December 24, 2014

As I See It

When most Christians raise concerns about the state of public education, they tend to focus on practices that directly conflict with biblical values. Graphic sex education, moral relativism, lax discipline policies, and open hostility to Christianity are some of the most commonly cited reasons for removing children from public schools.

While these are all valid concerns, they are symptoms of a much deeper problem. In fact, public schools are infected with a philosophy that runs counter to the values of most parents, even those who do not subscribe to any religious faith.

This philosophy goes by many names, but it is perhaps best known as “constructivism.” Essentially, constructivism says that teachers should help students construct their own understanding of the world around them and opposes any attempt to pass along a defined canon of knowledge to students. In its purest form, constructivism claims it’s impossible to know or convey objective truth. Some of the other names for this philosophy include progressive education, romanticism, or even romantic progressivism.

If you think this approach sounds a lot like postmodernism, you are correct. In fact, constructivism is what you can expect from a teacher who embraces postmodernist assumptions.

The Danger of Postmodernism

In his excellent book How to Kill Adventist Education, Shane Anderson identifies postmodernism as a threat to the church and its schools. This is not surprising since postmodernism’s denial of absolute truth runs directly counter to the many truth statements contained in Scripture.

Among other things, the Bible proclaims that God created the world (Gen. 1:1), sin is the cause of death (Rom. 5:12), Jesus rose from the dead (1 Cor. 15:4), and we face judgment after death (Heb. 9:27). These are but a few of the key biblical doctrines that cannot be altered without undermining the basis for our faith.

Although postmodernists often claim their ideas are new, they really aren’t. When Satan tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, he confused her by asking whether God actually said that she could not eat of any tree in the garden (Gen. 3:1). Even though God’s warning to Adam and Eve was clear, Satan sowed doubt by asking whether God really meant what He said. Similarly, modern-day postmodernists claim that the author’s intent doesn’t matter, and all individuals can construct their own meaning.

How Postmodernism Infects Educational Philosophy

At the beginning of the twentieth century John Dewey, a professor at Columbia Teachers College, argued that more “hands-on learning” needed to take place in schools. This led many of his disciples, most notably William Kilpatrick, to conclude that a “child-centered” and “project-based” learning approach that focuses on process rather than content is the best approach. Ironically, Dewey himself felt his disciples took some of his ideas too far. But by this point the constructivist approach took on a life of its own as it came to dominate virtually all education faculties.

In 1996 E. D. Hirsch, Jr., an English professor at the University of Virginia, authored a book called The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them. In his book Hirsch documented the many ways in which the public education system emphasizes the so-called process of learning but downplays the importance of specific content knowledge. Critics of Hirsch generally respond, not by claiming his depiction is wrong, but rather by defending their anti-knowledge approach.

This is something I’ve experienced firsthand. Sometime ago I spoke to faculty of education students and professors at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. During my presentation I emphasized the importance of content in the curriculum and argued for a sharper focus on basic skills.

Immediately after my presentation an education professor and a doctoral student delivered a formal response. Incredibly, they both denied the importance of content knowledge and explicitly stated that there is no one piece of knowledge that everyone should have in common. They argued that the content of the curriculum is irrelevant since it is impossible for us to agree on what knowledge should be required. 

When I asked them whether it would be OK if Canadian schools completely removed any reference to Confederation (the Canadian version of Independence Day), however, they had no response. At that point the dean of education said she agreed with me that Canadian students should learn something about Confederation. Fortunately, at least one person in the department recognized the logical absurdity of a position that completely denies the need for knowledge.

Constructivism in the Curriculum

Constructivists dislike any instruction that involves so-called rote learning or drill and practice. Hence, they oppose the use of phonics in the teaching of reading and advocate something called whole language. Phonics teaches students to sound out the individual letters in words, while whole language encourages students to guess the words by looking at pictures and the surrounding context. Whole language had its origins in the early twentieth century, although its most recent manifestation surfaced in the mid-1980s.

Even though multiple research studies throughout the years demonstrated the superiority of the phonics approach, whole language became dominant in public schools. Fortunately, most educators gradually came to realize that the wholesale abandonment of phonics instruction was a mistake. While most schools have since incorporated some phonics in reading instruction, whole language still has far more influence than it should.  

We see a similar methodology reflected in the current approach to teaching mathematics. Instead of learning basic skills in a sequential, step-by-step manner, constructivists want students to invent their own way of answering math questions. Thus we have math textbooks that fail to show students the most efficient way to solve a problem and curriculum guides that no longer require students to memorize their multiplication facts. The result is an increasingly large number of students who cannot do basic math upon graduating high school. 

W. Stephen Wilson is a math professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. He recently reviewed math curriculum standards from all 50 states and wrote about his findings in the March 2011 edition of Educational Leadership. His article, “In Defense of Mathematical Foundations,” gets to the heart of what’s wrong with math instruction in schools:

“The majority of states fail to focus on the mathematics that elementary school children need to learn to be successful in college math. And that’s arithmetic—understanding and fluency with the standard procedures for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. . . . It almost seemed like a plot to prevent children from leaving home for college or, at least, to get them to come home quickly because of lack of preparedness” (italics supplied).

The same dilution of the curriculum can be seen in subjects such as social studies and science. Instead of acquiring content knowledge, students spend a lot of time on self-discovery projects that fail to teach them the essential ideas and facts in these important fields. 

Deemphasizing the Role of the Teacher

Because constructivism encourages students to construct their own knowledge, it logically leads to a deemphasis on the teacher’s role in the classroom. One of the most common sayings in education faculties is that “a teacher should be a guide on the side rather than a sage on the stage.” This means that teachers should not spend a lot of time in front of their class lecturing but should rather be on the side helping students discover things for themselves.

It is revealing, however, that virtually all constructivist educators don’t follow their own advice when trying to convince teachers to adopt their methodologies. For example, Alfie Kohn, one of the strongest advocates of the “guide on the side” approach, gives dozens of lectures every year trying to persuade teachers not to lecture. Why does he not abandon the lecture format when it is apparently so ineffective?

The reason is obvious. Kohn has only a short time to convey his ideas, and he realizes that the most effective way of doing it is in a formal presentation that he has composed and organized. It is ironic that the purveyors of the constructivist approach regularly use nonconstructivist methods when promoting their ideas.

Not only does relegating teachers to mere guides fly in the face of common sense—it is not even supported by educational research. John Hattie is director of the Melbourne Education Research Unit at the University of Melbourne, Australia. His 2009 book, Visible Learning, synthesizes the results of more than 60,000 research studies on factors that lead to student achievement. His conclusion about the impact of the constructivist approach is clear: “The role of the constructivist teacher is claimed to be more of facilitation to provide opportunities for individual students to acquire knowledge and construct meaning through their own activities, and through discussion, reflection, and the sharing of ideas with other learners with minimal corrective intervention.
. . . These kinds of statements are almost directly opposite to the successful recipe for teaching and learning” (p. 26).

One reason the constructivist approach fails so miserably is that it contradicts human nature. Children need clear instruction (Prov. 22:6), discipline (Prov. 19:18), and a willingness to accept guidance (Prov. 13:1). Like all of us, children have a sinful nature, and it is the height of folly to assume they can be left on their own to set their own learning goals.

In her book Education Ellen White wisely emphasizes the importance of discipline:

“It should be made plain that the government of God knows no compromise with evil. Neither in the home nor in the school should disobedience be tolerated. No parent or teacher who has at heart the well-being of those under his care will compromise with the stubborn self-will that defies authority or resorts to subterfuge or evasion in order to escape obedience” (p. 290).

Only a teacher who maintains firm control of their classroom can hope to maintain proper order. All too often, public school classrooms are so chaotic and disorganized that it is amazing students learn anything at all.

What Should We Do?

Fortunately, there are alternatives to public education. Adventists operate the largest Protestant school system in the world and provide students with an education based firmly on biblical principles. In addition, data from the CognitiveGenesis project shows that students in Adventist schools outperform public school students in basic academic skills. So parents who choose Adventist schools can be confident in the education their children will receive.

For those who remain in the public system, whether by necessity or by choice, it is important to remember that not all schools are equally infected by postmodernism. Many teachers still use traditional methods of instruction, and some even support biblical values. Parents will need to use discernment when determining how trusting they can be of their local public school.

We would all be wise to follow the advice of the apostle Paul: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Col. 2:8, ESV).*

Let’s not allow the faulty philosophy underpinning of our public education system to rob our children of their faith. n 

* Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.