In Context VII by: Melinda Tsapatsaris

The college-for-all mentality has fostered neglect of a realistic substitute: vocational education. It takes many guises—classroom training, apprenticeships and other types of on-the-job training, and straight-up work experience—but they have much in common. All vocational education teaches specific job skills, and all vocational education revolves around learning by doing, not learning by listening.
— Bryan Caplan, The World Might Be Better Off Without College for Everyone

Last month a Westland Board Member sent me an Atlantic article with a somewhat surprising title, considering that its author is a college professor: Bryan Caplan’s “The World Might Be Better Off Without College for Everyone.”

I do suggest you read it, but in the case that it’s just not a possibility, here are three chunky passages to give you a sense of Caplan’s tone and perspectives:

  1. “The conventional view—that education pays because students learn—assumes that the typical student acquires, and retains, a lot of knowledge. She doesn’t. Teachers often lament summer learning loss: Students know less at the end of summer than they did at the beginning. But summer learning loss is only a special case of the problem of fade-out: Human beings have trouble retaining knowledge they rarely use. Of course, some college graduates use what they’ve learned and thus hold on to it—engineers and other quantitative types, for example, retain a lot of math. But when we measure what the average college graduate recalls years later, the results are discouraging, to say the least.”

  2. “Educational psychologists have discovered that much of our knowledge is ‘inert.’ Students who excel on exams frequently fail to apply their knowledge to the real world. Take physics. As the Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner writes, ‘Students who receive honor grades in college-level physics courses are frequently unable to solve basic problems and questions encountered in a form slightly different from that on which they have been formally instructed and tested.’”

  3. “The college-for-all mentality has fostered neglect of a realistic substitute: vocational education. It takes many guises—classroom training, apprenticeships and other types of on-the-job training, and straight-up work experience—but they have much in common. All vocational education teaches specific job skills, and all vocational education revolves around learning by doing, not learning by listening.”

What ensued was an e-conversation about our own experiences as students in college and our reflections of Caplan’s claims, in the context of progressive education. With the parent’s permission, below is our email-exchange:

My initial response upon reading the article:
Thoroughly interesting and slightly depressing. I think part of what bewildered me when I read the article was from my personal perspective. I became an actual learner in college and never worked harder. I was so into my studies. So when he discussed how not hard students are working, the piece as a whole made more sense. It also made me think of how important hands-on, experiential, and inquiry-based learning is—at any point in one's education. Through those methodologies, studies show the information/skills stick. Otherwise, students don't remember anything, as he pointed out. What a case for progressive education—and a case for internships/apprenticeships, as well… Thanks for sending.

Parent’s response:
I agree - I spent the majority of my time in the library just researching things unrelated to my actual classes and following tangents to other tangents that I would discover. I did have some inspiring teachers and classes but they were few. I was just into learning on my own and I found the university’s facilities useful for that aim and took full advantage of them all.  I found that part of it beneficial. I thought you’d like this article for the same reasons I did - the fact that it really is an essay on why progressive education is the best way to educate. He talks around it without actually addressing it. I wonder if he even realizes or recognizes it as the answer. I also wonder what his thoughts are on progressive education. My favorite line in the piece about his cynicism was “The vast majority (of students) are philistines.” That made me laugh out loud.

This article and its connections to progressive education continue to preoccupy me a bit. I even wrote Mr. Caplan and got an unsatisfyingly brief but understandable, “Thanks for writing, Melinda!” response.

And while I’m not in the business of debating with the writings and logic of an economics professor, I’d like to counter Caplan’s Atlantic article, albeit a little anecdotally and not as statistically rich as an economist would probably condone. Reading Professor Caplan’s article through the lens of progressive education alters his claims. Let’s use Westland’s culminations as our evidence.

Over the course of these last two months, I have been collecting experiences and learning much about Westland’s program and culture through various culminations:

  • A group Four student beaming with pride sharing that she is the only student in Westland’s history who has ever studied the country of Tonga in Group Four’s Country / Geography Study. She shared her personal artifacts from her mother’s family and shared the highlights of her research and knowledge. I told her she was an expert. She nodded and gave me a knowing smile.

  • As part of their City Study, Group Three students hosted Group Four students to answer their questions regarding the recently erected simulated block city. The Group Three students extemporaneously answered Group Four’s questions, explaining their learning and research process (which, of course, included several field trips), and described next steps of their study—discussing issues ranging from local government to waste management to taxes to voting. The Group Three students were teaching their older peers.

Approaching Group Five’s recent culmination (five minutes late of course), I came upon this public display of learning and sharing. A scene of excitement, anticipation, and clear preparation.

Approaching Group Five’s recent culmination (five minutes late of course), I came upon this public display of learning and sharing. A scene of excitement, anticipation, and clear preparation.

  • Our dance teacher Dalida, who was born and raised in Istanbul, visited Group Six’s classroom at the peak of their culmination. Upon entering, she took in the murals, all the colors, and the fragrance of the “Golden Age of Islam” culmination. She told the teachers, “This made me feel like I was back home.” (Specifically, the Grand Bazaar.) Dalida later reflected: “It is quite extraordinary for a group of kids who live on the other side of the world to create an atmosphere like that. In time you do forget the things you’ve learned at school, but you never forget the way certain things/places made you feel… I’m sure that they’re going to remember this Culmination.”

  • The older students visited the Group One Fire Station Re-creation several weeks ago. Upon reflecting, they remembered their exact committee, how they built their section, and their own conversations with the captain. Their recall and level of detail was stunning.

Now, kindly hold these examples in your head (and your own Westland culmination memories for you alumni) as you take in the next image that was recently shared with me by my friend and thought partner Jeff Guckert, founder of Leonardo School. And for you Group Two parents, hold onto this graphic as you enter the Group Two restaurant culmination. It invites us to analyze the most impactful ways learners retain information:

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In culminations, our children are:

  • teaching their parents, teaching their peers, and teaching each other (and also teaching their teachers and head of school!)

  • conducting research and writing reports that have been drafted and poured over for months

  • writing collaborative creative historical fiction writing projects

  • creating beautifully illustrated art works utilizing water color, weaving, dance, music, and clay

  • co-creating and co-authoring scripts and performing them as plays and puppet shows to a wide range of audiences

  • participating in epic block builds that make the content come alive visually and viscerally

  • sewing handmade costumes

  • roleplaying historical roles and becoming experts on a specific interest

  • researching and learning “beyond the classroom” in their specialist classes

  • answering on-the-spot questions of their parents and peers—and discussing with each other ways to modify and improve their “final” products

  • (it being Westland) preparing, sharing, and eating authentic food

  • and more, right?

My inner-nerdy-rebel-self thinks to herself, “Take that, Professor Caplan!” And yet I am compelled to find more research to counter his claims.

Westland culminations encapsulate what author, researcher, and assessment guru Jay McTighe holds up in his Education Leadership article “Three Key Questions on Measuring Learning.” When I read this article and saw the below chart (sorry, another chart), I immediately went back to my email conversation with the Westland board member. I was struck instantly by how many of the below points a Westland teacher could tick off as part of their lesson plans, culmination goals, and assessment of children.

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McTighe’s chart is Westland’s chart. It’s how I talk about the school to prospective families: our curriculum is experiential, we focus on the whole child, children use multiple modalities to demonstrate their understanding, and there’s relentless reflection. Our model is decidedly progressive and relevant. And it’s why the learning sticks. It’s why the students remember the content, the skills, and the values they’ve garnered from their studies and from their group.

I try not to have these blogs come across as preachy-preachy or sales-pitchy. But, gosh, I can’t help but to express my feisty pride at the value of a progressive education—and specifically the value of a Westland education. Students at Westland learn by doing, by teaching, and by reflecting constantly. And I’m confident they will do so for the rest of their lives. They know how to know. As such, the title of my article for The Atlantic would be: “The World Might Be Better Off With Progressive Education For Everyone.”