The Mimetic Classroom

In the current issue of Education Next appears a summary by Robert Pondiscio of the philosophy and practice of Edutopia, George Lucas’ visionary project to “spread the word about ideal, interactive learning environments and enable others to adapt these successes locally.”

Edutopia presents its pedagogy as cutting-edge and innovative, and its motto, “What Works in Education,” suggests a hard focus on evidence and feedback and outcomes.  Within the article, though, appears a statement by the former executive director of the George Lucas Educational Foundation, Milton Chen, that sounds more like an a priori principle than an idea derived from experience.  Edutopia has six “Core Principles” which “can be summarized in six words,” says Chen. “‘School life should resemble real life.’”

That’s a sweeping assertion, and it carries within it far-reaching premises about the purpose of school, the relation of classrooms to workplaces and leisure spaces, the relevance of curricula, and the relation of the learning process to the activation of knowledge and skills after graduation.  I’ve shared a podium with Dr. Chen before, and he appears a sober and conscientious educator.  But this firm declaration of what is, in fact, a complex and debatable belief seems contrary to the flexible, free-ranging, “what works” outlook the organization espouses.

Pondiscio reveals the long foreground of the “real life” approach to the classroom (Kilpatrick and Dewey), and it’s worth recalling the irony of progressivist expounders speaking so fervently about not being retrograde and traditional in terms that are 100 years old.

We should add to that observation a simple question: Why?  Why should a classroom be like real life?

Pose the question and two problems arise.

First of all, we presume that “real life” educators don’t want all of real life in the classroom, only chosen elements of it.  The real life of teenagers includes conspicuous consumption, peer pressure, puerile songs, movies, videos, and TV shows, 3,000 text messages per month purveying gossip, bad jokes, and hourly updates on trivial movements and happenings, financial hardships, and sexual confusions.

Real-life educators get around the juvenile and pressing aspects by drawing on the tools and better contents of those happenings, say, by using Facebook in collaborative projects.  Even if we accept the possibility of doing so effectively, though, we must revise the principle, qualifying “real life” by removing its damaging and stultifying elements.  A method of selection must follow, which includes making stern judgments of youth culture, adolescent taste, and the social lives of teens and tweens–precisely what progressivist approaches shy away from.

Second, we must assume that in order to fulfill duties and perform well in post-graduate life, students must complete the same assignments in class that they will have to complete on the job and as responsible citizens.  For instance, because many of the burdens of adulthood involve reading informational texts ranging from the newspaper to business correspondence to voting ballots to scientific reports, the English classroom should raise the portion of informational texts on the syllabus–fewer novels and more op-eds.  Because many will enter workspaces requiring group endeavors, teachers should assign more collaborative projects.

A big assumption here.  It is that the best preparation for doing something is doing it.  The best way to learn to write business correspondence at age 30 is by writing lots of business correspondence a age 17.  But this is to identify the completed product with the tools, the skills and knowledge, needed to do it.  In truth, they are not the same.  The ability to write a careful piece of business correspondence or an abstract of a scientific report is enhanced by a reservoir of vocabulary and an acquaintance with different styles of prose, and much of the vocabulary and many of the styles will never, ever make it into the letter or abstract.  Nonetheless, learning them at age 17 will improve the individual’s ability to write the latter at age 30.

Think of it on the sports analogy.  What sport is mastered simply by playing the sport?  None of them.  To improve in football or baseball or tennis or soccer, you lift weights and stretch daily, even though weightlifting and stretching are not practiced on the playing field.  The principle is simple: at least part of training involves exercises not repeated in the game.  One doesn’t hear football players in the weight room complaining, “Man, why do we have to do any more curls–this isn’t football!”

The “real-life” premise, though, says the same thing.  It repeats the old demand for relevance.  What this premise needs is to become the object of Edutopia’s own core principles, including “Integrated Studies,” which highlights “Creativity, adaptability, critical reasoning.”  Let’s put “School life should resemble real life” under the microscope of “critical reasoning” and see what happens.

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