While looking for models for the little sendup of progressive education that I posted recently, I came across a New York Times op-ed piece entitled “What Babies Know About Physics and Foreign Languages.” As the title and tag line (“Our kids don’t need to be taught in order to learn”) suggest, the piece is a pitch-perfect paean to the progressive ethos, touting the benefits of allowing preschoolers to learn “naturally,” through imitation.

While preschoolers can of course acquire many important skills this way, my immediate response to the article was to wonder how quickly Gopnik’s assertions about the benefits of natural learning for four year-olds would be misappropriated as an endorsement for treating higher levels of education this way.

As it turned out, I got my answer pretty quickly.

It came in the form of an Inside Higher Ed article entitled “Playing, Learning, and the Teaching Problem,” by Barbara Fister, a college librarian in Minnesota, and it pretty much epitomizes the phenomenon I was attempting to satirize.

Given that the article represents an outstanding specimen of its genre, I thought it might be interesting, not to mention instructive, to take a closer look at how the piece functions – that is, to consider the stock features and rhetorical moves it employs.

What makes Fister’s piece such a prime exemplar is the way in which it takes a real issue of concern, namely the difficulty that college freshmen have using and citing sources, and proceeds to draw a series of nonsensical and potentially destructive conclusions.

The article is also of particular interest to me because it gets at the heart of one of my major areas of interest: the high school-college reading and writing gap.

Note: if you’re studying for the SAT essay or planning to take AP Comp, you might want to pay attention to this. In particular, notice my use of concessions such as to be fair…it is true that…, and this is a valid point. Although I take a clear stance against Fister, I also consider what she gets right. This a deliberate strategy designed to produce a nuanced analysis, one that shows I’ve considered the issue from multiple angles. I’m not “just saying stuff.”

So, that said, let’s start by considering Fister’s opening:

Allison Gopnik, a psychology professor at UC Berkeley, had an interesting piece in last Sunday’s New York Times that has been sticking to my brain like a burr. She argues that our current obsession with preparing children for success gets in the way of their learning. She describes several recent experiments with small children, who are naturally curious and determined to figure things out – and remarkably good at it. They learn about the world around them by observation, imitation, and play, not by being taught. In fact, she argues, if they are taught, they will imitate accurately, but being told how to do something takes away the opportunity to figure things out. When small children observe and imitate, they are testing the physical world around them and coming up with their own understanding of how things work. Explicit instruction short-circuits that process.

The first thing to notice here is that Fister uses Gopnik in order to establish credibility. Gopnik is a well-known cognitive psychologist who has published extensively about the way young children learn. As Fister immediately goes out of her way to point out, Gopnik is a professor at UC Berkeley (an elite institution) writing in The New York Times (an elite publication). The purpose of the first sentence thus functions as an appeal to authority, providing weight for the argument that follows: Gopnik is an expert in a scientific field, ergo her ideas – and, by extension, the author’s – have the backing of scientific fact.

The next thing to notice is that the following sentences outline one of the central tropes of progressive education writing, namely the “learning should be natural and teaching destroys it” argument (“She argues that our current obsession with preparing children for success gets in the way of their learning…”.). This is an idea that can be traced through a long line of educational theorists, starting with Rousseau in the eighteenth century and proceeding up through Emerson and Dewey, and ultimately ending up as accepted doctrine in pretty much every American school of education.

Now, it is possible, and even probable, that Fister believes she is being daring and innovative by making this connection – that she is pushing back against a rigid and hidebound system that sells students short by constraining their natural love of learning. But from the perspective of someone who has repeatedly encountered this exact argument, expressed in almost exactly the same words, it comes off as clichéd and almost painfully naive.

Also of note here is the fact that Fister is writing in Inside Higher Ed – this is a publication geared toward members of the academic community. As most reasonable people would agree, the pedagogical needs of four year-olds are quite different from those of 18 year-olds. While preschoolers are acquiring basic physical, social, and emotional management skills necessary to function independently in everyday life (skills that are indeed more important at that point than filling out worksheets), college freshmen are accruing more abstract, specialized, intellectual skills necessary to function in the public and professional adult sphere. Most of these skills are not “natural” by any means.

These two situations are not really comparable, yet as Fister moves from Gopnik’s research to her own story, she implicitly conflates them:

Every fall, as new students arrive on campus, I struggle with what to do to help them feel comfortable exploring ideas in the library and beyond. In that first semester, they tend to be stressed and pressed for time. They don’t have models in front of them for how scholars do research, but they’re often asked to find scholarly sources to use in an argument as they are introduced to academic writing. They are intensely curious about what the teacher wants, if not about the topic they’re researching, and often focus on getting that boring task done as efficiently as possible. It’s not just that there’s no time for creativity, or that they think creativity is a violation of the rule that you have to quote other people in this kind of writing. It’s simply too big of a risk.

Although Fister describes the typical freshman’s plight in great detail, she offers no compelling pedagogical justification for equating the needs of 18 year-olds with those of preschoolers, beyond the superficial fact that both are intensely curious and not entirely sure of what the adult world expects of them.

More tellingly, she casts the problem in terms of “creativity,” the primary lens through which education is understood within the progressive universe. It’s a cue suggesting that her argument is about to veer off course. And here we have the next step down the road to perdition, so to speak. Having identified some reasonable problems (students lack models for how to do research, they’re stressed out and lack time), she then edges onto less stable territory (being creative is too risky). The slide from one thought to the other is so subtle that the leap of logic is almost unnoticeable.

When you think about the problem carefully, though, it does not really make sense to think of the problem as one of creativity. If students lack models for writing that integrates multiple sources, then the solution should involve professors or TAs providing them with models and walking them through how those models work; and students are stressed out and lack time, then they need help managing their time. It’s possible that some of these students must juggle work as well as family obligations, but it’s also possible that some of them are spending hours drinking beer and playing video games (these are college freshmen, after all). In any case, creativity is not really the issue.

And what about the claim that students “don’t have models [for research] in front of them?” Perhaps professors are not taking the time to explain their research in class, but the idea that university students lack access to models of scholarship is, quite frankly, absurd. Set a foot on pretty much any campus, and you’ll find bulletin boards overflowing with announcements about lectures, conferences, and colloquia. Models of genuine scholarship abound. If undergraduates are not witnessing these core activities of academia for themselves, it is most certainly not for lack of access or opportunity.

What makes this type of discourse so slippery, however, is that Fister’s description then takes a solid turn back into reality:

When [freshmen] come to the library for an hour or two to do some guided poking around, they want to know the rules. How many sources do I need? Will these ones do? They’re not particularly interested in how those sources got there. In fact, they’re often not interested in reading them. After all, it’s right there in the rubric: points for citing articles accurately; nothing about reading them. When they patch together quotes lifted out of context, it’s hardly surprising. Since they haven’t seen how scholarship actually happens, and have never seen this way of mapping out the evolution of ideas, they have nothing yet to imitate or puzzle out. The rules are all they have.

This description is in most ways perfectly fair and accurate. College freshmen do in fact frequently arrive on campus not knowing how citations work in college, and not understanding how to integrate all those required points of view into their own writing. High schools rarely prepare students for this type of assignment, and even at very good high schools, the level of work and the expectations simply are not the same as they are in college.

The professors who give these types of assignments to freshmen may also be unaware of just how underprepared their students are – just how innocent they are about how the “game” of academia is played. That too is unsurprising: when people spend their entire professional lives performing a skill at a high level, it is easy for them to forget how mysterious that skill can seem to novices. Things that they would consider self-evident (academic writing integrates multiple points of view, some of which support the author’s argument and some of which contradict it) are often nothing of the sort. Misunderstandings are thus inevitable.

At the same time, though, one has to give students some credit. A rubric may indeed state that students only need “cite” articles, without mentioning that students must also read those articles, but any student – even a genuinely confused one – who simply goes through an article pulling out quotes, knows at some level that he or she is gaming the system. There is naiveté, and then there is deliberate misunderstanding. Does Fister seriously think 18 year-olds lack the ability to make the distinction?

Again, the problem is not a lack of “creativity.” It is unlikely that students have been required to engage, in writing, with a range of ideas, including ones they do not agree with, and in any case, it is exceedingly unlikely that they possess the rhetorical tools to do so. It is also an issue of students having learned, in high school, that they will be rewarded for doing the bare minimum spelled out on the rubric.

The second issue points in turn to several larger problems, namely that high school teachers are increasingly required by their administrators to track and report as much data as possible; detailed rubrics are necessary to monitor discrete skills. In addition, teachers are not infrequently faced with contentious students and parents who are ready to complain about poor grades. In that context, a rubric is a defense mechanism that can be used to justify taking off points in a particular area. And the pressure to hand out good grades based on nothing more than adherence to the rubric comes from all sides.

It is hardly surprising that students who are graded this way starting in elementary school naturally grow accustomed to having all aspects of their assignments spelled out for them. As these students arrive in college, schools are forced to adapt to their needs. So when Fister attributes students’ slapdash approach to using sources to professors’ use of rubrics, she is overlooking the fact that professors have likely adopted this particular tool because freshmen would literally have no idea of how to complete assignments otherwise.

It is also likely that professors have learned, through experience, that if they do not spell out the specifics of an assignment, they will receive a stack of papers almost entirely devoid of any sources, quotations, or outside points of view. In this regard, Fister mistakes a result for a cause. Making requirements clear is a way of ensuring that students, who after all are novices at this kind of work, meet a basic minimum standard. It is not in the least incompatible with creative thought.

To be fair, the continued spelling out of specific criteria might reinforce a less-than-motivated student’s passivity; however, it does not prevent a student who is genuinely interested in writing a good paper from doing stellar job. Students’ approach to the assignment is inevitably colored by their interest level in the subject, their academic backgrounds, what goes on in class, and dozens of external factors over which professors and especially librarians have no control.

The assumption that specific directives are by themselves responsible for stamping out creativity is, however, another one of the central tropes of progressive education. The problem is that concrete, realistic alternatives are almost never proposed in their place, only hazy what-ifs.

Sure enough, Fister again proceeds from a reasonable assumption…

But if you’re hoping students will practice writing formal academic writing using sources in the way academics do so that when they finally have a chance to do actual research they’ll know how to package it, you’re doing them no favors.

…to far more dangerous territory.

Showing new students how to find sources and cite them might actually interfere with the kind of learning we want, the kind babies do when they are doing what comes naturally – figure out through imitation and play.

In other words, when a skill is being taught ineffectively, the solution is not to improve the way it is taught, but rather to stop teaching it entirely in the hopes that students will naturally acquire it on their own.

This is not just a matter of throwing the baby out with the bathwater; it’s dumping both of them in the middle of the Pacific.

Yes, it is obviously unfair to expect students who don’t really know what academic research is all about to suddenly wake up one morning and use sources the same way a 40 year-old Ph.D. would. But what on earth would teaching college students through “imitation and play” actually look like? Would groups of students gather around their professors in their offices as they sit reading academic journals, or as they run statistical models on their computers? Would they dress up in suits and stage mock conferences during class-time to present their “research?” Would they play video games teaching them to navigate departmental politics?

Joking aside, I’d really like to know just what Fister means by this.

Again, the implication here is one of the guiding assumptions of progressive education: that having fun automatically translates into mastery. It’s true that students who are enjoying themselves are more likely to pay attention in class, but moving from high school writing to college writing is genuinely challenging for many students. It requires considerable sustained practice, some of which can be very tedious, and it also requires students to think in ways that can be new and uncomfortable. (I tutored one college student who had a habit of dismissing any argument she disagreed with as “propaganda.”) Students who are accustomed to always having things be made “fun” are unlikely to develop ability to persevere when things aren’t. The focus on managing students’ emotions, a staple of progressive rhetoric, is ultimately a distraction. There is no formula that reliably produces self-motivation, or “grit.”  

Besides, aren’t the articles that students are “often not interested in reading” the very models that Fister claims students lack access to? Should professors have to spell out for their students that it is actually necessary to read sources, not just cite them? Should they actually have to sit and demonstrate what reading an article looks like? And are professors truly not talking about their research in class? College professors – even adjuncts – virtually always teach classes in their areas of specialization.

Professors are also pushing back against 18 years of exposure to popular culture that depicts professors as clueless eggheads with British accents and bowties who are barely capable of tying their own shoes. Students may be excited to be in college, and they may be eager to obtain a college degree; however, the vast majority of them are not in school to become professional academics but rather to earn a credential that will make them eligible for higher paying jobs. The kind of research they are being asked to do is often tangential to their reasons for being in college, and there is only so much even the most brilliant and inspiring professor can do to counteract such an entrenched utilitarian mindset.

Furthermore, while copying experts is certainly an important aspect of learning a skill, it is absurd to imagine that novices can become experts through mimicry alone – particularly when those skills are not “natural” but rather formal and often highly technical. Adopting the behaviors of an expert does not, alas, turn a novice into one. If anything, students who are naïve in the ways of the academy need more explicit teaching about how academic research and writing work, not less. Giving students some models to look at and then just turning them loose is a horrible idea.

According to another well-known cognitive scientist, Daniel Willingham (who studies things like reading and critical thinking in older students), it is necessary to understand about 98% of the vocabulary in a given piece of reading in order to comprehend it accurately. Since most college freshmen are not familiar with the specialized terminology used in many academic disciplines, and since academic articles tend to be dense and written for other academics, it is exceedingly likely that even the most advanced college freshman will have some gaps in their understanding – to say nothing of the average student, coming from an average high school, who may or may not have read an entire book sometime in the past four years. Even if students are motivated to read independently, they may completely misunderstand what they are reading.

Students who are struggling to literally comprehend even a single page of jargon-laden academic prose will not, therefore, automatically “catch” what they need to, and be miraculously inspired to view the library as a place where people can “discover and have fun while they are building their own understanding.” On the contrary, many of them will get bored, and frustrated and, if they don’t have anyone to ask for help, give up.

At the other extreme, students may latch onto the jargon and use it to cover a lack of substantive thought. Even if they adopt the pose of academics, their understanding remains superficial.

Fister also laments that “[t]he way we search now isn’t through connections, the way scholarly conversations work. We have been doing everything we can to flatten those conversations into a Google-like search box that takes terms in and returns a list of things to choose from, trying to make it easier and more familiar.” This is a valid complaint, but the problem is that in order to join those scholarly conversations, it is necessary spend time learning what has been said, who the major players and what the major trends are, where the major debates and controversies lie, and so on. Acquiring this knowledge requires a certain amount of patience as well as humility. That can involve a bit of a paradigm shift for students who have for years been praised for proclaiming their own, often shakily supported, ideas. Many of them will not take well to such a change.

Fister is also on shaky ground when pooh-poohing the tendency to view the library as a place for learning to follow “obscure rules that, if broken, carry harsh penalties.” (The denigration of detailed, formal processes as “obscure” is another classic move in the progressive playbook.) While researching a topic in which one is truly invested can be an intellectually thrilling experience, there are rules, very strict ones in fact, and the real-world consequences for breaking them can be harsh. Aside from the fact that real academic publications expect real professors to adhere strictly to particular citation styles, there is the not insignificant issue of plagiarism.

A student who does not understand the importance of citing sources, or who fails to attribute his or her ideas properly – even inadvertently – can end up on academic probation or worse. It is crucial that entering college students be made aware of the stakes. Universities take matters of intellectual property very, very seriously, and leaving freshmen to their own devices when it comes to matters of citation would be nothing short of disastrous. A librarian of all people should understand this.

Ironically, one of the people Fister cites has actually compiled a rather extraordinary list of things that beginning college students need to be taught about just what it is that academics do, and what it means to be a member of an academic community. (If you click the link, ignore all the cultural studies babble and scroll about halfway down the page.) The list is remarkable for its specificity, as well as for the fact that it takes absolutely nothing for granted. It provides exactly the framework that many college freshmen are lacking. I would argue that this, along with a copy of They Say/I Say, is what beginning college students need.

I realize that I’ve spent a lot of time belaboring some of these points, and that I’m doing so with a level of scrutiny that Fister’s piece might not seem to merit; however, given that the solutions it extols have already wreaked so much havoc on K-12 education, and are creeping into higher ed as well, I think it’s important to consider the implications with a dose of hardheaded realism.

It is all too easy for an outsider to get swept up in the warm fuzziness of it all and not realize that some of these proposals are unworkable and even harmful. And when that outsider is a billionaire donor who has no personal experience with education, save his own, and is convinced that everyone would be successful if all those fussy old professors just stopped all that gosh-darn boring teaching stuff and let students discover the joy of learning, then this type of rhetoric can have very significant effects. It’s bad enough at the high school level, but college students are typically paying thousands of dollars, and may even be incurring significant debt. No matter how innovative the architecture or how smart the technology, it is just plain unfair to leave college students to their own devices (pun intended) and expect them to figure out all the hard stuff themselves.