Tommy Franke: Archaic teaching sorely missed

By Tommy Franke

Andrea O’Neal recently presented data during the Indiana Policy Review’s Winter Seminar that showed precipitous declines in reading and math proficiency in Indiana K-8 schools.

The disturbing graphs looked like the marks of someone skiing down the side of Mount Everest. The sharp decline in scores began around 2000-2010.

What happened during this time that provoked this dangerous decline? Many at the conference attributed it to the breakdown of the nuclear family. But I believe our culture has been in distress for many decades before this. If not the nuclear family crisis, what caused this cataclysmic change in this first decade of the millennium?

I’m going to mix my metaphors, but here goes. That is when a hurricane known as Twenty-First Century Learning (21st CL) hit the landscape of education across our entire nation. Then a destructive storm surge, Common Core Curricula accompanied by subsequent changes in standards and testing, followed this onslaught.

The basic tenet of 21st CL is that a pedagogical sea change needed to occur because teachers had been teaching the same way for a couple of centuries. As a result, this old philosophy would not work in a world driven by technological changes.

The “archaic” teaching strategies followed this order: Teacher-led direct instruction, guided practice (classwork), independent practice (homework), then assessment. Students would then apply their new skills or knowledge in problem-solving, activities, experiments or creative endeavors.

This old paradigm was based on the idea there are basic foundational skills and knowledge students need to learn according to an incremental and comprehensive structure. As an example, in mathematics, a teacher would directly teach a lesson from this comprehensive plan, such as one on number sense, counting, math facts, measurement, shapes, the operations such as addition and subtraction, decimals or fractions.

After guided practice, independent practice and assessment of the skill, students would use this newly acquired knowledge or skill to perform higher order problem-solving. I could give similar breakdowns like this example in all subject areas such as reading, history, science, etc. This “parts to a whole” approach went out the window with the rest of the storm debris.

The 21st CL strategy is based on a “whole to parts” approach. Teachers give students, mostly working in small groups, multi-step, high-level problems to solve. Teachers don’t teach separate concepts needed to solve the problems, but instead, students will learn the skills by osmosis as they use them to solve the problems.

Since it is small group work, all work is completed in class. Students don’t receive classwork or homework assignments because much of that is based on rote learning, another 21st CL storm related victim.

Also, some students live in homes where homework is not a high priority, so not assigning any homework levels the playing field. Also, assigned homework takes teachers time and effort to make sure the work is turned in, graded, corrected and recorded. Besides that, students never do homework anyway.

Don’t blame the poor technologically battered students who, because of their increased (all day?) screen time, have shortened attention spans and increased expectations to always be stimulated and entertained by all of the technological bells and whistles. Students don’t need to spend time learning math facts and operations because in the future, they will have machines to take over those jobs for them.

In the same vein, they don’t need to learn spelling, handwriting, grammar or even content knowledge because they will have a world of knowledge and skills at the press of a button.

Common Core Curricula and the subsequent changes in standards and testing were the national storm surges that followed this radical new philosophy of teaching. The Twenty-First Century Learning hurricane and storm surge of curricular changes permanently damaged the educational landscape in Indiana and across the nation. We told teachers to stop teaching. Why are we surprised that our undereducated students are drowning?

Tommy Franke, a member of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is a retired Lutheran elementary teacher and principal and has served on numerous school accreditation teams.