It can be risky to look to other countries’ education systems for models. Nevertheless, two recent news stories from abroad raise doubts about prevailing American views on how students learn.
Too often, American education reformers and policymakers have called for emulating other seemingly successful systems without taking into account the myriad differences between any two countries. An approach that has worked in one place won’t necessarily produce the same results in another.
Still, cognitive science has revealed certain principles that underlie the basic human learning process. For example, it’s well established that, especially when students don’t know much about a topic, the most effective pedagogical approach is explicit instruction—having the teacher directly provide basic information.
But prospective teachers in the United States and some other English-speaking countries learn the opposite. In those countries, schools of education have long inculcated a philosophy called progressivism or constructivism. One of its basic tenets is that it’s best for children to learn on their own as much as possible, on the theory that they need to discover or construct knowledge for themselves rather than to have a bunch of facts poured into their brains. Progressive educators say explicit instruction not only fails to provide children with meaningful knowledge and skills, it also renders them bored and miserable. Rather than having the teacher talk, the argument goes, it’s better for students to learn through inquiry, projects, and largely self-guided group work.
Few if any schools embrace one of these approaches to the exclusion of the other. Virtually any teacher, no matter how “progressive,” provides some information directly. Similarly, even the most “traditional” teachers undoubtedly allow for some inquiry and knowledge-construction on the part of their students. It’s more a question of where the balance lies and what teachers feel they should be doing. And two developments in other countries this past week suggest a system skewed heavily towards progressivism doesn’t work well for many students.