal of approval. This book sees ‘best practices’ as something arising from research in child development and such educators as John
More relevant than ever!
DeweyTo the authors ‘best practice’ means less: whole class teaching;  less trying to cover large amounts of material; less tracking or ability grouping; and less reliance on standardised testing; and more: experiential hands on learning; fewer topics; responsibility  and choice for students;  more modelling democracy and heterogeneously grouped classrooms. The authors favour students learning like scientists, mathematicians, artists and historians etc.

For progressive/creative teachers little is new but in this age of accountability none the less welcome. The book’s ideas relate to pioneer teachers (in New Zealand Elwyn Richardson and Sylvia Ashton Warner) and such educators as Piaget, Dewey, James Beane, and Howard Gardner. In other words the‘best practice’ teachers in this book are heirs to what is commonly called the‘student centred or progressive paradigm of teaching

Elwyn Richardson
The authors research show that thematic integrated units are the hallmark of the highest achieving schools but even such schools are now under attack by the ‘standards movement’ under the banner of accountability imposed by political imperatives. To stand up to such pressures to conform/comply takes considerable courage and for teachers who want inspiration (and practical methods) this is the book for you.

The authors have confidence that schools following an integrated learning approach still do well on high stake standardised testing. As a result of good teaching students become powerful learners, proficient readers , writers and thinkers accustomed to taking responsibility for their own learning., experienced at solving problems..

The book aligns well with the vision, values andcompetencies of the New Zealand Curriculum which asks that students are able to‘seek, use and create their own knowledge’. It
s\ Sidelined?
is unfortunate that the current emphasis on achieving targets in National Standards and NCEA  have all but side-lined an excellent curriculum. The book also aligns well with the current move towards ‘Modern Learning Environments (MLE).

The book is premised on the idea that accomplished teachers possess a small repertoire of powerful structures to make learning happen. These ‘methods that matter’ are recurrent, complex integrated and generative. The book identifies seven building blocks of good teaching.

The seven structures or patterns are applicable to all age levels; they are broad generic strategies or, simply good teaching methods. Although they are process orientated they are adaptable to all learning disciplines and require considerable teacher skill to implement.

All methods include have common features – they all include: student choice or ownership of learning; responsibility which is the other side of the coin to choice; the need to express meaningful ideas in a range of media; a community rather than an individual bias; diversity and an appreciation of student differences;  and the use of modern technology to leverage and support learning.

The Seven Best Practices.

Each practice begins with the theory behind the method followed by practical examples of the method (and learning strategies) in use by teachers across a range of ages and further references.

1 Reading as Thinking.

Reading instruction is a hot topic but the book sees reading not just as a set of sub skills   but rather as a specialised form of thinking. Since reading is thinking ‘we must provide our young readers with rich texts worth thinking about, strategies to help them and others with whom to think.’ Reading isabout constructing meaning – it is about reading to learn not just learning to read. Integrating reading with the current inquiry study is obvious but all too often this is not seen in schools. Literacy time is a time to ‘frontload’ content and strategies for later inquiry learning.

2 Representing to learn.

This relates to the need for students represent experience so as to engage and enjoy life more deeply. This builds on ideas about writing to learn (not just to copy or cut and paste) Writing as a tool of thinking to‘seek, use and create’ as it says in the New Zealand Curriculum. Representing includes drawing, mapping, drama, movement, the arts and the use of modern information technology.

Learning through writing is a feature of this chapter and a number of strategies are explained and modelled through teacher examples but all other learning areas are covered – relating to the ideas of Howard Gardner.

There are a lot of excellent straggles that could be ‘frontloaded’ in the literacy programme to later contribute to the class inquiry study.

3 Small Group Activities.

Students need to be able to practice democracy and to work in small collaborative groups. It seems that the world is catching on John Dewey ideas (or in more recent times James Beane) Several models of collaboration are included. Group structures must have enough inherent structure to operate autonomously for students to remain engaged on tasks.  Students need well-structured collaborative experiences to learn deeply, to really understand, to share knowledge (or their prior ideas) and to ask important questions. All this requires rich experiences to challenge students.

 Fixed ability grouping (or worse still tracking) is not part of such group work but this does not mean assisting small groups with common needs so they can return to their learning with skills in place.

Specific learning centres are one approach with students rotating. During such rotational time  the teacher is typically supervising, roaming, solving problems,  undertaking student conferences, acting as a resource and doing observational assessing of student’s achievement. This, as the book says, requires considerable ‘teacher artistry’.

4 The Classroom as a Workshop.

Classrooms are seen as working laboratories or studios where genuine knowledge is created, real products are made, and authentic inquiry is pursued. The workshop model is simple and powerful – based on children learning by doing... All too often schools fail to provide enough time  for 'doing' maths, science, reading, writing, art, music and history- all too often time is taken up  by an over emphasis on isolated  literacy and numeracy programmes. The book provides outlines for workshop sessions in a range of subjects (reading, writing, mathematics, science) for readers to make use of. The key to good workshops is the provision of student choice. Workshop activities contribute to a  work to contribute to the current topic.

During such workshop sessions teachers involve themselves in a range of student conferences to ensure students comprehend the learning objectives involved.

5 Authentic Experiences.

A range of educationalists have long argued for school to be more lifelike, more genuine, and more authentic. Authentic experiences can range from the simple - like writing a letter to a favourite author, or an unexpected weather event, to the complex such as an ecological study of a local river.

 Authentic studies provide the means to develop an appreciation of the inquiryprocess that is integral to all learning – the process of learning how to learn..

Authentic studies can focus on one learning area or integrate a number of learning areas. In New Zealand the strands of each Learning Area give teachers of the range of areas they could introduce to their students. The immediate environment also provides inspiration for a range of authentic studies.

The key to real learning is tapping (and extending) student’s curiosity, involving students in planning activities, and valuing  their questions and prior theories all of which developing in students a sense of ownership. The wider the range of experiences  the greater the possibility of developing the unique talents of the students.

6 Reflective Assessment.

The authors are critical of the move towards standardised measuring of achievement as they distort or narrow learning and, too often, drag teachers down to 'gaming' or 'rorting' the system, by test coaching. New Zealand teachers will be well aware of such pressure to perform.

Current 'best practices'.
An interesting diversion is a history (and misuse) of standardised testing. To this day schools still screen, track, rewards, and segregate students using tests rooted in bad science and the use of metadata. The trouble is that, in America,  standardised testing is now the main ingredient of ‘reform’ programmes. The areas tested then become the' default' curriculum... This test obsession is a political not an educational issue. Unfortunately the schools that need the ‘best teaching’ promoted by this book , in the poor areas, are the least likely to get such empowering experiences. Such effects of toxic testing are a political issue.

The authors want to be clear about using assessments that relate to the principals of their book.  Good assessment should be an integral part of good teaching. Powerful assessments should focus on the major whole outcomes rather than contributory aspects. Most school assessments should be formative meaning teachers should assess to ensure students learn better and for teachers to teach more effectively.

Traditional norm referenced testing provides little helpful formative assessment. The key of effective thinking is being able to self-monitor and self-evaluate. Rather than checking students against arbitory age grade targets teachers should track the story of each learner’s growth through developmental phases. Current standardised tests yield an exceedingly narrow and unreliable picture of student achievement and are poor indicator of school performance.

The authors outline (and provide examples) of a range of constructive, formative, reflection orientated assessments that can be used at any age level: Portfolios; Conferences; Anecdotal records; Performance assessment rubrics and classroom tests are all covered.

7 Integrative Units

This, the authors write, is the most complex of the methods. In this chapter they show how great teaches blend the other six methods into days, or weeks, or rich, cross –disciplinary investigations driven by student interest and scaffolded by teachers who model, coach, and manage the inquiry process.

With integrated units, teachers step emphatically out of single subject instruction and lead children into inquiries as complex and multi-disciplinary as the real world issues that adults face as workers, parents, and citizens.’

This integrated learning is not new to the few creative teachers in our schools.

The trouble with the separate subject approach is that students do not  learn to appreciate the connected view of learning and also fail to appreciate how real world learning occurs. Stu also dents miss out in a powerful set of tools for solving problems.’

The book encourages teachers  to seek coherence by crossing subject boundaries; by encouraging students to value ‘deep ‘ learning; by providing experiences to develop every students' unique talents, and by integrating ‘basic skills’ into  integrated experiences.

The authors are clear to state that traditional subject matter fields are  not to be disrespected. On the contrary the disciplines of knowledge they see are vital in achieving  learning. Authentic learning takes the disciplines of learning seriously.

The separate subject teaching is powerful and enduring, particularly at the secondary school level, and the authors provide how  schools have changed their approaches to develop integrated learning. Such change requires teachers being given the support to work at the edge of their professional comfort zone. Excellent information for middle schools and secondary school integration is provided by middle school educator James Beane.


Current reforms!!!
The authors conclude by  writing, no matter how passionate their call is for real world  experiences to be the basis for learning  until this happens many students  will continue to find their educational experience problematic.

The application of the best practices outlined would contribute to a powerful transformation of learning and create schools where all students students are given voice, choice and responsibility.

Daniels and Bizar finish their book by saying,‘We possess the tools and structures to make powerful learning happen; we just have to put them to work.’

Friday, July 24, 2015

Creative Teaching Readings: parenting/ ' my lazy wife'/ real education/Jerome Bruner/James Beane /Seymour Sarason and best books.

By Allan Alach

I welcome suggested articles, so if you come across a gem, email it to me at

Weekend Homework

*I Am Not Tom Brady*
Just when I thought we'd reached peak madness, this arrived. Warning - youll need a strong stomach before reading this.
What kind of message does this send to students? I wondered. That their teachers are so incompetent that they need an ear piece and 3 people sharing a walkie talkie in the corner to tell them what to say?

How Can Parental Involvement In Schools Improve?
You dont have to be an accomplished educator or a Nobel-prize winning economist to understand the benefits of familial engagement in education. Imagine the dollars saved if more families volunteered for projects involving our schools, the benefits of having more people to read, tutor and mentor and the positive long-term economic boost from smarter, more successful students which, in turn, would strengthen public education.

Kids of Helicopter Parents Are Sputtering Out
When parents have tended to do the stuff of life for kidsthe waking up, the transporting, the reminding about deadlines and obligations, the bill-paying, the question-asking, the decision-making, the responsibility-taking, the talking to strangers, and the confronting of authorities, kids may be in for quite a shock when parents turn them loose in the world of college or work. They will experience setbacks, which will feel to them like failure. Lurking beneath the problem of whatever thing needs to be handled is the students inability to differentiate the self from the parent.

Second-Hand Helicopter Parenting
Following on:
Parents, I urge you to let your kids create and learn as kids. As hard as it can be to step back and watch it happen, it is SO important to the learning process and as it turns out, to mental health. Kids need to experience safe failures in order to learn that they are resilient. Kids need to see what they alone are capable of. They need to have the opportunity to learn independently. They need to know that they can improve because they want to.

Philosophy sessions 'boost primary school results
This is rather interesting. First link is to a BBC report and the second link is to the official website.
Weekly philosophy sessions in class can boost primary school pupils' ability in maths and literacy, a study says.
More than 3,000 nine and 10-year-olds in 48 UK schools took part in hour-long sessions aimed at raising their ability to question, reason and form arguments.

My wife is a lazy liar
Teachers and their partners will relate to this
Its the last day of school for my lazy, lying wife. She says teachers still have to go to work, but that cant be right. Teachers only work when the kids are at school. I wish she would come clean and
admit she is not really a teacher.  School starts around 9:00 and dismisses at 3:45.  She leaves the house before seven each morning, and its only a fifteen or twenty minute drive to the schoolwhere she teaches.She comes home around six or six-thirty in the evening. Sometimes later. What is she doing with all the extra time?

What Bill Gates Doesn't Understand About Education
Marian Brady:
Mr. Gates, you swing a lot of weight in political circles. If you told policymakers that the current thrust of reform was blocking alternative ways of improving learner performance, and educators should have enough autonomy to explore those alternatives, those of us who have been working on them for decades might have a chance to show whats possible.

This weeks contributions from Bruce Hammonds:

Real Education Still Matters: Exposing the Limits and Myths of 'Market Forces' Education.
Bruces latest posting, referencing an article by Peter W. Cookson Jr 
The rise of instrumentalism in education.
 Like those imprisoned in Platos Cave, learners who do not have the opportunity to experience free inquiry are vulnerable to the one-dimensional images and stereotypes produced by much of the media and publishing world. The learner is hobbled, even crippled, as she or he travels the developmental path of self-discovery and critical consciousness. This disempowering of mind produces tunnel social vision.

12 Must Read Books on Education for 2015
Twelve must read books on education for 2015.  Worth reading the information about each book to give you a sense of future directions. First in the list is a new book by Sir Ken Robinson. What books are you aware of that could be added to the list?

Design Is Eating The World
The industrial age placed efficiency number one. As Henry Ford, inventor of the assembly line, famously said you can have your car painted in any colour as long as it is black. Today  aesthetic design is an important factor. Would seem to apply to schools as well a need to move from one size fitsall standardisation to the personalisation of learning. Schools need to teach and
implement design skills.
Yet our generations greatest entrepreneur, Steve Jobs, considered design so important that he cited a calligraphy course as his most important influence.  For him, design wasnt just a products look and feel, but its function. Over the past 20 years, weve seen a radical shift toward design as a fundamental source of value.  It used to be that design was a relatively narrow field, but today its become central to product performance and everybody needs to be design literate.

From Bruces goldie oldiesfile:

What's your 'mental model' about teaching?
Whats your mind-setabout teaching?
Over the years I have become increasingly aware of the different ideas people hold about teaching( in todays terminology mind-sets')
It is also obvious that many teachers hold these mind-sets' unconsciously it is just the way they have learnt to do things. When asked about the beliefs that underpin their teaching many such teachers find it hard to move beyond platitudes or clichés. And when they can, all too often, their actions do not match their words.

On Knowing - Jerome Bruner
Wise words from the past as relevant as ever. This old blog features  ideas about creativity by Jerome Bruner from a little known book of his I picked up years ago called Essays for the Left
Hand. It has become one of my favourite books although a number of his essays are a little beyond me. His ideas on creativity are spot on.
Conditions for creativity require that the learner stand back from reality and to be 'prepared to take his journey without maps' driven by a deep need, or passion, to understand something. The 'wild flood of ideas' need to be tamed, and in the process, the thing being created takes over and compels the learner to finish. The learner, Bruner writes, is 'dominated' to complete the task.

Developing a democratic curriculum.
The ideas of James Beane:
Relating back to the ideas of John Dewey he believes that if people are to live democratic lives they must have the opportunity to learn what that way of life means. His ideas are based on the ability of students to participate in their own education. Democratic schools share a child centred approach but their larger goal is to change the undemocratic conditions of school themselves and in turn to reach out to the wider community.

Robert Fried on Seymour Sarason
Seymour Sarason is seen by educationalist Robert Fried as a cautious radicaland a pragmatic idealist who staunchly defends classroom teachers in one breathe and scolds them in another for their failure to make schools interesting places for teachers and children. Fried believes we should take him seriously. For sixty years Sarasan has agonized about why our institutions and social systems so rarely succeeded in achieving the visions of those who created them despite the hard work and sincere efforts of all involved. Sarason has relentlessly challenged conventional thinking about why schools seem so resistant to change.  Sarason has interesting ideas about school culture well worth a read.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Real Education Still Matters: Exposing the Limits and Myths of 'Market Forces' Education.

I came across the below article recently and it seemed to me to sum up the situation we are increasingly finding ourselves in in New Zealand as we follow down  the United States and the United Kingdom 'market forces' ideology pathway.

I thought it worth sharing.

Progressive New Zealand educationalist Kelvin Smythe has long been a voice warning New Zealand teachers that humanistic purpose of education has been captured by a Neo- Liberal ( 'Market Forces'/ privatization) agenda

Kelvin recently wrote a couple of articles sharing his insights. In one he writes of a point in the 80s when education came to what he called 'point dot'( a bifurcation point)  when politicians took us down an anti education route.

 It worries me that too many schools/teachers seem to have learnt to live with this neo-liberal//corporate takeover - and far too many seem to simply accept  the situation and busy themselves looking after their own school's reputation - the competitive model in action.

This focusing on their own school's success has led them ignoring greater issues and worse still not being able to see through the myths underlying the imposed ideology and , even worse, have not taken leadership roles to promote a humanistic /creative education. Teachers and schools huddle in an intellectual Plato's cave admiring the shadows  without  having the courage to move out into the light.

The below article by Peter W. Cookson Jr  might throw more light on the subject. 

The author explores the origins and myths of neo-liberal educational policies ( 'educational instrumentalism') and suggests positive alternatives.

(Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 13, 2015 ID Number: 18025, Date Accessed: 7/17/2015 7:00:08 PM)

The rise of instrumentalism in education.

In the last three decades, the dominant narrative concerning the purposes of education has become increasingly narrowed and instrumental (Apple, 1995; Anyon, 2005). Those of us who believe in the intrinsic value of education, experiential learning, and free inquiry are facing a historical transition from a tradition that values
Michael Apple
education as transformation and enlightenment to a new conceptualization that conceives of learning as serving the market with little regard for freedom of thought or originality (Cookson, 1992

I call this movement educational instrumentalism because it elevates the quantifiable “products” of education such as paper credentials and time spent in school above the complex, adventurous, and rebellious processes that characterize transformative education (Greene, 1988). Traditionally, education has been seen as a vocation or a calling. Educational instrumentalism takes a different view—education’s purpose is preparation for employment and little else (Tucker, 2014).

In this commentary, it is argued that educational instrumentalism can cause a turning away from the deeper democratic and transformative purposes of education. Like those imprisoned in Plato’s Cave, learners who do not have the opportunity to experience free inquiry are vulnerable to the one-dimensional images and stereotypes produced by much of the media and publishing world. The learner is hobbled, even crippled, as she or he travels the developmental
Time to see the light!
path of self-discovery and critical consciousness. This disempowering of mind produces tunnel social vision
(Dewey, 1910/1991; Freire, 1970/1993; Berlin, 1996).

Educational instrumentalism is the background metaphor and rationale of much of contemporary educational policy discussions whether we look at much of the standards movement, the education “any-time, any-place” movement, or the top down reform movement embraced by many influential policy makers (Engel, 2000; Berliner & Biddle, 1995).

Thus, the demystification of the assumptions behind educational instrumentalism is not solely academic, it is essential if the deeper purposes of education are to be preserved. Below, I examine the assumptions and contradictions underlying educational instrumentalism, demystify some of its assumptions about learning, and conclude with an alternative argument—real education still matters

The roots and contradictions of educational instrumentalism.  

The indispensable assumptions upon which educational instrumentalism rests are possessive individualism, and the conviction that the maximization of marketable talents in service to personal accumulation is education’s most important purpose.

Possessive individualism is the assertion that the individual is the sole proprietor of his or her
Escaping the box
talents and skills and owes nothing to society for them
(Macpherson, 1962). Moreover, following the speculative assumptions concerning human nature found in the works of John Locke and others, an individual’s talents and skills are seen as a commodity to be bought and sold on the open market. Possessive individualism envisions a society of autonomous, competitive individuals struggling against each other for material dominance without regard to the larger social consequences.

This Hobbesian thesis about the nature of the social contract has attracted criticism. However, it has been indirectly affirmed by free market economists such as Milton Freidman (1962) who claim human freedom is best served by unrestricted market competition. If it is true that each of us is an independent agent bent on the protection and promotion of our self-interest, as the proponents of possessive individualism suggest, it is a short step to conceiving of education as primarily, if not exclusively, a preparation for the employment.

The tendency of policymakers to frame educational reform in terms of employment, global competition and national defense is an indication of their conviction that the primary, if not sole, value of education is success in the marketplace (Klein & Rice, 2012).

I would argue, given these assumptions, that the ethical and intellectual horizons of educational instrumentalism tend to dull the curiosity and sense of reality required for free inquiry (Berlin, 1996).

 Yet, while appearing to be self-confident in its convictions, educational instrumentalism suffers from conceptual fragility and internal contradiction—the publicly stated manifest purpose of increasing human capital runs counter to the latent, seldom acknowledged, requirement that human capital be defined in limited and exclusory terms.

The hidden flaw in educational instrumentalism is that it undermines the very thing it seeks to promote—the application of talent to problem solving. By reducing learning to purely
instrumental and vocational ends, instrumentally-inclined policymakers undermine the very nature of learning and elevate its pale imitation—rote learning and the fear of failure.

The mystification of learning.

Justifying these internal contradictions leads to a number of myths about the nature of learning: Briefly, some of these learning myths include: a) learning is the result of routine and imitation; b) learning is linear; and c) learning is quantifiable.

Howard Gardner
Generally, policymakers who ascribe to the principles underlying educational instrumentalism embrace theories of learning that are empirically weak and open to question. Instrumentalism leads to theories of learning that are as an excel sheet is to a Rembrandt portrait. Simplistic theories of learning result in a diminishing of learning by definition; research tells us that learning is complex,multilayered, paradoxical, and reflexive (Gardner, 1999; Sternberg, 2003).

Over reliance on testing is a form of tracking that bears only a faint relationship to actual merit and Learning has no identifiable beginning or end. We are learning every millisecond we are alive on this earth and the sources of learning are too complex to be measured arithmetically alone. It follows from this that learning is not linear. And, it is not linear in several senses. Learning takes place over time and not everyone learns in the same time sequence. Learning is relational, all of us learn from others in ways that we remember and ways we don’t remember. Learning is also collective; the singular autonomous learner posited by possessive individualism is an artifact of the philosopher’s imagination (Cookson, 2013).

Lasting learning is experiential. Our brains react to stimuli, and our minds translate stimuli into coherent patterns of thought. Educational instrumentalism tends to focus solely on the cognitive aspects of learning, and adopts what Paulo Freire (1970/1993) referred to as the banking
model of education where “knowledge” is poured into the heads of students by teachers.

In short, the learning myths that give educational instrumentalism an air of legitimacy are little more than unsupported statements that might be harmless, if it were not for the fact that they are shaping educational policy—and, in doing so affecting the lives and learning of millions of American students.

There must be a better way.

Real education still matters.

Since the time of Socrates, free inquiry has been seen as the path to enlightenment. To be able to think in an organized, empirical, and reflexive manner is the hallmark of the mature mind. And the mature mind is more that an individual possession, it is part of a larger collective of minds that identifies problems, weighs options, and arrives at solutions.

Progressive education in the tradition of John Dewey is characterized by a strong belief in experiential learning, experimentation, collective intelligence, and freedom of thought. It is a
broad and generous vision of learning that stands in dramatic contrast to educational instrumentalism (Dewey, 1916).

This perspective is desperately needed today. Not only because it is based on ethical principles of freedom that are essential for the preservation of democracy, but expressive, progressive education is the only educational philosophy that can actually prepare today’s students for tomorrow (Popper, 1945; Cremin, 1957; Gutmann, 1987). The rates of change in the world today are so fast and so steep that only the most creative, flexible, and innovative people will thrive.

By opening up learning to discovery and invention, society as a whole benefits and education serves its historic role of transformation and the foundation for freedom of thought. Without real education, a society withers and exits from history forgotten, a mere ghost of what it could have been (Counts, 1932).