Disagreeing with Jeff Utecht

Jeff Utecht says that in
America (as opposed to China):

[W]e focus on getting students to think different, we encourage them to
think, to analyze, to question their findings. We teach them to learn on their
own.

Do we, Jeff? Or do we just benefit from our country’s overall openness
compared to China? ‘Cause I gotta tell you, I don’t see a lot of explicit
instruction here in American schools regarding how to learn on your
own
, at least not using present-day information and communication
technologies (which, of course, are what people need to master to be effective
learners in this century). And I don’t see a lot of encouragement of students
to really think, to critically dissect and analyze information that’s
meaningful and important (as opposed to better regurgitating
factual-procedural knowledge
or doing what we say more often). And
I see few opportunities for children to engage in discovery learning
opportunities where they might actually have findings that are interesting and
worth questioning (as opposed to the controlled and often contrived
‘experiments’ that accompany publishers’ science curricula).

I’m fairly certain that Postman & Weingartner’s quote from Teaching
as a Subversive Activity
is as applicable now as it was in 1969:

What students do in the classroom is what they learn (as Dewey would say) . .
. Now, what is it that students do in the classroom? Well, mostly, they
sit and listen to the teacher. . . . Mostly, they are required to
remember. . . . It is practically unheard of for students to play any
role in determining what problems are worth studying or what procedures of
inquiry ought to be used. . . . Here is the point: Once you have learned how
to ask questions – relevant and appropriate and substantial questions – you have
learned how to learn and no one can keep you from learning whatever you want or
need to know
. . . [However,] what students are restricted to (solely and
even vengefully) is the process of memorizing . . . somebody else’s answers to
somebody else’s questions. It is staggering to consider the implications of this
fact. The most important intellectual ability man has yet developed – the art
and science of asking questions – is not taught in school! Moreover, it is
not “taught” in the most devastating way possible: by arranging the
environment so that significant question asking is not valued. It is doubtful if
you can think of many schools that include question-asking, or methods of
inquiry, as part of their curriculum.

I agree with the general theme of your post, Jeff, but so far I disagree with you on this issue. I think that whatever advantages America may
enjoy over China regarding critical thinking, creativity, innovation, and the
like might be occurring despite our schools, not because of
them.

Thoughts, anyone else?

18 Responses to “Disagreeing with Jeff Utecht”

  1. I will not labor over, or place value on the cultural differences between the US and China or how either explicit or hidden curriculum shapes students in either country.
    10 years in Hong Kong has taught me – it isn’t where China is even today it is where it will be in another 5 years and while not US bashing here – where will the US be? China already recognizes it cultural predisposition towards compliance and collectivism and the mind set that creates. So they, along with several other Asian nations are pouring considerable amounts of money into lateral thinking programs and creative arts.
    It is a gross misrepresentation also to believe that there is any shortage of entrepreneurs, innovators or creative people in China – it is perhaps the US-centric view which fails to recognize it; because of the humility with which the Chinese conduct themselves, as it is a culture still focused on egalitarian values and no one want to obtusely stand out.
    Generalisations about the state of China’s education system are as risky as claiming every toy in China is painted with ‘lead-based’ paint – scare tactics and self congratulation are only postponing the inevitable.

  2. The tendancy of schools (and school leaders) to *not* change, to embrace the status quo, is powerful.

    I especially agree with you statement, “whatever advantages America may enjoy over China regarding critical thinking, creativity, innovation, and the like might be occurring despite our schools, not because of them.”

    There’s no doubt we have the tools for creative exploration and analytical thinking. They are better than ever. We just don’t value — based on how student creativity and analysis is assessed and reported — these as products of successful education.

    For the most part, I think the people that attend conferences like NECC and CoSN and actively create, participate in and read blogs, tweets, diigs, podcasts, etc. “get it.” But I don’t think this includes most school leaders and decision makers.

    In most high schools, a walk down any hall when classes are in session reveals one voice – the teacher’s – in almost every classroom. And if you could randomly poll HS students to reply to “what one word comes to mind when you think of high school,” the most common answer by far would be “boring.”

    We spend a small fortune on technology tools and services and mostly use them for lower order thinking skills. If you ask school adminsitrators and teachers to talk about how students use technology, they’ll likely talk about word processing and doing research using the web. It’s not that word processing and internet searches aren’t valuable, it’s that it’s not really much better (in terms of student outcomes) than writing by hand or looking up information in books.

    At NECC this year, we saw ISTE’s free Classroom Observation Tool, ICOT. ICOT quickly gets at the essential “does it make a difference” question. I hope ICOT gets widespread use soon.

  3. Jeff said, “And if you could randomly poll HS students to reply to ‘what one word comes to mind when you think of high school,’ the most common answer by far would be ‘boring.'”

    How is that different from when you went to school? How is that different from when your parents went to school? Your Grandparents? Their parents?

    I’m not sure that it IS different. So, why has there been a push over the past 30+ years to “fix” our “failing schools?” Maybe it focuses attention away from other institutions that are truly broken. If schools were failing the communities they serve, wouldn’t there be general outrage among that population (ex: Clayton County, GA)? If the educational system was truly broken, why isn’t it the priority of our political leaders rather than something they dust off every four years when they run for office?

    Maybe we aren’t doing as bad as some folks would like use to think. According to Gallup: 46% of Americans are satisfied with the quality of education their students are getting.( http://www.gallup.com/poll/1612/Education.aspx ) Compare that to the satisfaction numbers of the Congress (20%) and our President(32%) we aren’t doing so bad.

    Do we have room to improve? Absolutely. Is it all doom and gloom? Absolutely not.

    PS: When the public was asked how to best improve the educational system, they didn’t say change how we teach or what we teach with, they said smaller class size and hire higher quality teachers. Not a bad idea if you ask me.

  4. I think a lot depends on the grade level, the school, and especially the teacher. When I look at how my wife runs her middle school classes there is a lot of encouragement to learn on their own and to use the Internet and other tools to do so. In computer science courses, my area and one where I talk to many teachers around the country, there is a lot of self-directed learning going on. There is a lot of teachers teaching students how to learn, pointing them in a direction and getting out of the way. In fact I would agrue that if you want “critical thinking, creativity, innovation, and the like” then adding more computer science courses would be a good place to start.

  5. I believe to base how our schools are doing on the opinion of the satisfaction level of parents is a flawed measure. The parents who are satisfied are so BECAUSE schools are primarily like what they were when they attended them. Parents are every bit as resistant to change in schooling as are many teachers, administrators, etc. You cannot simplify the issue by looking at the lack of outrage about the current status – people do not know what they do not know; they cannot envision anything different for education because they do not know anything different can exist.

    As far as teaching our students how to think, critically dissect and analyze, etc. I see two extremes – the talking at students who are passive receptors of information that they are then asked to do something less than meaningful with OR the assignment of an activity or project, often times to a group, with little understanding of what it is we expect ALL students to know and be able to do when they are finished. Teachers must still TEACH – they must design meaningful instruction with the understanding of the purpose and goals to be achieved. They must determine how they will be tell if students were successful. They must give students meaningful and specific feedback along the way as a means of guiding the learning. I see lots of glitter and fluff – using technology many times – but I see very limited evidence that the result of these time intensive activities is the development of higher levels of critical thinking and understanding by students.

    There needs to be greater discussion about what meaningful, engaging (not entertaining), and relevant instruction and learning look like. I am eager to check out the classroom observation tool mentioned.

  6. I agree with Scott that in the main there is little discovery learning. This is a kind of new learning gap – high-performing schools are “allowed” to spend time on such things, under-performers aren’t.

    Our schools are the envy of no other developed country. Fortunately, it must not matter that much. Our current economic place in the world may be the result of forces mostly (though not completely) outside of the school doors.

  7. I think the point is moot. Does it really matter what we are doing in comparison to other schools in other countries? The conversation that needs to take place is, “What is the purpose of our schools?” In the United States today, nobody can answer that question, because we as a society have not decided. We cannot expect our schools to direct our students toward a goal we have not set.

    I have heard some say the purpose of education is to get kids ready for the marketplace. Others say it is to create well rounded individuals. We all espouse the goal of creating lifelong learners. Which is it? Are there better goals for education than these?

    There have been many books, many ideas floating through the edublogosphere lately, The Wisdom of Crowds, A Whole New Mind, The World is Flat, but they haven’t answered the question either. They are more likely to confuse it. We need to work harder in math and science because we aren’t producing enough engineers. We need to develop creativity if we are to compete. This is all wonderful, thought provoking stuff, but it still doesn’t answer the question.

    Now No Child Left Behind has focused my school and many others to work towards a test that measures memorization instead of application. Is this the goal our schools should strive for? Does this represent the wisdom of the educational crowd?

    I love the mental stimulation of the conversations we have on the internet, but I don’t think any of them compares in importance to answering the simple question of, “What is the purpose of our school?”

  8. Interesting post, Scott. I used to see education the way you described. Now, I see the school glass half full. I toured a handful of schools in CT, NJ, NY, and PA this late spring that have extended public records of exactly what you infer you want to see. I, as do others, know of many more. I agree that there is room for additional schools with teachers who meet the strict criteria that has raised student thinking and other academic performance to the level of the ones I visited. Best wishes on your quest.

  9. @Bob: Thanks for the words of encouragement. I travel a lot and see many different schools all over the country. Like you, I see a ‘handful of schools’ here and there. And I read about ‘many more.’ The problem is that we have 125,000 public and private schools in the U.S. I don’t think we’re topping 5% of the schools yet (in terms of most classes in their building doing this on a regular basis)… Disagree?

  10. @Chamerlain: I think the question of “What is the purpose of our schools?” is a great one and easier to answer than you think. The answer: Whatever the local community wants it to do. With more than 90% of all school funds coming from the state and local level, how can it not? If the local population wants the school to create students that are going to head to college, it will happen. If the community wants students for the local work force, that will happen as well. The Constitution doesn’t put education under the Federal umbrella, but rather in the State’s purview. So you are right in a sense when you compare our system to an educational system that are centrally controlled and funded.

    The concept of an ignorant proletariat is dangerous to educators. If the schools do not meet the needs of the community the board/Super/Principle/teachers will be changed until it does.

    @Bob: I have had the privilege of being a student or a teacher in at least 10 different school systems (both public and private) in 5 different states and I agree with you. In every school I was challenged by teachers and Admin to push the boundaries and think critically about the world around me. I’m not saying my experience is indicative of U.S. schools in general, but it does give me a positive outlook for the future.

  11. Thanks Scott!

    I’m glad someone responded I was afraid nobody was reading my blog anymore. 🙂

    “Do we, Jeff? Or do we just benefit from our country’s overall openness compared to China? ‘Cause I gotta tell you, I don’t see a lot of explicit instruction here in American schools regarding how to learn on your own, at least not using present-day information and communication technologies (which, of course, are what people need to master to be effective learners in this century).”

    I’ll give you that. I’ve been out of the States for 7 years now. But I do think that it is the foundation of what the American system is suppose to be right? Isn’t that what John Dewey spoke of? Whether or not America is doing it…it wants to do it….I think…or does it?

    @Halcrow

    “It is a gross misrepresentation also to believe that there is any shortage of entrepreneurs, innovators or creative people in China – it is perhaps the US-centric view which fails to recognize it”

    I couldn’t agree more. While in China I saw more business come and go as entrepreneurs tried to find their niche in Shanghai. I do believe it is an US-centric view which fails to recognize China, or any countries true being in the global world. I just used China as I lived there, and while in the States this summer it was mentioned every night on the news (and not all of it about the Olympics).

    Thank you Scott for starting the conversation a great read!

  12. Quit it!

    I think we have bought into the hype of the 1980’s which claimed our nation was at risk. While I have nearly completely lost patience with “seasoned” educators who “don’t know no technology and don’t wannna know none”, I have learned that attitude is usually a defense for frustration in learning – much like the kid who throws a chair during math work.

    The U.S. has extremely dedicated educators who are anxious to learn and use the “tools of communication and technology” but are often in situations where they have to buy these tools themselves or are restricted from customizing them in ways that would render them familiar or useful due to bureaucratic procedures or “ownership” protectiveness.

    I just wonder how many of the innovative thinkers who write in the ed tech blogosphere are products of the public education system in the U.S.? While many of us learned by “chalk and talk”, I’m sure each of us can remember the innovative teacher who made us stand on the desk just to gain a different perspective.

    Let’s celebrate the creativity that DOES exist in our American classrooms – find it and highlight it for one another – rather than presuming creativity happens despite the education “freely” provided.

    And you’ve nailed it. Comparing countries or even U.S. locales is comparing apples to broccoli. Better to gain the nutrients from both than to presume that one is better than the other. @ Bob – I think the innovation you see depends on the school culture and what they collectively deem the purpose of education to be.

  13. Scott-

    I have no perspective on the Chinese educational system having never been there nor worked with a classroom. All I can do is slightly bristle at the sweeping notion of lumping all Chinese schools together.

    What I can comment on is my experience: As a former principal, I saw great innovation from teachers, especially a younger generation of teachers who do exactly what you mentioned you never see in schools. In fact, if I wasn’t saddling them with lunchroom duty, five course preps a day, an AP class to prepare for, and numerous district-wide initiatives, they would have the opportunity to reflect and improve upon their teaching. Teachers do the best they can. We are seeing an entirely different set of schools in Iowa, it appears.

    Your comment “I think that whatever advantages America may enjoy over China regarding critical thinking, creativity, innovation, and the like might be occurring despite our schools, not because of them” is troubling for me. To extend it would be to say students are better off dropping out and learning their critical thinking, creativity, and innovation out in the work world. Again, my experience has been without exception that this is false. Every student I saw drop out of school made worse decisions on their own.

    If you are seeing schools here in Iowa that are different, that are awful to the point that they are not helping students think critically, creatively, and with innovation, then as a Heartland AEA consultant, I need to see those schools too. I need to work with them and help them out. Perhaps it is me that should bear the responsibility.

  14. @Wilson I think that our schools being controlled and led by the local community may be our greatest strength, but I could also argue it is our greatest weakness.

    In our state of Missouri, the local community has lost control of the schools because of No Child Left Behind. Our school is not compared to our community standards any more, but to state standards that my community had little or no say in.

    If we are to continue to allow our state or federal government dictate content and achievement, then the state and/or nation need to give us a clearly defined vision of the purpose of our school. As far as I can tell, they believe the purpose of our school is to pass a poorly written, ill conceived exam.

  15. Different students get different experiences, depending on their teachers, their age level, their district and state mandates, the philosophies of their communities, the resources available, class size, demographics, the specifics of subject matter. Our school systems are too variable to make judgments about them as a class. Excellent teachers are everywhere, as are poor ones.

    And so many different ideas about what constitutes original thinking, too. In my own classes, I am partial to teaching classical rhetoric, when students learn to dissect an argument and identify the building blocks of persuasion that sway groups, for instance…and produce their own attempts at the same… they become better consumers and more accomplished purveyors of information and ideas.

  16. Hi Scott,

    I don’t have it in me to read through all the comments tonight, but I can say this. The component skills of critical thinking don’t get emphasized enough in the intermediate grades. We place too much emphasis on fluency (my principal describes it as “word calling”) and not enough on understanding inference and implication, or elapsed time and chronology of events. Climbing the ladder of Bloom’s Taxonomy will require us to master basic knowledge and comprehension skills sooner so that we can move the weight of instruction to higher level thinking. In my opinion, we’re not getting that done at the moment…

  17. I’m with Scott on this one. Sorry Jeff, that is what we SHOULD do and we do not. I am a lone ranger in a see of status quo educators and parents.
    How many posts will they write before they stop asking me how many words? It is not about the # of words, it is not about producing for one person (me), it is everything about producing for a global audience. Want to be that global audience? Visit http://classblogmeister.com/blog.php?blogger_id=56473 and click on student initials/screenames to the right to see their work. Comment on their abundance or paucity. I would love it and learners are thrilled by it!

  18. I agree that we are not teaching our students to think. We are more worried about test scores, in fact, so worried that we are teaching the test. It really gets to me when I hear a teacher say, “I don’t have time for technology, I have to make sure my students are ready for the SAT10!” I truly believe the only way to truly raise test scores is to teach our students to think, to learn independently and to become lifelong learners.

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