by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Natalie Wexler writes in the American Scholar magazine about why so many students struggle to learn in school. You’ll need a subscription to read the entire article, but this opening story offers a good hint about the problems Wexler identifies.
When Eric Kalenze was getting his master’s degree in education in the 1990s, he was immersed in pedagogical theories that have prevailed at ed schools for a century. Learning proceeds best, he was told, when focused on skills like critical thinking and tailored to the interests of individuals. Rather than assuming the role of a “sage on the stage,” depositing facts into children’s passive brains, a teacher should be a “guide on the side,” enabling students to learn primarily through inquiry and hands-on activities. Kalenze was dubious. None of this jibed with what he recalled of his own school experience or his gut-level sense of what works.
But when he became a high school English teacher, he figured he would give it a try. When he covered The Great Gatsby, he didn’t explicitly teach his students about the symbolism of the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. Instead, he had them spend two or three days looking up meanings of the word green, finding magazine ads using that color, cutting them out, and making collages. He would ask questions like, “Why do you think they used green for this product that’s a lotion?” and hope the response would be something like, “Because it makes you feel fresh and youthful.”
Kalenze’s students loved him, and other teachers observed his classes because they’d heard the buzz. But after a few years, writing assignments and class discussion showed that his apparently engaged students weren’t grasping Gatsby’s significance. … Kalenze realized that his students didn’t know enough about the 1920s to appreciate why Gatsby was considered the Great American Novel and not just another tale of unrequited love.
So he stopped having his students make collages and started supplying some of that history. … That background provided “an anchor,” he says, for subsequent class discussion, and his students’ understanding of the book “changed wildly.”