November 20, 2007

Sacrificing the learning years — Why?

When you’ve made a career in a classroom because you enjoy teaching and all its challenges, you can’t help drawing some conclusions about how kids learn, and whether they learn.

I have come to believe that three phenomena do the most damage to young minds: porn, violence, and the workshop model.

The first robs children of their innocence and the chance to discover the deepest secrets of adult life at an appropriate pace, the second makes them numb to inhumanity, and the third deprives them of a suitable environment for absorbing a ton of information and learning the techniques of just plain thinking.

Forces within our society, including the right of free speech, have failed them on the first two, and the DOE’s rigid and overreaching directives have failed them on the third. What we have is a generation of highly aware and over-exposed students, most still quite innocent when you come down to it, who know a whole lot about the darkside, but feel decidedly uncomfortable when asked to learn, reason, memorize, reflect, or practice any of the other cognitive skills.

According to the NY Teacher (Deidre McFadyen, Feb. 17, 2005):
The workshop model is the brainchild of [Carmen] Farina ... and Lucy Calkins, the founder of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College, which has received more than $10 million in training contracts from the Department of Education in the past two years. The model is premised on the belief of “progressive” educators that the best way to encourage deep and enduring understanding is through “discovery learning” in a small-group setting, where students puzzle out problems and acquire knowledge on their own.
One of the features of the workshop model is that desks are arranged in small groups, often of four.

It is obvious and well known that two things happen the minute you turn four desks with kids at them in on each other: (a) each student has to deal with the three other personalities around the table at the same time he has been instructed to think, and (b) the only person in the room who has a really decent handle on the subject is not one of those three. The teacher, who has mastered the subject and internalized the knowledge, is on the outside of that huddle and generally has to be fairly aggressive to make his presence known.

Cognitive skills are private. It is your brain that is acquiring them, and it’s the obligation of an educational system to give you a proper space and a decent amount of time to learn them in. Processing speed, memory, logic, reasoning, attention skills – all those good things that allow you to be really functional in the world when you grow up – are your skills, not your neighbor’s, or those of the kid across the table from you.

A lot was written about the workshop model a couple of years ago when teachers realized how insistent the DOE was about steamrolling it into our classrooms. (See McFadyen’s article mentioned above and a Liz Ditz post on Sept. 10 of the same year that quotes from other NYC ed writers. Or do some googling.) Neither I nor anyone else is suggesting the workshop model should never be used, only that it should never be used tyrannically, exclusively, or injudiciously.

It’s time to look at this methodology again, now that high school teachers are dealing with classrooms of students whose ability to learn has been stunted by way too many years of workshop modeling in inappropriate and downright unworkable settings.

Here’s what we confront with the incoming 9th graders:

The preponderance of talking, with few having the self-control to monitor themselves. I'm speaking about good students as well as strugglers. Students of this age simply talk, a lot and loudly and with a limited awareness that they are interfering with the learning space of others.

The frequency of going off task. Their social habits and needs pull them greatly in other direcctions.

The migration of desks set up in L-shapes or short lines turning in on themselves as students gravitate into the small groups they've grown accustomed to.

The marginalization of the teacher, who often has to plead for silence and attention.

The non-compliance of the marginal students who simply cannot work on their own until the teacher has the chance to put them individually back on track.

By the last years in high school, some of the frivolous behavior is dropped, but by then it’s too late. The precious cognition we always had wanted for our students is no longer within their grasp.

It is time to take a hard look at what has been wrought upon a generation of students in this city by businessmen and ed contractors, many of whom lost their credibility a long time ago. You can’t give back the “learning years” to kids who’ve been sacrificed to a gross and heavy-handed experiment that has not worked.

It is time to return teaching to the teachers, who for the most part, are the only ones who have any hands-on experience with the populations of kids they have made it their life's work to nurture.


  1. Great comment about the Stupid Workshop model that the DOE pushed the teachers to use.

    The benefits this workshop model created are:
    * More jobs for Columbia University and the AUSSIES (educators from Australia = $900 a day + housing correct me if I am wrong).
    * More children falling behind in their reading skills.
    * More indiscipline and noise in the classrooms.
    * More clutter of papers. Charts hanging all over the class.
    Please let's go back to the basics. Let's teach Phonics and reading skills.

  2. No program should be forced down teachers' throats because they have to believe in what they are doing to be effective. There are the anti workshop model people who would force something else into classrooms. There are the phonics police too. Some kids need one thing, others something else.
    The problem with the Workshop model is when there are kids who cannot work independently and where there are too many kids in the class.

  3. To both of you:
    Like, totally!

    I wrote about this particular model because in two different boroughs, two different regions, and two different levels (MS and MS), we were mandated into using this -- then admonished, written up, or harassed for exercising our CONTRACTUAL right to professionally disagree.

  4. On the one hand, teachers are reminded to differentiate their instruction to meet the needs of all students, yet we are also being told to use the workshop model with special needs children and English language learners. Indeed, Teachers College collects a pretty penny for trainings directed at ESL teachers and supplied by young women with little or no knowledge of second language acquisition or experience teaching limited English speakers. Basically, they show teachers how to supplant research-based pedagogy with Calkins methodology. At the same time, ESL and bilingual teachers are going to be blamed for their students lack of "progress" on tests.... A no-win situation for everyone. Except TC, that is.