Virtually all educational ideas that are considered modern, innovative, and progressive are expressed in ways that make them very difficult to question or criticize because they are implicitly desirable. “Student-centered” or “child-centered” education is a very good example of edu-babble, the use of a term that alone puts its advocates on the side of the angels. Of course, it makes sense for teachers to consider the needs and interests of students, but this label, by itself, does not allow us to identify the most effective instructional practices. If being student-centered means that the needs and interests of students are important in teaching, then teachers and parents, indeed, everyone, will agree.
Unfortunately, as we have seen, student-centered education often means using instructional practices that reduce teachers to mere learning facilitators and encourage students to learn only what they themselves think is worthwhile. The term child-centered is used to validate practices that even many educators might question. We disagree with using student-centered education as a platitude to support only certain teaching practices, and we regret the way the romantic progressive educators have discouraged legitimate debate about its pitfalls.
As well, we hear progressive educators, who want to replace curriculum-based standardized tests with performance checklists and personal narratives, say that the assessment of student learning must be “authentic.” This is meant to imply that standardized, multiple choice tests are not authentic, and, therefore, are inferior because they are not a genuine, reasonable, or appropriate way to assess students’ achievement. But in this circular argument, checklists and narratives are apparently genuine, reasonable, and appropriate, and, consequently, are superior assessment devices because they are authentic.
The reality is that authentic assessment is a well-chosen code word for favouring the replacement of standardized multiple choice tests with other forms of assessment that often have lower reliability and validity as measures of academic achievement. By using the word “authentic,” progressive educators force supporters of standardized, multiple choice tests into the unenviable position of defending these tests as “inauthentic,” though there are good reasons for teachers using all of the various assessment techniques, depending on the characteristics of the students and their instructional objectives. Unfortunately, this argument is difficult to make when standardized tests are implicitly characterized as “inauthentic” and inferior.
No discussion of edu-babble would be complete without mentioning the overused phrase “hands-on learning.” If this term means that students should be able to acquire their learning in life-like, direct, even tactile, ways, we agree that this is one way to learn. After all, who would seriously advocate “hands-off” learning, especially when we know, for example, the value of demonstrations, laboratories, and apprenticeships? But, hands-on learning is frequently used to favor project-style methods and to disdain whole-class, direct instruction or lecturing as being too verbal or abstract.
For students, project methods, especially discovery learning, may be interesting, and perhaps fun, but they are often inefficient, uncertain in their instructional outcomes, and unfair because not all students can learn in this way. Also, not every subject or idea can be learned well by hands-on projects. For example, it is defensible to teach basic arithmetic in the early grades with marbles, but there are topics, even in the elementary school curriculum, that are abstract and cannot be taught using concrete things. Effective teachers know that hands-on learning has specific limitations where abstract ideas must be taught, and they resist assuming that hands-on is the only or best way to learn.
“Critical-thinking skills” and “higher-order thinking” are obviously important instructional objectives. To say that students should learn to think critically and at a higher level are virtually non-debatable teaching aims, though it is not so easy to identify the specific teaching and learning techniques that will produce these outcomes reliably.
However, it is debatable when these terms are used to de-emphasize or trivialize the knowing of facts, focusing on the nebulous idea that students can think critically without having an extensive amount of sound factual knowledge. For example, it is impossible to think critically about astronomy with little understanding of mathematics and physics. That is, critical thinking is not simply a matter of having certain procedural skills or the ability to express strong opinions readily. Too often, progressive educators counterpoise critical thinking with the learning of “mere facts,” as if they are opposites. Clearly, they are not. While we agree that students should learn to think critically, common sense tells us that they need to know some things reasonably well before they can think critically about them.