How to Promote “Social Justice”

I recently wrote about a test-altering scandal in Georgia schools. Rather than condemning the cheating by an Atlanta principal and assistant principal and likely other education officials, two education professors in guest columns in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution claimed that testing knowledge is a dubious enterprise. One education professor, shockingly, questioned the value of knowing the dates of the Civil War.

Such disparagement of knowledge was also evident at the National Council for the Social Studies conference I attended last November in Atlanta. There, 3200 teachers were continuing their studies in pedagogy, gaining continuing and graduate credit to bump them into higher salaries. Most worked for public schools, so taxpayers footed the bill: the $267 registration fee, plus membership dues, travel and lodging, and the hiring of substitute teachers.

I estimate that about a third of the presenters at these workshops were affiliated with universities, mostly education schools; others included high school teachers, government officials, curriculum producers, or staff of left-wing non-profits engaged in education. At such workshops, taxpayers are helping teachers learn new techniques for advancing the cause of “social justice” in classrooms from kindergarten to college. They do this through student directed learning, most recently called “constructivism” because students are supposed to “construct” their own knowledge.

This kind of constructivism, however, fails to improve student learning. Paul A. Kirschner, John Sweller, and Richard E. Clark say it all in the title of their 2006  Educational Psychologist article, “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching.” 

All of those names are used by education theorists to put a new spin on what Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark accurately call unguided learning or minimal guidance learning. They conclude, “After a half-century associated with instruction using minimal guidance, it appears that there is no body of research supporting the technique. In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners.” 

One of the studies they cited found that medical students who used problem-based learning (PBL) made more errors, than those taught the traditional way. PBL, furthermore, was more costly. The problem with such minimal-guidance pedagogy is that the short-term memory is forced to do the work of long-term memory. The brain is asked to simultaneously search for knowledge, pull together data, and apply it. With no store of knowledge upon which to draw, mental energy is wasted.  No learning takes place because nothing is put into long-term memory.  

These studies back up what common sense and hundreds of years of education tell us: that one needs a base of knowledge first in order to know what to look for when conducting research and doing problem-solving.

But such lessons fall on deaf ears when it comes to teaching our teachers. Maryanne Malecki, who led one of the workshops, goes into seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms, to, as she proudly proclaimed, “champion social justice.” WAMC Public Radio in Albany, New York, her employer, receives funding from the Educational Foundation of America (EFA) to pay her salary. EFA, according to its website, gives grants in the areas of the arts, democracy, education, environment, health and human services, peace and security, and reproductive rights. Malecki bragged to the assembled teachers that she really works as a “stealth teacher” in “collusion” with the classroom teacher. 

Undeterred by common sense, poor test scores, and lack of research to back up their claims, the ideologues in the classroom put the cart before the horse and have twelve- and thirteen-year-olds “brainstorm.” So, the groups of social studies teachers in Malecki’s “interactive” workshop gathered into little groups, as she has her students do, and brainstormed to come up with research topics. We came up with the topics of “trends and fads,” legalization of marijuana, the high cost of college, gun violence, Afghanistan, abortion, poverty and kids, and youth culture. Then we were asked to come up with five questions for each topic in three minutes, an exercise that would presumably eliminate the “shocker” topics kids like—like abortion—that do not lend themselves to research because positions are not supported by data, but by religious beliefs and emotions.

I would bet money that many of the sources chosen for such “research” would be from public broadcasting, which has a plethora of curriculum materials—also available at many booths and workshops at the conference.  In the Wild West of the Internet students are likely to use sources with an ideological tinge. I would also bet that students would come up with such topics because they had heard about them from teachers.

In fact, just about every “unguided learning session” at the conference seemed to be guided by a “stealth” teacher with an ideological agenda and a contempt for knowledge. “’Doing’ Social Studies in Georgia,” an all-day workshop, said it all through the title that replaces “learning” with “doing.”  Here, students who had participated in the Georgia Governors Program enthused about being inspired to research the history of hippies and the “rape of Africa,” eleventh-graders collaborated on exploring feelings of various groups the song “Home on the Range” evoked, the Ron Clark Rappers performed their Obama rap song, a student group “shared” about attending the Obama inauguration, and several student groups bragged about their work in service learning;

            The other sessions I attended were:

  • “Hooray for Heroes,” in which famed educator Dennis Denenberg demonstrated how to use puppets in the high school classroom to promote certain “heroes,” most notably Eleanor Roosevelt;
  • “Teaching Like a Native,” where teachers were enjoined to shed their “Eurocentric” ways of thinking for the more associative (and apparently illogical) modes that Native American children favor;
  • “Muslim Perspectives Through Film and Dialogue: Understanding, Empathy, Civic Discourse,” where Barbara Petzen, who is employed by the Middle East Policy Council, showed and offered teachers the film Allah Made Me Funny, which disparages Christianity and offers Islam as a hip and tolerant alternative;
  • “Count Me IN!  Census and Economic Sustainability,” in which, as the title suggests, one needs to be counted in order to get funding from the federal government. A Census Bureau employee and former teacher encouraged teachers to stress to students, especially those who have non-English-speaking (and perhaps undocumented) parents, that all information on the forms is confidential;
  • “Fulfilling Democracy for All Americans” featured District of Columbia Senator Michael Brown’s pitch to teachers to recruit children to advocate on behalf of DC statehood as a civil rights issue;
  • “Yes We Can!  Students Making a Difference Through Service Learning” offered insufferable children lecturing adult teachers on what is wrong with the world and how they would change it in the future.  Their “service learning” projects were preludes for their plans to end war, hunger, planetary ecological destruction, injustice, etc.
  • “Exploring the Human Rights of Illegal Immigrant Students and Communities,” involved the use of the adult-themed polemic Enrique’s Journey in a middle school.  The workshop presenter, Los Angeles teacher Martha Infante, shared hand-outs and student projects that revealed the emotional manipulation of children and discussion of adult topics like illegal drug use and domestic violence.           

I tried to attend a representative sample of workshops. All were driven by emotion and politics; not one had anything to do with academic knowledge. Although the presenters claimed that instructor guidance was minimal, the fact is that when students lack a base of knowledge, they usually flounder. They look to their “guides on the side” for their ideas. The “stealth teacher” of “social justice,” who has manipulated them emotionally, pretends that the students are coming up with topics and conclusions on their own! 

As a result, we have ill-informed college students who think they know it all because they can look it up on the Internet. At the same time, they hold precisely the same views that their teachers have on “social justice.”  If there is a more clever way of brainwashing, I don’t know what it is. (My full report can be found on my website.)