Education debate goes back 100 years

We all have recited the phrase, “History repeats itself.” Ignorance about the past is a likely reason for the truth of this generalization. What’s beginning to emerge in our public schools is evidence to support this contention. Project-based programming has been tried many times, only to be replaced with versions of content programming packaged for student consumption.

A repetition of pendulum swings in the rhetoric and policies of public schools has played out over the last century and into the present, back and forth between content-centered and student-centered programming.

The early 1900s were content oriented, supplanted by the progressive movement of the ’20s and ’30s that featured project-based student activity. This was followed by a swing to the content side when, in 1957, Sputnik roared into space and commissions were established to redefine our science and mathematics education. The events of the ’60s and early ’70s saw a push to establish the needs of students. This was often referred to as open education.

“A Nation at Risk” was published in the 1980s and expressed the need for emphasis on content, so the pendulum swung to that side. In the ’90s, another student-centered effort emerged, called the “constructionist movement,” when systems theory was introduced, supported by a renewed interest in child development. This was replaced, beginning in the late 1990s when the Business Roundtable and chief school officers promoted content and methodology that could be mass-produced and packaged for sale to schools. We recognize that as “Common Core” and standardized tests.

Reactions against the standardization movement have resulted in a renewed student-centered activity. The current movement is often described as a “project-based” curriculum. History suggests that as soon as this student-centered innovation runs its course, it will be replaced once again with more of what has been the content position, unless there is introduced a way of integrating the two positions.

I have lived through most of these pendulum swings, first as a youngster listening to my aunt talk about progressive education as a teacher in Westchester County during the 1930s. I entered a teachers college in the late 1940s in time to witness a swing from child-centered teacher education to content-centered arts and science.

As a demonstration elementary teacher after Sputnik, I teamed with a colleague in the history department of my alma mater, and together we introduced a discovery approach to the teaching of social studies that placed the raw materials and creative processes of history and geography in the hands of students. Similar investigations into the other disciplines followed that experience. Our efforts attempted to integrate the content-centered concerns with the student-centered, accompanied by a rationale that was based on articulated child development and learning theory.

An introduction to general systems theory emerged in the 1990s that provided a sound rationale for student learning. That movement was taken over by behaviorism that was consistent with mass production of methods and materials of instruction, manifested in the standardization movement. The current effort to re-establish a student-centered, project-based curriculum leads us to ask, what has been learned from the past? What can we expect if history repeats itself?

The public school where these innovations are introduced is authoritarian, modeled after businesses with a hierarchical arrangement with a board of directors that hires a CEO and expects the school to be run as smoothly as possible. The problem is, as we all know but seldom express openly, the school is not a business; it is a social organization that is an integral part of the social fabric of each community it serves, at least as long as our children are in attendance.

Since the school does not have a shared constitution and by-laws that provide the guidelines for the school, each school conducts its business at the behest of the administrative edicts handed down from the top. The content side of the pendulum swings has historically been preferred by the administrative hierarchy, and it has been able to entice support from the public and outside moneys with a content-centered agenda that responds to the needs of big business.

The message in this conflict-laden history is that any changes in the schools occur with explicit permission from the authorities in charge. Those administrators can and do as easily withdraw permission as give it, with the usual regard for public relations. When this happens, depending upon the level of commitment to the ideals of the innovation, abrupt withdrawal of permission can have devastating psychological affects on the participants.

Ironically, the more successful a student-centered program becomes in stimulating teacher and student decision making, the greater the threat to the status quo is experienced. I’ve been there and done that by participating in three major innovations that were terminated midway in their development, and I witnessed firsthand the damage that occurred.

If developmentally appropriate experiences in the elementary school were defined by ways of creating knowledge, initiated through direct and active participation in the creative processes of disciplines, a bridge would be developed between the student-centered priorities and those of the content advocates.

If students learn to construct knowledge and develop a sense of the organization of disciplines within the six “realms of meaning” known to humans (Phenix) they will not only learn how to learn but will be prepared to be critical and creative consumers of the products of others.

Conscientious participants in student-centered innovations need a systems-oriented, individualized, manageable and compatible assessment and evaluation strategy; otherwise the current attempt to establish student-centered education will be replaced again. If this current innovation is terminated without changes in how we view and measure outcomes produced through participation in the creative processes of disciplines, pendulum swings will continue with conflict and disillusionment among the faculties and students in our public schools. The result will be a resolved reluctance to innovate, stagnated improvements, unnecessary costs and diminished human productivity.

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is a professor emeritus of education at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.