…tests are now broken down into specific sets of skills so teachers can identify how well students understand each task. When students get less than a proficient score, they must go back and study the skill they missed. They are then given a chance to retake the relevant portions of the test until they earn a satisfactory score.
English department head Elizabeth Vigue was quick to point to the biggest change her team had to make: giving up nearly every novel on their syllabus.
~Lillian Mongeau, “Maine schools blaze a trail in new approach to education.”
Teaching skills isn’t a new phenomenon.
Proficiency-based learning is sweeping schools in the State of Maine and the rest of the country. Blazing a trail? Teachers have always taught skills—even on the computer.
Years ago, I periodically took my high school students to the Plato lab to work on skills. Before computers, teachers reviewed skills with worksheets. Remember dittos and the old mimeograph machines?
In his 1999 The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards,” Alfie Kohn discusses the trouble with skills.
Closely related to memorizing facts is practicing skills. Driven by a theory of learning no more sophisticated than the old saw “practice makes perfect,” children are made to do something over and over and over, to “attain efficiency in outward doing without the use of intelligence,” in John Dewey’s words.
In the Old School classroom, six-year-olds are handed worksheets and told to fill in the missing letters in one word after another (as in: w_ste of t_me). Sixteen-year-olds are shown a two-variable equation on the blackboard and then given umpteen more just like it to do on their own. Such instruction requires very little of the instructor—
The difference with earlier skill worksheets and computers is, of course, computers provide instantaneous feedback. But a skill is still a skill.
Also, in the past, if a teacher used too many skill worksheets (dittos) they were cast as an ineffective teacher. Skill acquisition must be balanced with larger learning goals. Skills are only meaningful when they lead to something bigger. Parents and most teachers understand this.
Teachers are required for broader learning goals.
Computers are fine for reviewing skills. What they don’t do well is teaching broad goals. For example, teachers are needed to help students understand and formulate their thoughts concerning literature—which may explain why some teachers are giving up novel reading in Maine for proficiency learning. Yet, teaching students how to read and think about literature is one of the most important instructional tasks a school can offer students!
To this day, I look at life in a way I might have missed, if I had not been exposed to great novels like Les Misérables and To Kill a Mockingbird. Reading and discussing great literature is a serious and important part of learning. It is difficult to understand how schools can eliminate novels.
Proficiency skills don’t always help students with learning disabilities.
In education, helping students understand bits and pieces of information, should always lead to something larger. Sometimes students can skip certain skills and still arrive at the overall destination. This frequently occurs with students who have learning disabilities.
There could be a problem when students don’t get the skill that’s presented after they retake it—especially if that skill is mandatory. A student might perseverate on the skill, especially if there is no teacher to guide them.
Not only will students miss out on broader learning goals, they will not learn how to analyze, question, and debate. This is true in literature, science, mathematics, history, and other subjects as well. Focusing only on proficiency skills without checking on how those skills come together is a mistake.
There are big backers of skills in the State of Maine and across the country.
The article was first published by The Hechinger Report. The Hechinger Report is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Chan-Zucherberg Foundation and a whole lot of other foundations that wish to see the end of public schools and teachers. They seem to see skill acquisition as being related to the economy and tasks that students will eventually do as workers.
The Nellie Mae Education Foundation and the Great Schools Partnership are mentioned as contributing to skill learning. They have become known to both teachers and parents as synonymous with a tech takeover. It is important to understand what students will get with an all-tech education.
In Losing America’s Schools: The Fight to Reclaim Public Education, I write about an exchange Bill Gates had with Thomas L. Friedman, found in Friedman’s book The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. Friedman describes Gates as a believer in rote learning. He says, When I asked Bill Gates about the supposed American education advantage—he was utterly dismissive. In his view, those who think that the more rote learning systems of China and Japan can’t turn out innovators who can compete with Americans are sadly mistaken.
Rote learning is memorization based on repetition and similar to skill learning. This kind of learning may be aided by machines, but it doesn’t lend itself to reflecting on the big ideas that will lead to real innovation.
In fifth grade I had to memorize The Song of Hiawatha. I still remember parts of it. But the poem would have had little meaning if my teacher-led class had not discussed the poem itself and the rich history of what Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was trying to convey.
The Maine teachers union seems to understand the threat of proficiency learning.
The teachers union raises serious, valid questions in the article, even though it is unclear if their concerns are being heard. But the NEA this past weekend signed on to personalized learning, which should give everyone pause.
If skill-based learning is all that students get in their schools in the future, what kind of world will it be? If students never look at the broader picture, but only understand bits and pieces of information, how will they solve world problems? I’m afraid the answer is they won’t. This should concern everyone.
Bailey, Nancy. Losing America’s Schools: The Fight to Reclaim Public Education (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013) 20.
Kohn, Alfie. The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and “Tougher Standards” (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999) 55.