Edutropia, Dept

Edutopia (which if you don’t mind I’ll call Edutropia) ran a piece last year on “Visualizing 21st-Century Classroom Design”  that someone made me aware of.  The first line grabbed my attention:

“Problem-based learning, makerspaces, flipped learning, student blogging — these are becoming perceived staples of 21st-century learning.”

The phrase “Problem-based learning” of course is always a red flag for me, but followed so closely by “makerspaces” and “flipped learning”, I found myself puzzled as usual.

What do “makerspaces” have to do with teaching a particular subject like math? Unless of course they mean building a model of a bridge in order to solve a problem, (which I’ve seen done), or bending pipe cleaners in the shape of parabolas and glueing them to poster boards (which I’ve also seen done). All of this is supposedly engaging and fun for students not to mention allowing teachers to facilitate rather than teach, although I’m told it’s a lot more complicated than I make out. One teacher who is an adherent of this type of 21-century classroom wrote on his blog that there’s a lot of things going on that people don’t realize: facilitating, assessing, questioning–yes, everything but teaching.

And of course there’s the flipped learning aspect of things, in which students watch videos like Khan Academy in which information is presented in direct and explicit fashion in the manner held in disdain by those promoting 21-st century classrooms. (Not to mention the fact that some students tune out when watching videos, and if someone does not understand something in the video, there’s no way to ask for clarification. Playing back the same explanation repeatedly just repeats what the student found confusing in the first place. But not to worry: reformers have been quick to point out that things like Khan Academy are not really math–they are just how-to’s on procedures, and the real learning goes on in places like, well, like 21st-century classrooms where teachers facilitate, assess, question, and don’t teach.

“We need to be sure that we’re not catering to just one type of learner. Be mindful of your introverts, extroverts, collaborators, solo thinkers, writers, dreamers, and fidgeters — and design a flexible environment that can meet everyone’s needs.”  

Right. Good idea. Because assuming they’ll be able to get a job someday, they need to know that if they feel like writing and dreaming and fidgeting they should feel free to do so.  But let me ask one question. For the introverts and/or socially awkward student (for any number of reasons), are they exempt from group work, or doing posters or art projects, and allowed to obtain knowledge in conventional ways? Uh, what’s that? They can watch Khan Academy? And what about those students–uh, I mean learners–who prefer to sit at desks arranged in rows rather than in groups.  Is there a conventional or traditional zone in addition to the bean bag zone or the creation/inspiration zone? Or would that be anathema to learning?

“Explicitly teach and emphasize process over product, growth mindset, and metacognition. We cannot cultivate risk taking, failing, and perseverance — all essential characteristics of creativity — if we repeatedly demonstrate to students how all that really matters is neatly filling out our worksheets.”

Process over product–now there’s a phrase we don’t hear enough of these days.  I’m all for students showing their work and giving credit for writing an equation correctly even though they made numerical mistakes. But I do note the numerical mistakes. And I don’t give credit to “guess and check” approaches to solving a problem when an equation is called for. But I’m open to compromise. Although I have them do worksheets, I do ensure that they know there are correct answers to the questions and whether or not they got them right. I’d best end this now before some of you call Child Protective Services on me.






18 thoughts on “Edutropia, Dept

  1. Hummm.

    You are critical of the Edutopia article that promotes progressive trends in education but do not offer any research-based counter arguments to substantiate your claim that traditional drill and kill, sit in rows, do worksheets, compliance-based education is superior to 21st Century models that are based on the work of Piaget, Montessori, and Gardner.

    I’m wondering if you’re expecting your work to be taken seriously.


    • My post was pretty much my reactions and opinions to the Edutopia article–opinions which many teachers and people in education share and who happen to make up the bulk of the audience for this blog. Therefore I didn’t feel the need to back up my statements with “research-based counter arguments” to substantiate my opinions, since the research is out there, and my audience knows of it. Secondly, the work of Piaget has largely been discredited by psychologists and cognitive scientists and the paper by Kamii (his protege) on the “harmful effects of algorithms on young children” has also been discredited. I’m not familiar enough with Montessori’s techniques with older students to comment. The ideas of Gardner (multiple intelligences) and the associated “learning styles” have also been questions, claiming there is no evidence to support the theories.

      Also, I keep hearing about how the traditional methods you describe have “failed thousands of students” so if you have any research that substantiates this with a definition of “failure” and a quantification of the students who have been harmed by such techniques, I and my audience would be appreciative.


      • Interesting.

        I’m not sure I claimed that traditional methods were “harmful” or “failed”. Seems you’re begging the question, asking me to substantiate a claim I did not make in order for you to avoid answering mine.

        However, I will substantiate this claim:

        Traditional practices of drill and kill math with naked numbers partnered with worksheets and hours of homework are not as successful as inquiry-based, constructivist approaches with fewer problems and no homework.

        To support this claim I offer this well researched article by Alfie Kohn:


      • Traditional practices of drill and kill math with naked numbers partnered with worksheets and hours of homework …

        That is not — not — traditional teaching. If you set up a straw man of bad teaching, then yes, everything else will be better. I was very well taught by traditional teachers who rarely used worksheets, invariably taught for understanding and varied the activities in class time. (I had a few progressive teachers, who tended to be the ones who used worksheets.)

        Nor is anyone much advocating “traditional” teaching at this site. Explicit Instruction need not be done in a traditional way.

        I don’t need to claim that traditional methods are “harmful” or “failed”.

        And I can find literally dozens of previous students who have openly been grateful to me for teaching in a very straightforward manner, with no group work, flipped classrooms nor inquiry based teaching present. So?


      • Interesting claims…stating that pbl/inquiry based learning is superior to tried and true methods, or that suggesting that Alfie Kohn wrote a well researched article.

        The tragedy of both your responses is how vigorously you defend these edufads and those that profit from selling this snakeoil. Greg Ashman has provided useful data in the form of Sweller&Clark’s article on the failure of minimal instruction. He’s provided a great deal more on this topic; I would suggest to read some of his articles. If you’d like to find out where this is having an abysmal impact, besides the US, I would encourage you to read where it’s casting other devastation in Canada
        and in Holland…to name a few.

        Furthermore, it is not Barry’s responsibility to defend what he’s written here. Rather, the onus is on those proposing these changes to offer up successful examples of why these changes ought to be made. If you could please provide examples of any jurisdiction that has had more success with pbl/inquiry based learning, especially with arithmetic, over conventional methods, I’d be happy to read it. But please…if we are to consider that education is a profession, I would ask the courtesy of providing empirical data that supports these illustrations. Nothing less will do.


      • If those two valedictorians spent ALL of their time getting the best GPA, then they only have themselves to blame. Nothing was stopping them from picking up a book and learning on their own. Did they do nothing else, like drama, sports, or music? Getting accepted into a top college requires showing balance and interests that go far beyond GPA. If they were driven by formulas for success, then they would know that they have to show breadth, depth, and balance over many years and specifically show interests outside of the classroom.

        College acceptance is NOT an academic or GPA sort. You have to show that you are an interesting person who will help form a well rounded freshman class at a college or university. You are selected by admissions people who care about a lot of things, not just GPA. My son had an Academic Index of 236, but got waitlisted and even rejected at some colleges, even with national recognition in music and AIME Math. It’s a tough, competitive world out there. My son knew, and still knows, that some of the best learning comes from extracurricular experiences and what he does on his own. The goal is NOT to transform the classroom into that form of learning, as if students have no brains or drive to find appropriate after-school or outside opportunities. The best K-12 schools can and do separate the two forms.


      • I appreciate all the responses with research provided by readers. I read through each article.

        I found the piece “Why Minimal Guidance…” informative, however, it was pretty much a literature review that lacked relevant numbers to support its claim. There were several citations throughout the article but the only mention of any hard numbers was the critique of Kolb’s Experiental Learning Theory on pg 81 in relation to its effect on the work environment. None on education.

        I also found the CD Howe’s argument that Canada’s declining math scores could be remedied by 80/20 DI/Inquiry, but it does not substantiate the logic behind this percentage. It also does not purport how the direct instruction should be implemented, be it whole class, individualized, or in small group.

        The final example provided on the Dutch reform was another interesting read. It suggests math scores “fell short of what might be expected of reform in mathematics education aiming at conceptual understanding” not because of instruction or practice, but because of the textbooks and seemed to discuss several conceptuaization strategies that better help students understand math, yet did not address instructional practices (direct instruction vs inquiry).

        As for empirical data on inquiry models, again, read the Kohn article I provided. He provides an in depth analysis, with data, on Japanese vs U.S. instruction. It is a worthwhile read.

        I also suggest the work of Jo Boaler from Stanford. She claims no nation is a top performer on PISA who relies on memorization (the standard practice of DI). However, those nations who rely on inquiry and conceptualization are the highest performers.

        Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark provide more empirical data that demonstrates inquiry is highly effective:

        Anyway, I’m not going to get into any more semantically debates with readers of Mr Garlick as to the validity of inquiry. This will end up being a fruitless debate. Rather, I would like to know why Mr Garlick is so critical of the Edutopia article to the point of mockery. What empirical data does he offer to suggest these are bad ideas?


      • “What empirical data does he offer to suggest these are bad ideas?”

        No. You still have this backwards. YOU have to show how these “ideas” (how about detailed longitudinal curricula?) work before you push their implementation with no student and parent choice. Are you such a newbie to this that you point to Alfie Kohn and Jo Boaler? Where do these ideas work and what do you expect from parents and teaching at home? These ideas could work for some, and so could teaching with hand puppets. Your responsibility is to show that these “ideas” really work before you force them on all students. The onus is on you.

        Also, why do you have the temerity as an English teacher to tell us STEM parents how math should be taught – pedagogy AND curriculum? Why don’t you start with the math teachers at your own high school who use a very traditional AP Calculus math track? Why don’t you ask the parents of the students who get to your proper traditional algebra I or geometry classes in 8th grade what they had to do at home and with tutors. While traditional math education still exists in 7-12 grades in most school districts, K-6 has been a fairly-land of fuzzy, low expectation, non-traditional learning for 20+ years. CCSS now officially defines it as a NO-STEM zone. Drill and Kill hasn’t been around for decades (it never really existed), but still, educational demagogues point to it. It’s rather incredible.

        Your ideas have lost the battle in grades 7-16+ in most school districts and colleges. In our area, we have alternate approach charter K-8 and high schools, and there are alternate approach colleges, like Hampshire College. These are opt-in choices. I think they’re great, but what we hear from demagogues like you has nothing to do with choice. That’s the problem, not those “ideas.”

        Opt-in has a low hurdle for proof, but opt-out better not cause all of the best students to leave. That’s why many educators really don’t like charter schools for K-8. It’s ironic. The affluent have choice and the poor do not. We need to get rid of the 19th century monopoly model of education and move to a 21st century one that is more able to offer true educational choice based on learning styles and individual expectations. That need won’t be fulfilled by educational turf demagogues who limit choice to only what they choose.


    • P.S. My mum was a Montessori nursery school principal for years. I can state that what you are describing here is a straw man argument for project based learning.

      Maria Montessori’s philosophies were very much based on allowing children to play and explore their surroundings, but she also held a very firm belief that children must first learn, through repetitive daily practice the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic…using conventional methods. The discovery comes out of these explicit ways of teaching young children, because she also have a very firm understanding of cognitive science…something that escapes many others touting child centred learning. It’s also why many parents wanting a very traditional education (i.e. firm understanding of “the basics”) enrol their children in Montessori schools today…because they know how a child’s mind works, and how to employ successful methods to achieve success.


    • “…do not offer any research-based counter arguments to substantiate your claim that traditional drill and kill, sit in rows, do worksheets, compliance-based education is superior to 21st Century models that are based on the work of Piaget, Montessori, and Gardner. ”

      Bwa, ha, ha! No. You go first. Really. Show me the research-based arguments to substantiate the work based on your trio … oops, any proper research-based “arguments?” What are they, hypotheses? Research-based hypotheses? Or proof? Proof of what, that it works for some? What does work mean? OK, I’m all for providing learning style choice. Oops, that doesn’t include an opt-in traditional approach? So much for learning styles. So much for the input of us STEM parents who know what understanding in math means.

      The Waldorf students in my son’s high school, when confronted by the real world requirements of colleges and careers ended up calling themselves frustrated Waldork students. Gee, real life is not natural?

      Of course, my son’s learning style was “fast” and he loved worksheets, but I thought that his Kindergarten teacher was going to call DCYF when I naively told her. Then we parents started getting notes telling us to “work on math facts” at home. Right. Do their job. I got to calculus in high school with no help from my parents. I had to directly help my “math brain” son get there. Of course, when kids get to high school, the only models (real-life working proof) of success are the AP and IB math paths. What, go ahead and use the Harkness Table, but that is neither necessary or sufficient.


    • “I don’t need to claim that traditional methods are “harmful” or “failed”. Valedictorians Erica Goldson and this young man claim they do.”

      Proof for all because two “claim” they do. Is that your form of proof? Do you want to see my son’s valedictorian video as a counter “claim?” He took 8 AP classes and got 5’s on all of them. What happened to learning styles and choice? Where is differentiated instruction? Everything but what educational pedagogues don’t like. Well, the real world is defined by subject experts and not educational pedagogues. We STEM parents and high school math subject expert teachers (many from industry) were able to drive away the fuzzy math and reality back to the 7th grade math track split, but everything (choice) ran into a dead end in the choice-less fairlyland Ed school world of K-6.


  2. We have been using anti “drill and kill” techniques in our district to see if they work. Our (Oconomowoc High School) AP pass rates from 2012-2016 steadily declined from 57.8% to 38.1%. After a decade of Everyday Math [“Move from nearly exclusive emphasis on naked number calculation to developing conceptual understanding and problem-solving skills”] in K-8, 33% of our 2015 High School graduates needed to take zero credit remedial math upon entering University of Wisconsin colleges.

    Kids havung “a-ha” moments in math is achieved by extremely solid foundations which only occur by sequential math with large amounts of practicing. I relate it to becoming a great gymnast or diver or musician, playing around doesn’t develop greatness– sequential basics with lots of practice give both joy and freedom to create and become great.

    Real discovering math doesn’t occur until trying to achieve a doctorate.

    Our district has failed a generation with the horrid spiraling, project-based, group based, “guide by their side” instead of “sage on the stage” math.

    Aaron, go ahead and support this for your child but for schools getting tons of money to educate children, it is best giving them the best, solid foundation possible which is achieved by traditional math.


  3. “… claim that traditional drill and kill, sit in rows, do worksheets, compliance-based education is superior to 21st Century models that are based on the work of Piaget, Montessori, and Gardner. ”

    Oh yes. This is just an extraordinary strawman and wrong is so many areas. It’s reflective of someone who has absolutely no idea of what STEM-subject learning is all about. We STEM parents must be so stupid that we only want what we had when we were growing up. I remember back when my son was in pre-school thinking about how I wanted a better learning process in math for him. Then I found out that his school used MathLand. They got it completely backwards. They still have it backwards and only see what they want to see. Proof to them is just a way to justify their hypotheses. They really need to read Feynman’s lecture on cargo cult science.

    OK. I’m all for choice and differentiated instruction (?), so where is it? Where is the opt-in traditional, high expectation approach in K-6? Is it the in-class leveled learning groups that are filled with the students getting the hidden skill tracking at home? My son got “trust-the-spiral” Everyday Math in grades 2-6, but we STEM parents did NOT trust the spiral. Do schools ask the parents of their best students what help they got at home? I asked my son’s STEM-prepared math student friends. They all got skill help at home.

    Duh. Something is going on and it’s easy to ask rather than cherry-pick some videos as some sort of overall proof of your own beliefs. You can’t increase the range of ability and willingness of students in K-6 with full inclusion and then hope that some sort of natural learning will solve the problem – no – improve the learning. It’s quite incredible.


  4. So, integrated math has lost the battle in high school. AP and IB math have won. Go ahead and use a Harkness Table, but that is neither necessary or sufficient. What is magically different in K-6 that requires fuzzy natural learning – a learning process that disappears in all high schools? Why does CCSS now officially define K-6 as a NO STEM zone where they claim that students can make the transition by taking summer math classes or doubling up in math in high school. That will never happen. It’s all over by the math track split in 7th grade.

    I had no interest in state tests and now CCSS. Our state’s PARCC test has as its highest level (“distinguished”) the goal of no remediation in college algebra. This officially starts in Kindergarten. It is systemic educational incompetence. This increases the academic gap because we parents and tutors hide the tracking at home. Schools do not ask us what we do. My son is now their poster boy for Everyday Math.


  5. “We need to be sure that we’re not catering to just one type of learner. Be mindful of your introverts, extroverts, collaborators, solo thinkers, writers, dreamers, and fidgeters — and design a flexible environment that can meet everyone’s needs.”  

    Blah, blah, woof, woof.


    • I am very mindful of my dreamers and fidgeters. I make them sit still and work. That is because they are already good at dreaming and fidgeting. What they cannot do is sit still and work.


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