Friday, July 31, 2009

Interesting podcast with Daniel Willingham

I just came across a recent podcast with Daniel Willingham. Some highlights: a near-confession that the title of his book, Why Don't Students Like School?, was an attention grabbing publishing stunt; a special education teacher who refused to recognize the existence of "normal children"; and Willingham's disavowal of being one of those "back-to-basics" types even though his book says "it is not possible to think well on a topic in the absence of factual knowledge about the topic" and "proficiency requires practice" (p. 163, Why Don't Students Like School?).

The last of these I find especially interesting and sad--is academia so politicized that he has to ignore the implications of his own findings that basics are essential? No one I've read on "back-to-basics" type blogs is disputing that by the time students graduate from high school, they should be capable of critical thinking and all those great "21st century skills" (which I think we needed 10 years ago, too...); they're instead reacting to seeing children who have been "educated" with methods that result in them not even being able to read and calculate proficiently. If you can't automatically come up with 64 / 8, good luck understanding algebra concepts! And if you can't read unfamiliar words, just try to analyze the meaning of the paragraph that contains them! "Basics" are essential building blocks to higher-level skills, and there shouldn't be anything embarrassing or distasteful to Willingham about admitting that pedagogical methods should get the basics covered before attempting to teach higher-level skills. After all, unless I didn't understand him, it's exactly what he was saying in his book.

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