Thanks to a tweet from Peter Meyer the other day, I discovered this great post by John Jensen on Teaching in the Middle. In his post, What Went Missing in Education?, Jensen argues that lack of student achievement in the US is due to a systemic, seemingly innocuous structuring of school activities. He terms it the “Learn and Lose System.” He argues that our entire system, designed to increase efficiency and cope with a lack of resources, is set up to essentially move students from one activity to the next, with deep learning — real content knowledge — discarded by the wayside.
[The progressive focus on non-academic qualities] presumed that these qualities as well as learning itself were transmitted by osmosis from a supportive environment rather than consciously as remembered knowledge.
While environment is undoubtedly influential, relying on it as a substitute for conscious education is an egregious instance of throwing out the baby with the bath water. Without consciously retained knowledge, one is at the mercy of one’s environment. Investigations into the influence of poverty, parental education, parental involvement in children’s learning, and anti-learning peer group norms–all in different ways focus on the power of the environment. Osmosis transmits influence.
Again, I understand Jensen’s need to push back against progressive thinking on this. But we don’t have to flip to the other side and make this polarized. The fact is that the environment within the school and without the school have a tremendous impact on a student’s cognitive functioning. That progressive educators have pointed this out and focus on this is not an innately bad thing. As Will and I constantly reinforce on this blog, schools are not just knowledge manufacturing factories. They are dynamic learning environments. We can consciously design learning environments to be conducive to student learning by incorporating natural light, niches and variegated learning spaces, greenery, and acoustic design. Osmosis does transmit influence.
But again, this doesn’t have to be an either/or here. As Jensen notes above, “without consciously retained knowledge, one is at the mercy of one’s environment.” Knowledge and understanding is critically important, which is why Will and I also constantly reinforce on this blog that it’s not just contexts in a school that are fundamental, but furthermore the content. Without a strong, enriching, coherent, sequential curriculum, a school will be doing nothing but keeping students afloat, instead of empowering them with the knowledge and social skills they need to develop resilience and maturity in the face of academia, the workplace, and a democratic and capitalist society.
We can go to through the research and find case studies of teachers that have taught kids in the basement of a decaying building and raised them to amazing levels of achievement. Yes, it can be done. But my question is this: if we live in what we wish to be one of the greatest nations in the world, and we have the capacity to do it, why would we want to allow our kids to sit in decrepit dungeons and leave their future up to the off chance that they have a legendary, superstar teacher? I would much rather have my kid sit in a school where they might have an everyday teacher who teaches from a strong curriculum and work in a positive, healthy, and inclusive learning environment. Wouldn’t you?
Only when we acknowledge both the importance of the learning environment and deep content knowledge will we have the schools of a truly first class nation.