Sunday, October 12, 2008

Robert Slavin and Rip Van Winkle

At a recent seminar I attended, a presenter used the following quote from psychologist Robert Slavin:
If Rip Van Winkle had been a physician, a farmer, or an engineer, he would be unemployable if he awoke today. If he had been a good elementary school teacher in the 19th century, he would probably be a good elementary school teacher today.
(Educational Researcher, Vol. 31, No. 7 (Oct., 2002), p. 16)
Although this quote was only a minor element of the talk, I found it startling. I'm not at all convinced that Slavin is correct. In the 19th century, a number of practices that we would currently find to be unacceptable were viewed as elements of good teaching. When I teach my classes, I use a variety of examples to illuminate this point for the students.

One of my favorite examples comes from Country School-Houses, an 1866 book on school design by James Johonnot. In addition to offering some interesting discourses about the importance of outhouses and some intriguing designs for octagonal schoolhouses, Johonnot tells us of a new seating system, the "J. Homer French Method of Seating." I would ask you to read the text accompanying the graphic carefully.

Needless to say, in the J. Homer French system, non-compliant posture had serious consequences!

Another of my favorite examples comes from William Mowry's Recollections of a New England Educator. Mowry was a prominent educator--a journal editor and a former Superintendent of Schools in Salem, Massachusetts. In the book, he proudly tells us of a lesson he designed based on the first four lines of Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard." The first four lines of the poem read as follows:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Mowry's lesson featured a list of 200 questions on the four lines quoted above. One can only imagine how stultifying this exercise must have been for the students. And this was a practice that Mowry viewed as normative!

It would be possible to cite several other examples of this kind (Other wonderful texts include the 19th century spelling book, The Only Sure Guide to the English Tongue, as well as Warren Burton's account of life in a rural school, The District School as it Was). However, the point here is that Slavin is asking us to believe a proposition that is false, namely, that there has been very little educational progress between the 19th century and today. In fact, a great deal of credit is owed to progressive educators like Dewey who helped to transform elementary education from a system that emphasized rote learning to one that is both more effective and far more pleasant for students.

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