Integrating “Academics” with the “Practical”

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Herewith I offer my first attempt at a grand unified field theorem of education reform. It’s a first attempt. Critique, suggestions, praise, horror, abomination, or testimonies of reveltory epiphanies are all equally welcome.

Most of the education space is divided into  two loosely congealed groups. There is a lot of diversity within each group, and sometimes there are nasty fights within the respective groups. But the big landscape is most fundamentally dominated by the dividing line between the two groups.

One group wants schools to focus on teaching basic skills first, and then a traditional liberal arts curriculum, to all students. The other group wants schools to be, in various ways, more “relevant to real life” – including everyone from down-to-earth, leathery-handed blue-collar voc ed advocates to pointy-headed, pie-in-the-sky, ivory tower touchy-feely progressives. Let’s call these groups the liberal artists and the pragmatists.

[Clarification: When I say “basic skills” I mean the three Rs.]

My formation and career have been entirely among the liberal artists. Ever since I read Dewey in college and recoiled in horror as if from the face of Satan himself – and indeed I can think of few intellectuals whose work has been more useful to Satan than Dewey – I have known that whatever else schools must be, they must not be what Dewey wanted.

But lately I’ve been increasingly worried about some of the stuff that leading liberal artists are embracing, and I’m losing enthusiasm for some of the core liberal artist commitments. And some of my pragmatist friends are hitting me with increasingly plausible arguments.

For example, most of what’s in this video seems to me to be not only true, but urgently needed:

And I found myself troubled by something in this exchange. Boiled down, it ran like this: Checker Finn sounded the alarm that P21, a key pragmatist organization that wants to destroy basic skills standards, even to the extent of suggesting that schools should really teach less algebra, was being incorporated into the push for national standards. Jay responded more or less with, “yes, and you should have seen that coming, because we told you so.”

Jay was, of course, right. But both Checker and Jay seemed to take it for granted not only that P21 wants to destroy academic standards, which it does, but also that the very idea of anyone wanting schools to provide practical applications, teach critical thinking or “instill an entrepreneurial mindset” is dangerous. That strikes me as throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I want my daughter’s school to instill the entrepreneurial mindset.

And I don’t even buy the idea that applied or attitudinal outcomes are unmeasurable. We may not yet have an agreed-on way to measure them, but that doesn’t mean they’re not measurable. As Milton Friedman said, if you can measure it, measure it; if you can’t measure it, measure it anyway.

I think when Jay describes these things as “unmeasurable” what he really means is that they can’t be measured for accountability purposes, because that kind of measurement can be more easily manipulated. And there’s the rub; too many of us liberal artists have now reached the point where we’re only thinking about accountability, not about education.

Hence, my attempt to construct a grand unified field theorem.

I still think the liberal artists have a powerful historical case against the pragmatists. To speak in a fairly broad generalization, in the 20th century, K-12 public schools mostly gave a traditional academic education to middle-class (and above) white kids, and all the other kids were barely educated at all (if they were even in school). That problem was bad enough in the beginning, but it actually got worse over time, not better, even as the rest of society did a better and better job of including marginalized populations. That’s primarily because the school system fell under the thrall of the pragmatists, who didn’t value traditional academic education, and were even actively hostile to it because they thought it was inimical to learning practical application, critical thinking, creativity, the entrepreneurial mindset, etc.

The practical result of such thinking has always been the same. In the white suburbs, parents are rich and powerful enough to place limits on how far the schools go in gutting the traditional academic curriculum. Fail to teach a rich white kid algebra, and his mom and dad will notice, and they will make their presence felt. But in poorer and darker-skinned communities, while parents may want basic skills education just as much, they have less ability to make their demands heard. So the kids didn’t learn basic skills, and as a result, nothing else the pragmatists tried to teach them worked either.

The rise of standardized testing was the revenge of the liberal artists. They wanted to force schools to teach basic skills to every child. And bully for them! They’ve accomplished much good in doing so.

Yet it doesn’t work in the long term. Yes, to some extent you need to hit institutions over the head when they misbehave. But that alone cannot make an institution work. You can hit some of the people some of the time, but you can’t hit all of the people all of the time – as NCLB has shown. And if you try to make the club big enough to hit everyone over the head all the time, you’ll be giving way too much power to the people who hold the club – who watches the watchmen?

What’s needed to make institutions work is intrinsic motivation. People have to want to do what they ought to do, not primarily because of some extrinsic reward or punishment but because they understand it to be good in itself. No extrinsic motivations are strong and consistent enough to keep people doing what they need to be doing day after day after day.

And on that score, we liberal artists are not offering what we need to offer. We’re just hitting people over the head with basic skills tests. Watch that video again – that’s the voice of the professional educator who wants to educate the whole child, and doesn’t understand what basic skills tests have to do with that. He even affirms his desire for “higher standards,” but doesn’t understand why standardized tests are necessary for that.

I don’t think his view is adequate by itself. I think he’s missing the value of traditional liberal arts education. But if we want people like him to adopt what we have, we need to offer intrinsic motivation for liberal arts education – and that’s going to mean connecting our concerns to their concerns.

I’ll cut out the rest of the verbiage and come to the main point: Education needs to integrate the legitimate concerns of the liberal artists – basic skills and traditional academics – with the legitimate concerns of the pragmatists – a focus on active problem solving, creative thinking, and entrepreneurial innovation.

There are two main obstacles:

  1. Liberal artists and pragmatists see each others’ concerns as mutually exclusive. To pragmatists, time spent on basic skills and liberal arts is time wasted pursuing a failed 19th century model of education, time that could be spent on teaching kids how to solve real-world problems and connecting with their real-world needs. Meanwhile, to liberal artists, time spent on all that practical stuff is time that will ultimately be wasted because it’s outside of effective accountability structures that will ensure the schools teach all children basic skills and traditional academics.
  2. Some people have discovered that they can get credit for talking about integrating the two concerns without actually integrating them. See for example P21, which has been making noises about basic skills and 21st century skills being a “both-and” proposition. So are they now prepared to state for the record that schools should teach more algebra, not less? Eh, not so much.

The answer? School choice, of course. It solves both the liberal artists’ problems (how do we force schools to teach poor black kids how to read, and raise standards across the board for all kids?) and the pragmatists’ problems (how do we create new models of education that will prepare kids better for real life?) without a naïve reliance on changing schools through brute force systems (the most widespread fallacy among liberal artists) or neglecting to hold schools accountable at all (the most widespread fallacy among the pragmatists).

Coming next: where fighting the unions fits into all this.

5 Responses to Integrating “Academics” with the “Practical”

  1. Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Greg. My first quick thoughts are:
    1) Liberal artists are concerned with content knowledge and not basic skills. We want people to know things. And we believe (and are supported by research, including the work of Dan Willingham) that knowing more things is the key to developing skills, such as creativity, productive collaboration, etc… We are not against those skills, we just think they flow more or less naturally after students have acquired a lot of content knowledge. The problem with teaching skills directly is that it is like trying to build a house without any bricks, wood, or stones. You need the material of content knowledge to develop skills.

    2) I entirely agree with you that choice is the answer. I similarly have grown disenchanted with “accountability” systems because I think they cannot handle the diversity of needs, abilities, and legitimate approaches that a system accountable to parents can. I also think that politically accountability systems inevitably set the bar too low and only test basic knowledge (not skills) and can never enforce meaningful sanctions for failure.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    By “basic skills” I don’t mean 21st century skills, I mean rudimentary literacy and numeracy – the three Rs. Everywhere I’ve written “basic skills” you can substitute “the ability to pass the NAEP reading and math tests.” These are precisely the “skills” that the skill-oriented pragmatists don’t want to teach more of. This is argument #1 when I talk with my pragmatist friends; they don’t believe me that whatever groups like P21 may say, they really want to teach creativity instead of algebra, rather than in addition to algebra.

    So here’s a revised version: on the one hand you have the liberal artists who want to teach first the three Rs, then content knowledge; on the other hand you have the pragmatists, who want to teach modes of thought, practical problem-solving experience, and attitudes. Both sides use the word “skills” to refer to part of what they want to teach, but they mean different things by that word.

    The point you make about content knowledge providing a necessary starting point for creativity and collaboration is something that will have to be incorporated into Unified Field Theorem v2.0.

  3. Basic skills — even the 3 rs — are based on content knowledge. You can’t read a paragraph about baseball unless you have some idea of what a baseball is. You have to be acquire knowledge about the world to do even the most basic skills.

    Willingham’s work can be found here:

    In particular, check out this piece about how “critical thinking” is derived from content knowledge:

    Click to access Crit_Thinking.pdf

  4. Greg Forster says:

    Following your link, I discover Willingham has offered a pretty interesting critique of the Ken Robinson video. More good stuff to integrate into version 2.0!

  5. Daniel Earley says:

    I think this is an accurate summary of the division. Personally I try to look at it from a timing perspective.

    (1) What should the ideal education delivery system ultimately look like? Ideally, (hypothetically, let’s say a generation or three from now) a transparent free marketplace with shrewd, informed and financially empowered consumers demanding maximum natural accountability.

    (2) What amount of artificial (aka governmental) accountability is necessary during the transition? Enough to deny the unions fodder for their propaganda machine against opening the market. After two generations of solid performance — plus the new transparency which the market would demand naturally — all artificial requirements would become as redundant and irrelevant as modern laws requiring headlights, turn signals and brake lights in automobiles.

    The task at hand is getting through the transition, so that the “headlight requirements” can one day appear absurd to a future generation.

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