Wednesday, August 1, 2018

On Pedagogy

“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on things you have long taken for granted.”  Bertrand Russell

A half century ago in the movie “Bullitt,” Steve McQueen tore through the hilly streets of San Francisco in his 1968 Ford Mustang GT Fastback.  This month the Ford Motor Company is releasing its 2019 homage to McQueen’s legendary wheels.

What’s old is new again.  Or is It?

Aside from sharing the same name and all the generic similarities defining a car as a car, the 1968 and 2019 Mustangs couldn’t be more different.

The model McQueen drove was, at the time, considered state-of-the-art for its class.  It had all the bells and whistles of the “modern” sports car and many features aficionados of the day likely considered “progressive.”  For example, the car came stock with new features such as front and rear side marker lights, an energy absorbing steering wheel and three-point lap and shoulder seat-belts.  Top speed of McQueen's 390 horsepower machine would have been about 130 mph and its approximate cost was around $3,500.

The re-booted 2019 Bullitt Mustang sports a host of features that were science fiction fifty years ago, including front head airbags, 4-wheel ABS, dusk sensing headlights, heated mirrors, rear parking sensors and much more.  The car cranks 475 horsepower, has a top speed of 163 mph and sells (if you can get your hands on one) for an MSRP starting at $46,595.

In other words, no matter how cutting-edge the McQueen Mustang may have been in 1968, by modern standards that car is a relic of a time gone by and not something any of us would consider "progressive" today.

Education, like the automobile, has evolved and improved over time.  Many instructional ideologies and strategies once believed to be innovative and cutting-edge, have long since been proven through research and practice to provide little or even no actual learning benefit to today's students (Hattie, 2008).  Others, such as project based learning, seem to have efficacy on their face but sometimes don't because they are often delivered incorrectly (McDowell, 2017).  Interestingly, these out-dated, ineffective and/or improperly executed educational ideas, philosophies and reforms, some heralded sixty to a hundred years ago as "progressive," continue to attract followers to this day.

Why?  If we were talking cars instead of education, it would be like believing a 1968 Mustang is "progressive,"  in an age where vehicles are equipped with fuel efficient engines, satellite navigation, automatic braking systems and self-parking technology.

One possible explanation is that when it comes to decisions (or "choices") regarding educating our children, research has shown that some of us act based on what we feel, what we subjectively think and most important, information we obtain through our social networks (Holme, 2002).  This runs contrary to what we might assume to be the case, particularly in communities where parents and educators themselves are generally well informed, highly educated and well resourced.  Yet more often than not, even when data and evidence say otherwise, a certain percentage of us will make educational choices, with firm and absolute conviction, based on opinion, anecdotal information and the hearsay of others.

For example, if the early twentieth century pragmatist theories of John Dewey are marketed as more "progressive" than our modern instructional pedagogy, some of us will buy into it for all the reasons Holme (2002) discusses.  That's not to suggest Dewey's theories on education, like the 1968 Mustang, aren't classics ... they are.  And classics certainly have their place.  We have great respect for them and all they helped teach us, for it is the classics that put down the foundation of what we know and have today.  But just as we presumably want our everyday cars to have the most up-to-date and progressive safety features, it seems we should also want our public schools to adhere with fidelity, to the most up-to-date, relevant and impact-rich pedagogy.

In the Ross Valley School District, we are committed to focusing our attention, energy and effort on what McDowell (2017, p 9.) refers to as students' "confidence and competence in learning."  We know that before students can self-direct and advocate for the next steps in their learning, they must first have mastery of the skills and knowledge required to do so.  Students' understanding of learning intentions and success criteria, two of modern educators' most powerful tools, is also important to us.

In short, we value, appreciate and respect the pedagogies of old, but like the classic 1968 Mustang, their place is in the pages of history and not on the roads our students now travel.

  • Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. Routledge.
  • Holme, J. J. (2002). Buying homes, buying schools: School choice and the social construction of school quality. Harvard Educational Review72(2), 177-206.
  • McDowell, M. (2017). Rigorous PBL by Design: Three Shifts for Developing Confident and Competent Learners. Corwin Press.