Mr. Brown, the social studies teacher speaks: "OK, Bob. So, you think socialism is bad? Hmmm. What does being social mean? What is your community? Doesn't being social simply mean that you are part of your community? So, what is wrong with being part of your community? Remember, socialism is now a term used to attack the concept of people helping people? Bob, are you really against that? Really?" -- Jim
(HT: from a reader)
Where good old-fashioned debate still rules school
By Ben Fischer • email@example.com
January 2, 2010
Sports fan and Shroder Paideia High School senior Brandon Ross thought departed Cincinnati Bearcats football coach Brian Kelly was a disloyal turncoat before a Dec. 16 class with teacher Chad Flaig.
Then, with the desks arranged in a circle, Flaig asked tough questions: What does loyalty require? Can you be loyal to only one group at a time? What about loyalty to yourself? Is it possible that loyalty to his players led Kelly to downplay the Notre Dame job until after the crucial Pittsburgh game, avoiding distractions? Or does being loyal require absolute honesty at all times?
The teens didn't have all the answers.
But they debated Kelly's departure for the entire class, moderating their opinions when Flaig made a good point and pushing back when they disagreed.
Afterward, Ross wasn't so sure.
"At first I thought he was just turning his back on the team," Ross said. "But then I realized this was a dream job and to ask him to give it up would have been selfish."
Such is life in one of Cincinnati's public "paideia" schools, where the Socratic method, long discussions and classical debate still rule, even as the rest of American public education has taken a sharp turn toward content-based, fact-heavy learning focused on standardized tests.
Paideia teaching, like Cincinnati's better-known alternative teaching method, Montessori, aims to focus the learning process on children themselves. But other than that, the similarities are limited.
Born out of philosopher Mortimer Adler's 1982 book "The Paideia Proposal," the method hopes to restore "classical" education to public schools by teaching children critical thinking, debating and synthesizing information. Ideally, it includes foreign language and fine arts as part of the regular school day, but those features haven't survived budget cuts in many schools.
Cincinnati is a rare holdout in keeping its paideia programming, said Terry Roberts, director of the National Paideia Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Chicago and Chattanooga, Tenn., are the only other school districts in the United States to still provide paideia education from kindergarten through 12th grade. Elements of paideia instruction, such as Socratic dialogue, are informally used in many schools, he said, but not as a formal curriculum focus.
Other than that, its popularity has declined for more than a decade, he said. For starters, it's expensive to keep fine arts and languages as part of the regular curriculum, as opposed to electives.
In addition, Roberts said, paideia is at odds with the modern era of high-stakes standardized testing.
The Socratic method and heavy emphasis on verbal exchanges between teachers and students is not an efficient way to guide students to passing scores on the all-important Ohio Achievement and Ohio Graduation Tests - the basic standard of measurement for school quality under No Child Left Behind Act, he said.
"Many times that's viewed as 'slow learning,' if you will," Roberts said. "To be honest, I think they're right. But not only is it slow, it's much more long-lasting."
The program came to Cincinnati in the late 1980s when a group of Kennedy Heights residents asked for it to be installed at Shroder, then at a junior high. The neighborhood wanted to create a new kind of magnet school to draw white students back to the school, said retired CPS administrator John Clark, who still trains teachers in the paideia method at Xavier University.
In a paideia school, no more than 10 percent of all instructional time should be spent in a traditional lecture mode. Most of the time, teachers should be "coaching" students with a pattern of difficult questions, guiding them to the correct answer or a new revelation.
Finally, the seminars, such as the one Flaig conducted on Kelly, develop children's critical thinking and verbal skills.
"That's one of the things as a teacher in seminar, you are not the information provider," said Flaig, who's taught at Shroder since 1987, just as paideia was gaining a foothold."You are just kind of the guide, and sometimes they'll go down a different path. You just kind of go with it, and the big thing is to make them think and get them out of their comfort zone."
Unlike Montessori, it's highly structured - all students take the same classes - and Shroder Principal Yenetta Harper emphasizes that the school is a community of learners all working together.
Margaret Peyton, a Kennedy Heights resident who led the paideia charge two decades ago, mourns the gradual erosion of the method in CPS. No longer do the schools have coaches - licensed teachers who help with student coaching, but aren't assigned to a particular class - and languages and fine arts have come and gone as the budget allows.
"It was a wonderful program," said Peyton. "But the way it worked out, they eliminated so many parts of it until it's almost not the paideia we originally initiated."
Judged by the scores on the state standardized tests, CPS' four full-fledged paideia schools are only middle-of-the-pack academically. As a group, they are close to the CPS average.
Program defenders say paideia learning will come back into vogue, as the current mode of content-based standardized tests gives way to the so-called 21st century skills advocated by some educators, which include critical thinking, teamwork and creativity.
In the meantime, Harper and Flaig will continue to teach the paideia method. Even in the hallway or at basketball games, that means "because" isn't a reason and you can't just "feel" something.
"You don't 'feel' here," Harper said. "If you have an opinion, or a feeling, you must have some reason and fact behind it."