Monday, July 14, 2008

Paul Goodman on the NSF and "Discovery" Learning

More amusing quotes from 1964:

...there is an exactly contrary theory (to strict grading and weeding out an elite as a response to Sputnik), propounded by the teachers of science, e.g. the consensus of the Woods Hole Conference of the National Science Foundation, reported in Professor Bruner's The Processes of Education. This theory counsels practical learning by doing, entirely rejects competition and grading, and encourages fantasy and guesswork. There is no point, it claims, in learning the "answers," for very soon there will be different answers. Rather, what must be taught are the underlying ideas of scientific thought, continuous with the substance of the youngster's feelings and experience. In short, the theory is Deweyan progressive education.

To be sure, Professor Bruner and his associates do not go on to espouse democratic community. But I am afraid that they will eventually find that also this is essential, for it is impossible to do creative work of any kind when the goals are pre-determined by outsiders and cannot be criticized and altered by the minds that have to do the work, even if they are youngsters. (Dewey's principle is, simply, that good teaching is that which leads the students to want to learn something more.)

The compromise of the National Science Foundation on this point is rather comical. "Physical laws are not asserted; they are, it is hoped, discovered by the student"; "there is a desire to allow each student to experience some of the excitement that scientific pursuits afford"--I am quoting from the NSF's Science Course Improvement Projects. That is, the student is to make a leap of discovery to--what is already known, in a course precharted by the Ph.D's at M.I.T. Far from being elating, such a process must be profoundly disappointing; my guess is the "discovery" will be greeted not with a cheer but by a razz. The excitement of discovery is reduced to the animation of puzzle-solving. I doubt that puzzle-solving is what creative thought is about, though it is certainly what many Ph.D.'s are about.

Paul Goodman, Compulsory Mis-education, p. 53-54.

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